All right folks, buckle in. I’m going to try to get through the long history of the feminist theory of “the male gaze” in a relatively short and sweet way–if you’re interested in all the nuance you should check out some of the theorists I mention along the way.
What is the male gaze?
The male gaze is essentially the perspective in various art and media that a heterosexual cis man is viewing a passive woman. In film there are various viewpoints for this, but in literature it becomes a bit muddy. “The gaze” in general is an idea from Sartre in which the activity of gazing at a person creates a power difference: the person being gazed at is now an object. This idea was adapted to discuss cinema by Laura Mulvey–her idea presented a male gaze that, in cinema, represents the social and political inequality between men and women through the aesthetic pleasure of viewing a woman through a male centric gaze. There’s a lot more going on here–including queering and female gaze–but the point boils down to the fact that the male gaze is a film theory. So how does this apply to books? And why am I discussing it?
The gaze itself
The male gaze is primarily a film studies theory, but “the gaze” is a larger sociological theory that can be and is applied to literature. This idea presents a psychoanalytic state of being in which a person is objectified by becoming aware of being viewed. There is a loss of autonomy in being an object of the gaze, as you are inherently stripped of a degree of humanity. It also comes with self-awareness, such as the gaze being a state in which a person realizes they are only an object in a greater universe. At its base, the gaze can be voyeuristic or self aware, and relates to the mirror stage to a degree as being self aware may trigger the moment of recognizing the gaze.
How the gaze relates to power
As stated in the above section, as the object of the gaze one loses autonomy. Being the gazer gives you power over the object of your gaze. You are viewing them as an object rather than a person when participating in the gaze, especially when the object is not aware of the gaze at all. There are, however, power dynamics that come with the self awareness aspect. For example, if you as an object become self aware of the gaze of the general universe, you can prepare for that and use it as a freeing mentality. Alternatively, in queer and feminist theories about the gaze, there is the idea of shaking off the specific gazes of the cis male and shaping one’s self without factoring in how to better suit being an object of the male gaze.
How does the male gaze present itself in literature?
When applied to literary works, the male gaze is actually pretty simple and seen quite often. Think of all those articles and memes about how male writers write female characters and you’ll notice it. When a (cis, straight) man sits down and writes a female character he is inherently putting forth an opinion formed by his masculine perspective. Good and great writers are able to take feedback from female writers and editors to improve their portrayal of female characters, but inexperienced or uncaring male authors often move forward with their version of femininity. This is how we get fundamental misunderstandings of what causes certain behaviors in women, such as hypersexuality, shyness, confidence, jealousy, intelligence, and more. This is even more true when a female character is trans, queer, has past trauma, or otherwise deviates from the lived experiences of the writer. The unique lived experiences of people who are not cis straight men result in personality traits developing differently, and the male gaze fails to understand this.
Recognizing the male gaze and correcting it
I would say that many readers, especially those I know now in the bookish communities, easily recognize the male gaze as it occurs. Just look at the popularity of memes pointing out female characters written by male writers! Generally, you can tell the male gaze is happening when a character is written from a particularly objectified point of view. This means focusing on their physical attributes first, using odd adjectives to do so many times. The character, if involved in the story for a long period of time, is frequently physically described and is likely a sex object if they are attractive to the main character. Alternately, if they are unattractive to the main character (and usually the author too) they will be described heinously, and probably given several annoying character traits to nail home that they are unattractive. Male characters also get the male gaze treatment, with “cool” characters being described in flattering terms and others reduced to stereotypes to convey their “bad” place in the story.
Correcting the male gaze relies on authors either being self aware, or reaching out to beta readers, sensitivity readers, and editors to help them correct stereotypes and unflattering descriptions. Of course, a good writer will also recognize that there is a time and a place for stereotypes, tropes, and unflattering descriptions–but it is important to review work to make sure it isn’t a consistent problem in which characters are objectified, stripped of autonomy, and reduced to tropes in a trench coat. Readers and reviewers can also call these cases out, discussing books or stories that uncomfortably objectify their characters. But, the gaze in literature can be constructive. Sometimes its use has meaning or acts as commentary, so the presence of the gaze–and even of the male gaze–isn’t always a criticism.
Comment below your thoughts on the gaze vs. the male gaze, examples you’ve encountered (done well or done poorly) or any thoughts you’d like to add to this discussion!