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A question about male gaze

Last night, when I was falling asleep at my keyboard and did not want to sleep, I went off to the internet to read about books. (Not my books, though, because that frequently wakes me up in the Bad Way, because - author.)

One of the books was a novel called Stormdancer. It is the first in a series that is set in not-Japan but which makes use of elements of Japanese society in a kind of “this is cool, let’s use this” way. This is a book, according to quotes in reviews, which is firmly anchored in the male gaze.

The protagonist is a woman.

I’ve been thinking about books, written by men, in which women are handled well. Or, to be more specific, in which I think women are handled well. It’s a question I used to be asked while working at the bookstore, and therefore a question I’ve turned over on the inside of my head, time and again.

And this morning, because I am writing and my creative writer brain has slowed, I have returned to this, having spent an evening reading about male gaze.

All of the male authors I’ve recommended or cleared as “writing women well” (Sean Stewart for example) are entirely absent male gaze.

(I once asked Sean Stewart how he handled his women, because he was one of the few male authors whose viewpoint felt so natural to me I would have believed he was a woman if I hadn’t met him, and he said “It’s not magic; I just write about them as if they’re…people.” One of the ways he achieved this, I realize in hindsight, is jettisoning male gaze.)

Male gaze irritates the crap out of me. Most of the women I know who notice their bodies are likely to say “I need to lose weight around my thighs” or “my stomach is so flabby”, so if you really want to write from a female viewpoint, you don’t have your character notice her fabulous perky breasts or creamy skin or etc. Because. Well.


Is there a female gaze that has the same weight, and is irritating or reductionist in the same way? Do male readers feel reduced to uncomfortable margins by female gaze?

I realize that this is a touchy question. I am actually interested in the answer and will accept any answer that is given that does not constitute a personal attack on any other answer that’s given - but I want people to answer without fear of censure.


Mar. 11th, 2013 02:02 pm (UTC)
I'm continuing from the Twitter conversation we were having, because I don't want to blow up anyone's @ mentions.

I think that, personally, it's more difficult for me to spot male gaze in text because the vast majority of books I read are written by women. I mean, I have read a few books in which women describe themselves in ways that I felt were rather skeevy, but that was used mostly when the women were trying to analyze why the men in their lives found them attractive (The Anita Blake books are the ones that spring to mind). Most of the books written by men are through the eyes of a male protagonist, like The Dresden Files.

I do find that male gaze is more than simply objectification, however. I've seen and heard about reviews of books that complain that the female lead is "too powerful" or "a Mary Sue," simply for having the abilities and initiative that make her the main character of her own story. I'm not sure if I've seen quite the same discussion of male characters. What really bothered me there was that many of the people complaining that female leads were Mary Sues were women themselves. I couldn't help but wonder if the character really was too powerful, or if our culture is simply too unaccustomed to seeing women as characters of power, even within their own stories.

It bothers me that men can talk about being uncomfortable with stories that sexualize men or detail their attractiveness, yet fail to see why such things would make women uncomfortable. But I think that's a huge part of what keeps the idea of the "male gaze" going -- People have gotten so accustomed to seeing it as the default setting or view that most don't even think about it until it's not there anymore. Of course, there is also the idea most people have that women don't think of men in physical terms in the same way men think about women, but I think this is also part of what fuels male gaze: the belief that women don't "need" fanservice the way men might, because women don't want sex the way men do.

I feel like my analysis is probably rather shallow, but I think I'd need a lot more time, effort, and coffee to break down this topic as much as I would like to.

Which male authors do you feel write women well?
Mar. 11th, 2013 05:58 pm (UTC)
I've seen and heard about reviews of books that complain that the female lead is "too powerful" or "a Mary Sue," simply for having the abilities and initiative that make her the main character of her own story. I'm not sure if I've seen quite the same discussion of male characters.

I hate that phrase. It generally appears to be used as a substitute for “female protag I can’t stand”. I understand what the roots of the phrase were, but it‘s used frequently to characterize practically any woman with agency and competence.

I have, however, seen it applied to male characters (Qvothe, in Rothfuss’ series - a series I adore like a crazy person - is often called a Mary Sue, which makes me crazy in an entirely different way). In both cases, the phrase was used by women - so I don’t think they’re just running female characters down.

I’m certain men use it as well. I think it’s lazy.

When I am getting frustrated in my attempts to explain what objectification is, I sometimes point out an on-line exchange between people who said they were both college age. An argument about the use of the word ‘gay’ started the exchange, but this is what ended it:

Man: Look, I don’t care if homosexuals exist, as long as none of them ever hit on me!

Woman: Look, *I* don’t care if heterosexual men exist, as long as none of them ever hit on me! Oh, wait...

She then went on to point out that sexual interest from a man was threatening because he was afraid, at heart, that he would be treated like a woman. “Welcome,” she added, “To the lives of over half the planet. You think we enjoy it? You talk about killing any guy who tries to hit on you. You think it’s any easier for us?”

And that pretty much ended that, because it really made the guy think. The *assumption* is that men are pressured to make the first move and that therefore women look at it as natural, and even flattering. His own response made clear that unwelcome attention would not be flattering - it would be threatening. He could then map the female reaction to unwanted male sexual attention onto - his own.

I don’t think female sexual interest is equivalent; I don’t think it’s objectifying in the same way. I think it *can* be, but I think the social default isn’t.

Two of the people mentioned in this thread already are the two I most frequently recommended at the store in the early years. Charles de Lint and Sean Stewart pretty much across the board; they both write from female PoVs quite frequently.

There are a number of authors that don’t throw me out of a book, although they don’t write in female viewpoint. Patrick Rothfuss, for instance.

But for me as a reader, it’s “can I identify with anyone in this book”, so I think about it only after the fact. I thought Richard Morgan’s female police officer in Black Man worked. I haven’t read everything else he’s done. I found Alan Moore’s Promethea worked very strongly, but it’s very earthy and women are, well, everything. I thought the ending was not successful.