The Male Gaze: Editing out sexism

 

I’ve procrastinated with this blog post for months now. Recently, I’ve perfected a new skill where I don’t write anything at all and just think and think about a story or blog idea until I’ve found the reason why I shouldn’t write it. And then I don’t write it. There are lots of reasons why I was a little wary of writing about gender; I think men need to be very thoughtful when weighing in on this, just as white people ought to be careful when they talk about race. But I suspect I have something useful to say about the male gaze in writing. I think the male gaze is a fast track to bad writing and that we should all avoid it.

What is the Male Gaze

 

Male gaze is a term in feminist theory. It was coined by Laura Mulvey and describes the way art and literature is aimed towards the pleasure and approval of straight men. The male gaze is the perspective of the male artist, writer, or filmmaker, and it is the perspective of their desired audience. It is why most women in books, art, and literature are beautiful (and usually sexualised), and it’s why their worth comes from their beauty (and sexual availability). It is why women are often passive sex objects instead of completely rendered characters with full inner lives.

In John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, he talks about the male gaze in renaissance paintings: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ I honestly can’t find a more succinct soundbite that gets the message across. However, as I know little about art, filmmaking, or photography, I’m going to stick to literature. In literature, the male gaze is most obvious in the way female characters’ bodies are sexualised and described in a way their male counterparts are not.

Stephen King’s It

The most egregious example of the male gaze I’ve ever read is in Stephen King’s famous novel It. It is about seven children battling a cosmic evil that takes on the form of their worst fears (like a boggart on steroids). These seven heroes are all 11 years old and only one of them is a girl. This 11-year-old girl is frequently described as beautiful or sexy. Part of this is to show how the six boys all feel about her (almost all of them are in love with her), but part of it, I believe, shows us how King felt about the girl. King mentioned how one of the boys was fat and that another was tall for his age, but he barely described their appearances otherwise. In contrast, the girl’s beauty and burgeoning sexuality (or at least her sexual viability) was a real focal point for him. This culminates in a very disturbing scene near the end of the story… Google it if want to know what happens.

But the male gaze isn’t usually as obvious as this example; it can be much more subtle. Once I heard about the male gaze, I realised that I’d been noticing it, occasionally, for years. But mostly, I realised that much of my writing was full of the male gaze, and that this was a very bad thing.

The Male Gaze in My Own Writing

We all have a limited perspective, and sometimes we need outside help to develop our point of view. That’s what happened to me. I had written an 80,000–word first draft of a novel told from several different characters’ perspectives. I had roughly as many male as female protagonists and I had tried to flesh them out into fully realised, complex characters. Feeling the work was almost ready, I had a friend read my manuscript. My friend gave me a lot of useful feedback, but one comment really stood out: almost all of the women in my story were attractive, a few had curly hair, and their hair was always admired by the male characters in the story.

At first, I resisted this appraisal, as “I wasn’t sexist” and I was writing first-person narratives and I felt it was fine (and authentic) to have male characters admire female characters. But I came around when I re-read the story and noticed the sheer number of times this admiration happened: if there was a female character in the story, I made damn sure she was beautiful, and I never did this with the men. Some men were attractive, some weren’t; I never described a male character’s lovely hair…

I realised, then, that I had a nasty case of the male gaze and I’m very glad my friend pointed this out as it’s often easier to stay quiet and avoid an awkward conversation. But bad writing is a lot like having a big bogey dangling at the front of your nostril, fluttering with each breath: it’s there whether you know it is or not, and a good friend passes you a tissue.

Some normal women who may or may not have rich inner lives (the woman on the left has wavy hair — not curly!)

The male gaze in my writing was a lazy, default setting with an unhealthy dose of wish fulfilment thrown in. The solution for this was to make a list of all my characters and ensure none of them were mainly defined by their looks. So, I took all of these female characters I’d lazily described as beautiful and looked for other ways to describe them. And because I was starting to get good at this writing malarkey, I found that I had so many things to say about these characters that had nothing to do with how lovely their hair was.

The male gaze still creeps into my writing sometimes, but I usually spot it in the second or third draft. It’s an insidious thing, because so much of the media I’ve absorbed my whole life has set a precedent for me and it’s taken a lot of work to deprogram it. I suspect I’ll never manage this completely.

Why Other Writers Should Care About the Male Gaze

At the beginning, I said that the male gaze was a fast track to bad writing, and I’d like to explain why. I think it causes writers to fall into stereotypes, clichés, and tropes about gender. It causes writers to underdevelop their female characters and I really believe that writing is weakened significantly if a writer hasn’t considered the limits of their own perspective and prejudices. Writers don’t have to be nice people, but they do have to be thoughtful people.

And when I talk about writers, I mean all writers. Although it’s less common, I’ve noticed the male gaze in plenty of writing by women — which shows just how insidious it is.

I’ve met my fair share of people who don’t think the male gaze is ‘a thing’. Perhaps some of you reading this are in the same boat. If you are, I would urge you to look at what you’re reading, what you’re watching, the art you enjoy, and be honest with yourself about it. If you’re a straight man and you’re titillated by something in a book or in a film, ask yourself whether this titillation is necessary to the story or if it’s gratuitous.

 

No male gaze here

I think it’s hard to admit when you’ve been getting something wrong, so male writers and artists often push back against ideas like the male gaze because it suggests they’re at fault. But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away; you can still be at fault whether you know about it or not.  And if you find the male gaze in your writing, you should give yourself some slack, as this shit is everywhere and you’ve been spoon-fed stories from this perspective since you were young — so you really didn’t stand a chance. But once you know about it, your writing has to change. It should change, and it will be so much better for it.

Becoming a good writer is as much about changing your perspective as it is about improving your writing skills. I think we need to know what we’re doing wrong. The male gaze is something many of us are doing wrong. All writers have unsightly writing bogies dangling from our noses; the amateurs sniff or cover their faces; the professionals ask their friends which nostril it’s in, grab a tissue, and blow hard.

 

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