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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. 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)
Mar. 11th, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC)
If the female viewpoint character is lesbian or bisexual, does it still seem dissonant for her to focus on sexual traits in other women?

One of my male friends who sometimes read romance often found the portrayal of the male characters in them unpleasant. I remember him specifically complaining about books where all the supernatural men were gorgeous and the one guy who isn't gorgeous and is an ordinary human is the jerk ex-boyfriend who 'gets what's coming to him'. So I'd say that, yes, women can write for the 'female gaze' in a way that men find off-putting.
Mar. 11th, 2013 04:13 pm (UTC)

Most of the women I know generally don't describe other women in terms of physicality at all; it's all about "she's that nice one who always brings in brownies on Friday" rather than "she's the blonde with the long legs" -- I usually have to prod to get a physical description of someone if I don't already know them.
Mar. 14th, 2013 03:47 pm (UTC)
Would it be less off putting if the ostensibly female view were a non-straight female?
Mar. 15th, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)

Would it be less off putting if the ostensibly female view were a non-straight female?

No, actually. The gaze of a bi-sexual or a lesbian would be a female gaze in which, although there’s attraction, the women are not reduced to their sexual parts--breasts, legs, butt. They may notice all of these things -but the shorthand will *not* be primarily about just those things.
Mar. 11th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
A quote from David Wong's "5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women":
“Right now I’m reading a book from mega-selling fantasy author George R. R. Martin. The following is a passage where he is writing from the point of view of a woman — always a tough thing for men to do. The girl is on her way to a key confrontation, and the narrator describes it thusly:

"When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest..."

That’s written from the woman’s point of view. Yes, when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing. “Janet walked her boobs across the city square. ‘I can see them staring at my boobs,’ she thought, boobily.” He assumes that women are thinking of themselves the same way we think of them.
Mar. 11th, 2013 11:55 pm (UTC)
Okay, I get it now. Although I must confess that the first thing I thought of was, "that's not MALE gaze, that's OBJECTIVIST gaze." In other words, I think my knee-jerk reflex was that it's not necessarily or exclusively a male thing, although heaven knows it's easy to illustrate from that perspective.
Mar. 13th, 2013 02:38 am (UTC)
Here's an example from the manuscript I'm currently editing, in which a man stares at the narrator's breasts and then pretends he's just admiring her clothes:

“That is an attractive item of clothing, may God keep it for you,” her colleague said, blurting out the words as though he had finally stumbled on a virtuous excuse for his previous staring.

Donia looked down at herself. Her jumper was made of a baggy, colour-shifting metamaterial that still failed to keep the curves of her otherwise slim body completely concealed.

Women and FAAB people in this situation--a situation I have been in--do not, in that moment, think of themselves as "curvy but otherwise slim". That's the male gaze. A man staring at a woman might note the contrast between her bustline and her waistline. The woman looking at herself would not.

Here's how I edited the second paragraph (Americanizing the Britishisms while I was there, as my client requested):

Donia looked down at herself. Her baggy sweater was made of a color-shifting material that distracted from her curves but failed to completely conceal them.

This is the self-assessment of a woman mired in a repressive victim-blaming culture who's trying to make sure her clothing is sufficiently modest. She acknowledges that she has curves, but she doesn't assess them (the way the original compares her curves to her slimness); they are simply a vexing fact, a thing she has to cope with the way you'd drive around a pothole. That's the female gaze in a male-dominated society.