Omniscient spung
July 5, 2013 2:10 AM   Subscribe

"Imagine a female pov character is going along about her protagonist adventure, seeing things from her perspective of the world as written in third person. She hears, sees, considers, and makes decisions and reacts based on her view of the world and what she is aware of and encounters. Abruptly, a description is dropped into the text of her secondary sexual characteristics usually in the form of soft-focus Playboy-Magazine-style sexualized kitten-bunny-I-would-fuck-her-in-a-heartbeat lustrous-eyes-and-nipples phrases. Her breasts have just become omniscient breasts." -- Kate Elliott on the male (and female) gaze in literature.
posted by MartinWisse (132 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think the discomfort she says the reviewer had with the female gaze making him feel gay is one of the reasons why many men are generally uncomfortable with novels written by and about women. And the normalisation of the male gaze is one of the reasons why the converse doesn't hold: most women I know read widely by authors of all genders and any gender of protagonist.
posted by lollusc at 2:26 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's weird to me to think that female gaze would make someone feel overtones of gay. If you're a hetro male, you presumably prefer to be attractive to women, and the broader your exposure to the various things that various women find attractive, the better you can be at becoming the best you. It's like insider information, except it's legal! :)

Maybe this motive ceases to apply once your days of being single are a distant memory? Or maybe I'm just more curious about attraction? But not noticing that female gaze might be related to the character (that is doing the observing) being female, and then getting uncomfortable about it?! Reading comprehension fail.
posted by anonymisc at 2:43 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's because the male gaze is so pervasive. When you just assume that's the default and come upon a sexualized description of masculinity, you may feel like you just identified with something you think is icky. Not that that's my particular attitude, but I could see how it happens.

Which is to say, I welcome the female gaze becoming more pervasive, because things are pretty unbalanced as it is.
posted by malapropist at 2:47 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow! Imposing that discomfort on people should be reason enough to write more from the female gaze. Forget the wider gender issues, let's screw with the prude's heads.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:47 AM on July 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think the reasoning is more that if you think of men as sexual objects that means you might be attracted to them and omgwtfbbqno. IMHO it's a result of homophobic othering and the need for distance.
posted by jaduncan at 3:02 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think "the gaze" is real. Jack and Jill Politics blog does a good job of spelling this out in racial terms. As novels go Jane Smiley does a good job of shifting or avoiding a single 'omniscience'. Not quite sure where to place The Donnas' music though. Also, I learned that QUILTBAG is a thing.
posted by drowsy at 3:36 AM on July 5, 2013


Thanks for posting the article! I enjoyed reading it.

A couple of months ago, I read this great comment by Narrative Priorities on the green:
When reading books by men, I often feel like the women have been sorted by the author into "fuckable" and "unfuckable" categories, and it makes me really uncomfortable and sad.
...and immediately had an a-ha! moment. I knew I generally preferred reading novels written by women, and I knew a lot of that was to do with the way female characters were presented and treated in novels written by (straight) men, but I'd never been able to articulate it as marvellously and succinctly as that quote does. And once you start noticing that kind of thing, you notice it everywhere. Like, everywhere.

Possibly even more sadly, I've noticed it in books by women, too. It's like they've internalised the idea that the only female characters of value are the young, hot ones.
posted by Georgina at 3:41 AM on July 5, 2013 [27 favorites]


I don't think you even have to be a man writing to do this, you just have to think that certain character descriptors are important.

It's also the approach to female sexuality that makes it more about how you/she looks than how she feels and what she looks at. It's a sort of odd approach where what I put on is supposed to symbolize what I desire, that leads to stuff marketed to women looking indistinguishable from stuff marketed to men by the use of scantily clad female bodies.

This is also for the same reason that a man in art, being depicted as sexy, gets depicted as "Homo erotic" and it feels like guys, in real life, who put a lot of effort into being attractive are more than occasionally dogged by odd accusations of gayness. The idea is that being turned on and being an object of desire are synonymous in this context.
posted by Phalene at 4:01 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


"It's like they've internalised the idea that the only female characters of value are the young, hot ones."

That's probably the case, sometimes. But I can also see a certain amount of Mary Sue-ism (where the author is projecting herself into the persona of Little Miss Hot Thing,) or some of these female authors may be somewhere on the queer spectrum and they're doing the same thing that the hetero male authors are doing: writing about the kind of girls they wanna bang. Also, when these male authors start rhapsodizing about the perfect boobs of their heroines, I suspect a fair number of them are Mary Sue-ing too. Genetic females aren't the only ones who daydream about being heroic, gorgeous women.

I don't have any problem with an author (of any gender) drooling over a character (of any gender,) as long as it's quality drooling. If it just comes across as lame wanking I'll skip those parts, and if it gets really embarrassing I'll drop the book.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:03 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't think I've ever noticed female gaze in the wild. Is it a thing? Maybe I'm not reading the right kind of books? Or I'm just clueless about these things? Some recentish female authors I have read: Alice Munro, Ann Tyler, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Amy Tan, Arundati Roy.

If anyone has any good examples they could show here, I would like to see some real-life examples of female (and male) gaze.
posted by pracowity at 4:09 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doesn't the romance genre have a lot of female gaze? (Probably mixed with internalized male gaze.)

Anne Rice's vampire books were widely read by dude (geeks) and were pretty female-gazey. I think female gaze sells a lot of albums and movie tickets, too.
posted by fleacircus at 4:22 AM on July 5, 2013


Foz Meadows blogged rather irritatedly on this recently.
posted by jeather at 4:56 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


The female gaze is all over young adult novels. Probably one of the reasons "serious" readers scoff at it so much.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:07 AM on July 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


Not quite sure about the significance of the omniscience or the person. Suppose a female character suddenly broke into the narrative talking lovingly and in irrelevant, lubricious detail about her own tits - or someone talking about 'your' tits for that matter - does that make it less male-gazey? I don't really see why. Does it matter whether we're being given details an actual character could plausibly have known, or ones no-one but an omnsicient narrator would have had access to? Does one lend itself more to the male gaze? How so?

Surely this isn't quite accurate, either...

who is usually not even aware that he has just dropped out of third person and into omniscient

They haven't actually dropped out of third person, have they? The omniscient narrator is still talking about 'her' tits, not 'yours' or 'mine'.

Not to be dismissive: I think she's actually groping for some other concept that she doesn't quite nail.
posted by Segundus at 5:27 AM on July 5, 2013


I kind of really want an example of omniscient breasts now.
posted by corb at 5:36 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does it matter whether we're being given details an actual character could plausibly have known, or ones no-one but an omnsicient narrator would have had access to? Does one lend itself more to the male gaze? How so?

Yes, it matters. If you're a skilled writer, you won't be supplying information that the speaker should not have. It's a lapse in control of the POV, which is why it's momentary omniscience in an otherwise first person narrative. For whatever reason, this happens all the time (specifically with details about boobs and nipples) with male authors writing female characters. It happens less often, for whatever reason, with male characters. The equivalent would be something like:

I reached for the knife at my hip, my hand passing over my rippling abs as I did. As I withdrew it, I felt my turgid member straining against the leather bounds of my codpiece. I crouched low, my powerful buttocks flexing in the morning sunlight, and prepared to leap to action.

Which feels like porn writing, the kind of stuff you'd see in m/m fanfic. But this kind of writing happens all the time with women in fantasy, with their ample bosoms straining and bouncing and whatnot, in the middle of an ordinary conversation when no woman would be even aware of her tits.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:47 AM on July 5, 2013 [42 favorites]


I kind of really want an example of omniscient breasts now.

Not going to lie, this is the first thing that came to mind:

Karen: Well... I'm kinda psychic. I have a fifth sense.

Cady: What do you mean?

Karen: It's like I have ESPN or something. My breasts can always tell when it's going to rain.


But yes, I completely agree with PhoBWanKenobi. There are whole descriptive passages in major fantasy/Sci-Fi series about lady anatomy that I gloss over, all the time, because hearing the narrator go on about someone's lithe body for the nth time in a narrative sequence is boring, a little weird, and kind of jarring.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:55 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


If anyone has any good examples they could show here, I would like to see some real-life examples of female (and male) gaze.

The movie version of Mamma Mia. Wonderfully female-gaze. I found it a really disorienting viewing experience and didn't really get why until I read Kate Harding's review, which explains better than I can.
posted by pie ninja at 6:02 AM on July 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Gender politics aside, it is possible to write from many or all POVs. Homer did this. Shakespeare did, through soliloquies. I always wonder why 3rd person limited became the dominant POV for the English novel. But yeah, it's weird and creepy when the previously dispassionate narrative voice suddenly has an opinion about the nape of a tertiary character's neck.
posted by Trace McJoy at 6:04 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Segundus, the term "omniscient" is used because (even if it says "her"), the author is using information and perspective well outside of that of the character. I'm a gay man and I don't evaluate or think about my own appearance in at ALL the same way as I think about other men; the idea that a straight woman regards her own body as a straight man might is insupportable. When "she" does this, we're no longer looking through her POV but instead through the eyes of a straight man not actually present.
posted by kavasa at 6:08 AM on July 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


And of course, women do sometimes think about their own breasts--and even what their own breasts look like! But what's important is situational context. I might think about the appearance of my cleavage when lacing up my bodice for a renfest, or getting dressed for a hot date. But not while I'm battling someone.

Conversely, the number of times I've thought about my nipples outside a sexual context is nearing zero. But if male writers are to be believed, women think about what their nipples look like very, very frequently (one of my favorites: a friend calling up in a rage to tell me how GRRM had some woman describing her own nipples as "ebony horns." No, just no.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:09 AM on July 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


One of my great academic humiliations came in a class discussion of Laura Mulvey and her seminal (ick, is that the right word for that?) "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Trouble was, and I was in school full time and working both a full time and a part time job, so I winged it far, far too often, and I hadn't read the assignment.

My professor and the rest of the class engaged in a spirited discussion, which was challenging and a real paradigm-buster for me, but something sort of irked me and I finally decided to speak up.

I put down my knitting, raised a hand, and said, "I don't really understand the constant focus here—what about the lesbians? Surely they have some place in the discussion."

The classroom went quiet.

"Are you saying that the lesbian gaze is somehow different than the male gaze?" my professor asked. I was a little thrown by her weird grammar, but I responded.

"Well, I don't know that gender is really that important in how homosexuals observe film."

"You what? Why are you bringing that into the discussion? I don't think sexuality figures in here. It's essentially neutral."

"Of course it does. You've been singling out one class of homosexuals as a culprit."

My professor looked at me, narrowed her eyes just a hair, and picked up the chalk to write on the blackboard. This was not something she did, so it was pretty definitive in action.

In a careful script, she wrote out T H E M A L E G A Z E, and underlined the Z and E.

I reprocessed all I'd heard in class that day, swallowed hard, and flushed a deep, shameful red. The class paused, not getting it at first, and burst out laughing.

"Ah," I said, picked up my knitting needles, and managed to completely screw up several rows before I regained my composure.
posted by sonascope at 6:09 AM on July 5, 2013 [61 favorites]


I've read about it for more than 20 years, stretching back to the early 90's when I was an undergrad at Brown, but I still can't quite get a grasp on it. What is denoted by 'the male gaze'? I just can't get past all the technical vocabulary used to pick the phenomenon out. Could someone put it in context for me with some classic early sound movies like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane? How about a more recent film like Donnie Darko?
posted by Wash Jones at 6:20 AM on July 5, 2013


Yeah, to make sure I'm clear: we all think about how other people might or might not find us attractive. We think about that (as far as I've ever done or heard of) very differently from how we think about the attractiveness of another person.
posted by kavasa at 6:20 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


some woman describing her own nipples as "ebony horns."

That's hot. (If you're an insect.)
posted by pracowity at 6:25 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is the exact reason I stopped reading the Kris Longknife series. One of the things that pissed me off, was that this series was set far, far into the future, yet female college students were called coeds. WTF?
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:31 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always wonder why 3rd person limited became the dominant POV for the English novel. But yeah, it's weird and creepy when the previously dispassionate narrative voice suddenly has an opinion about the nape of a tertiary character's neck.

It's weird and wrong if it's third person omniscient, but not necessarily if it's third person limited, at least if it's appropriate to the main character. (Doesn't mean it's good writing, or not sexist, but it's not wrong in the sense of breaking the rules of the narrative POV.) If it's TPL, then the narrative voice is telling you what's going on in the protagonists' head, so commentary about someone else's ass/boobs/whatevers is assumedly coming from the protagonist. It's not necessarily an objective description of reality. That's the beauty of third person limited, because it allows for an unreliable narrator but without the problems inherent in writing in the first person.

But yeah, when a book written in third person omniscient makes an obviously qualitative judgement about a character, while speaking ex cathedra in the omniscient narrative voice, that's not only sexist but just wrong. Generally if a book does that, and I'm not pretty confident that the author is better than that and doing it intentionally, I'll set the book down and move onto something else.

Life is too short to read bad writing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:41 AM on July 5, 2013


underlined the Z and E.

I don't get this. Please turn over some more letters, Vanna.
posted by surplus at 6:42 AM on July 5, 2013


One of my favorite examples of the male gaze in writing is Jennifer Roberson's Sword-dancer books. It's wonderful because it's all intentional; she's a female writer writing a macho and sex-obsessed guy and so it's completely fitting and very very deliberate.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:43 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


corb: I kind of really want an example of omniscient breasts now.

I found the Fox Meadows article that jeather posted to be a very good complement to the original article. It has an example from a published novel in which a female character stares at her breasts in the mirror. Not to spoil it for you, but it contains the sentence “Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion."

Something I did just yesterday.
posted by Georgina at 6:56 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


a friend calling up in a rage to tell me how GRRM had some woman describing her own nipples as "ebony horns."

Ouch! And also: WTF.

I've read about it for more than 20 years, stretching back to the early 90's when I was an undergrad at Brown, but I still can't quite get a grasp on it. What is denoted by 'the male gaze'?

Well, if your professors and books can't communicate it to you, I don't know that Metafilter can.

Basically, it's the reason why we have T&A everywhere. Because straight men are the assumed "gazers" so therefore our art/media provides an abundance of what straight male gazers supposedly want. Female and gay male gazers are not catered to in this way.
posted by emjaybee at 7:02 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


My god, people, you need to be reading better quality fantasy.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:03 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really enjoy reading that doesn't explicitly sexualize anyone, male or female. Which is harder to come by than you might think.
posted by windykites at 7:05 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Surplus, I think the alternative letters would have been Y and S.
posted by windykites at 7:06 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you're not writing porn, whether the POV is first, second or third-person limited/unlimited omniscient, is there ever a good reason to describe what someone's nipples are doing? (I suppose if you were telling the tale of a plucky, supernumerary nipple struggling against cultural prejudice to find its rightful place in the world...)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:15 AM on July 5, 2013


My god, people, you need to be reading better quality fantasy.

I have honestly given up on male-written fantasy for the most part, partly for this reason. I got tired of seeing Interesting Female Character introduced, and then either having nothing happen to her/she gets raped/she schtups the hero/she needs rescuing/she turns out to be the Fifth Element or any combination of those.

Instead of just, you know, being another person on an adventure with some skills. Or even the hero, god forbid.

Usually if it's a woman writer, you at least get women characters who do things and drive the plot.
posted by emjaybee at 7:16 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because straight men are the assumed "gazers" so therefore our art/media provides an abundance of what straight male gazers supposedly want.

This helps. Thanks. I'm still confused about the terminology. Why 'male gaze'? Why not simply speak of certain stylistic elements that authors use to cater to a certain audience. We can, after all, pick out these elements specifically with descriptive, unloaded, unambiguous terms. Is the term 'male gaze' something that refers to a term coined by a historic body of literature on this subject which everyone who's engaged in the dialectic must have mastered before participation is even possible? Something along the lines of 'Cartesian substance' or 'Platonic forms' or 'possible world semantics'? There's some unpacking to do before we can speak with competence using these terms; if the 'male gaze' is as simple as "... it's the reason we have T&A everywhere," it doesn't seem to require quite the same level of mastery of background material.
posted by Wash Jones at 7:21 AM on July 5, 2013


Male writers need female editors. "George, no woman on Earth or any of the other planets you're writing about would ever..."

Though I guess if you're selling mainly to boys who are hoping to read something that matches up with the space cheerleader on the cover, you really want more mentions of nipples, not fewer.
posted by pracowity at 7:27 AM on July 5, 2013


I believe that male gaze and female gaze are both definitely things that exist, but I think that rather than encouraging or applauding more female gazing, it would be nice if everyone stopped "gazing" at each other and maybe just respected each other as people, rather than sexual objects.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:31 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Who was it who said that if female authors wrote male characters like how male authors sometimes write female ones, the male characters woukd be constantly thinking about the position of thier testicles?

Oddly enough I was juuuust reading a Dorothy Parker essay where she makes a list of things she never wants to see again and one of them was " books written by men where a female character spends an entire paragraph staring at herself naked in the mirror."
posted by The Whelk at 7:32 AM on July 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


An excellent piece; thanks for posting it. I really get the sense that, although obviously we've got a long long way to go, we've turned a corner in the sense that something like this can be written for a general audience with the expectation that it will at least be understood even if some readers may disagree with some of the points. Back in the day, this kind of thing was written by "rabid" feminists and read primarily by the like-minded; the whole concept of the "male gaze" was so alien to the general culture it was almost unassimilable. (Though I see from this thread it's still difficult for some of us.)

> Not to be dismissive: I think she's actually groping for some other concept that she doesn't quite nail.

Not to be dismissive: I think you haven't actually grasped her concept. Read better.
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wash, I don't say this to be harsh, but you're asking some very, very basic questions that could be answered by googling "male gaze". And it can be very very frustrating for every single discussion of stuff like this getting railroaded into answering a guy's "prove your basic premises to my satisfaction" sorts of questions.

Yenta: I agree that it's not a scale where dwelling lasciviously on male bodies erases marginalization of women, gay persons, etc. But it's also true that most humans are pretty darn sexual creatures, and I think it's possible to acknowledge that without being gross about it.
posted by kavasa at 7:43 AM on July 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


> "I have honestly given up on male-written fantasy for the most part, partly for this reason."

I use a web service that alerts me when an author I like has a new book coming out. Whenever I read something I particularly enjoy, I pop the name of the author onto the list. (And given my tastes, the list is heavily tilted towards fantasy authors.)

Out of curiosity, I checked the number of male and female authors currently on the list.

Male authors: 19
Female authors: 62

Which is actually a significantly bigger tilt than I had expected. This kind of thing is affecting my purchasing choices pretty strongly.

... Well. Good.
posted by kyrademon at 7:47 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The original "male gaze" article -- "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" by Laura Mulvey -- is on the net in several places for easy downloading.
posted by pracowity at 7:50 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm sick of the whole "gaze" thing. Wouldn't "perspective" be a better term? I get the concept, but it's like you're trying to make me feel guilty for my entire life of looking at women and finding them sexually attractive.
posted by fungible at 8:04 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the folks I've mostly learned about this stuff from, I don't think its an attempt to induce guilt so much as to create awareness. And it certainly sucks to come to terms with an awareness that you were brought up by social and media culture practices to be complicit in a shitty, loaded aesthetic dynamic, but it's more useful to know than to not know, and none of it requires anyone not to be a sexual being or to find other people sexually attractive.

Self-awareness doesn't have to be a guilt trip, I promise.
posted by cortex at 8:10 AM on July 5, 2013 [26 favorites]


We're not guilting you about looking at women. We're saying that if you're a male author and you're writing women as objectifying their own bodies the same way a male, third person observer would, then you're doing writing wrong and bad.

I mean, I love looking at cocks. But there are times when it is inappropriate to have my characters describe theirs. Most times, actually. Particularly since I mostly write from the POV of teenage girls. But I digress.

And I agree that gaze can be useful as a tool of, say, characterization (writing a sex-obsessed sleezebag? Then by all means, fill his or her POV with skeezy bodily descriptions). But it's usually an element that appears out of a writer's control, like they're not even aware that they're objectifying and othering a character they should, instead, be empathizing with.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:10 AM on July 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


fungible: the term was originally used to talk about visual media IIRC, so it probably fits better in that context than when talking about the written word. But the same idea carries over to other media and the it already existed as a term of art so...
posted by pharm at 8:14 AM on July 5, 2013


Not to be dismissive: I think you haven't actually grasped her concept. Read better.

I'm sure the lash of your scorn will be salutary; always an honour.
posted by Segundus at 8:15 AM on July 5, 2013


I love looking at cocks. But there are times when it is inappropriate to have my characters describe theirs.

Yeah, for anybody who wants a quick, clear example of what the male gaze looks like when it's not aimed at women, take a look at the South Park episode in which mr Garrison starts writing romance novels and gets distracted by penises.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:18 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there are important things to draw from any discussion of male gaze in the arts.

I don't think most people are wanting female characters to be completely desexualized but that when you are creating female characters or writing about them you shouldn't have long paragraphs of the female character admiring their own body unless you are prone to the male characters doing the same thing.

Personally the thing that bothers me far more than the sexualized descriptions (which can be annoying but can have their purposes) is the lack of agency among many female characters. It gets particularly obnoxious when it's a female author (see Twilight and almost every other paranormal romance), it just shows how internalized the male gaze is with many female writers (and readers).

I understand that some people just want to read (and write) good escapist literature where the heroine is a beautiful buxom princess and the hero is a kind and considerate but ultimately manly and virile specimen but you don't have to write the female character as being completely inept or overcompensate by making her a Mary Sue.

I think ultimately what a decent number of readers is the depiction of female characters that aren't limited by their gender into support roles (healer with a staff) , that can actually advance the plot rather than have the plot happen to her (if your plot explores the main female character being raped, kidnapped or rescued from certain doom you are probably doing it wrong), or mainly there to provide eye candy for the main male wish fulfillment character.

Fantasy fiction is definitely an area with struggles with all of these problems both in the traditional high fantasy settings (Tolkein), the grim and gritty deconstruction of those settings (see GRRM), and in a lot of the modern fantasy. Like others have indicated YA is one area that generally avoids most of these problems but that's not serious literature to the powers that be.
posted by vuron at 8:35 AM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


My favorite example of female gaze: the video for Grimes' Oblivion. Especially the locker room scenes, where the singer is clothed in a room of naked men, who despite their flexing muscles seem less powerful than her (she's also the only person looking directly into the camera). I knew about the male gaze from back in the day, but seeing this really brought home how much you can do with that set of visual conventions to confer or remove power/self hood.
Moving towards a world where everyone gets objectified isn't perfect, but I'll take it.
posted by velebita at 8:44 AM on July 5, 2013 [7 favorites]



I'm sick of the whole "gaze" thing. Wouldn't "perspective" be a better term? I get the concept, but it's like you're trying to make me feel guilty for my entire life of looking at women and finding them sexually attractive.

The idea of the "male gaze" isn't about the actual physical act of gazing at the female body. It's not the depiction of heterosexual male desire per se that is problematic. It's the expectation that everyone can and should identify with that desire while the reverse is not expected and even considered weird. As Phalene pointed out earlier, why, for example, does society label art that depicts men in a sensual manner as "homoerotic"? In sum, it's about representations of reality.
posted by adso at 8:45 AM on July 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm sick of the whole "gaze" thing. Wouldn't "perspective" be a better term? I get the concept, but it's like you're trying to make me feel guilty for my entire life of looking at women and finding them sexually attractive.

If you look long enough at someone that your look could reasonably be described as a gaze, look elsewhere. You're staring.

Manners aside, what PhoBWanKenobi says here - We're not guilting you about looking at women. We're saying that if you're a male author and you're writing women as objectifying their own bodies the same way a male, third person observer would, then you're doing writing wrong and bad. - is right.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:37 AM on July 5, 2013


Wash Jones / kavasa / fungible / PhoBWanKenobi:

Wash, it's called "male gaze" to engender the reaction fungible had. You won't find that in kavasa's suggestion to google. We can't simply call noticing women's characteristics "heterosexual male perception" because that's too passive, simply absorbing what's out there almost like some kind of built in instinct. We call it "gaze" so it's a directed act, like superhero power Eye Beams that weaken and diminish any the beams are directed upon. Once this passive inner monologue is classified as an outward directed aggressive act by all males, it can be demanded to stop (and any who still notice internally made to feel guilty).

Meanwhile, peruse the magazine racks at any grocery store or browse their book shelves, and you'll find that female desire for inter-gender interaction voyeurism and fantasy is quite healthy (and lucrative) indeed. The Kardashians didn't get rich off male gaze.

Point is, gendered viewpoint is not an affront. Male and female instinctive perception is a natural behavior turned up to eleven in pop media (all creative works exaggerate, it's how artists communicate and how consumers gain catharsis). It's magnified further by selective analysis. A more nuanced view is that there are real differences in how genders perceive one another and even how we perceive objects, and while that's a real issue for fiction authors to be aware of and overcome in their descriptive work, calling it gaze rather than perception labels something inate that should be recognized and reckoned with as an active negative to be avoided at any cost.
posted by Skeuomorph at 9:38 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once this passive inner monologue is classified as an outward directed aggressive act by all males, it can be demanded to stop (and any who still notice internally made to feel guilty).

God forbid.

This is a privileged notion, that the guilt someone might feel about objectifying someone is worse than actually being objectified. Anyway, again, we're talking about fiction, and within fiction, yes, overly gendered lapses in POV should be avoided at any cost.

Because it's an example of bad, rotten, unskilled writing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:48 AM on July 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Isn't this more of "sexual" gaze rather than a "male" gaze?

It so happens that males are the ones writing or reading most of the literature .. hence, the "ebony horns" are used for nipples.

I am sure you get a large enough lesbian female writer base and someone would be churning out something similar for female breasts. Do females objectify sexuality any less than men when given the opportunity?

Terming this as male gaze ... makes it as if this is limited to how men view women. sort of puts the "males" as the root of the problem so to speak.

I think the concept is more about the amount of sexuality involved in how an author sees someone. Male authors tend to see women with a lot more sexual perspective in mind but its not that female authors can't be guilty of make sex a large part of how they see their male characters.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:51 AM on July 5, 2013


It so happens that males are the ones writing or reading most of the literature .. hence, the "ebony horns" are used for nipples.

Women buy the most books, by far.

It's not that it's sexual. It's that it's distinctly male. I do not know any lesbians who would talk about another woman's ebony horns. Lesbian sexuality is not interchangeable for male heterosexual sexuality (see this video on a straight dude porn staple).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:56 AM on July 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


It so happens that males are the ones writing or reading most of the literature .. hence, the "ebony horns" are used for nipples.

Which, as PhoBWanKenobi says, is no excuse, because it shows all the imaginative power of a used sneaker. The writers who do this either make up for it elsewhere or are bad writers.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:57 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am sure you get a large enough lesbian female writer base and someone would be churning out something similar for female breasts. Do females objectify sexuality any less than men when given the opportunity?

As discussed in the article, many female writers tend to still write with the male gaze. Most things are still written with the male gaze. It is exceptional (in the sense of "an exception to the rule") to find things written with the female gaze, even things written by women, which is why we're discussing examples of that here.

I think the concept is more about the amount of sexuality involved in how an author sees someone. Male authors tend to see women

When male authors write from the point-of-view (POV) of a female character, they should be seeing the character the way the character sees themselves. Dropping in a bit of how the male author sees the character is bad characterization and bad writing. That's the point the original article is making. (It would be equally bad writing for a female author to have a male POV character describe themselves in that way, but as it happens, that doesn't show up much, while things like Heinlein's "spung" show up all the damn time.)
posted by pie ninja at 10:01 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Lesbian sexuality is definitely not the same as male heterosexual sexuality, but it has its own distinct concept, principals and viewpoints.

A lesbian author might not use "ebony horns" but I get the feeling that you are saying that lesbians don't view another woman as sexually and describe them accordingly. Am i reading this correctly?

They might use different words but the idea that sex forms a large part of the description of the other person would still be operational.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:03 AM on July 5, 2013


A lesbian author might not use "ebony horns" but I get the feeling that you are saying that lesbians don't view another woman as sexually and describe them accordingly. Am i reading this correctly?

No, you're not reading it correctly. No one is objecting to the idea of sexuality being discussed within literature or the existence of sexual descriptions at large. We're objecting to the prevalence of objectification of the specific sort that male heterosexuals do to women in perspectives and characters where it's inappropriate and in ways that are obtrusive for that perspective and character. This is primarily being discussed as a lapse in the way a female character talks about her own body.

It's primarily a failure of empathy on the part of the writer.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:07 AM on July 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


I agree that male are the ones doing most of the gazing today and given the cultural environment, female authors tend to use male perspective as well.

But I am uncomfortable (and I am focusing on this because I am male?) with the "male" part ...

I mean tomorrow when the culture is a bit more different and less male-centric, would we have "female" gaze .... and ummmmm "gays" gaze to describe what is essentially the same thing happening? That seems a little ... inefficient.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:10 AM on July 5, 2013


So, bad writing is bad?

Seriously, considering the literary value of an author who uses "heaving breasts" or "ebony horns" seems kind of a waste of time. These authors suck, and it is evident that they suck.
posted by Bovine Love at 10:11 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


heh, which was a sexual term... ok, these authors are incompetent.
posted by Bovine Love at 10:12 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I am uncomfortable (and I am focusing on this because I am male?) with the "male" part ...

Trust me, the discomfort that you feel is nothing compared to the discomfort that female readers feel upon reading such descriptions over and over again.

I mean tomorrow when the culture is a bit more different and less male-centric, would we have "female" gaze .... and ummmmm "gays" gaze to describe what is essentially the same thing happening? That seems a little ... inefficient.

But we don't live in that tomorrow. We live in today, where men objectify women and where this objectification is assumed to be the cultural default in nearly all works of fiction.

Best to talk about universes that actually exist.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:13 AM on July 5, 2013 [15 favorites]


TheLittlePrince, that discomfort you are feeling is the result of your being made aware of one aspect of male privilege that you have benefitted from.
posted by 1066 at 10:21 AM on July 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


I would compare my discomfort about the phrase "male gaze" ... with the discomfort associated when a woman hears "throws like a girl".

Apart from that, yeah, lazy use of sexual language to characterize someone is wrong.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:23 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The way I think of it is that media criticism like the "Male Gaze" is mainly designed to inform creators and consumers that alot of the standard ways of presenting characters and scenes are essentially informed by the idea that male readers/viewers are the preferred ones. With books that's not even the best segment of the market to focus on because males don't buy as much fiction as female readers.

But because so much of the media is focused on appealing to a privileged class (18-35, male, white, heterosexual) through extreme wish-fulfillment where the hero always gets the girl, this creates a hidden subtext that the needs and wants of other readers that aren't members of that privileged class are somehow inferior.

Creators that deliberately undermine the established social order by inverting the established power dynamics (for example a female heroine rescuing the handsome but inept male princess from certain doom) simply wouldn't be acceptable to most male readers or would be seen as a satirical look at the standard tropes of fiction rather than an interesting plotline in and of itself.

Basically if the plot is silly if you swap the genders then you should be asking yourself why it's acceptable in it's standard configuration.
posted by vuron at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


lazy use of sexual language to characterize someone is wrong.

As long as the emphasis is on the "lazy", sure. Because, of course, if you are writing for realism, you probably have to deal at some point with the fact that people use sexual language to describe each other, either externally to others or in their presumptive internal monologues, all. the. time. Sex is a fairly big driving force in interpersonal relationships and interactions, conscious or not, so if you just avoided it (as some particularly prudish literature from the Edwardian / early 20th c. occasionally does, or attempts to), particularly when you have a narrative perspective that allows insight into the characters' thoughts, it gets a little unrealistic.

That said, there's a fine line between realism in a universe that may not be ideal in terms of gender dynamics (e.g., on the extreme end, GRRM's universe, which is hugely squicky and on second thought I'm not sure does this well) and thoughtlessly perpetuating stereotypes and sexist behaviors for no particularly good reason.

Again, I think it's a quality-of-writing issue. A good author could probably write a story from a character's POV, have that character be a sexist pig if that's what the story requires, but not have the story itself be sexist. That's a very fine line to walk, but I'm sure there are authors that could handle it. But less skilled authors should probably not try.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:50 AM on July 5, 2013


Apparently part of male privilege is a complete inability to grasp what is meant by the phrase "male gaze" or why it is problematic in fantasy novels no matter how many articles are linked to explaining it or how many commenters go out of their way to explain it again.

Once more, the problem is not sexually explicit writing, the problem is a male author (or sometimes a female author) having a female character describe herself in the way a third-person male character who was sexually attracted to her would describe her, rather than in the way a female character would describe herself. In other words, women do not in fact spend lots of time staring at their bodies in the mirror and describing them outloud.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:59 AM on July 5, 2013 [25 favorites]


Skeuomorph: "Once this passive inner monologue is classified as an outward directed aggressive act by all males, it can be demanded to stop (and any who still notice internally made to feel guilty)."

This was merely the most incoherent part of an entirely incoherent screed.

Let me be helpful: the next time you want to make a point, make your god damned point and spare us the textual shenanigans, because you're no good at them and that incompetence makes you read like a tool.

I'll leave it to someone else to give your "argument" the bollocking it so richly deserves, but, Jesus, this is like some Platonic ideal of stupid argumentation.
posted by scrump at 11:00 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you look long enough at someone that your look could reasonably be described as a gaze, look elsewhere. You're staring.

That creep is gazing at me!
posted by surplus at 11:03 AM on July 5, 2013


I think the alternative letters would have been Y and S.

Thank you!

Now I understand what was the debate on the whole Gaze in the Military thing.
posted by surplus at 11:05 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


For fuck's sake.

Feminism 101

NOBODY GIVES A SHIT WHETHER YOU UNDERSTAND THE TERMS OF THE ARGUMENT AND/OR ARE COMFORTABLE WITH THE LANGUAGE USED.

Feminism 101

Believe it or not, there is an entire academic field with a long history, and an accompanying lexicon, that has been developed over literally decades of study.

Feminism 101

Inform yourselves, read a fucking book, use Google, go ask a feminist...I don't care what you do. But stop waltzing into threads like this where the adults are talking and giving us the same old tired derails of "but why don't they use language I can understaaaaaaand" and "I have read a MRA pamphlet and YOUR ARGUEMETN IS INVALID LOL".

Feminism 101

This is not Feminism 101. It is not our job, or any feminist's job, to provide rudimentary education.
posted by scrump at 11:10 AM on July 5, 2013 [35 favorites]


TheLittlePrince: "But I am uncomfortable (and I am focusing on this because I am male?) with the "male" part ..."

Welcome to your new awareness of the male privilege from which you have benefited for your entire life. Line forms on the right.
posted by scrump at 11:12 AM on July 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Gazing is fine, you just don't have to gender the gaze relentlessly. If the swordsmaster is always sizing people up have him notice the movement of people he is looking at rather than always BOOBS BOOBS BOOBS, realize that not every female character is going to be constantly assessing the sexually desirable qualities of themselves and every other female character.

Hell even having a 1st person character that does act like a totally skeevy guy is fine as long as you go with an alternating 1st person perspective so that it's not 100% sexism all the time.

Also bear in mind that depending on your audience you might want to ignore some of this advice. If you are writing Romance or Erotica focusing on describing the physicality of the characters is basically expected and is part of the social contract between author and reader. But if you are writing bog standard sci fi or fantasy then you might want to limit the amount of gaze you use unless you are established enough that you can just say fuck it and piss of the critics and a good percentage of the readerbase.

Basically just be more conscious of the subtext your descriptions and plots are saying and you'll probably be good.
posted by vuron at 11:13 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have honestly given up on male-written fantasy for the most part, partly for this reason. I got tired of seeing Interesting Female Character introduced, and then either having nothing happen to her/she gets raped/she schtups the hero/she needs rescuing/she turns out to be the Fifth Element or any combination of those.

I've just gone over my shelves and it honestly doesn't appear to me that female-written fantasy is hugely better than male-written fantasy in these regards. It's certainly possible to compile a list of female fantasy which avoids a lot of the above but one could do the same for male authors if one were so inclined. Hell, the last 3 fantasies I read by female authors all had rape scenes in them. The last fantasy novel by a male author I read had a very strong female character trying to forge her own path in an extremely rigid patriarchal society.

Note that I didn't say male authors are good at giving you want you're asking for. Only that it looks to me like male and female fantasy authors are both mostly bad at it.
posted by Justinian at 11:13 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


=\

The phrase is an useful, shorthand descriptor for a phenomenon. Nitpicking specific words and being very sad about how it makes you feel are both dodging any attempt to engage with the phenomenon. The example in this case is straight women doing things like spending several minutes looking at a mirror and evaluating themselves as if they were also somehow straight men, and the underlying assumption that no readers will care because they're all straight men who value boobs over competent characterization.

Sneering at pop culture isn't an answer either. Some people in this thread make their livelihood in genre fiction. Some of us like to read good fiction. Pop culture shapes wider culture and is shaped by it in turn.

Basically when someone says "we could make this better," responding with "but it's easier to ignore it" isn't really that insightful.
posted by kavasa at 11:23 AM on July 5, 2013 [16 favorites]


The Fantasy Ghetto is infested by Male Gaze pretty much regardless of the author's gender. I would venture that it's not even the worst problem facing the fantasy genre but it is a massive problem and one that should be discussed because it's very difficult to provide a good selection of fantasy literature to a prospective reader that is reasonably free of gender bias unless you limit it to the YA corner of the larger genre.

I like reading the occasional example of doorstop fantasy although most of the current example are boring and long winded as hell but would love to have more example to suggest to people that weren't "rape, rape, rape and here's another example of rape" or where the female characters weren't designed to be prizes for the main character.
posted by vuron at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


The male gaze is so named because it is a gendered phenomenon, and not a new one. For most of recorded history (recorded by men, I might add) men were the ones afforded the privilege of creating art and literature, female artists were rare. Not only did this extend to the producers, but the tastemakers and patrons were overwhelmingly male as well. This even extends to those who stored and preserved art and literature, they hardly bothered to keep anything created by women and would often attribute it to their husbands or male relatives when they actually went to the trouble of preserving it. For this reason almost all art and literature through all recorded history is filtered through a male sensibility. It has been there from first art we have and it's still there. That's why it can be so hard to grasp, it can be like trying to see air. But we aren't newborns with only our senses to guide us, like we can use our reason and learning to understand there is such a thing as air, we can also understand the existence of the male gaze.

Actually, the topic of homoeroticism raised in the linked essay is further proof of the centrality of the male gaze. Women have been such a minority, and had little erotic freedom when they did have the opportunity to make art, that the historical tradition of looking with appreciation at the male body was created almost entirely by male artists. Only in the 20th Century did that begin to change. As to lesbian art and literature focused on other women as objects of affection, it is basically Sappho and no one until the 20th Century.

The male gaze is a very real thing and people should be aware of it and, ideally, should try to support and champion examples of art and literature which don't exhibit the clichés and aesthetic faults that accompany the male gaze. It's not only clichéd art, it's also something which serves to oppress women by normalizing their objectification.
posted by Kattullus at 11:25 AM on July 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


> I kind of really want an example of omniscient breasts now.

Careful, anything much over D cup is unreliable narrator.
posted by jfuller at 11:26 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


When I first read writings* on the male gaze (back in college, in the 80s, it's not a new concept by any means) it was one of those mind-blowing moments where I experienced that sort of "oh shit yeah here's a thing that surrounds me that I never had words for but oh my god the truth" which is always a great sensation.

I was an art major (so much male gaze) and I think I borrowed the readings from a women's studies major, so maybe we were special types, but I'm a little surprised that there are people here who seem to have never heard the term.

It's not a term used to criticize individual men for finding women sexually attractive, or for looking at women. It's an analytical term used to consider a narrative point of view, whether in film, art, or literature.

Readers to whom this is a new concept might want to do some additional reading or just even sit with the idea for a while before starting push-back that come from ignorance and resistance rather than measured knowledge.

Oh, look! Here's a "What is the male gaze" FAQ!

*I guess one of the works was "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" but it was in book form, not a paper, so I'm not sure.

And personally, the strangest thing about this eassy for me was that I have read quite a bit of Kate Elliot's work and found parts of some books sexist in a really creepy way. Maybe I had that all wrong?
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:28 AM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


A lesbian author might not use "ebony horns" but I get the feeling that you are saying that lesbians don't view another woman as sexually and describe them accordingly. Am i reading this correctly?

It's more like, a lesbian author knows that breasts and nipples aren't magical unicorn creations that shoot out glitter. So if she described nipples, it might be from a point of view that is more realistic and less porny. So maybe she would look naked in the mirror, but it'd be more like, "XLady stared at herself in the mirror, naked. She pinched her nipples to get them to stand out. 'Yes, I'm a damn sexy lady' she crowed, before reaching for her bra."

Ladies what like ladies like the breasts, but not in the same way men who are othering women (or: Keepers of the Nipples) do.
posted by corb at 11:35 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


corb: "It's more like, a lesbian author knows that breasts and nipples aren't magical unicorn creations that shoot out glitter."

Maybe yours don't.
posted by scrump at 11:45 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sexuality is where it tends to jump out at you, but it's not JUST about that. It's about writing realistic characters generally. I remember when I finished "Memoirs of a Geisha," I actually googled Arthur Golden because I was convinced that was a pseudonym for a female author because he wrote women's interior lives so well. It's not that men can't write women well, I'm not saying that, it's just that most (current, popular, mainstream or SFF genre) male writers don't, and as a woman a well-written female character sticks in your mind, and is something of a rare bird when written by a man.

It can go the other way. In a lot of "throwaway" YA fiction aimed at girls, the male characters are mysterious and have completely opaque motives. I think authors get away with this because to 14-year-old girls, the motives of other people are quite frequently mysterious, especially when those people are boy people. But there's a big difference between 1) a writer who writes the male love interest as mysterious to the adolescent female main character but we, as the readers, can understand things the protagonist doesn't, and the writer is able to show us a coherent male character whose motives are clear to us while being mysterious to the protagonist; and 2) a writer who doesn't really know what goes on in teenaged boys' heads and so makes them mysterious to the protagonist but they are also mysterious to the writer. I can't think of a great example because a lot of those poorly-written YA novels are "throwaway" so I don't remember them, but some of Sherwood Smith's earlier work features mysterious male love interests for the female protagonist whose inner mental workings are completely obscured; they're clearly cardboard cutouts and their "mystery" is their primary appeal. (Her later work improves on this defect considerably.)

When I read the Kingkiller Chronicles (Kovthe books) by Patrick Rothfuss, it seems plausible to me that Rothfuss may have actually never met a woman, only boob-having sex robots that walk around and get into absurd situations by making terrible life decisions over and over with no ability to learn from them. The women in those books are not PEOPLE as I recognize people; they're certainly not women as I recognize women. They are props, and they are there only to give the protagonist romantic and sexual motivations for his various actions.

On the flipside, I think Garth Nix's Sabriel series is a work by a man that involves some very well-written women. Scott Westerfeld's "Uglies" series is also pretty good that way. Men can write convincing women. Tamora Pierce (woman writing women) writes women VERY well, including young women's sexuality, INCLUDING their thoughts on their own personal boobs. But she writes those things as women would experience them or think them, not as men would think them. You read it and you're like, "Yes, I have at times had similar thoughts about my boobs."

We have a joke of long-standing in my household about what would happen if a man was suddenly turned into a woman for a day, and the punchline is, he spends all day looking down his own shirt going, "Whoa! Boobs!" every 10 seconds. (We use it as an inside joke whenever someone's distracted by something that is novel to them but routine to everyone else.) Reading George R. R. Martin is basically like that joke. He does a reasonable job getting inside the female POV characters' heads -- not great, but good enough -- except every five seconds he's looking down his own shirt going, "Whoa! Boobs!" It's distracting and, once you start to notice it, pretty offputting.

Not every book has to have well-written and well-rounded characters with complex inner lives. But when that is what you're aiming for and NONE of your female characters do, you have a problem. When that is what you're aiming for and none of your female characters do and you don't care, you have a bigger and different problem.

There are plenty of books out there that capture women's experiences of being women and being people really beautifully -- to point out a few classics, I'd suggest Little Women, Pride & Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, and Middlemarch as some that jump to mind right away. Male writers who are interested in writing better, more rounded female characters would do well to read them. Male humans who are interested in understanding women's interior lives better would also do well to read them. But, too often, male interior lives are seen as the default and women are asked to understand and relate to them in literature as Human Archetypes (i.e. entire high school novel curricula), but men aren't asked or expected to understand and relate to women's interior lives through novels. That's really narrowing for you men. You're being robbed of 50% of human experience, and it's so pervasive that a lot of men can't even tell it's being done and don't notice when female characters are just props.

As most of us are nerds here, probably a lot of us learned a lot about human interaction through novels. When nerdy young men want to know, "Why is dating not working?" I often tell them they need to go read Little Women and/or some other classic novels of female adolescence, so that they'll understand more viscerally what it means to be a woman, and they'll find women easier to relate to and less mysterious. (Also, men who have taken the time to read great classics of literature that happen to be written by women are rare and charming beasts.) At some level, this isn't just an issue of "women want to read better books" or "SFF is still appallingly full of ignored sexism" but of "we are all being robbed of the chance to live vicariously through the fictional lives of others, to better understand ourselves as human beings, to become more real people, because women's voices are rare, muted, or false, and men are being actively discouraged from a sympathetic understanding of women." Literature matters! Better books for all!

If you are a male American who has not read Little Women, this is "I never read any Mark Twain" or "I never read Thoreau" level appalling; you cannot consider yourself a well-read American with this gap in your reading history. Go download it free on your kindle right now, I'll wait. You'll probably decide you're a Jo (we're all nerds here!) and dislike Amy. GO GO GO!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2013 [54 favorites]


It's funny because one of the things that my daughter (3 and a half) loves to hear every night as we go to bed is an ongoing story that I'm more or less writing in my head as I'm telling her. Basically it's relatively bog standard YA fantasy where kids from our non-magical world get transported into a fantasy realm in order to do feats of dering-do. But as it's essentially being written for a very young listener I'm constantly having to consider what sort of message that I'm telling as I write the story in my head.

Most of the fantasy I read is fairly violent (GRRM, Abercrombie, Malazan) so obviously I need to avoid telling too many scary things because bedtime but it's hard because fighting and conflict are so every present in fantasy fiction and my brain has been largely conditioned to think of plots in terms of direct physical conflict.

In addition I have to be very conscious of the sorts of gender messages I'm transmitting in the stories because she's already internalized gender messages from other forms of media and I don't want to reinforce the idea that girls in fantasy are always princesses that are rescued by the prince in shining armor. Romance doesn't really factor in too much but she does want a certain amount of girls wearing pretty things while also being dynamic and heroic.

So it's really interesting trying to tell a story that has lots of action while also avoiding the gendered norms of fantasy fiction but if I wasn't aware of the role of male gaze I'd probably tell something hideously sexist simply because I'd be ignorant of the possibility that as a privileged male that I'm telling something that might not be empowering to someone else.

Criticism is about informing and in some cases altering behavior. Most critics aren't saying you can't write something sexist but merely informing you that yes you are being sexist and if you want to reach a bigger subset of the readers out there you might want to tone that shit down.

But because those with privilege are basically ignorant of their privilege they view stuff like the "male gaze" as an assault on them because they've internalized that privilege to the point that they are unable to self-reflect in a way that doesn't make discussion of gender a personal attack on themselves.

Basically once you can get past viewing an assault on privilege as an assault on self you can actually put yourself in the viewpoint of someone else and realize how your privileged viewpoint can really be demeaning to others. Unfortunately the degree of empathy and self-reflection necessary for this task seems to be in short supply even on places as enlightened as Metafilter.
posted by vuron at 12:04 PM on July 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm trying to picture how this would play out with a female gaze, and the results tend to be universally hilarious. Can you just picture a male hero staring into the mirror after stepping out of a steaming shower? Strong jawline and emerald eyes, well-muscled chest, etc etc but sigh, if only my package were a bit bigger.

If I had a dollar for every woman-examining-herself narration I've read, I would be able to afford better books.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:08 PM on July 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Damnit, no bingo. And I was so close.

On topic, for once (rant about people being ignorant deleted), I think that when we have images of sexualized men, it tends to be assumed that they are homosexual because for many men, the only images of sexualized men they see are associated with things like gay pride.

So I do actually have a question- given that what I tend to think of when I think of sexualized men comes from things gay friends have told me, what do people think the difference between homosexual male and heterosexual female gaze are?
posted by Hactar at 12:09 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


what do people think the difference between homosexual male and heterosexual female gaze are?

Let's all watch lots of Teen Wolf and try to decide!

(She said, not at all looking for reasons to rewatch Teen Wolf.)
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:14 PM on July 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


In my experience, the heterosexual female gaze is less a gaze and more, like, elaborate sexual and romantic narrative building. Which isn't to say women don't look at men sexually but there's a reason why I don't know any woman who reads playgirl (does that even still exist?) but almost every woman I know has consumed fanfic of some type, why women buy romance novels, why they imagine brothers in TV shows are really super in love with each other and how that's super hot or whatever.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:28 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


saM AND DEANS LOVE IS REAL AND BEAUTIFUL HDU
posted by elizardbits at 12:30 PM on July 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Supernatural Fandom why you so silly?!?
posted by vuron at 12:31 PM on July 5, 2013


PhoBWanKenobi: "In my experience, the heterosexual female gaze is less a gaze and more, like, elaborate sexual and romantic narrative building."

Oh my god, this. The actual female gaze is when every male character is a brooding man with a troubled past, who doesn't believe he can ever love again, but nevertheless he will carry on living because he has a mission.

Or maybe that's just the specialagentwebb gaze.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:32 PM on July 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Meanwhile Teen Wolf fandom is just posting pages and pages of wrists and necks and no one seems to care.
posted by The Whelk at 12:32 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also men being shown as vunerable and having emotions, that's also a thing.
posted by The Whelk at 12:33 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's that men are vulnerable and have emotions but you are the only one special and beautiful and unique enough to unlock the manfeelsmagic.

I mean, it's not just that Edward was a virgin before Bella (though he totally was, and why do I know this), it's that he never felt twu wuv.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:36 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because no one ever smelled so good to him before or somesuch nonsense

I always wondered if that was a creepy douching metaphor. I wouldn't put it past her.
posted by elizardbits at 12:38 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Alternatively I guess another man who is gruff on the outside but secretly sensitive can unlock the tender, tender man inside.

Of course, I'm talking about GOB and Tony Wonder.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:40 PM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


manfeelsmagic

This sounds like a great spell, you cast it and half the Paladdins realized they're only doing this so thier Dad will pay attension to them and break down in the middle of battle.
posted by The Whelk at 12:40 PM on July 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


" you're sawing my heart in half, please put them back together again."
posted by The Whelk at 12:41 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


God I hate "my special boyfriend" writing unless it's deliberately being done in a campy tongue in cheek manner. If you main love interest is a brooding male that only the main character can unlock his hidden depths but still looks like a total dreamboat I'm pretty sure you are just retelling Beauty & the Beast for the zillionth time.
posted by vuron at 12:41 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fandom / fanfic / fannish-style-writing is FULL of female gaze, and that makes it really tricky to write about / critique, especially as an outsider. Because on the one hand there are real issues of fandom female gaze being deployed to fetishize gay men / queerness and as a weapon of internalized misogyny / "EEEWW HET," and on the other hand there are real issues of outsiders (usually men) sneering at and disgusted by fandom for reasons that boil down to "EEEWW WOMEN THINKING ABOUT SEX HOW GAAAY" etc.

Anyway smarter people than me have written meta about it elsewhere. Vidding is also excellent for female gaze; 2 really good vids for it off the top of my head are Vogue (the 300 movie) and On the Prowl (panfandom).
posted by nicebookrack at 12:43 PM on July 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


God I hate "my special boyfriend" writing unless it's deliberately being done in a campy tongue in cheek manner. If you main love interest is a brooding male that only the main character can unlock his hidden depths but still looks like a total dreamboat I'm pretty sure you are just retelling Beauty & the Beast for the zillionth time.

Oh god, I know so many women who grew up with Belle and the Beast as their first OTP. I mean, I think it's best to approach these things with some awareness--like you can be special without disparaging all other women as shallow unspecial harpies, and that's a common problematic aspect of that trope. But I don't think it's any more terrible than, like, male gazey things like scantily clad action girl who is like a man except REALLY BIG TITS. They're both fantasies. Fantasies are a little silly, but not worth hating.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:47 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Of course, when every character is inappropriately like either of those things and written without awareness or sensitivity, that's where we need stuff like the original article.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:49 PM on July 5, 2013


Oh god, I know so many women who grew up with Belle and the Beast as their first OTP

This confuses me mightily because who chooses bestiality over Gaston?
posted by elizardbits at 12:50 PM on July 5, 2013


weirdos, that's who
posted by elizardbits at 12:50 PM on July 5, 2013


If by weirdos you mean furries, then yes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:52 PM on July 5, 2013


Compare and contrast - gay male gaze and synergy with, or antagonism to, female fandom gaze in Teen Wolf and True Blood.
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2013


Well, no, cause it's not a human dude in a fursuit. It's a talking dog that wears pants.
posted by elizardbits at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2013


I have it on good authority that no one ships like Gaston, edits vids like Gaston, gets into savage OT3 arguments like Gaston.
posted by The Whelk at 12:54 PM on July 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


This a very interesting article, thanks for posting. I was recently reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and I was forced to pause several times early in the book by Atwood's seemingly overt sexualization of the main character, convicted murderess Grace Marks, a teenage girl who barely escaped the noose in the 1840's.
I was not expecting such a 'male gaze' from Atwood, but admittedly i have not read much from her.
As the story progresses it becomes evident that Grace's allure as reportedly an unusual beauty for her day (as well as her youth) is relevant to the story, but still I found it puzzling.
The book would absolutely pass the Bechdel test, but I am now curious as to whether the characterization of a seductress is always handled in a similar way or whether Atwood, at that time, was simply following a convention she was unable to avoid.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:09 PM on July 5, 2013


I'm sick of the whole "gaze" thing. Wouldn't "perspective" be a better term?

The term 'gaze' comes from psychoanalysis, especially Lacan, who Laura Mulvey draws on for her concept for 'male gaze' in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1975. It's a complicated concept, and made even more complicated because Joan Copjec, who is a prominent feminist and Lacanian academic, argued in 1996 that Mulvey misinterpreted Lacan. The male gaze was a Foucauldianization of Lacan, i.e. incorrectly reading Lacan as if he was Foucault. That, and the argument that Foucault's theory of power makes resistance practically impossible, seems to have contributed to the decline of the male gaze as a concept, at least in academia. Here's a more recent article that argues that orthodox film theory's account of the gaze misrepresents Foucault as well.

Having said that, Kate Elliot should probably use the term 'male perspective' or 'male audience' because the way she uses and defines 'male gaze' has nothing much to do with Mulvey at all. For Mulvey and feminists after her, the male gaze is primarily a form of domination and surveillance, a panopticon that makes women feel like they are constantly being watched by an invisible all-seeing eye. So it doesn't really make sense to call for an equivalent 'female gaze'. Elliot also takes the male gaze as something that is enjoyable for men, where for Mulvey, it is much more ambiguous. The image of woman stands for the trauma of castration, a threat which is disavowed by sexualizing the image. The male gaze for men functions as a defense against emasculation, a way of proving that you are a man, not simply getting pleasure from images. So the way Kate Elliot understand gaze, the female gaze would be a way of constructing narrative so that women are also, in a way, compelled to prove their masculinity. Rather than liberating women from patriarchy, it subjects women to the male experience of patriarchy.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:20 PM on July 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


oh my god you guys I just realized that it's Gaston who is truly the beast
posted by cortex at 1:26 PM on July 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


This thread is going to run me out of favorites. There in the middle of the discussion I was about in tears from frustration, and by the end of it I am in tears from laughter (no one ships like Gaston?!). ILU Mefi.

Foucauldianization

omg new word of the week
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:37 PM on July 5, 2013


> half the Paladdins realized they're only doing this so thier Dad will pay attension
> to them and break down in the middle of battle.

Drizzt: In The Half That Doesn't
posted by jfuller at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lustrous nipples?

Is that even possible?

[fade in, morning breakfast table, two housewives talking over coffee]

"What's wrong Sally?"

"Oh, I don't know Jane ... somedays, my nipples don't feel so lustrous .. [sigh] ..."

"I know what you mean Sally. I used to feel the same way, but then I discovered Nipple-Brite."

"Nipple-Brite?"

"Nipple-Brite. It's the latest nipple rejuvenator from Monsanto, Sally. Since I started using Nipple-Brite, my nipples feel more glossy and radiant."

"Wow Jane, that sounds great. And I bet Brad noticed."

"Oh you bet he did!"
posted by Relay at 5:45 PM on July 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Oh, and as far the female gaze versus the male gaze in literature is concerned ... as far as anything erotic goes, I've always enjoyed reading stuff written by women from a woman's perspective.

Who cares what a man is thinking or how a man sees it?

I know what that's like already. I want to know how women are thinking ... it's much more interesting.
posted by Relay at 5:52 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone looking for an example of the female gaze in an overtly sexualised way, check out any of the True Blood books. They are essentially soft porn.

I've been trying to read some early Jack Vance (City of the Chasch) and have realised I have to stop, and that this whole overtly male gaze thing is why. It's entirely consistent and appropriate - his protagonist is a red-blooded, heterosexual male who has no problem lusting after a beautiful woman (who, incidentally, seems to do nothing but hang about waiting to be kidnapped and rescued). If it were just that, I could probably cope. But we have good women = beautiful, sexy women and bad women = ugly man-haters who are quite possibly also lesbians, although they want to kidnap beautiful, sexy women not to have sex with them but to punish them for being beautiful and sexy to men. So maybe not.

Anyway, my point here for anyone reading this far is that the male gaze (or perspective) is definitely not the same as the lesbian perspective.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:58 AM on July 6, 2013


One area where the female gaze has traditionally been important but underestimated is in fashion. It's easy for men to assume that women's main aim in dressing up is to look pretty, attractive or sexy. But the aim for plenty of women is to look stylish, classy, sophisticated or edgy, and the main judges of whether that works are likely to be the woman herself and the female gaze.

I remember when Emma Watson cut her hair short after the end of the Harry Potter films there was a plaintive chorus of "but she looked much prettier with long hair! Why did she do it?" from male fans. The answer, of course, being that she didn't care whether random male fans found her more or less attractive than before - she'd rather impress the fashion establishment.
posted by Azara at 1:32 AM on July 6, 2013


I was expecting actual omniscient breasts, and now I feel obscurely cheated. You know, something like "As Titania Titters drove to work she was oblivious to the malignant forces hovering over the town, and although her nipples went Spung! every time she passed a church, she dismissed it as an annoyance."
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:37 AM on July 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Squeak Attack: Compare and contrast - gay male gaze and synergy with, or antagonism to, female fandom gaze in Teen Wolf and True Blood.

(I haven't watched enough True Blood to talk about it, so I'm going to focus on Teen Wolf.)

Definitely! When watching Teen Wolf, it feels very obvious to me that the gaze is gay male rather than straight female. It's refreshing in its way -- there's very little of the 'random shot of a female character in her underwear' that you get on many other shows, and indeed, it's typically the male characters who take off their shirts -- but it also often feels marginalising. None of the female characters are particularly well developed, and it seems clear the storytellers are less interested in them, and particularly in their interior lives, than they are in the men.

To contrast, a show I would say has a strong female gaze is Grey's Anatomy. Characters of both genders get down to their underwear, but there's a lingering that happens more to male characters than to female. In fact, with the female characters, I usually notice the opposite: somebody's walking across the room in her underwear, say, but the camera's focus is on her face and not her ass.

There's also scenes like this one.

(I think that scene is interesting in another way as well: it flips the typical sex scene narrative on its head. The scene is about a man convincing a woman to go to bed with him, but it's presented as a validation for the woman and how attractive/desirable she is, rather than as a validation for the male's power/ability to get a woman into bed, as is typical. The fact that she doesn't fit into the very narrow definition of mainstream hot just makes it all the more unusual.)
posted by Georgina at 3:27 AM on July 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh man Teen Wolf is such a werid show, it has no majorly queer themes or characters but is just like, suffused with queerness and always kinda hitting the tropes from the side rather than dead on ...but then not doing anything with it? It's super werid and was described by my straight friend as " Xena for gay guys." it's terrible and I can't stop watching.

(and if I'm being totally honest the completely alternate version of the show , spiraling way out into its own coherent mythology and history created in fandom is ...more interesting than the show itself. )
posted by The Whelk at 7:19 AM on July 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thank you, Georgina! I was asked about True Blood because I stopped watching after a season or two, but in my memory it never seemed as "suffused with queerness" (thanks, Whelk) as Teen Wolf. Somewhat in places but never as lavishly and joyfully as Teen Wolf.

I've never watched Grey's Anatomy, and never planned to, but now you've made me a little curious. I was thinking about other shows by female show-runners and kept coming back to Gilmore Girls, which had maybe a gender-neutral gaze? Especially after the first season when Lorelai wore more professional clothes. The plots contained elaborate romance, of course, but plots aren't gaze.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2013


The answer, of course, being that she didn't care whether random male fans found her more or less attractive than before - she'd rather impress the fashion establishment.

I think it's just as likely that she wanted a change from being known as a perpetually bushy-haired character. It's not really superawesome to classify every action a woman takes with her own body as being done for the benefit of others.
posted by elizardbits at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


Squeak Attack: I've never watched Grey's Anatomy, and never planned to, but now you've made me a little curious.

If you decide to try it, I recommend starting at the beginning. The first couple of seasons are the strongest.

Since this is the bottom of a thread that's nearly finished, hopefully it's okay if I go slightly off-topic and talk about this show for a bit.

Because I think Grey's Anatomy is the most quietly radical show on American tv. It has a female lead. It has romances, but it never loses sight of the importance of female friendships. It passes the Bechdel test in every episode. About half the large cast is made up of actors of colour. Multiracial relationships are commonplace. There's a lesbian and a bisexual woman who are married to each other, and they're never fetishised or marginalised. Oh, and a beloved character had an abortion a few years ago.

None of these things should be radical in 2013, but almost all of them are. In a sea of shows about white guys doing white things with their white friends (and maybe a token black dude), Grey's Anatomy has cheerfully chugged along for nine seasons representing the rest of us. Some of those seasons were not particularly good, but it always feels like Shonda Rhimes (the creator and showrunner) and her team of writers are trying their best, and I would say now, with the last few seasons, it's reached kind of a plateau of quality. It's not appointment tv any more, it's not spectacular, but it's solid, enjoyable storytelling made by a group of people who clearly know what they're doing.

Nine years in, one of the few shows that's come close to the diversity of characters and storytelling that Grey's Anatomy has is Scandal. That show was also created by Shonda Rhimes.
posted by Georgina at 12:23 AM on July 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: When I read the Kingkiller Chronicles (Kovthe books) by Patrick Rothfuss, it seems plausible to me that Rothfuss may have actually never met a woman, only boob-having sex robots that walk around and get into absurd situations by making terrible life decisions over and over with no ability to learn from them.

The Kingkiller Chronicles are an interesting example of the male gaze as I think that they are deliberately written that way (I may be giving Patrick Rothfuss too much credit). Outside of the framing device the bulk of the two books so far is Kvothe narrating his life story with the majority of that so far being him as a horny teenager.

Not only that but Kvothe isn't narrating the story to us (with our modern sensibilities and awareness of things such as the male gaze) but to an audience in the frame that is expecting to hear a tale of his heroics and sexual adventures told in exactly that type of way.

To get back to the main point of this discussion. I think that the male gaze as the default in literature is an issue that should be addressed particularly in the third-person omniscient perspective and given that there is a general lack of awareness of it. However I don't believe the male gaze is inherently bad but just used inappropriately a hell of a lot.
posted by electricinca at 3:11 AM on July 8, 2013


It's been a while since I've read Rothfuss, but we're explicitly shown (and even told) that it's Kvothe's bad decisions are what keeps getting him in trouble. There are mature, sensible, female characters that he's actually friends with - but he's not passionate about them, the way he is about a mysterious beautiful talented secretive disappearing and reappearing girl who apparently has a sort of arrangement with Kvothe's (im)mortal enemies. So yes, he does keep traipsing around after Bad News Girl who does everything she can to endanger herself and those around her, but that's because he's young and stupid. Wait for the stories that take place when he's older. They should be ready any decade now.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:45 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


AV Club had an interesting article about Grey's Anatomy as part of its 100 Episodes series. Excerpt:
Since The Sopranos burst onto the scene, we’ve too often classified a show as “good” based on how closely it adhered to the dark, violent, male-centric template set out by that particular show. And there have been a great many good shows spawned from that template. But there’s also been a very good hospital drama that’s been written off by too many people for daring to be primarily about the romantic lives of women.
posted by Kattullus at 3:47 AM on July 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


I dunno - in a sense I had written Grey's Anatomy off for being about romantic lives, and I'm okay with that. Not because it's the romantic lives of women specifically but because I don't watch TV shows for romance and endless interpersonal drama. I don't get engaged by "will they or won't they?" stories. The only 'ship I've ever really swooned over was John and Aeryn on Farscape. I don't really like medical (or lawyer) stories either. I made a comment here a few weeks ago about enjoying women characters who aren't moms, or wives, or girlfriends. I want strong plots, amazing characters and genre elements.

Any chance Shonda Rhimes has a space drama or supernatural procedural in the works ? :)

The second Kingkiller book was unbearable in it's male gaze. I'm throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about the queen of the fairy nymphs who was too much for all her mortal lovers except Kvothe of course and so she wanted to sex up him for a million years. I don't care if it was deliberate - I've read so much if that crap that wasn't trying to be subversive, I just don't have time for it anymore.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:29 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, there's a great review of The Wise Man's Fear complaining about that.
What annoys me about Kvothe is not so much that he's a gratuitous Mary-Sue, but that despite this fact he is taken incredibly seriously by critics. People bitch about how unrealistic it is that everybody fancies Bella Swan, about how stupid it is for teenage girls to indulge in a fantasy where powerful supernatural beings are sexually attracted to them. People laugh at characters like Sonea and Auraya because they're just magic sparkly princesses with super-speshul magic sparkle powers. But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.

Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.
It didn't go into the male gaze aspects specifically, but it's very closely related.
posted by jeather at 8:33 AM on July 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


Related reading?
Roxy's new ad: We never see her face. We never see her surf.
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:48 AM on July 9, 2013


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