Male Gaze in Fantasy Novels: Authentic Characters or Problematic Writing?

We’ve all seen it before: boy on a quest to save the world sees a girl and is instantly captivated by her beauty and falls in love.  It’s a trope as old as “skin as white as snow, lips as red as roses.”  Now I enjoy a charismatic hero and have no problem with a male protagonist, but I’ve found myself increasingly bumping against male gaze in the books I read.  At the same time, I’ve found myself wrestling with a larger question – is the use of male gaze a failure on the author’s part, or simply writing an authentic character?

Before we dive into the larger question, let me first elaborate what the nebulous term “male gaze” means to me in the context of writing.  Simply put, it’s when a female character is introduced and one of the first things (if not the very first thing) we learn about her is how beautiful she is (and they’re beautiful more often then not), usually with descriptions of her various features.  Now the book might go on to develop these women as fully realized human beings and make me love or hate them on merits beyond their looks, but when I learn about their luscious locks of raven hair before I learn their name, I twitch a little.

So back to the question at hand: when this kind of objectification happens in the written POV of a male character, is the author writing a bad stereotype, or is he writing “truthfully” what’s going on in the character’s head?  Let’s be fair, regardless of your gender, you’re likely going to find certain people attractive at some point in your life. So, if you’re writing a sixteen-year-old boy, it makes complete sense that he’s going to be awkwardly bowled over by the stunning looks of the new girl in town, or the village beauty who won’t give him the time of day.  Libido before logic, right?

More often than not, however, the first longing gaze of our male hero heralds that the woman in question is going to be more plot device than character.  Even if the two characters don’t end up together, she’s the prize at the end of the tunnel.  And that’s partially to do with the continued reliance on Western European medieval society standards for fantasy templates.  Even as we see a rise of books with women in proactive leading roles, we also see fantasy after fantasy where the women stay in the village to raise families and wait for the hero to come home.  So when I see the male hero start pining over a woman and cataloguing her features, I get a little nervous about the likelihood of other incoming tropes.

On top of that, it isn’t just male authors who write male characters this way.  I’ve read some female authors in the last year who fall into the same traps as they take a crack at writing a fantasy tale in the “classic” model.  I will admit, it’s left me a bit baffled when I read yet another male character dealing with unrequited love from a gorgeous woman “out of his league” (who in turn only gets a cursory pass at character development). I understand the urge to create a story in the model of what you grew up reading, but this is also your chance to throw some of the bad tropes out!

In a vacuum where no other books existed, the teen male protagonist staring wistfully at a girl who doesn’t know his name might be completely valid to his character.  There have just been SO MANY of these kinds of stories over the decades compared to ones with female leads, that when I see this trope, I get a little frustrated, ESPECIALLY when it crops up in a book that I am otherwise enjoying, or with an author I trust as a writer. This is usually when I start to go round in the circle of “Am I being unfair?  Is this what a ‘real person’ would be thinking? Or is this lazy writing parroting what’s been done in dozens of other fantasy books?”

I’m thankful to live in an increasing age of well-written female characters who have defining attributes beyond their looks, written by men and women alike.  And I fully acknowledge that male characters can be described in an objectified way as well.  As a woman, however, I’m more attuned to noticing yet AGAIN that a thoroughly gorgeous beauty has entered the scene (bonus eye roll if they somehow “don’t know” that they’re beautiful).  This question of character vs. author is one that has cropped up over and over in recent months, an unceasing itch at the back of my mind that has no easy or definitive answer.  So I throw it out into the void to see what other answers can be found amongst you lovely readers.

So what say you internet?  Is this a trope that causes you pain every time you see it, or an honest portrayal of a character’s inner thoughts?  Case-by-case basis, or cause for you to drop the book?  Drop your own musings in the comments!


33 thoughts on “Male Gaze in Fantasy Novels: Authentic Characters or Problematic Writing?

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  1. I think this is often a thing in YA writing and not just from a male perspective. I’ve read quite a few where the female lead falls for a guy who frankly isn’t nice just because of his looks. Not that its exclusively a YA problem but its where I notice it most from characters of both sexes. I agree I don’t like it much.

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  2. I would be along the same lines as you, I honestly get more annoyed when it is an author I trust and read often.
    I hated the first book in the Witcher series for all these reasons, espcially with the later parts of The Last Wish.
    Brilliant discussion!

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  3. It seems to happen a lot in YA, but also adult books. I also feel that my favorite books tend to be ones that don’t go on and on about the appearance of characters. And I’ve read plenty where it’s a “female gaze” situation where the new dude is hot hot hot, lol. It’s sort of a lazy way to get a romance off its feet.

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    1. I’ve read a couple lately where I’ve been debating mentioning the male gaze parts that bothered me, and that’s where this whole debate of “well wouldn’t the character do that?” stems from. Objectively bad or just something I as a woman am tired of seeing?

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  4. I know everyone likes to blame YA but I really can excuse some objectification if the protagonists are teens and can understand them getting attracted to good looking people. But there’s just the way the author describes that matters to me more, some can write it without making me feel uncomfortable or irritated. But it definitely angers me more if it’s adult fantasy and the authors take the descriptions up a notch.
    But as you said, if I’m really enjoying everything else in the book, what should I do? Just an eye roll and go on reading I guess.. maybe if it’s an author I love, I’ll give them more leeway but be more harsh in judgement about a new to me author.. I don’t know.. I guess it just depends on what I’m feeling about the book at that moment.

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    1. Yes to all of this! It really feels like a record-scratch moment when you’re enjoying a book and then a woman wanders in, has her looks described, says three words, and wanders out again. YA I can let slide more because romance is usually a heavy feature in this books – plus it’s a lot more likely to be female driven, and the love interest usually at least has an active role in the story.

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      1. That’s so true.. the women definitely have more agency and role in female written YA books, so I can discount a lot in them… but it surely leaves a sour taste in the mouth when the women just shows up to be objectified and then leaves…

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  5. I don’t read much YA so I can’t speak to that. In adult fantasy I’d say it is an accurate reflection of most male minds to see looks first. But women do too right? I’d say for guys this is accurate whether the guy is a teenager or an adult. We see the outside first and make a lot of first assumptions right off the bat. What I hope and expect from an older male character is a shift much quicker than with a teenager to other things like wanting to know about the woman as a whole person. Now if we are honest not all men do this in real life so let’s use the term “mature men.” I think mature men would notice initial looks and then want to know more about her because they know there’s much more to a person than outer looks and if they are to have any form of relationship (whether as friend or more) they would know that everything else about her other than her looks is more important. I’d also hope that part of the teenage character’s arc would be coming to realize those same things…as part of his maturing process.

    I’d expect an author to explore all that. If a woman enters a scene and is first described in terms of that male gaze then I want to see her character fleshed out and not just be used as a prop. But I think there are ways to introduce her character that don’t have to be that male gaze kind of entrance. If there is a specific reason to make her first entrance in the book be a surprise first encounter with the male character then fine do it that way if it really advances the plot to do it. But…maybe she could be introduced first in some other way where she is given her own persona first and then introduced to the male character in some surprising way for him that doesn’t diminish who she is. All that to say if someone is writing a story of quality I expect in this day and age that they can craft a scene that doesn’t have to be overly sexist. I expect authors to have those storytelling skills.

    I’ll say the impact of social change in terms of sexual and gender roles and norms and the way fantasy literature has changed with it is really important. Anytime I pick up a book from 20+ years ago I do a lot more cringing than I used to when reading these kinds of scenes and the way women characters are portrayed. I really really prefer today’s stories. Is there more change needed? Yes.

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    1. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments! And you’re right, women appreciate men/women’s looks as well. And in good writing, the mature man does exactly as you say, and the woman becomes a developed character. I think I’ve read a string of books lately where the female character either has no impact, or the actual point IS that the male character hasn’t gotten to know her beyond a surface level, and she actually isn’t right for him, and on the one hand, hey, he’s learning, on the other hand, look, the beautiful lady is a snob, SURPRISE! It’s the latter that just feels a bit tired to me in “classic” fantasy especially.

      Thank you again for such a long response, I appreciate the time you took!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I just had another thought. As a teenage male reader I was all about action scenes and didn’t mind a little sexiness thrown in (as opposed to romance). As an…older male reader I still really enjoy action scenes, don’t mind a little sexiness, but by god give me some serious character development!!! And not just the main character. I want the feels along with the action. That is what makes a book go from a 3 star to a 4.5 to 5 star for me. A good author will do that.

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  6. I’ve never really considered it, because I think it’s only natural. Human beings are visual creatures…and shallow, lol. I once took part in a psych study in uni where I think the results was that an overwhelming majority of participants’ reported “level of attractiveness” as the first thing that registers or is gauged upon meeting a new person, or something like that. So I guess that would lend to the authenticity argument? Still, I don’t think the author should go on and on about looks, there’s a limit to what I can take. In that sense though, it’s definitely not just a “male gaze” issue, because “female gaze” is definitely just as much a thing, if not worse sometimes. Men might go gaga over a woman’s looks, but my god, nothing pisses me off more than when a female character is willing to excuse a hot dude’s asshole behaviors just because OMG DIMPLES! Or SEXAY RIPPLING MUSCLES! I think YA is the worst offender in this, as others have already mentioned!

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    1. Those are all excellent points! You’re right, visuals are definitely one of the first things that register. For me, I just find it jarring when a relatively straight forward, gritty fantasy book starts describing a characters full, pouty lips and soft black hair. It’s not just that there IS a description, it’s also HOW it’s described.

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  7. If I come across one too many physical descriptors of the ‘long raven locks’ variety I usually dnf the book. I just can’t stand it. Obviously this is a case by case situation, but that kind of description usually means a romance is being constructed and it always feels a bit manufactured when the author has to do it that way. (I think I’m really just repeating what a lot of others have already said here).
    Great post Caitlin!

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  8. I think this is one of the reasons I read so many women authors because the female gaze is what I’m used to. I did a lot of LOLing in the early Dresden Files books at some of the way Harry thinks about women lol. Great post!

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  9. Honestly this trope is part of the reason I consciously choose to read fantasy written by women/non-binary authors more often than not. There are definitely occasions where it is character driven to focus on a beautiful person, but like you I find that with how many of these stories are out there it just makes me roll my eyes.

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  10. This really annoys me as well. I feel that many writers choose to go with stereotypes, which is the easy way. Breaking them, or going very strongly against the stereotype, is hard. There’s this book I’m planning to write where the female character is the furthest thing from a perfect princess. She has a prominent facial scar across her cheek and an athletic build with next to no curves. The male character is slightly obese. And because it’s a post apocalyptic/survival setting, the last thing they’ll notice when they first meet one another is outside appearance, ha ha.

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  11. I’m not bothered by instant attraction as long as it’s developed well after that. Does the object of desire show some personality? Is there more to the relationship than just hotness? Do they actually look like a good couple or is it just “they’re the romantic leads” with no more thought into it.

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    1. That’s a completely fair distinction! I remember when I originally wrote this post, my frustration was born of male characters who were attracted to women who clearly weren’t into them (the nerd who’s into the hottest girl at school kind of archetype) and the women didn’t have much depth beyond that. Incredibly aggravating!


  12. I have seen the female gaze in some books. Male admiring female or female admiring male, it doesn’t bother me as long as it’s handled tastefully. People are beautifully created, even physically. That’s just all there is to it. That said, I do like strong, well-written characters, regardless of the gender.

    As for bad tropes, I don’t necessarily thinking someone looks beauty is a bad trope, as long as they are written with emotions and feelings, as I stated above.

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