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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 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)
Mar. 11th, 2013 01:19 am (UTC)
I have to think about this further
Unfortunately real life beckons and I'll have to give greater consideration to your points later. No disrespect in any way at all intended.

But the initial question that crosses my mind is whether it's possible that those male-centric things are indoctrinating males into a belief system that is supposed to appeal to females? In the same way that something like Barbie has been said to indoctrinate girls into a way of thinking that is meant to appeal to stereotypical straight males? Or entertainments from the 1950's might have taught females to dress (or sew or cook) in ways to appeal to males? And actually, don't certain magazines these days still suggest ways in which females might appeal to what "He" wants? Absent such indoctrination (if that's indeed what it is), is it possible that males would prioritize differently? Or at least better be able to throw off the evolutionary tendencies that I hypothesized about earlier? If females were to clearly communicate that they no longer gave any consideration to elements such as power, wealth, status, etc. then I think that would go a long way to changing many of those male-centric things. At the same time, such a clear declaration might make many males better able to understand how many female's don't accept the gaze, as well as other things, that once were considered norms.

Btw, my initial posts got a bit lengthier than I had intended and that was without even really bringing the comments around to fiction. So I had the choice of either getting much longer or not being nearly as on-topic as I would have liked, obviously I went with the latter, but I am sorry for the quasi off-topicness of what I wrote.
Mar. 11th, 2013 02:04 am (UTC)
Re: I have to think about this further
I think the question of what job a man has also speaks to what kind of life you might have with that man, and therefore is pretty important to consider.

Is he a firefighter? Will I have to spend my days and nights worried that he'll never come back from the next call? Is he a lawyer or a doctor? Will I have to spend more time on my own because he's always working? Etc.. Women want different things from their partners. Some, yes, want a guy with high income because they want a certain lifestyle. Some want a guy with high status because they think it will gain them access to some desirable stratas of society. Some women won't want a guy who makes a lot of money or is high status because those things tend to come with time commitments that mean you never see each other.

I would want someone to be interested in my career as well. Frankly, any man who ISN'T interested in what I do for a living is communicating to me that he doesn't consider my career important, and that would bother me.
Mar. 11th, 2013 06:22 am (UTC)
Re: I have to think about this further
I think the question of what job a man has also speaks to what kind of life you might have with that man, and therefore is pretty important to consider.

This is very, very much the way I looked at all of the various possible careers - mine, my husband’s - and what I wanted from a partner in life (time!). Because it’s always the time-money tradeoff with the big high pressure careers.
Mar. 12th, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
It's definitely important to consider
I don't dispute that at all.

What I'm saying is that there are social conventions and having a strange woman come up to you in the supermarket, eye you in a certain way and ask how much you make per year seems, imho, a lot like me walking up to a woman, fixing her with as much of a male gaze as I'm able and asking her about her fertility. In other words, colossally bad.

I would first expect introductions, perhaps small talk, maybe a meal or coffee. There are lots of things pertinent to a potential long term relationship, but there's a reason that they're not all usually discussed within the first five minutes of meeting someone.

If I didn't explain the circumstances very well in this then I sincerely apologize. And I again agree that considering a future partner's profession makes a lot of sense.
Mar. 11th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC)
Re: I have to think about this further
Also, protip:

Please don't refer to human beings as "males" and "females." The correct terms when speaking about adults are "men" and "women"; or when speaking about children, "boys" and "girls."

I realize it seems illogical, but the use of "males" and "females" is a huge marker of people who subscribe to the worst sort of long-disproven pop-evolutionary-psychology bullshit. If you're not one of those people, it would be good for you to use the more humanizing terms.
Mar. 12th, 2013 12:37 am (UTC)
Thank you for the advice
I had thought that in a discussion focusing on the male gaze and the potential for a female gaze then using the terms "male" and "female" would not be objectionable. But I certainly am ignorant of the bullshit of which you speak (though I'm well-versed in other bullshit if that in any way helps?).

As to less humanizing terms, I also had some thought that those might be better to help to try to avoid the potential for people to see too much of themselves in certain descriptions or to take anything personally. But I am quite willing to forgo such in the future now that you've brought your objections up.
Mar. 11th, 2013 12:52 am (UTC)
Re: continued
But...I will add this:

I would rather be asked about my job and what I do for a living than about my bra size, because a specific job says something about me-as-a-person. What I do for a living is an intrinsic part of who I am. My ability to hold a job says something about who I am, as well.

The people in my life I am obligated to financially support & feed & clothe are my children. They come to me helpless at birth. They are my responsibility. But...no one wants to marry a child, unless they view marriage as the gaining of dependents. They want a partner, someone to share the burdens and responsibilities with.

So the questions, to me, would be far better than the sexual come-ons that women usually face. I would absolutely prefer it, because I can see how the answers speak to my existence as an adult person, if that makes sense.
Mar. 12th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)
That absolutely makes sense
I think that what one does for a living can mean more to some people and who they are as a person than it does to others, but it's hard to imagine that it is ever less relevant than bra size.

What often puzzles me is that so many people place such stock in the opinions of those who would judge based on such matters as bra size. You have family and friends (and probably others) who know you and I can certainly understand placing importance on their opinions, but strangers and casual acquaintances really don't know you. They can make inferences or bring to bear any of an endless array of pre-existing beliefs, preferences, prejudices, etc. but those may have little, and perhaps even nothing, to do with who you really are as a person.

I may be missing something, but I think that there are two approaches. That we can try to find out who a person really is, placing a fair bit of importance on how they actually see themselves by asking questions and making observations with as little prejudice as we can manage OR we can judge people by their gender, race, religion, sexuality, height, weight, baldness, ability to see, hear, country, city, neighborhood of origin, etc. etc. Aspects that may inform someone's character, but also may not, and certainly don't constitute the entirety of it. People who choose the later, imo, aren't really judging us but some construct that they form in their minds. It can be argued that no one can ever truly understand anyone else, but I'm going to care very little about the opinions of those who don't seem to be trying.
Mar. 11th, 2013 01:26 am (UTC)
Re: continued
Women over 30 don't ask what a man does for a living because they're thinking Can he provide for me? The older a woman is, the less likely that is her question, because unless she's living at home being supported by her parents, she has probably already figured out how to provide for herself.

I earn a good living, more than the national average. But I want to know if prospective beaus are employed, and how steadily, for the following reasons:

1. Does his job tell me something about who he is? A teacher, a plumber, a gardener, an emergency-room nurse-- A job does not define a person, but it's a reasonable starting point for follow-up questions.

2. If he's not dependably employed, why is that? Is he a writer who supports himself by bartending while trying to sell a novel? If so, does he pursue his art for real, or does he just fart around endlessly rewriting the first three chapters, and spend the rest of his time on the sofa in his underwear watching TV?

A mature woman knows what she hopes her life will be, and she doesn't have a lot of time to do the "we pursue our careers together" thing. A man who can support himself won't be a drag on the life she has spent the past decade-plus building for herself.
Mar. 12th, 2013 01:25 am (UTC)
I can certainly respect your reasoning
Though imo there are many women out there and some (huge emphasis on only some) are quite interested in being taken care of. Also, I apologize if this was not clearer, but the incident I was most thinking of involved a stranger who approached me in a supermarket. We weren't on a date or anything like that. After an introduction and probably some small talk I can very much understand this being a good first date question, you have some great reasoning that I don't dispute. But I do think that it's best not to put the cart before the horse and use "How much money do you make" as an opening line. Also, I really prefer an emphasis on career rather than dollar amount, but perhaps that's just an individual preference.
Mar. 12th, 2013 09:21 am (UTC)
Re: I can certainly respect your reasoning
Did she approach you in a supermarket for a date or were the two of you standing in line together and she struck up a friendly conversation to kill the time? "What do you do?" is a pretty standard small talk line between strangers.
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:51 pm (UTC)
A date
After I answered then the next words that she uttered were to ask me out. I've definitely experienced the "What do you do?" conversation many times and this wasn't like that. There's definitely a difference imo in the directness and approach between someone being friendly and someone looking you up and down as if they're thinking of making a purchase but having little or no interest in small talk.