After years of thinking about this issue, and inspired by a comment on Twitter about omniscient breasts, I have finally written a post on the male gaze, the female gaze, and sexualized women in fantasy and science fiction novels.
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.
You can read the whole thing over at Hugo-award-winning weblog & fanzine SFSignal.
Thanks for letting us at SF Signal have a chance to publish your point of view on this important topic, Kate.
This is so true, and the biggest reason I tend to avoid fantasy written by men these days.
Recently I (with some trepidation) read a fantasy novel written by a man with a female protagonist, and found to my surprise that she wasn’t sexualized, that the book avoided almost all of the pitfalls coming from men writing female characters. I still have no idea what the character’s breast size is! I definitely noticed the difference, and assumed the author was either very conscious of these things, or had an awesome female friend who had taken the manuscript to task. Then I found out that the author is gay. That seems to be the only way a male fantasy author can get women right. 🙁
Now I want to know what book that is!
I think that writers who consider themselves feminist often don’t realize they are doing this. For one thing, it is so pervasive that readers and writers accept it as just the way it is — I read an excerpt from a recent YA release with a main female protag that has omniscient breasts in it . . . yes, written by a man.
Yeah, I am trying to reach more eyes. OMNISCIENT eyes.
The book is Wicked by Gregory Maguire–a very weird and divisive book but one that totally worked for me. I’ve seen it called feminist and would love to get a group of feminists together to discuss whether that’s true (there are some things I think a female author would’ve done differently), BUT Elphaba is defined on her own terms, not sexualized (except by her actual lover) and has several important relationships with other women, involving lots of conversations not about men. (In the musical the two female leads fight over a man, but that doesn’t happen in the book.)
I’m also working my way through a YA fantasy debut (Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff) with the omniscient breasts problem. Not sure whether he would call himself feminist, but he does have his female characters fight and scheme…. unfortunately, it’s all drenched in the male gaze. When the 16-year-old hetero female protag meets a beautiful woman, she describes her as “so gorgeous a man would murder his brother to be with her” or something to that effect…. right.
Here’s a question: from reading author acknowledgements my impression is that the vast majority of editors are women. Why do they not catch these things? Are male authors not open to correction (it seems like many if not most would be able to take it gracefully) or are the editors just unaware of their own cultural programming? Or what?
I have not read the book Wicked but I have seen the musical. I’m really intrigued that in the book they don’t clash over the man, since that is, indeed, one of the central elements in the musical. But you’re right: Elphaba is not sexualized in the male gaze way in the musical either, nor is Glinda, for that matter — Glinda is more girly, but not in a gaze-y way. I enjoyed the musical but found the (stripped down) plot very predictable. Now I’m tempted to read the book.
I have not read Stormdancer but comments about it have pointed out the writer’s male gaze problem, which is rather problematic in a book ostensibly about a 16 yr old hetero female protagonist.
Why do editors miss this? I think we are so drenched in it culturally that it flies right over people if they don’t stop and think about it. It reads as “normal” to us.
The book and musical versions of Wicked bear only a passing resemblance to each other–in the book I wasn’t convinced that Glinda is attracted to men at all. But you make a good point, she isn’t portrayed as a sex object in the book in the book either–which should have clued me in to the author’s sexuality sooner, given that she’s supposed to be very attractive.
That makes sense re: editors. After all, you can’t have a conversation about misplaced references to breasts from female POVs online without some woman eventually popping in to say that SHE is very conscious of breasts and thinks it’s totally realistic. But it seems so obvious to me that when an author is writing against gender, and you are that gender and paid to correct the author’s mistakes, that you’d want to stop and pay special attention to whether the author is writing those characters convincingly.
I think even as women we are so immersed in the male gaze, the way of looking at women through it, that we too often do not notice or think of it as normal, universal, objective.
This is true. I’m reading a (non-fantasy) book by a woman now that has the same problem. And with women fighting over men. Argh.
On a maybe-sort-of related note, I wish more female fantasy authors would follow your example and write about women! I’ve been seeking out more new authors to read and added maybe half a dozen to my to-read list…. and based on the blurbs they all seem to have only male protagonists. I may wind up re-reading Crown of Stars before getting to any of them. (Which isn’t quite fair, some of them probably have good male protags and awesome female secondary characters. But still.)
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