Kate Elliott is the author of the Spiritwalker Trilogy (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, and the forthcoming Cold Steel), the Crossroads Trilogy, the Crown of Stars septology, and the Novels of the Jaran. She lives in Hawaii. Thanks to Charles Tan for advice on this post.
My reading experience of fantasy & science fiction over forty years is that it is mostly written with the male gaze. By this I don’t mean it is written from the point of view of a male character, although that is often the case. Nor am I speaking about the gender of the writer: a male writer does not automatically write every line of every book with a male gaze just because he is a man; in fact, a male writer can write with a female gaze, and women can (and often do) write with a male gaze.
How am I using the terms “male gaze” and “female gaze?”
In fiction it is easy to simplistically understand the male gaze as, for instance, the gaze of a male author reflected across the entirety of his story; he’s a man so therefore he has a male gaze. It’s easy to understand it as that of the male reader reading the story. I have heard people say “but if it is a male character, then of course the character is seeing with a male gaze.”
The idea of “the gaze” is a theoretical concept about how we look at things, especially in visual culture. Who is presumed to be the viewer, and how does the viewer view the people in the frame? A relatively short and clear discussion of the term “male gaze” can be found here. For the purposes of this post I will use two short definitions.
Film critic Laura Mulvey writes that “the male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual male.” An example of the male gaze in film would be when the camera lingers on a partially-clad or fully naked female body (rather than on a male body) or when, in film or advertising, women are photographed in more sexual poses and wearing fewer clothes than men.
When I asked on social media how people might briefly define the concept in its broadest terms, graduate student Liamog Drislane (@AnotherWord on Twitter) said, “The “male gaze” is shorthand for a story being tailored to the perceived knowledge, interests, and prejudices of men.”
In a companion post to this one I will talk about why I think it matters for fiction writers to recognize if, when, and how they are using an unexamined default “male gaze” in this broader sense as they write. But here is what I want to talk about in this post:
A female pov character is not necessarily written from the perspective of a female gaze. Everything about her might be male defined. By that I do not mean “defined within the cultural context of the narrative” as in “culturally in this society she is defined as the daughter of Lord John.” I mean, defined unconsciously by the writer who is not aware of writing a female character through a male gaze–that is, one that “tailors” her to the preconceived tastes and prejudices of (heterosexual) men.
Last week on Twitter, I was exchanging comments about female characters and their often problematic depiction in fantasy novels with @Halfrican_One, aka TJ Tallie, a PhD student in history at the University of Illinois.
Reflecting on an epic fantasy novel he had recently been reading with several female point of view characters, he tweeted: “At one point I think one of the POV characters is having her breasts described omnisciently to the reader.”
A point of view (pov) character is a character through whose eyes and perspective we follow the action of the story.
Briefly, just to clarify my terms, first person is “I saw the child vanish around the corner” (and then nothing else because “I” can’t see around the corner), third person is “She saw the child vanish around the corner” (and then nothing else because she can’t see around the corner), and omniscient is “she saw the child vanish around the corner. The child ran into the candy store” because the omniscient narrator stands above and thus outside the action and can therefore See All.
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.
This is what I mean when I speak of the male gaze. The breasts are no longer her breasts, they have become the breasts as described by the omniscient heterosexual male narrator (in the person of the writer) who is usually not even aware that he has just dropped out of third person and into omniscient to describe her sexual attractiveness in a way that caters to a heterosexual male audience.
Listen, I like to read about positive, consensual sexual relations in stories. I am all good with descriptions of people’s sexual attractiveness as an aspect of their person, whatever their sexual and gender identity, as long as it is not the only thing about them that matters.
One way a writer might describe a woman’s sexual attractiveness is through the direct specific lens of another character examining her because that other character is attracted to her. “JJ checked out the woman as she walked into the room. Etc.”
Another way could be a character deliberately measuring the female character for her sexual attractiveness because of a specific defined plot point. “JJ checked out the three women, trying to figure out which one had been down at the swimming pool when the painting was stolen. Etc.”
If there is no specific reason to describe her sexual attractiveness for a defined plot or character reason, then the writer is deferring to the male gaze and objectifying the character even if the writer didn’t intend to do that. The writer is dropping out of third into omniscient to package the character for a male reader who enjoys the titillation in large part because our culture so heavily exposes the female body to sexual objectification in our visual imagery, advertising, film, tv, games, and fiction.
If a female point of view character is constantly describing herself in sexual ways, ogling her breasts as if she is part of a GQ photo-shoot, or being placed in sexual situations that cater to heterosexual male “fantasies”–all too often defined by lubricious physical description and/or the use of “titillating” sexualized violence–she is probably being written with a heterosexual male gaze.
Female characters in science fiction and fantasy who are sex toys or sex workers are almost always being written from the male gaze regardless if they are the ones speaking, because the view of sex as being that of the male objectifying the female as his object of pleasure is so pervasive in our culture.
Is the character a lesbian or bisexual? Chances are good that her lesbianism or bisexuality is still being written through the veil of a male gaze if the way sexual attributes are being described leaps from the personal attraction to the omniscient breasts. [Note: I would guess that transgendered individuals are least commonly depicted in positive sexual ways via a male gaze. I’m hard pressed to come up with examples.]
Most problematically, descriptions of rape can be deeply offensive when they are purportedly being told from the point of the view of a woman being raped but when in fact everything about the description and situation is being seen through a male gaze.
Furthermore, the expectations of who a woman is, what she wants, how she reacts, much less how she is physically described differ wildly dependent on the assumptions wielded by the writer.
A problem arises when people write and/or read without knowing or realizing they are writing and reading exclusively from the perspective of a male gaze. When this perspective has been internalized as the most authentic or real perspective, it can subsume and devour all other perspectives because it is treated as the truest or only one.
Let me tell a story.
Many years ago, I was accused by a reader/reviewer of having a “homosexual agenda,” a comment which puzzled me. I certainly do have such an agenda if by that one means I support QUILTBAG rights (as well as marriage equality). However, the reader meant a deliberate hidden agenda inserted into the books to warp young minds, perhaps as a form of semantic contagion. I usually don’t argue with reviewers (except sometimes in my thoughts), but the way the statement was phrased really did make me wonder what in my work could possibly have triggered this particular interpretation.
In fact, I wondered so much that I did the thing I know better than to do: I emailed him.
He wrote back, and was polite but insistent that I had this agenda. We argued back and forth for a while until a lightbulb went on in my head.
The reader was reacting without understanding why to the fact that I often write men from a heterosexual female gaze. When I write female characters, I describe them sexually only if they’re being observed from the point of view of a character who is sexually interested in them. Those of my female characters who are heterosexual, however, will see and describe male characters through a sexual gaze directed onto the men.
As an astute reader, this person was picking up on this (not particularly graphic) sexual description of men. Because virtually all the fiction he had read had been written from the heterosexual male gaze, to him a sexual gaze was by default a male gaze. I the writer was causing this reader to “see” male characters through a sexual gaze. Therefore, he interpreted my narrative gaze as a homosexual male gaze since “the gaze” and “the sexual gaze” by definition had to be male; thus he identified this as a homosexual agenda.
It’s been my observation that in our culture women can read comfortably about men’s sexual interest in women because it is considered normal and expected and acceptable, but men cannot always read comfortably about women’s sexual interest in men. In the US in particular, I perceive that we have a cultural comfort in looking at women sexually and (although this is slowly changing) a discomfort in looking at men sexually.
This reader hadn’t thought to consider there might be another “gaze” possible in this story. The concept of a female heterosexual gaze as something that could be present in fiction had never occurred to him. To give him credit, when I pointed this out, he immediately got it.
Here’s my theory:
We will never get past the supposed disjunction between male and female gazes and viewpoints until men think nothing of reading and writing through the female gaze because it seems ordinary, plausible, and interesting to them. Writers will stop writing about omniscient breasts once they pause to ask themselves whose gaze they are really writing from when they are ostensibly writing from a female point of view.
However, this is not the only way the male gaze permeates everything. In the examples I use above, I describe male writers writing a male heterosexual point of view through a female character’s eyes as well as a male reader’s reaction to a female gaze.
Women also have to struggle against this pervasive idea that the male gaze is the most real and most authentic view of the “world.” Women can view their own stories through the lens of a male gaze, or can feel most comfortable in stories that reinforce these norms.
Women can read comfortably about men’s sexual interest in women. Women can watch and observe visual representations of sexually objectified women seen through a male gaze and think it is not only normal but the way things always have been, are, and will be. Women can enjoy shows and books in which the female characters are unclothed and sexualized and the men are clothed and sexual or just active doers, and not necessarily think about the disjunction in how women are portrayed compared to men because it is so common that it is seen as right. To see in some other way, through a different lens, then seems not right but rather false and wrong.
So here it is: Stories told through a female gaze are just as valid, just as true, just as authentic and universal. And they are just as necessary, not just for women but for men, too.
This post has focused specifically on gender, and on a binary view of gender at that, but I want to suggest what most of you already know, that the issue of “gaze” expands exponentially and intersectionally outward from here through gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, class, and multiple other vectors.
Listen, there’s nothing wrong in writing through a male gaze if that’s the story you have to tell.
The problem lies in not being aware that the male gaze is a gaze. When readers don’t realize how the male gaze pervades so much of our storytelling, they can’t assess with what root assumptions the story is being told and how the default defines our expectations and our responses to how stories are told and how we read them. When writers don’t even realize they are writing through the male gaze, then they can’t possibly assess how that default male gaze influences the stories they tell and how they tell them.