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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. 11th, 2013 12:33 am (UTC)
So basically, if I were to write stories with characters who are people and I don't spend a lot of time on what they look like, I would be avoiding this male or female gaze thing? Or is there more to it?
Mar. 11th, 2013 12:56 am (UTC)
I think there’s more to it. There’s a sexualized way of describing things; specific physical traits are by default sexualized. I think you can describe someone physically without sexualizing them.
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(no subject) - barbarienne - Mar. 11th, 2013 01:43 am (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2013 01:40 am (UTC)
There's a disconnect I'm noticing in the discussion here that's interesting, assuming I'm seeing it correctly. "Male gaze" often involves 1) men writing women but 2) having the women describe themselves as the men would see them (boobs, butt, and hair, basically).

But the "Female gaze" keeps getting described as 1) women writing women who 2) judge the sexiness of male characters.

I would think a closer analogy would be a woman having a male POV character think about his "lion-like tresses and strong hands," or some such nonsense.

I've certainly read my share of unconvincing guys-written-by-women, but I'm not smart enough (apparently) to spot a pattern or trend to it.
Mar. 11th, 2013 01:59 am (UTC)
Women can have the "male gaze" too. Patriarchy, you're soaking in it.

The distinction is the sexualization. When men write testosterone-fueled adventure novels in which they talk about the hero's mighty thews, they're not commenting on how sexy the guy is (unless they are. But that's not the usual approach). They're creating a fantasy for themselves (or their readers) to vicariously embody.

Women can write women this way--the description of the character makes her someone for the female reader to vicariously embody. Or she can simply be eye candy, written the way John Norman might write her. Women are not exempt from absorbing bad tropes, even ones that are harmful to them.

The idea of "sexy women" in advertising can go two ways:

1. "The woman that other women want to be, and men want to be with."

2. "The woman men imagine will fuck them."

The former is sexy and desirable, but also high quality. A man envisions having this beautiful creature around all the time, but also on some level imagines that she might be entertaining when not actively having sex. Most men are not actually simple creatures ruled by their penises, and advertisers targeting a more enlightened demographic try to hit multiple buttons.

Whereas the latter is a woman for a man to fuck and discard. They appear in lowbrow advertising, often in bad beer commercials. They're targeting the demographic of men who have been trained to think of women as a class (with individual exceptions) as sandwich-making orifice systems.
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Mar. 11th, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
Male gaze/female gaze
I've been mulling over your post off and on since I read it hours ago which isn't surprising since I do the same mulling over your books. I think an objectifying female gaze, just as dehumanizing and just as prevalent, as the male gaze. Soft porn romance novels are built around the Janus face of the male gaze. Unless boys are raised by mothers who value them first as people, secondly as boys, they are culturally conditioned to believe they should like, even want, to be seen as sex objects. (I did not mean to leave fathers out. I was thinking about raising my son as a single parent and the comments he's made and the situations we faced over the years.) Feminism raised women's consciousness about the dehumanizing consequences of the male gaze. I thought then, and I think now, we didn't do nearly enough to try to liberate boys and men. We are humans first, women and men second. What harms men, harms women. What harms women, harms men. Praise be what benefits one, benefits the other as well. I have a very strong hunch a male writer who creates believable female characters has been treated like a worthwhile human being by important women in his family. And the important men. And I doubt a female writer who was valued in the same way reduces male charaters to beefcake. I know I'm generalizing. It would take a novella not to.
Mar. 11th, 2013 05:07 am (UTC)
The post got stuck. It would not let me edit. Does anyone else encounter this problem? Or am I destined to encounter tech weirdness out in the the tech challenged wilderness by my lonesome? My friend's husband, not a fanciful man, says I have reverse polarity, so live with it. I really don't like sending out unedited...well, anything. And I know what I once would have said to my students. "Oh, sure you couldn't edit your writing. The computer wouldn't let you. To say nothing of the dog". Now I would shake my head in commiseration.At least the foul up put an end to the urge I had to produce that novella.
Mar. 11th, 2013 05:16 am (UTC)
A question
Since my nose is usually in a book or my hand holding a Flair pen, I am, obviously, not tech savy. I didn't intend to go nameless. Did I do, or not do, something to remove my name?
Mar. 11th, 2013 05:18 am (UTC)
Re: A question
If you didn’t log in via OpenID, Facebook, or LJ, and you didn’t add your name as a text bit at the end, your name won’t show up. I don’t actually have the power to edit other people’s posts--I can delete them or make them invisible, but I can’t change anything that’s posted beyond that.
Mar. 11th, 2013 05:31 am (UTC)
I think a lot about female fantasy-males, since I read m/m manga and fanfiction, though it's more pure projection and less objectification alone when women writers do it. I think women fantasize about the inner world of men and boys and imagine it to be a reflection of their dreams and of themselves. So men swoon in love, cry, worry they're unlovable, suffer rape and just want to be loved. There are varying degrees of attention to 'realism', but a lot of desire to see men and boys as speaking women's language and sharing women's needs. There are many mangas with boys that have self-image or body issues ('cause they're short or too girly), etc. Sometimes the fantasy is the opposite and both guys are unashamed and masculine, and there's a sense women use men's pov to explore ideas of agency and sexual freedom that they themselves relate to most (usually the pov is not dominant). Gay guys are often irritated by the sense their sexuality being appropriated and hetero-normaticized; some girls go over-the-top fangirling the idea of gayness in males, like they're boybands-- safe but pretty-- except boybands sign up for it.

You can tell it's female-brand males in shoujo/yaoi manga and some fanfiction; they're sensitive, romantic, fixated on their relationships, prone to angsty pain, etc. I guess some guys may feel this is worse, in a way-- if men want to own women's bodies, women go for the souls.

Mar. 11th, 2013 05:40 am (UTC)
I don't see it as worse, and I'd think any guy who does is not aware just how demeaning the male gaze can be -- at least these fantasy males have souls to steal.

Mostly, the males in slash fiction or girl-targeted manga I've read just seem silly.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Mar. 11th, 2013 04:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 11th, 2013 04:57 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think that's silly, too.
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Mar. 11th, 2013 12:15 pm (UTC)
In my mind there's a sharp distinction between "the male gaze" and "a (specific) man's gaze" -- the male gaze being about the omnipresent stew of background assumptions that says there is a certain proper way of looking at the world (esp. women), certain attributes that matter, and a certain idealized (stereotyped) hypothetical male viewer that's always present and looking over everyone's shoulder. So it also includes the way women worry about their appearance in a way that men don't, even when there's no-one there to see, and the way I as a man find myself noticing breasts and butts *even though* they aren't actually things that affect attraction for me that much, and in situations where attraction is otherwise out-of-frame anyway.

Personally I find (well-written) woman POVs interesting and refreshing! But they're very different than what I think of as the male gaze. (Heck, I'm pretty sure there are well-written male POVs that largely avoid what I mean by male gaze, and those are refreshing too.[1]) I'm not even sure what the female gaze analogue of (this kind of) male gaze would be. We just don't have those same homogenized cultural rules about "this is THE WAY women view the world" that we do for men, and to the extent we do, there isn't the same oppressive insistence that they are always relevant in every situation.

Even in romance novels, where you'd expect the female gaze to be in full force, IME they're still almost always very careful to explain how stereotypically beautiful the female lead is, including the weird toxic arbitrary beauty markers like fairness of skin and slenderness. Even when the audience is assumed to be identifying with this character rather than looking at her, it's important to clarify how she appears to the hypothetical male... and it's still important even if the author is also, at the same time, being careful to make clear that the particular male lead doesn't really care about all that and is much more attracted to her mind, skills, way with words, etc.)

[1] shwetanarayan suggests Ben Aaronovitch as a good example of a writer who does this.
Mar. 11th, 2013 06:06 pm (UTC)
But they're very different than what I think of as the male gaze.

Is there anything about it that throws you out of a book?

I can accept male gaze in a male viewpoint. It doesn’t make me *like* the viewpoint, and it doesn’t make the viewpoint sympathetic to me, but it feels authentic. And frankly, if I couldn’t tolerate it, I would never have been a comic book reader or a genre reader in my youth.

I just have difficulty with a female character whose viewpoint is entirely set in that gaze.
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.

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Mar. 12th, 2013 02:10 am (UTC)
I have seen people comment that there were a couple of moments in the recent Marvel movies that were specific fanservice for those desiring male bodies, and specifically women in the context: both _Thor_ and _Captain America_ had almost-identical moments where the male leads are shirtless and the female leads give them a very obvious and admiring up-and-down look.

Those didn't actually register for me in the least, but the gratuitous shots of women in bikinis in _Burn Notice_, with never a shot of guys in Speedos to be seen, drove me up a WALL with how default-male-gaze they were. So maybe irritation pings for me more. =>

(Edit: but it's easier for me to notice male gaze in visual media as well, possibly because I am a fairly non-visual reader and possibly because of the pervasiveness of it. Or both. I definitely prefer to read sex scenes that are written for an audience of (mostly) women, however.)

Edited at 2013-03-12 02:15 am (UTC)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu - Mar. 12th, 2013 02:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2013 01:24 am (UTC)
I'm generally reading from such a privileged position that I'm not sure I would actually recognize female gaze as a thing, which sort of answers your question right there.

But I've read some gay male erotica written by women, which I think is fairly likely to represent the female gaze to at least some extent, and hmm. I didn't find it irritating or reductionist in any way that felt personal or upsetting. I did think that all the male characters in the story fell into a rather small handful of types, and I couldn't identify with any of them, which I suspect is part of the female reaction to female characters portrayed with male gaze. But my brain sorted that into the "amusing tropes of gay romance literature" bucket, not the "exploitative" bucket. (And, for that matter, in those stories, all the female characters also seem to fall into a small handful of types, so this may be more due to the lack of good characterization in most erotica than anything else.)

As a heterosexual man, I find sex scenes involving men written from female gaze (if I'm recognizing it correctly) to be less interesting than other types of sex scenes, but that's purely because the author isn't focusing on what I would focus on for such a scene to be erotic to me. And what's erotic is so personal and so difficult to predict anyway that having erotica miss is hardly an unusual experience. For nearly all of what I read, such scenes are such a vanishingly small part of the overall work and so far from the reason why I'm reading the work that it doesn't make much difference.

It's not like it's difficult to find erotica geared towards heterosexual men if I want to read such a thing. I have very little interest in books going out of their way to provide me with more of such a thing at the cost of more creative and unusual directions!

In general, I often read to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. That's one of the reasons why I like SF. Seeing the world through female gaze is certainly a new way of looking at the world from how I normally look at it, so from that angle I'd like to see more of it.
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