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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.


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Mar. 10th, 2013 08:39 pm (UTC)
male writers 'handling women well'
Charles deLint is another writer who, in my own works, like women as people and it shows. I actually have you and Tanya Huff to thank for turning me onto Charles many, many, many years ago in Bakka.
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Mar. 10th, 2013 08:49 pm (UTC)
Not being male I don't feel qualified to answer directly, but Sartorias recently did a review on Goodreads of a self-published and quite popular m&m fantasy, which seems to have started in fanfiction - to her it seemed to be titillation for the female gaze - and I think a lot of m&m, whether in manga or in books is expressly written for the female gaze.
Mar. 12th, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
That was my first thought, actually, to point out M/M fiction.
(no subject) - estara - Mar. 12th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 10th, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what you mean by "male gaze." Could you clarify?
Mar. 10th, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
“Male gaze” for me is the constant sexualization of female characters and their roles in story. If you’re writing from an ostensibly female view and the first thing you notice is the shape of another woman’s breasts, lips, hips, you are viewing all women in text sexually first.

There are subtler things that for me are evocative of male gaze, but on the face of it, that’s enough to throw me out of a book.

ETA: It doesn’t always throw me out of a book. If the viewpoint is male, for instance. But if you’re writing from a female viewpoint, it often does, because it wrecks my ability to suspend disbelief.

Edited at 2013-03-10 09:47 pm (UTC)
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Mar. 10th, 2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
kateelliott wrote about this a while ago, in particular mentioning a male reader who was absolutely convinced she had a homosexual agenda in her books. Eventually she realized that what he was reading as homosexual was her (deliberate) female gaze upon the male characters as sexually interesting (or not). The reader was so locked into the subconscious idea that only a male could look on someone with sexual attraction that he could only see what she was doing as having a homosexual agenda.

To his credit, Kate said, the *moment* she pointed this out to him, he understood what he'd been doing and restructed his mental stance.

So: yes, I think men can be made uncomfortable by the female gaze, but it doesn't happen all that often.
Mar. 10th, 2013 10:07 pm (UTC)
So, is male gaze just objectification, then? Or rather, is the inverse - female gaze - the same type of objectification, but of men? I’ve been thinking about whether or not there is a female gaze, or perspective, that elides or shuts men out in the same way; if there’s a way of handling male viewpoint that smacks them in the face and makes them throw the book across the room because it so violates the sense of reality.
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Mar. 10th, 2013 09:19 pm (UTC)
I have heard men disparage certain types of romance and fanfic, the way the female writers sexualize the men. Most of the time I ignore them, but I heard it from someone I respected, once, and in the discussion discovered he felt uncomfortable, as if females were unclothing him mentally and finding him wanting because he didn't have long eyelashes, beautiful hair, a lean, sexy body, and the other attributes he kept seeing. (He also comments about feeling uncomfortable with how much physical abuse they put these characters through, yet it seemed the writers were careful to never mar their males' beauty, even after floggings and male rape.)
Mar. 10th, 2013 10:10 pm (UTC)
That's a shame in that it makes it difficult to grab all that stuffin one place. I find myself limiting the number of sites I read more and more each year. Have fun with it, I'll see about aggragating it somehow
Mar. 10th, 2013 10:11 pm (UTC)
The "female gaze" certainly happens in books, but the most common place for it is in "women's fiction" where the audience is not presumed to be male. The men who avoid women's things on the unquestioned cultural principle of "Why would I, a man, be interested in that?" probably never see it.

This avoidance helps reinforce those men's perception that women aren't actually interested in sex, but are merely willing to put out in exchange for financial security, or perhaps because he is just such a stud, he has overcome her natural female reluctance. You can always identify guys who have no female friends, because they say stupid shit like this.

Women, of course, know better, because we actually talk to other women about sex.

I have had the following conversation:

Guy: Women aren't as interested in sex as men.

Me: Did you miss the part where romance genre represents half of all fiction sales?

Guy: Well, yeah, chicks like romance and love and that crap.

Me: Have you read any of it? Holy shit, dude, a lot of it puts Penthouse Forum to shame.
Mar. 10th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
I'll be honest in that I don't really notice female gaze very much in what I read. (Or in what I read when I actually get a chance to read fiction these days.) As for male gaze, it's less and less present in the fiction I read, but I suspect that's more due to having a lot of female authors in my TBR pile than anything else.
Mar. 10th, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
As the others have been saying, romance is full of what I think you're referring to as female gaze. The heroines of romance novels are extremely conscious of the heroes' bodies and (mostly) how sexually beautiful they are, and aren't afraid to think about it.

But then I've always thought of romance novels as having a more equal balance of power between the sexes than most fiction, although since it deals almost exclusively with romantic relationships (duh), it doesn't take that balance as far out into the wider world as it should. IMHO.
Mar. 10th, 2013 11:25 pm (UTC)
And, further: I am quite convinced that being viewed as an object is quite disconcerting for heterosexual white men. Not irritating or reductionist, though, and certainly not in the same way. Being viewed as an object (*especially* as a sexual object) is emasculating and threatening to such men. Because of the unfamiliar loss of agency, and because of the concurrent perceived threat of sexual violence and violation.

Edited at 2013-03-10 11:26 pm (UTC)
Mar. 11th, 2013 04:53 am (UTC)
Speaking as a heterosexual white man, I would say, "Not always." It's disconcerting in many, probably most, cases, but there are also times it's flattering or amusing. It all depends on context.

As for emasculating, no. It isn't, not for me. Threatening, maybe sometimes, just because it is so unfamiliar, but I'm over six feet, over two hundred pounds -- I don't find either a lone woman or a single homosexual male to constitute a real threat of sexual violence. I'm well aware this is a luxury 90% or more of women don't have.

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Mar. 10th, 2013 11:27 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I've encountered the female gaze in fiction that often. The closest I might have come might have been Bujold's The Sharing Knife series, during the sections from Fawn's POV. But that's generally brief bits, and from the point of view of a young women just discovering sex could be something to be enjoyed, so it's understandable.*

I've actually used the male gaze deliberately in a couple of my stories, but the protagonist in the first is observing a female deliberately upping her sexual presence as a distraction**. In the second, well the POV character is supposed to be a sexist jerkass to make his eventual fate satisfying to the reader.

* What's a little less forgivable is Dag's taking note of Fawn's breasts while he's in the middle of stopping a rape attempt. I'm not sure what LMB was thinking when she wrote that.

** SPOILER so when he sees her in her true identity, he doesn't recognize her at all. When he meets her the first time that identity, I left the male gaze out.
Mar. 11th, 2013 04:57 am (UTC)
What's a little less forgivable is Dag's taking note of Fawn's breasts while he's in the middle of stopping a rape attempt. I'm not sure what LMB was thinking when she wrote that.

I haven't read the book in question, but I've known guys who notice a woman's breasts in any circumstances whatsoever, no matter how inappropriate, and I suspect Lois has, too. The trick is to not show that one's noticing.
(no subject) - msagara - Mar. 11th, 2013 05:21 am (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 10th, 2013 11:38 pm (UTC)
I think that there are at least three female gazes
One is towards children, especially babies, infants, and toddlers. Many times women will think that such a person is "cute", "adorable", etc. and oftentimes that thinking is not in any way derived from that young person's personality or uniqueness as an individual, but instead comes from their appearance. Their soft skin, big cheeks or eyes, new infant smell, or similar such attributes. Are these youngsters in any way harmed or made uncomfortable by such attention? I'm no expert, but I would guess not. Still, I think it useful to keep in mind that many females do exhibit this behavior or gaze, that can, in several key ways, be characterized as exactly the same as that which men are so often criticized for.

It can be said that many females look favorably upon youngsters due to biological impulses, but is that not, ultimately, why many men gaze upon females? After air, food, water, and sleep then I think it inarguable that many people are influenced by their sexual drive, which in a fair portion of men translates, consciously or not, as a desire to reproduce. For those men, appearance can answer several key questions, such as, is the female too young or old to bear children? Does she look like she would bear children successfully? It is not at all nice to think upon, but hundreds of thousands of women or infants will still die due to childbirth this year and the percentage must have been much higher thousands of years ago. In such times, was there any sense in "gazing" at women to try to determine the chances that they and/or their children will get through the process successfully? I would say so, that it is a greater kindness to "gaze" than to impregnate a woman and then watch her and/or the infant perish in childbirth. If a woman appears "too thin" then it seems possible evidence that either she or that environment (the land) are not conducive to supporting a baby and that it would be a kindness to wait before trying. It seems logical that such thinking was ingrained into many, and that such impulses are not so easily switched off. Still, many females in recent years have made their displeasure with such thoughts clear and many men, with a varying degree of success, have attempted to comply. However, I do not think that the same is true in reverse and that brings me to the second of the female gaze's.

Females often judge a male by power and wealth and it's trappings. If men should not "gaze" upon a female to assess her attractiveness then how can females claim it acceptable to judge a man by his ability to provide? As with men's gaze's, I doubt that many women think in those terms, but why else would a male's ability to accumulate power, wealth, riches, etc. matter? What do such things *really* have to do with the content of a male's character? If men should not judge women at all by their attractiveness then does not the reverse biological impulse hold true? Should not females everywhere seek to throw off the shackles of these impulses and work to ignore whether or not a male has a job, income, property, nice clothing, etc.? Shouldn't a male who is homeless be considered exactly as viable a potential partner as one who has a mansion, and an adult male who lives at home might perhaps be considered the best potential mate of all, with proof that he holds family in high esteem. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, such has not occurred and judging males by traditional standards has not fallen out of favor, at least by the majority.

Mar. 11th, 2013 01:36 am (UTC)
Re: I think that there are at least three female gazes
Men pursue power and wealth and its trappings not to impress women, but to impress other men. It's not about getting sex; it's about getting admiration and status.

If men really were interested in getting sex, they would read romance novels, or at least Cosmo, and try to learn lessons from them. Either men really suck at research, or "sex" is actually below "status" on the list of things they want.

Status can lead to sex, but guys who wear the power suits aren't doing all that just to get something they could easily pay for. Sex is easy to get. Status, not so much.
Re: I think that there are at least three female gazes - (Anonymous) - Mar. 20th, 2013 03:22 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 10th, 2013 11:39 pm (UTC)
There are many women, especially in my experience those over 30, whose first question is one of "Do you have a job" or "How much money do you make"? Do such questions matter much at all to who I am as a person, whether I'm kind or loyal or thoughtful, etc.? I do not see how, and yet time and time again females seek to judge me first and foremost based on my ability to provide for them and their potential and/or existing offspring. While I certainly understand such thinking, is this not the reverse of the male gaze? Many males gaze at females to assess their ability to bear healthy infants and many females gaze at males to assess their ability to provide, even if we know not exactly why we assess. If this is true, then should not we condemn this female gaze with the same passion that we do the male one?

Further, one thing that puzzles me is that many females who decry the male gaze continue to put stock in a variety of things to enhance their attractiveness. If females should not be judged by their looks, then what need for makeup, jewelry, clothing that matches and is clean (to say nothing of greater finery), hair that is washed or brushed, the removal of hair from face or body, etc.? The need for a certain amount of washing of hair, body, face and clothing is necessary to prevent disease, but beyond that, why do more if the desire to be judged by attractiveness is considered a negative that needs be done away with?

The third female gaze would be judging males by their physical attributes, and I have seen evidence of this. Personally, I have seen females react favorably to me in the past based upon my looks, with a rare few even going so far as to pat, stroke or pinch my bottom, and sometimes continue to do so even after I've asked them to stop. Generally, why else would some women celebrate shirtless men, or men's posteriors, if there was not some interest in their attractiveness? I think that females, generally speaking, are less interested in appearance than are males and also hide it better in person, but I do not believe that such impulses are absent and to the extent that they exist then I do believe that they constitute another female gaze.
Mar. 11th, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
Re: continued
So many possible responses to this.

When I was discussing this with my husband, he said “power and status” are the equivalent of male gaze for women.

I pointed out that the male-centric things I read: comics, books with male-gaze that are clearly written entirely *for* male readership - the male protagonists & their circle of friends are pretty much the same: they have power, status, are usually the Very Best at what they do; they just think a lot about sex when women are involved, and never anything else about women. They have their circle of losers, of invisible men - but it’s to my mind the same circle as what you are now calling the female gaze.

So...to me the power and status thing can’t intrinsically be *about* the female gaze if in the estimation of men who aren’t writing for women the same things count. The difference to my mind is that in books that are written with women in mind, those men actually want love as well as sex.

ETA: He thought about this for less than a minute and then said: you’re right; it’s not exclusively a female attribution, so it can’t be attributed to female gaze.

Edited at 2013-03-11 12:40 am (UTC)
I have to think about this further - alwaysoptimistc - Mar. 11th, 2013 01:19 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I have to think about this further - lyssabits - Mar. 11th, 2013 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I have to think about this further - msagara - Mar. 11th, 2013 06:22 am (UTC) - Expand
It's definitely important to consider - alwaysoptimistc - Mar. 12th, 2013 12:30 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I have to think about this further - barbarienne - Mar. 11th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Thank you for the advice - alwaysoptimistc - Mar. 12th, 2013 12:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: continued - msagara - Mar. 11th, 2013 12:52 am (UTC) - Expand
That absolutely makes sense - alwaysoptimistc - Mar. 12th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: continued - barbarienne - Mar. 11th, 2013 01:26 am (UTC) - Expand
A date - alwaysoptimistc - Mar. 12th, 2013 08:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 11th, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
(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.)

I remember when I discovered Sean Stewart, I read Mockingbird, oh, maybe eight years ago now? And I felt like underlining the whole thing in red pen, with the note, "YES, THIS." He writes women so well, and until I read Mockingbird I hadn't realised just how different it felt to read women written that way, because I'd never read anything like it. All the other authors I'd ever read wrote a version of women as viewed by men.
Mar. 11th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC)
He wrote Clouds End, which is possibly the definitive feminine coming-of-age story for me. You could have told me he was a woman and I would have absolutely believed it.
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