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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 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.