[GUEST POST] The Omniscient Breasts by Kate Elliott


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.

The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes

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:

YOU CAN WRITE FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF A FEMALE CHARACTER AND STILL BE WRITING WITH THE MALE GAZE

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.

ALL OF THE STORIES ARE NECESSARY

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.

130 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] The Omniscient Breasts by Kate Elliott”

  1. ‘Women also have to struggle against this pervasive idea that the male gaze is the most real and most authentic view of the “world.”’ This for me sums up the fashion industry in a nutshell.

  2. Thank you very much, Kate.

    [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.]

    Yes. Yes they are.

  3. Totally agree, Kate! I think some male writers need reminding that we women just don’t think about our breasts 24/7, or indeed very much at all (except during lovemaking, obviously) – and certainly not in the way that men think of them. If you drew a Venn diagram of “female characters written badly by men” and “female characters written through the male gaze” you’d get get one hell of an overlap…

  4. I am reminded of a scene that’s been mentioned from one of the GRRM books, where apparently a woman is observing another woman walking toward her, and the take-away of the observation reads more or less like, “And her lovely high perky breasts came toward me from across the courtyard.”

    I remember it being mentioned specifically because the person mentioning it was a guy and suspected that *possibly* that was not how women saw other women approaching them… :)

    Well done on your reader who understood what was going on when you discussed it! It’s clear that that’s a difficult leap for a lot of people to make, and there are people who would shut down at the whole idea of a female gaze.

  5. I think it’s so important to be aware of these points of view and how we’re writing from them. It’s also important to understand how to use them to write for a specific audience, and how to balance them for diversity of readers who may be interested in your work. Thanks, Kate, for bringing this into clear perspective.

  6. This post is full of so much win. Thanks for writing it.

    It’s depressing that in the anecdote, the reader was so inculcated with the idea that the universe is somehow gendered male that he assumed your gaze was a homosexual male one, rather than–how shocking!–a hetero female gaze.

    I have a theory that male gaze overload is part of why romance is such an unflaggingly thriving genre. Romance fiction is one of the few places in media, period, where an unabashed female gaze is permitted and embraced (not to mention all the other gazes–homosexual bio-male, trans, and the entire rainbow).

    1. Leah, yes! (re: romance)

      I think this is also why YA is selling so well right now, because it has all the variety (modern day, supernatural, fantasy adventure, romance, sf, mystery, dystopia, and every mashup variation possible) and now with the female gaze! (also, of course, there are plenty of male protagonists as well, we just tend to hear about how the girls are taking over)

  7. Great insight into the Male Gaze and an excellent breakdown of how it works in practice. This is not just an issue in Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can find it in other genres like Mystery and Literary Fiction. In the latter, some men have made a whole career out of it.

  8. As a transwoman who’s still very much going through the process of shucking off a few decades of male acculturation, I found that this articulates something that’s been percolating in the back of my brain without me having managed to tease it out and recognise it for what it is. The perspective shift that goes with recontextualising myself within the community can be a bit wrenching and disorienting a lot of the time and it takes a while to work out what it is that’s broken my social reflexes in each instance. It’s yet another instance of male perspective being the default perspective which is a thing that’s entirely invisible until it’s no longer *your* perspective because there’s nothing to trip it up. I think too that there is a difference in a sexualised gaze between a heterosexual perspective and a homosexual perspective. Someone being desirable when they’re not the same as you, when they’re “othered”, is different to that of someone being desirable when you can more or less wholly identify with them. The tendency to sterotype purely based on the way in which they are not like you isn’t there because the difference isn’t there. I am learning just how significant a different point of view is, and not just gendered points of view. Thank you for pushing that process along a bit further for me.

    1. Thank you so much. For me, your comment really opens up how complex culture and identity are, not to mention how much of identity is a constant negotiation. Have you written about the process of recontextualising?

      And this: wow, so much to unpack just in this alone.

      The tendency to stereotype purely based on the way in which they are not like you isn’t there because the difference isn’t there

      1. I do have a Livejournal account which contains a great deal of whininess and roller derby (it has eaten my life in the best possible way!) but which also contains a lot of my thoughts over the past couple of years while transitioning. The breadth of viewpoint is actually one area where I’m finding being trans to actually be a positive experience. I lived as a man for many years and now that I’m living as a woman I’m starting to get an overview of where those points of view diverge, what the respective blind spots are and so on. I’m barely beginning to get a handle on those differences but it’s starting to fascinate me thoroughly.

        1. What, roller derby? What? I love the current resurgence of roller derby.

          If you’re good with it, I’ll follow you on lj.

          1. Roller derby is all about the male gaze.

            The main defense I hear is that it’s fun exercise. But there are 9 million other kinds of exercise that are less sexualized.

  9. Great post! This is something I’m aware of in my reading (in books I otherwise like, those omniscient breasts make me pretty ranty) but I’ve never articulated it so thoroughly. And if I ever need to explain myself to someone, I will direct them here. Big thanks!

  10. Third person omniscient POV breasts is a serious oversight or misunderstanding by the writer… but in a published novel it’s an inexcusable mishap on the the behalf if the editor as well. Nice article.

    1. IF it is noticed. Because I still see it in books being published (and many times in books that are otherwise good). I just think it’s so easy to think it is normal that people aren’t aware of it.

  11. I’ve never thought of gazes that way, but you’ve explained something that’s been at the back of my mind for years. I remember reading an adventure/thriller once (not my normal genre, but I was in a non-English speaking country and hurting for books to read), and finding it very different because the love scenes were not only told from the man’s POV, but dealt with the reactions of the man’s body (rather than the ‘normal’ view of the woman’s body). At the time I found it rather shocking (I was young). After reading your post and thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that’s still the only book I’ve read that’s done that.

    Very interesting post. And maybe it will prompt more writers to look at their work and see which gaze their using, and maybe switch it up a bit.

  12. I’ve written two draft novels with women heroes, so this is a particularly useful essay for me. I’m comfortable writing from the woman POV. I just write the character. A woman trying to solve a mystery or pursuing a bad guy isn’t necessarily going to be different from a man in a science-fictional egalitarian universe, or even here in 21st Century America. But sex and romance is different. I solved the problem in one case by avoiding it; my hero is happily and monogamously married. She doesn’t get into any sexual situations, and so the whole thing is very Golden Age of Science Fiction and G-Rated.

    In the other novel I’m struggling a bit because sex and romance does play a role. But I figure, crap, I’ve been living in the same houses as women for literally 48 years (I lived alone for three years), I’ve had many female friends and a few cousins, I’ve been married to one for nearly 20 years. I think I can work this out.

    I recall an interview with a F2M transsexual where he said he still struggled with his own use of the male gaze. As a lesbian or bisexual woman (he said)(I can’t remember which), he saw an attractive woman on the subway, and he imagined a whole little intimate story with her, a relationship. As a man, he just wants to have physical sex with her. He described it as “violent.” My mental response was: It’s not violent, although I can understand why a woman might find the opportunity to read a man’s mind unpleasant. We think about sex differently. Other than that, yeah, he sounded like me and just about every other heterosexual man in the world.

    Now I’m finding it difficult to articulate what it’s like in my mind when, say, I’m riding my bicycle in the park and pass an extremely attractive woman walking or jogging. It’s a bit like an interruption in my normal conscious mind, the entity I usually think of myself. It’s an abrupt, powerful, and very pleasant, jolt. And then the switch gets thrown the other way, and it’s back to whatever my mind was doing before. It’s like turning into a werewolf for a microsecond. Part of the process of growing up for men is learning to keep that little microsecond of turning-into-a-werewolf in its place. It’s difficult when you’re 13 years old, but it becomes easy and natural.

    And I don’t think the overwhelming majority of women’s minds and sex drives works like that at all, which is what makes writing from the woman’s POV so difficult. Even lesbians don’t look at women sexually the way men look at women.

  13. I got to this through re-tweets and as a beginning writer I must say, this was a very interesting read. I hardly ever describe women sexually despite being a heterosexual male, maybe because writing anything particularly sexual makes me really uncomfortable. Still, it’s good to know what to avoid and how to avoid. Thanks for writing this.

  14. Kate – I use a service called Pocket to bookmark articles that I want to read later. Pocket will also find the main photo associated with an article, and display it on its personalized home page, or in its mobile app. Pocket crops the photo to fit.

    You’ll never guess how it cropped your photo.

    So, yeah, that was awkward.

  15. Excellent post, Kate.

    An illustrative exercise for readers: Read “Dangerous Space” by Kelley Eskridge, which is essentially a love story (with light sf elements) in which the gender of one of the characters is never, ever specified. As such, it is (if I recall correctly) devoid of any of the usual “gaze” clues in regards to that character.

  16. “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.”

    I don’t think that’s the main reason, or at least not the only reason. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the studies on sexual arousal, but men and women tend to arouse differently. Men are usually (in one study reported in the NYT it was 100%) attracted only to heterosexual or only to homosexual encounters. Women, on the other hand, tended to be aroused by any depiction of sex.

    So a woman is more likely to be turned off by a “male gaze” piece of writing because of objections to objectification etc., but a heterosexual man is more likely to be turned off (literally) because depictions of sexual attraction to men is uninteresting or even repulsive, by their very biology.

    In any case, good article.

    1. Michael, thank you! I appreciate your response.

      To be honest, 100% strikes me as unlikely, given that bisexual men exist (not just bisexual women) today and have existed historically and cross culturally. I have not read any of those studies and would have to wonder how much cultural conditioning plays into it (for instance, was it a cross cultural study or just US-based?)

      As you already know, cultural assumptions can have a huge impact in how we make judgements about things we see. I’m reminded of how men in other cultures will frequently touch, hold hands, and show physical affection as a mark of platonic affectionate friendship, while in our culture male touching in that casual affectionate way is almost taboo (although bromances are starting to challenge that).

      Regardless, why should any of that impact how a male reader reads about a female character? Surely a character doesn’t have to share all the same ways of looking at or experiencing the world.

      1. I think it’s true that a character doesn’t HAVE to share everything, and certainly in my own experience I don’t remember ever being uncomfortable reading about a female character’s attraction to a man.* But readers read in different ways, and some men (indeed I think a lot, from other men I know) will have problems when they first identify with a character closely (“live in” the character) and then that identification makes them feel as if they are to experience or believe something the character does – in this case, actually feeling as if they are supposed to be attracted to a man. I know that I have had issues from time to time if I felt a character’s point of view was repulsive to my own POV (rather than merely different). Sometimes this is a success on the part of the author, if I am supposed to be repulsed; sometimes it is a failure; most often I find it is a repulsion at the author’s own views transmitted through that character.

        * I vaguely remember Mercedes Lackey making me uncomfortable a long time ago, but I don’t know if that was how she wrote about sex and gender, or just sex, or what.

        1. I very much agree that readers read in different ways. I think you’re right in your analysis. I’m not actually surprised when some (not all, because not all do) male readers have trouble reading from the point of view of a female character for the reasons you cite. I think in some cases some of those male readers are disconcerted or even repulsed to be placed in that head space. If we strongly read to identify, and can’t identify outside of our own experience, then it would create a disjunction.

          So — yes — I very much see your point.

          In fact, I’ve seen a couple of reviews of Cold Magic, written by men, which basically say “it took me a little bit to get past reading within the first person point of view but after I got used to it, it was fine.” I see that as a valid statement about adjustment.

          I do hope that in the fullness of time people can simply identify with people. But I’m also aware we have a long way to go.

          THanks for your thoughtful and perspicacious comment.

  17. It would be useful to cite an actual example or two. Although I read the entire essay trying to tie the description to anything I’ve read recently, I can’t come up with one instance where I have noticed this happening. Especially since it was a real-life instance that you discussed with another reader (i.e., “At one point I think one of the POV characters is having her breasts described omnisciently to the reader.”)

    CE Murphy’s example made me smile (‘I am reminded of a scene that’s been mentioned from one of the GRRM books, where apparently a woman is observing another woman walking toward her, and the take-away of the observation reads more or less like, “And her lovely high perky breasts came toward me from across the courtyard.” ‘) But I have to point out that this can very easily be a hetero woman’s viewpoint, although in that case it would likely suggest a sardonic character, or some enmity. If that were the case in the story, I would commend it as a good piece of characterization, and acidly humorous, too.

      1. I’m curious about the actual quote, since Martin’s books are written in third person and the paraphrase is in first. Anyone know what he actually wrote?

  18. @Donna: well, and yes, I’ve certainly been in situations where, as a heterosexual female, I was completely taken with another woman’s breasts, even to the point of commenting on them (to my husband, not to her!). But *most of the time*… :)

  19. Agreed.

    However.

    The entire concept of the “male gaze” is problematic.

    You know how that reviewer assumed that your portrayal of men as sexual objects was gay? Well, your assumption that portraying women as sexual objects is hetero is similarly problematic.

    Why? Two reasons.

    1. It’s heterosexist – it erases a certain kind of lesbian subjectivity. If you read a sexualized account of a woman, you assume it’s a male gaze, when in reality it is a lesbian gaze.

    Which brings me to:

    2. Why do we assume it’s a heterosexual male gaze? Besides hetero males simply being more numerous, we assume that women are less sexual than men, and that our sexuality is kinder and gentler. This is rooted in views of women as sexless and virginal. It’s ironic that this viewpoint is embedded even in feminist concepts. Therefore, depicting women in this way must be the work of a hetero man, and the gaze is automatically male (even if there is no evidence to support this assumption).

    The real problem isn’t objectifying women. It’s reducing them to solely sexual objects. We are all objectified in the eyes of others, but it is usually women who are reduced to objects at the expense of their selfhood.

    Also, it makes for inconsistent characterization in fiction ;)

    1. Taylor, thank you for commenting.

      I have always liked the concept of “the gaze” as well as “the male gaze” as a way of looking, in a broader sense, at the things a culture advantages, privileges, and identifies as important and worth discussing. Obviously not everyone will like the concept, nor will it work for everyone, nor does it need to.

      I wholeheartedly agree that reducing women to sexual objects is a significant and serious problem in our culture both visually and in fictional renditions. However, I see this as part of a larger issue in which the “male” experience of life is seen as superior to the “female” experience of life (Western assumptions of male “superiority” to female go back a long way historically).

      So therefore, for me, the problem is bigger than reducing women to sexual objects. That’s why I included the quote by Drislane a story being tailored to the perceived knowledge, interests, and prejudices of men.”

      By the way, when I listed two ways in which describing a woman sexually would work as characterization (and not as gaze-y), I deliberately did not specify gender:
      through the direct specific lens of another character examining her because that other character is attracted to her. “JJ (etc)

      It is true that the bulk of the discussion centers on the heterosexual gaze, because I’m most specifically commenting on what I commonly see in the genre. I mention intersection right at the end of the post. So, no, I wasn’t making assumptions.

    2. Lesbians don’t look at women in the same way that men do, typically.

      We assume it’s the heterosexual male gaze because it’s described from their point of view, or to their tastes.

      I cannot *count* the number of times a man has seen pictures of me during my heyday, when I was dating only women and was considered smoking hot, and said “Ew,” “gross”, “not my thing,” or the classic “that makes me uncomfortable.” The women who were into me would never have looked at pictures of me and described me the way a man would have, even today.

  20. “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.”

    This is so true. After all, most of the fiction available to us (given that most the fiction we consume is through film and TV) have straight male protagonists – especially for those of us who enjoy crime stories, action, adventure and science fiction. When I wrote stories as a teenager, my protagonists were all straight men because that was the case in nine out of ten stories I enjoyed.

    This only changed when I started writing on the principle of “Fiction I *want* to read but doesn’t, to my knowledge, exist.” that this shifted (as well as reading more broadly, reading more women writers generally and discovering both male and female authors who could write about people as if they are people).

    P.S @Anne – Some women do think a lot about breasts! But probably not their own… ;-)

  21. Great post! I wonder if this is at the heart of the many male readers who insist on never picking up books by women?

    I must say that if a straight male author can write a convincing scene in which his heroine checks out or notices the attractiveness of a male character, I will notice, and I am impressed. I’ll also admit that I am generally quite skeptical of men writing lesbian protagonists for the same reason – it can feel like an excuse not to have to write men as objects of lust. Unfair, maybe, but I’ve read quite a few books now where the girl-girl scene is obviously not there for either of their benefits.

    One of the things I didn’t think about when shifting from third to first person (and fantasy to crime fiction) was how hard it is for me as a female writer to convey how a female first person protagonist (in the 21st century) looks – you can do a lot with how people respond to her, but writing a woman in today’s world who isn’t actually critical of her own body was way more difficult than I imagined. I had at least one editor complaining that the heroine was fat when in fact she was simply aware of not being THIN.

    In other words, very few women will realistically notice how awesome their breasts are. I’m not saying that all women are more likely to be critical of their own body weight/attractiveness, because I don’t want to believe that, but most people’s relationship with their own body is going to focus on what it can do, and what it looks like to them as its regular inhabitant, not how it looks through a soft lens from across the room. Of course the reader can end up thinking they look like a mis-shapen back of a bus with wonky nipples and weird if you over do this, because of unreliable body narration.

    But most people do have weird toes, right?

    Omniscient breasts are a hilarious concept and I know it’s one I will think of in future when I come across them in books. Never to be forgotten!

  22. My early training tells me I have to reply to each and every comment personally, but I’m having a bit of trouble with the comments interface so it is all taking me longer than expected. Therefore, I’m going to lump a bunch of comments together.

    Thank you for all of your comments. Yes, YOU.

    Mary Anne: :) Being assigned as reading for students makes me feel Real.

    The whole issue of how women look at themselves and at each other is huge, and really a subject for another post.

    Two quick things on that subject:

    I have read some lesbian/same sex scenes written by men that very much came across in the Playboy vein. I would have to think more about why they came across to me that way, as opposed to — say — Malinda Lo’s HUNTRESS which is a really lovely *and* sexy portrayal of a love story between two young women. Has anyone read JA Pitts’ BLACK BLADE BLUES? He’s writing a lesbian protagonist.

    Tansy makes an important point in terms of modern day settings (although this has some cultural specificity and is not universal): That often women are mostly critical of their bodies.

    I mean, this: writing a woman in today’s world who isn’t actually critical of her own body was way more difficult than I imagined.

  23. To be honest with few exceptions a women living in per-industrial cultures (the common setting of most fantasy) really were not all that interesting.

    Who the hell wants to read about peasant girl who gets married off, gets pregnant (not necessarily in that order) for 20 years doing mind numbing house work, then dies within 5 miles of where she was born?

    To plop down a modern woman, who is interesting, within a fantasy setting will always feel unnatural and out of place no matter whose gaze is watching the whole thing.

      1. Ok genius tell me about pre-industrial female historical character that you would find interesting?

        Joan de Arc – religious fanatic. Although may make good villain which of course would fill into unrealistic stereotypes of its own. Plus you know virgin. There will be no gazing for her.

        Cleopatra – Plays second fiddle to Caesar and Mark Anthony. Presumably she either had a vivacious sexual appetite or was simply controlled by those two men. It would be nearly impossible to flush out her character as anything more then a back stabbing manipulator who used the power between her legs or was a victim.

        Anne Boleyn – Another religious fanatic. Though I will admit her asking to hurry along her execution in order to ascend to heaven quicker was interesting…but nothing that is particularly flattering or something you can build a character around.

        Helen of Troy – Probably didn’t even exist but she is a character of antiquity. Her primary and only characteristic; She was pretty.

        Lady Nijo – she was a prostitute and so far of my list the most interesting. This is what Kate says about that: “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.” So she is off the list.

        Queen Elizabeth – She was a queen. Ok Court fantasy can be fun, I guess, but is that it? Are realistic interesting female characters relegated to virgin Monarchs who forge an empire through witty retorts from her throne?

        In comparison lets look at in my opinion the 3 most interesting female characters in the highest selling fantasy series today; Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Arya Stark.

        Cersei – She is a villain.
        Daenerys – She is sold by her brother to “Genghis Khan” and wins power by seducing her husband. This by the way is most realistic part. He then dies and so she wanders the lands birthing dragons and conquering empires. Now notice how she is able to do that? Essentially in order for her to believably be a female road traveling conqueror she needs dragons. A male character set in a similar setting does not need that contrivance in order to keep the suspension of disbelief.
        Arya Stark – Is my favorite and entirely unrealistic. I am sorry but pre-teen girl ninja assassins did not ever exist. yeah i know it is a fantasy but Arya is a modern trope placed in a world in which she could never possibly exist. In order for her to be interesting Martin had to take a modern girl complete with modern concepts of gender roles that she somehow innately invented whole all on her own and dropped her in 1000 AD war torn “England”…and had her flourish while everyone around her were destroyed. Give me a break.
        Oh Arya needs a sword lets give a daughter of the warden of the North a sword and sword training cuz her aunt was spirited. Did i mention her dad’s name is Stark…and he makes his male children watch him execute deserters? Oh she needs to escape lets give her an assassin that she saves then tricks then befriends her cuz she tricked him (what?!?!) and then gives her a coin to Brovos. Oh she needs to become an assassin. Lets give her a cross gender religious order (what?!?!) that specializes in death who randomly decide to train her. The contrivances needed to allow her to live are mindboggling.

        Anyway describing boobs of female characters in fantasy stories is the least problem. Hell I am pretty sure men liked boobs during all periods of history….and I am guessing women probably knew they did.

        1. Women in the past, and yes, even in preindustrial times, led varied lives just like people do today. So did men. Lots of men lived dull as dirt lives never going farther than five miles , and yet no one ever argues that therefore men are not fit subjects for fantasy novels.

          Furthermore, honestly, your understanding of history is incomplete. Were many societies in the past patriarchal? Yes. Many (most) were also hierarchical, and yet a humble carter’s son may yet be seen as a proper protagonist.

          Regardless, women have ruled. They have negotiated. They have run businesses. They have participated in intrigues. They have written books, plays, music. They have invented, taught, learned, been doctors, been slaves, cheated on their husbands, been chaste nuns famous for their learning, murdered their rivals, and led armies. They have also died young in childbirth, died in old age after outliving three husbands, signed treaties, ruled as regents for their sons, married off their daughters to benefit their families, used wills to disinherit their sons, and like Theodora, Justinian’s wife, got their start as actresses and/or prostitutes while ending up in the halls of power. And far more besides all this.

          All in preindustrial times, both in the West and in other parts of the globe.

          If you need citations, I can get them for you. Every single one. And more besides.

          The offer of a reading list remains open. There is a great deal of fabulous and wonderfully interesting history that includes the lives of all sorts of people, although naturally the lives of commoners are least understood because the scribes and clerks who wrote the histories tended to focus on the elite classes.

          As for the other, nowhere in my post do I say that “describing boobs” is “the” problem. I specifically note that describing people’s sexual attraction to other people from the point of view of the character is a valid piece of characterization. So in my opinion you seem to be reacting emotionally to something I did not write.

          1. As for the other, nowhere in my post do I say that “describing boobs” is “the” problem. I specifically note that describing people’s sexual attraction to other people from the point of view of the character is a valid piece of characterization. So in my opinion you seem to be reacting emotionally to something I did not write.

            The Male gaze vs the Female gaze is a manufactured controversy.

            First off there are only really two reasons to have sex in fiction.

            Number one is to sell books. Sex sells and the best sex that sells is the kind your audience wants to read. The gaze should be chosen by who you are selling your book to. As a consumer why on earth do I need to be trained to be accustomed to one type gaze I am unaccustomed to? Are you trying to make your male audience better in bed? Does an “enlightened” male audience buy more books?

            The second reason is to tell the story to move the plot to describe the world. Three examples that come to mind would be “The Camera my mother gave me” by Susanna Kaysen, “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursela K Leguin and “Neuromancer” By William Gibson.

            “The Camera my mother gave me” is about a women’s physical sexual dysfunction. Sex for the character is painful. In order to tell about her ordeal, written in first person, obviously she has to describe sex from the female gaze. It would be insane not to and would definitely ruin the book. Anyway I do not recommended the book. It is horrifying and if I want to be horrified I would read news reports about Obama drone bombing infants in Yemen not about that poor woman’s 1rst world problems.

            “The Left Hand of Darkness” which I am sure everyone has read involves a “race” of people who are asexual and morph into the opposite gender of who ever they are involved with. It was a controversial book involving the ambiguity of sexuality…or at least that is my understanding. I was not alive in 1969. I do not recall what gaze it used during the sex. If I had to guess it probably was the male gaze if only because the protagonist was male. Anyway the sex was integral to the story as the story was about sexuality. I don’t know why Leguin chose a male protagonist…my guess would because she thought her audience was mostly male.

            The gaze in Neuromancer is male in its way. But I can assure you as a fully functioning heterosexual male that it is anything but sexual. There are two “gaze” moments in the book that i recall. The first is when Case sleeps with Molly. The description of the sex is antiseptic and clinical and serves as a metaphor for the main post-modern themes of the book. Namely that systems within systems have control and free will is non-existent. Sex is only one more system enforcing that control. The second is the descriptions of Linda, who is dead and literally living inside a machine with Case and is being used by the machine to manipulate Case. Her physical description is sexualized but Case is also made to think how aware he was of it. Not being aroused but seeing past it to the sad lonely and dead women beneath it all.

            Anyway the point is Gaze and the choice of its use can be used to convey a plot a mood the story.

            Lastly if you are not putting sex in your work for the above two reasons then why the hell have a gaze at all? Why not have a cut scene? or describe it like you would flowers being pollinated or two animals going at it?

            The gaze controversy here falls apart because there is a third option which is to remove the gaze entirely.

            Anyway I am big boy and I am sure your male readers are adults as well. We do not need to be manipulated or educated with some scheme. If we want to read about women gazing at men we will buy books with that in it. If it moves the story and enhances the world then I suggest you choose the gaze that best does that. To do otherwise for other reasons would be awful.

            note: I had another point but I did not fit it in the above. Namely that the universal between men and women is that sex is never as good as the fantasy in our heads. We can try all the positions we can horde many lovers we can read or watch the tantric instructions but we will always fantasize regardless for more for better for the exotic. If you want to have a come together moment perhaps the gaze should focus on that universal.

        2. To be honest, while so much of history is closed to us because it lies in the impenetrable past, there is a great deal historians and archaeologists have been able to tease out, and in recent decades the scope of inquiry has widened.

          History is so rich with fascinating lives of all kinds, lives that can give us a window into the past, which can tell us something about human beings, that it truly saddens me when it seems like people are slamming doors shut rather than appreciating what is to me a great treasure-house of human experience.

        3. I’m replying here because for some reason there is no reply bar for the other comment on my screen.

          First, “the male gaze” and the female gaze are not “a controversy.” They are an analysis. Naturally, you are not required to agree with the analysis. In my opinion, some of the best discussions come about when people get involved in dialogue regardless of whether they fully agree on an issue. Of course, that works best when it involves mutual respect.

          As for reasons to have sex in fiction, obviously that is personal taste on your part. I appreciate that, for you, you have things you like to read and things you don’t like to read. Same for me. I really encourage people not to read fiction they really don’t want to read.

          Having said that, I feel obliged to note that I have a lot of male readers, all of whom are astute, smart, savvy readers with impeccable taste. I would be quite surprised to learn that any of them felt I was manipulating or educating them with some scheme. If I had to, I would guess they were just reading a story, which in some cases involves a female pov and in some a male pov.

          What I think you’re missing here in my analysis is that I don’t write to manipulate or educate; I write to entertain. If I write a female pov who looks at other people sexually — regardless if they are men or women — I do so because that character has sexual feelings. I also write male pov characters who look at other people sexually because the character has sexual feelings. Because having sexual feelings is part of the human experience. Others of my characters don’t think about sex because it’s not important to them. What matters ultimately is that characters are written in a way that is true to the character rather than from outside assumptions, especially ones the writer is not aware of holding.

          sex is never as good as the fantasy in our heads

          I think you need to speak for yourself on that one.

          1. “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.”

            Looks like a call for an education scheme to me.

            “especially ones the writer is not aware of holding.”

            Same with this.

            “I think you need to speak for yourself on that one.”

            I am positive no human body can accomplish the fantasies that go on in my head…pretty sure many laws of physics are broken along the way as well.

            Perhaps you lack the necessary imagination.

            Note: I am positive you do not lack the imagination…still you walked right into that one. The opportunity for that kind of cheap shot was far to tempting to let pass by.

    1. “Who the hell wants to read about peasant girl who gets married off, gets pregnant (not necessarily in that order) for 20 years doing mind numbing house work, then dies within 5 miles of where she was born?”

      I think that sounds like it could be really interesting, personally, were it done right. I think that exactly because we have so little access to that world today.

      I do often find fantasy heroines feel unnatural because they are, well, fantasies – not only about the women but about how much better we assume we are today. Maybe peasant girls actually thought their life had value – ya think?

    2. Your idea of what constitues a ‘fantasy setting’ sounds incredibly limited.

      It never ceases to amaze that there are fans of ‘speculative fiction’ who can’t speculate beyond Euro-centric fantasy worlds where white dudes have all the power.

  24. With regard to the female gaze being close to universally accepted in romance fiction, I wonder if that isn’t a reason why the romance genre is disparaged by people who don’t read romance. I know, that sounds tautologous, but here’s what I mean. When I introduce myself as a romance writer, or if I’m in a workshop with other popular fiction writers, it’s inevitable that the first thing out of their mouth will be “I don’t read romance, but…” The reverse is not true because most romance readers read all kinds of things. The barrier between other genres (sci fi, UF, dark fantasy, etc.) and romance is like Gor-Tex: permeable but only in one direction.

    I suspect that’s because female readers can “read” both gazes, male & female, without getting confused. Male readers (and there are male readers of romance, but they’re rare) may feel disoriented by the female gaze. Interestingly, a lot of female readers who grew up reading thrillers, mysteries, or horror aren’t comfortable reading romances. They’re used to the male gaze and the female gaze may feel odd.

    Then again, it could just be because we write about “mushy stuff.”

    1. I think there could well be something to the idea that the romance genre (and now a lot of YA, uf, and paranormal) is disparaged in part because of a discomfort with or disorientation within the female gaze. Although obviously any discussion of “gaze” is so subjective regardless that it is impossible to prove or disprove.

      And, yes, I think it’s an important point that typically women (or intersectionally anyone who is not in the most privileged group) learn to “read” both gazes (whichever axis we’re placing the gaze on). They have to.

    2. As a female reader who grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, I don’t think the issue with romance is that it can have a female gaze, at least not for me. It is that I don’t often enjoy a book where the main plot is the forming of a romance and/or having sex.

      I do enjoy it as a secondary plot, though. I would argue that at least Ekaterin’s chapters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s book _Komarr_ were written with a female gaze, and the story definitely was a romance (which I really liked), but the main plot was about defeating bad guys.

      A science fiction setting or plot doesn’t automatically make romance or sex work for me, though. I read a Darkover book a long time ago, and I don’t remember much about it except that the characters were endlessly trying and failing to have sex, and it was a big deal in that universe.

      Keeping in mind Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crud”), maybe I just haven’t tried the right books? Can you recommend a couple of romance titles that you really enjoy and think of as great examples of the genre? I’m willing to give them a try.

      1. Sure. Romance novels are split into sub-genres, so I’ll provide you with some recommendations based on the sub-genre. Understand, these are personal preferences, so you might want to check out lists elsewhere. Or you can contact me through my website (click on my name) and tell me what you like so I can provide a more personalized recommendation.

        For contemporary romance, I’d recommend Susan Elizabeth Phillips. If you want funnier, try Nobody’s Baby But Mine; if you want angstier (my preference), try Dream a Little Dream.

        For historical romance, try Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish or (much angstier) To Have and To Hold.

        For paranormal, well, there’s a lot out there and I’m not the best judge. I did like Thea Harrison’s Dragon Bound, though, and Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, which starts with Slave to Sensation.

        Young Adult romance is almost an oxymoron, as “happily ever after” tends to be “happy for now” in that age range. Nonetheless I liked Jennifer Echols’ Going Too Far.

        Romantic suspense is another tough category because if they’re *really* running for their lives, why are they taking the time to fall in love? That said, Linda Howard has a very funny book, To Die For, and many angsty options, so picking one of her most popular, I’ll go with Mr. Perfect.

        Finally, there’s a subset of historical romances based in England in the early 19th century. For convenience, these are known as “Regency romances.” Two of the best, Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect and Mary Balogh’s Simply Dangerous, can be read as stand-alone novels although they each come from a series of books.

        Here’s a link to a “top 100 romance books” list: http://www.likesbooks.com/top1002010results.htm

        I hope you find something you like!

        1. Magdalen, I looked at the books you suggested, and chose “Nobody’s Baby but Mine.” I wan’t in the mood for angsty, and since I have a degree in physics, I figured a nerdy main character would be someone I could identify with and like. And everyone knows nerds are the best lovers.

          I’m sorry. I really tried to like it, but the scientists are complete Hollywood stereotypes with unbelievable dialog, the premise of stealing sperm by subterfuge is morally repugnant, and the plot seemed kind of thin and contrived. (I’m pretty sure my objections aren’t due to a “female gaze.”)

          I have certainly enjoyed some romances, both books and movies, such as The Thorn Birds, Somewhere in Time, Groundhog Day, and of course The Princess Bride. But those are, respectively, an epic, two time travel stories, and a fantasy. They aren’t really mainstream romance stories.

          Truly, I appreciate your taking the time to try to introduce me to your genre. Possibly I would enjoy your stories more than Ms. Phillips’s. But this latest attempt to appreciate it didn’t seem to work any better than previous tries.

          1. Jenny,

            Try Jennifer Crusie’s BET ME. It’s a modern day romantic comedy with explicit sex. It may not be to your taste but I definitely can say that it is well crafted as a story.

      2. This makes sense to me. This is why we have genres and subgenres in the first place: because it narrows down things for the reader who knows what they tend to like. I don’t read Romance, but I also don’t read Westerns and Military fiction. I do know there might be some small subset of books in those three categories that I might possibly like, but that it’s a few orders of magnitude more likely I’ll find stuff I’ll like in Mystery, General Fiction, and the SF/Fantasy sections.

        1. I very much agree about the usefulness of genres and sub-genres.

          As you know (Bob) there’s an odd place in that slipstream where writers are writing partly in and partly out of the sub genre which can create some disjunctions in expectation. So the flip side ends up being that place where the reader’s expectations aren’t met–if, indeed, they have a fairly set basket of expectations (although obviously not everyone does).

  25. This really hits me today. Two days ago, I was at the library researching Vogue covers and as I was reading one of the books (which covered 50 years of issues), I was struck by how men were photographing the women (and I can imagine telling them how to pose), men were designing the clothes, men owned the magazines, and it hit me clear as day how it’s all about how men want us to appear to them. What feels sexual to us doesn’t matter.

    Reading your article drives home how pervasive the male gaze is. Thanks!

    1. it hit me clear as day how it’s all about how men want us to appear to them.

      Then why do women buy the magazine yet men buy playboy, maxim, sports illustrated swim suit edition and hustler?

      I can assure you if Vogue was a plot to get women to cater to the male gaze the fashion and posses and models within the magazine would be very different.

      Also looking at Wikipedia the editors sure seem to have a lot of women’s names and the parent company appears to be owned by a family….I guess it could be a family of all men…but I find that unlikely. Furthermore it is my understanding that women designers entered the fashion world a long time ago.

      http://fashionista.com/2012/05/25-of-the-most-influential-female-designers-that-changed-fashion-forever/

  26. This is awesome! Thank you for laying it out so clearly! I’m going to always call it Omniscient Breasts now when I notice it in books!

  27. I wonder if this is one reason why some people respond well to certain stories and others do not. As you said, this concept can expand exponentially to aspects other than sexual fantasies. I have often wondered, since every mind is unique, does the color green look the same to me as to someone else. Is this part of the nature of “favorite color”? Or, by extension, favorite story/author? Something like this could be at work when a reader doesn’t feel particularly comfortable reading a certain story. I remember a popular television series I really liked. Because I liked it, I picked up the first book in the series. It was told from a very strict “female gaze.” I couldn’t get into the story because I wasn’t comfortable with that way of thinking. It felt distant and I couldn’t identify with it.

    1. Sam, you are SO BRILLIANT.

      Something like this could be at work when a reader doesn’t feel particularly comfortable reading a certain story.

      I have a companion post mostly written which deals with this idea exactly. Because I do think the gaze affects how we read in a larger sense, often without us being aware of it.

      And, interestingly, one of my favorite comments about my recent novel Cold Magic (written first person female pov) is a guy who basically says, “It took me a little to get into this pov because it was so different from what I’m used to, but once I did I was able to read along quite well.”

  28. Great article. The male POV is so ubiquitous and normalized that it wasn’t until I had it pointed out to me that I started noticing when it happened.

    Tansy makes an important point in terms of modern day settings (although this has some cultural specificity and is not universal): That often women are mostly critical of their bodies.

    I think that’s something that’s often missing when men write from a woman’s point of view. And as much as I’d love to see a utopian future where physical appearance isn’t the issue it is now, I suspect it won’t happen any time soon.

    It actually reminds me of a scene in “The Diamond Age” where the mother has to spend a huge amount of time working out because the fashion is to have a “naturally” slim body with no help from girdles or clothing. That kind of pressure rang true to me.

    Also “The Omniscient Breast” would make a great title for a short horror story.

  29. Thanks very much for this. Just one thing:

    “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.”

    Personally, I think that discomfort was lower in the wake of the ’60s and ’70s and has been slowly been re-built by the Establishment Media Mechanism ever since that time, until now we have a culture of skinhead Mr. Gumbys who think they’re boldly rebelling against their oppressive hippie rock-star overlords.

    That NYT story referred to above is something I’ve always wondered about, because it hasn’t been my experience. But they have to be the right kind of men for me, and those aren’t very common any more.

    1. “Personally, I think that discomfort was lower in the wake of the ’60s and ’70s and has been slowly been re-built by the Establishment Media Mechanism ever since that time”

      http://www.statisticbrain.com/total-twilight-franchise-sales-revenue/

      In book sales alone that is over $1.6 Billion with a B.

      We are talking about a genera fantasy series that the author intentionally left out physical details of the female protagonist for the intended purpose of letting the reader fill her shoes and then spends hundreds if not thousands of pages describing the perfect faced Edward in mind numbing detail all of it written in the female gaze.

      You might find a similar formula in some obscure book from the 60s and 70s but nothing from that era can even remotely compare to the epic success both in sales and cultural effect that the Twilight series has had.

      Your claim does not even meet a cursory smell test.

  30. “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.”

    Thank you for this. I would have thought that the subject of the “white heterosexual male gaze” was self-evident as the default and that most noticed this. I most certainly did. But that assumption on my part was wrong as your article so eloquently pointed out. Sometimes both reader and writer do not realize they are doing something by default. It’s not being evil or anything, just going on some kind of cultural automatic. Now, there should be no excuse for this given that it has been so clearly pointed out. If we as writers choose to write from a certain POV it should be for a reason and not because “that’s just the way it is.” Bravo!

    1. Oh, I think people will still remain unaware or — more to the point — hostile to the idea. The idea is not meant as a put-down, just as analysis, but I think it is natural that some people will see it as a direct attack on them personally when it is really just a way of understanding our cultural defaults.

  31. Could you quote the sentences or paragraph? ASOIAF is a long series of books, and I haven’t read any of them. If you didn’t actually read the passage that inspired the article (and the title) perhaps your friend can supply it.

    1. I have read the first three ASOIAF books (although not in some years). I will definitely look for that passage when I have time (and I’ll ask my friend if he recalls exactly where it was) — they’re really big books.

      There are many other examples besides the one mentioned, however. I’ll poke around and see what I can find for the example you’re looking for.

  32. Thanks very much for this. Just one thing (if you’ll forgive me for making this about men all over again, which I’m sure you’re tired of):

    “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.”

    Personally, I think that discomfort was lower in the wake of the ’60s and ’70s and has been slowly been re-built by the Establishment Media Mechanism ever since that time, until now we have a culture of skinhead Mr. Gumbys who think they’re boldly rebelling against their oppressive hippie rock-star overlords. Fixing men, I suspect, will be good for women; maybe it turned out that that project was a much deeper, longer-term thing than anyone thought it would be.

    That NYT story referred to above is something I’ve always wondered about, because it hasn’t been my experience. But they have to be the right kind of men for me, and those aren’t very common any more.

    1. It’s an interesting question of whether we are going through a period of regression in some ways. A show like Deep Space Nine, with its diverse cast, seems almost like a non starter today, so in that sense I rather agree with you.

      I have a lot of thoughts on this issue, in fact, because in some ways there are far more books, for example, with girls in an active role than there ever were when I was young. And yet in other ways I perceive a rigidity in creating and understanding categories.

      Fixing these cultural rigidities will be good for women and men, imho. I think they hurt everyone.

  33. Sooo looking at the original theoretical basis of the Male Gaze found here:

    https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema

    I find this:

    “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies. Recent writing in Screen about psychoanalysis and the cinema has not sufficiently brought out the importance of the representation of the female form in a symbolic order in which, in the last resort, it speaks castration and nothing else.”

    Wow.

    Anyway without trying to clean up that steaming pile I also read this:

    “It is helpful to understand what the cinema has been, how its magic has worked in the past, while attempting a theory and a practice which will challenge this cinema of the past.”

    It would appear that the original theoretical basis of the Male Gaze did have an agenda and was not simply an analysis.

      1. I never claimed to not have an agenda. An opinion backed with facts really but you can call it that if you wish.

        It was Kate who claimed there wasn’t one:

        “First, “the male gaze” and the female gaze are not “a controversy.” They are an analysis. Naturally, you are not required to agree with the analysis.”

        1. Um, Joshua, that quote makes no claim about “agendas” one way or another. It’s about how the term “controversy” is being used. You’re projecting.

    1. Why is is so very important to you that you prove Ms. Elliott (and most of the commenters here) wrong? Or at least prove them to have an agenda?

      And, frankly, so what if we do? The agenda of this post is to improve someone’s fiction by pointing out that the default POV of most fiction is that of a straight man looking at a woman sexually, and that that POV breaks down — and feels false to many female readers — if put on a female viewpoint character. If the narrative voice feels false to up to half the audience, then the writer has failed in his (or her) goal.

      You seem to take this idea as an affront, that in Western culture men and women both are expected to view women the exact same way, even though women’s individual experiences of their own bodies and sexualities will necessarily result in a different point of view.

      Perhaps you could consider why this is so offensive to you, because it’s a pretty straightforward concept.

      Finally, and pardon me for stating the obvious, but everyone has an agenda. Always. Everyone wants something, and we don’t spend our time posting on websites and arguing about narrative voice just because we have nothing better to do. You have an agenda here, as well. Having an agenda is not wrong, although it’s usually best to know what it is, in order to avoid having it bias one’s interpretations and argument.

      1. “Why is is so very important to you that you prove Ms. Elliott (and most of the commenters here) wrong?”

        I do think the male gaze exists, but I think her analysis is loaded with judgments and a few falsehoods in regards to the use of the male gaze. I do not think the majority of the use of the male gaze is done unconsciously by writers. It is hard for me to imagine that a writer does not know what he or she is writing. It is even harder for me think that a writer does not know what he or she is writing about when they are writing about sex.
        I do not think the choice to use the male gaze by a writer with the sole purpose of arousing male readers is something that needs correcting. Why is the POV manipulation in the Twilight series designed to arouse its female audience legitimate yet the over the top sexual descriptions of Red Sonya illegitimate? I think they are both legitimate. We are talking about fantasy here right?

        There is nothing wrong with a writer breaking or manipulating the POV of a narrative with the sole purpose of helping the reader get his or her rocks off. To specifically claim one type of POV manipulation designed for the male gender is wrong implies that there is something innately wrong with male sexuality. Hell if I wanted that kind of judgement I would not need feminist critical theory, I could go back to the Catholic Church. At least they are equal about it and say all human sexuality is sinful.

        There are some other minor things I disagree with as well. I do not think the male gaze is cultural. Heterosexual men like the female figure for pretty basic biological reasons. It does not matter what year you live in or if society is patriarchal or matriarchy or a post feminist utopia, heterosexual men are still going to like how women are built. To condemn that fact whenever it manifests itself in media is quite honestly bullshit.

        Another minor thing is that I disagree with the stifling pervasiveness of it. I already mentioned my opinion about Vogue above, but also more specifically the two largest fantasy genre phenomenon, by a long shot, are in fact Twilight and Harry Potter. Both are written by women. Harry potter, I’m assuming, does get the gaze “right”. And twilight as I mentioned above is a POV manipulation designed for women. How can the male gaze be stifling pervasive when these two magahits are currently dominating the market?

        I also have some basic problems with feminist theory in regards to “the objectification of women” but that would take way to long to explain.

        Anyway I hope that clears up your question.

  34. One sad aspect of this phenomenon is the degree to which that gaze, as it’s expressed in literary form, is internalized by women in an un-ironic or un-selfconscious way. I’ve taught a number of creative writing courses in which young women writers — not men, but women — describe their viewpoint characters’ sexual characteristics from a third-person perspective. This leads to unintentionally funny sentences like, “My long, tanned, slender legs carried me from the kitchen into the living room…”

  35. I’ve read the same study from Northwestern University as Michael O. You can find a summary here: http://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/news/2003/2003G-June/sexuality.html or search for the original online. He’s right, the men and women in the study responded differently. It was fascinating, and I think important. The study was of self-selected American volunteers, so it isn’t clear if the difference is by gender or culture or both.

    Either way, I don’t think that negates your point. After all, if some people are uncomfortable reading a book with a female gaze, I’m sure they can find some other books that they do like. But the more it seems “ordinary, plausible, and interesting,” the more people will be able to enjoy a different perspective.

    I love the tone of this post. It invites thought and observation, rather than arousing anger. In a post on gender, no less!

    1. Because I write both male and female characters, I’m interested in portraying people as they would be as themselves, from their point of view. That was my main reason to write the post.

      Thank you for the link.

  36. Great post! I had never stopped to put things in the idea of male vs female gaze. I also love the fact that a male reader thought you had an agenda because your view was different than what he was used to. I have had several discussions with folks concerning writing from a gay view point and it is different than writing from a hetero-female view. A good writer will realize that, and acute readers will no the difference. Thanks again for the awesome post.

    1. I had myself never really thought about it in quite that way, in terms of fiction, before that incident. Very illuminating.

  37. Sometimes it’s easier to ‘deflect’ a concept like a change in the gaze. In my first novel alien males have returned to Earth because a space virus wiped out their women. However, to keep them from acting like ‘frat boys on a bender’ (as one newspaper interviewer put it) I gave each of them a symbiotic alien life form that kept them in line. Natural? Sort of. Natural for the aliens.

    Otherwise the story could have disintegrated into alien men kidnapping any woman who took their fancy. That wasn’t the story I wanted to write. But perhaps it would have been one the traditional male gaze would have preferred.

  38. @Donna:

    I can think of two, if you’d like — one was from GRRM’s A CLASH OF KINGS, chapter sixty-three (though I don’t have the page reference as it’s an online edition). The paragraph is describing Dany’s clothes as being purposely barbarian, and it goes like this:

    If the Milk Men thought her such a savage, she would dress the part for them. When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest, and a curved dagger hung from her medallion belt.

    Never mind that 1) a riding vest would not allow breasts to move freely and 2) what in the blazes does that even mean, small breasts don’t … you know what never mind — it’s clearly an example of the male author inserting his thought in there. It feels out of place with the rest of the paragraph. People argue “oh, it’s narration, not her thoughts”, except that the rest of the scene is clearly inside her head, so.

    Another comes from THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham, which I haven’t read since high school, but which has a scene where Rosalind is sleeping and the POV character is watching her. It specifically mentions that her breasts are ‘pointed’, which … she’s asleep on her back, while on the run in a cave in a post-apocalyptic universe. I have no idea what kind of wonder breasts she has, but it was clearly not anything written by anyone who understands how breasts work. It bugs me so much that I STILL remember this.

    Those are the two that have stuck with me so much I didn’t even have to look them up, anyway.

    1. “Never mind that 1) a riding vest would not allow breasts to move freely and 2) what in the blazes does that even mean, small breasts don’t … you know what never mind —”

      In fairness it is a painted Dothraki vest. Not necessarily a women’s riding vest. To look savage one might chose a men’s vest and being painted it probably was fairly rigid.

      Also have you seen Martin’s physique? Things do happen when men put on a few pounds and he might have a better idea of what having small breasts feels like more then you are allowing him.

      But yeah this is from a Dany point of view chapter and there is no reason why she would be thinking about her breasts at that particular moment.

      So now what happens?

      How do we decide that Martin put it in there unconsciously? How do we know he didn’t write it on purpose? Was it to tantalize his male readers? Was it to help his male readers sympathize with a female character? Did he do it just to get his own rocks off?

      And are any of these reasons not justifiable on their own? If so why?

    2. Thinking a bit about Dany’s freely moving breasts I am suspicious that there isn’t more going on here then simple male gaze.

      Dany was raised under a constrained civilized society. One presumably complete with constraining dress including corsets and one dominated by her tyrannical brother. By going savage and letting her breasts move freely she is becoming the noble savage. One free of the constraints of man. (Wasn’t it feminists who burned their bras in protest?)

      Martin is an American writer and one of the major themes of his novels has always been liberty vs slavery. There are long and robust narratives between Jon Snow and various wildlings of the nature of freedom with the wildlings as noble savages generally arguing that although they are wild (they are actually called wildlings) and uncivilized they are free unlike civilized Jon Snow and the southerners who are forced to bend a knee to kings and Lords.

      Dany’s narrative also follows a theme about slavery and freedom. She even considers herself a former slave at one point and in fact goes on a warpath freeing whole nations from slavery.

      Now Martin again being an American author writing about slavery and freedom it is impossible not draw parallels with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The very same Themes found with Dany can be found with Huck. Huck also considered himself a freed slave from his father, he also came to the moral conclusion that slavery was an evil and he also went through a transformation into the noble savage and he did it literally by hanging out naked on a boat with a naked escaped slave.

      Dany’s freely moving breasts just like Huck’s nudity symbolize their transformations into noble savages and new naturalist understanding of freedom and slavery.

  39. “If the Milk Men thought her such a savage, she would dress the part for them. When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest, and a curved dagger hung from her medallion belt.”

    To me, this reads plausibly in the character’s viewpoint. As the first sentence establishes, she is dressed to make a point and is consciously thinking of how she will be presenting herself in the eyes of others. Including the vest, the lack of corset/bra/whatever, and the dagger. Any of you women go out without a bra? Assuming you usually wear one, that is… I think you’re probably aware of moving breasts when you’re walking along and you meet someone. (Trying not to be too embarrassing here.) :-) Lora, small breasts, I assume, means small, not completely undeveloped.

    I think I have to stick up for Martin on this point. These aren’t omniscient breasts, and it’s not a male gaze, either: this is a good example of imagining a woman’s thoughts and view.

    I still remember an experience from when I was 16 or thereabouts. I was walking to visit a friend and encountered two boys who eyed me coming, and when I was passing them, one said “I just love when girls let themselves hang loose.” I was humiliated. Being conscious of your breasts when you’re bra-less? Evermore. I suspect I have a lot of company.

    You can be conscious either of how you look in others’ eyes, or just of the different feeling from whatever more-restrictive garment you usually wear.

    It is not necessarily the case that any mention of breasts must have a sexual rationale for being there, either for writer or readers. The scene’s context makes clear that the character is (1) thinking of playing a part convincingly, or (b) enjoying the comfort of not wearing a corset or stays. Likely both.

  40. I just ran into this essay on Jeff VDMs FB post, and wrote this in response to (well, in admiration) of it.

    The omniscient breast. Loved it. And think every author in our field should read it.
    You know, this is an example of an aesthetic sensibility and device that isn’t constrained to the realm of belles lettres. It is, as the author suggests, just plain good narrative practice. If you truly inhabit a character’s head, then you should write from it.
    However, the lack of this practice in so much of the SF/F (and other popular) genre is a gesture toward the kind of “standards” differentials that give non-genre purveyors room to look down their noses.
    Because this is BASIC craft. There is absolutely nothing experimental or avant-garde about it (obviously, one would think). One of the best examples that comes to mind is Flannery O’Connor, who might well be considered an exemplar of what I will call the “tightly constrained 3rd person PoV”. She is all at once entirely constrained by her subject’s PoV/consciousness, and yet, because of that, there is a sense of a “pitiless” quality in her fiction. And from the standpoint of structure, this means no short-cuts or easy conventions in which authors “prompt” their readers into perceptions.
    This is truly the guts of “show, don’t tell.” Because if it is the character doing the telling (even if only in their consciousness) that is actually still “showing”: their PoV, if honestly and thoroughly obeyed, demonstrates who they are, the shape of the lenses through which they see reality.
    In our genre, this is a crucial skill–particularly if you ever represent events through the eyes of non-human characters. The more fully conceived they are, and the more faithfully and fully that conception informs their PoV, the more “real” they feel, and the greater the degree of immersivity that may be achieved . The thinner the understanding of their alienness, and the more the author resorts to fast human analogs, the more these exosapients come to resemble humans in rubber suits.
    One of the features that had me departing this essay with the sense of having encountered something really useful, really insightful, is related to what Catherine Kramer said once about good criticism: it helps you see things in a narrative you had not seen before. Which suggests that it spawns new questions: good criticism (to the extent we can categorize any critical act so simplistically) does not tie off loose ends; it opens up new vistas.
    That’s what these omniscient breasts did for me (!?). One of the riffs I could go on with is that of another subtle feature of the male vs. the female gaze. That of directivity vs. reflectivity.
    The male gaze is (I think clumsily) characterized as usually being “appropriative” or “dominative.” I think these terms fall wide of their mark, although they point in useful directions. The male gaze is concerned with affixing definitions to objects–whether they are desirable or undesirable. The gaze is determined by its customary purpose: to enable action.
    Conversely, the female gaze has its own collection of not-quite-spot-on adjectives, such as “receptive” or “inquisitive” or (yes, you still encounter it) “passive.” I’d like to propose “reflective” because what we often see in the female gaze is a measured consideration of (i.e.; reflection upon) the object viewed. It is not so much shaped by being a precursor of action, as it is a handmaiden to understanding. It enables the act of reflection: of viewing an external object which is then compared to the self; the Other to the Known. (If you hears echoes of Helene Cixous’ laughing Medusa, well, you’ve got good ears…)
    That a person (or at least I) could ramble on about this for quite a while is, I think, the highest compliment one can pay to this article. The empty spaces for discourse it leaves in its wake do not signify insufficiencies in the text, but point to the possibilities it leaves open even as it gestures toward them.

    Outstanding piece, Kate.

    1. Chuck,

      thank you. This is a great comment and you ought to write an essay!

      Two things:

      One: I like your discussion of “directivity vs reflectivity.” I’m not sure how much of that is cultural (I’m not much of a biological essentialist) but to a fair degree I agree with your assessment and I think it might be an aspect of some kinds of writing by men (not all, I hasten to add) that can make me lose interest.

      Two:
      Yes, absolutely, that the fundamental issue of omniscient breasts is the failure to write through the gaze of the character but rather to be imposing one’s own defaults or assumptions on them. Obviously this is a much larger issue than sexual gazes; it moves outward exponentially from there.

      Years ago while conversing about craft with another writer, I was much struck when she made that basic point about 3rd person pov: That if you are writing in 3rd, the things the pov character notices are the things they would notice not what you, the writer, would notice.

      I had been writing in 3rd relatively tightly and yet that comment helped me really understand what 3rd really means and how it functions. When people slip out of it for things like this it is just plain sloppy writing.

      1. Dear Kate:
        Being a renegade (i.e. no longer in the classroom) Professor of English and former head of a grad MA program, I have written more than my share of essays, thank you! ;^)

        But I appreciate the compliment muchly. I absolutely loved the accessibility and yet penetrating insight of your essay.

        I should remark that your experience of writing from within a self-imposed, tightly constrained 3 pers PoV sounds very similar to mine. As I write within the SF intrigue/epic line, it is often a kind of extra burden that I bear for my own reasons, not those of the field. But I often reflect how, if our genre eschewed such short-cuts and sloppiness as what you have put under the interrogation lights in your piece, we might begin to shed even more of the “paraliterature” reputation that goes back to the days of Gernsback.

        Hey, a guy/gal can wish, right?

        Really like your essay (I’ve not responded at this length, or with this degree of effusion, with anything blogged or FB’d before), and I enjoy our exchange here.

        Best wishes and I’ll Be Watching for Your Name!
        Chuck Gannon

        1. Thanks.

          Again, I think the main problem lies when, as writers, we don’t think fully about whose eyes we are seeing through and what they would be seeing.

  41. I’ve found over and over in fiction writing classes, that young male writers in particular (but some grownups, too), when assigned to write from within the female POV for the first time will spend rather a lot of the exercise with their viewpoint character essentially going “breasts, breasts, breasts, I have boobies, wow!” While they’re busy doing that, the female writers are of course inhabiting male consciousnesses. And they are pointedly (sorry about the pun) not going “penis, penis, penis, cock, wow, erection!” Although perhaps they should be given what’s going on in the other half of the room…

    No one has told them how to shape their characters’ interiorities, thus they are creating what they *think* that sounds like. It would seem that by default there is most definitely a distinct male gaze and a female gaze.

    1. essentially going “breasts, breasts, breasts, I have boobies, wow!”

      This made me laugh. And yet rings so true!

      As you already know, so I won’t bother to elaborate, there is an entire theory about who needs to know what about what. Not to mention variations on your example above when students are given an exercise to “imagine themselves as the opposite sex” and the girls, by and large, write up reams of things while some significant percentage of the boys are stumped. That’s a sad indictment of our culture, to my mind.

  42. Mr. Corning, I’d just like to point out there was ONE instance of feminists burning bras, it was a minor incident done for one particular purpose at the time, and was never intended to be some grand iconic gesture meant to define feminism. It gets tiresome, hearing people refer to this as some kind of Big Important Happening.

    And I’d just like to point out that Harry Potter was written from the POV of, initially, an 11 year old boy. Not that 11 year old boys can’t have libidos, but it’s still very different from the POV of a sexually-mature, sexually-experienced man. And Twilight is only noticeable because it is an exception to the rule, and comes across as a 14-year-old girl’s fantasies of what sex is all about.

  43. I just found this page by accident and am not familiar with the writer(s) or social dynamics, but already I’m stumped by Mr. Corning’s interpretation of the article. I read it as Ms. Elliott pointing out that there’s a time and a place for everything, but Mr. Corning seems to read it as an attack on male sexuality in general? Not sure why he keeps mentioning Twilight, either. Bella’s female gaze I’ve heard so much about FITS the context of Bella being a female point-of-view character. Suppose popular books with male point-of-view characters were expected to have the protagonist check himself out Bella-on-Edward-style: Wouldn’t that feel creepy or at least annoying? Even if it was what female fans supposedly wanted to read, it would still lower the quality of the books because it would simply be out of place. I don’t see how this concept might be construed as an attack.
    Maybe I’m missing something important. o_0

  44. Speaking as a heterosexual man who mostly writes female characters, I find this both surprising and kinda disturbing. I can’t quite concieve of this being done accidentally; it just seems obvious to me that you describe stuff from the perspective of your viewpoint character. :/

    I can totally understand if someone did it on purpose, but not without actually being aware of it.

    1. I honestly believe that many of the people who write that way do not realize they are doing it because they are so conditioned (in American culture) to see women objectified, described, pictured, etc, in that way that if they do not specifically stop to think about it they think women have to be described sexually like that. But that is a problem of the pervasive sexualization of women in US media. In other countries (like Scandinavian countries) women are more noticeably treated “as human beings” and so I think this kind of thing might not crop up as much. Just a theory, though.

  45. You ran this a while ago, but somehow I missed it before. I linked it on my blog and passed it on to some other writers I know who hadn’t seen it either. Wonderful piece that describes something I’ve noticed frequently but have been unable to articulate: the “Why is this female character thinking about her breasts right now?” phenomenon.

    Makes me want to write a tongue-in-cheek spoof where a male pov character walks across a room thinking about how his firm, tight pecs and broad shoulders are rubbing against the soft fabric of his shirt.

  46. Irrespective of the text at large, which I still have to finish, I just want to note that “a pov character” in narratology is essentially called a focalizer.

    It might be overtly technical jargon, but in the words of the coiner Gérard Genette, “his term is preferable because it is less visual and metaphorical than the traditional ones.”

    Also “Other critics prefer it because it is not part of everyday speech and thus more suitable as a technical term with a specialized meaning. The main argument is that the term dispels the confusion of the questions ‘who sees?’ and ‘who speaks?'” http://wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Focalization

    Apparently its use isn’t that common, but it helped me to understand the difference between a narrator and the main ‘consciousness’ of a story.

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