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!