“Is it ever difficult *not* to fall into writing that caters to male gaze?” (Spiritwalker Monday 4)

Over the next few months I will be answering, a few at a time and probably more than once a week, the many excellent questions (and they are all excellent questions) asked as part of the Cold Steel giveaway.

However before I start doing that I am going to answer a few questions still in the queue that are unrelated to the giveaway. I do read all email and questions I get and I try to respond to it all; it just sometimes takes me a while in which the “while” may extend to weeks, months, or in a few embarrassing cases years.

In the wake of my September 2012 post The Omniscient Breasts, girljanitor asked:

I was wondering, is it ever difficult *not* to fall into writing that caters to male gaze? A lot of the time I find myself writing in a way that is reactionary without being subversive.

I’m not going to define “male gaze” here. If needed, read the above linked post where I do so. And I’m going to answer the question not specifically by discussing the male heterosexual gaze that sexualizes women (which is what I focus on in the post) but to define it in the larger sense of the default cultural gaze, the one that surrounded me as I grew up in the USA and which is still heavily dominant in so much of the USA media and narrative and casual talk.

My answer is that it is ALWAYS difficult for me NOT to fall into writing that caters to the default cultural gaze.

The default gaze is easy. Like the One Ring, it wants to be found.

The received wisdom I heard over and over again as a child about how women are, how men are, how society is (in the largest sense including any sort of discussion about gender, race, nationalism, history, ethnicity, heteronormativity, and so on) continually rises out of my backbrain and insinuates its way into my stories.


I am involved in a constant struggle to pick apart those assumptions and not perpetrate them in my stories.

Sometimes I grab that bull by the horns right out in the open and confront the stereotype or old default head on as I’m writing. Sometimes I write a scene and only later realize how I catered to the old lies and then have to sort out where I slid and figure out in revisions how I really want to deal with the situation. Sometimes I don’t catch some reactionary interaction or plot choice until I see the book in print by which time it is too late to change. And other times I don’t see it at all and only realize defaults I fell into after they are pointed out in a review. And it lurks in all my writing still.

I’m wracking my brains for a few concrete examples from my work of which there are many because they reach back into the entire drafting process for each book. For example, the relationship between Anji and Mai in Crossroads was easy to write because it is based in a traditional male/female gender split. I think I did a good job with that story (and torqued it in a specific way meant to counter-examine that story) but that doesn’t negate that it was a piece of cake to write exactly because it so heavily skewed to comfortable old gender roles. Meanwhile, in my current WIP, I am having to constantly remind myself to build ways in which my young heroine (there is also an old heroine but her story has different inherent difficulties) can act rather than be acted upon because the initial iteration of her story involved her being acted upon but in fact it does not have to be written with her as a passive bystander thrown into a raging current of story; she can decide to jump into that river of her own volition.

I don’t expect to be perfect. I expect to make mistakes. I expect to fail sometimes. I expect to be human. Therefore I try to be aware and to learn something each time and do better.

An apt analogy might be picking apart embroidery. I have to cut it stitch by stitch and pull it out of the fabric in order to re-do it. This stuff goes deep.

In other words:

Part of my writing process is unlearning.

4 thoughts on ““Is it ever difficult *not* to fall into writing that caters to male gaze?” (Spiritwalker Monday 4)

  1. I just wrote a scene in which Beverley strides out of a river stark naked and the first adjective that popped into Peter’s mind was omniscient. Curse you Kate Elliott and your thought provoking articles.

  2. Hahaha.

    See, my theory is that sloppily applied default male gaze is a bad thing in part because it detracts from well defined male gaze in appropriate circumstances. Such as Beverly striding out of a river stark naked.

  3. Really? My husband is 52 and he’s not over it yet. Nor would I want him to be!

    When male gaze is written well in circumstances where it is appropriate I don’t mind it at all in fiction; it’s believable (I use it myself as a form of characterization–in Crossroads I have one male character who is constantly checking women out and at one point even thinks about how the fabric of her clothing is pulling across and emphasizing a woman’s breasts).

    Liz Bourke just made me read the opening bit of this book called Demi Monde or something, with a crashingly flagrant case of omniscient breasts, the woman studying herself in the mirror . . . her eyes filled with the male gaze. GAH.

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