The absurdity of the male gaze in literature

Unfortunately, it seems that even in this day of age, women still can’t be expected to be treated equally to men. This time, specifically, it is the representations of women (constructed by certain male authors) within modern literature that emphasises this difference. However, this has certainly not gone unnoticed and uncommented on by female readers. If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen one of those ‘Describe yourself in the same way a male author would describe you’ threads that comically tear apart the awful, cringe-worthy depictions and impressions of female characters that have been persistently formed by male identifying authors over the years. A particular favourite is a line from Tim Lebbon’s ‘Coldbrook’: “Melinda was a natural beauty who paid little attention to what God had given her and, even though she rarely made much of an effort, she always exuded sexiness.” Charming.

Although it’s good to laugh at these ridiculous and dreadful descriptions of women, it’s also important to remember that these depictions have been seriously constructed by male authors and are therefore, in a way, an accurate reflection of how these men actually perceive, understand and value women. Not to mention how men have particularly dominated the field of literature and authorship for centuries, from Plato, Aristotle, and Homer, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and Tolkien – the list forever goes on. These are famous writers whose work, including their depictions and perceptions of women, remains to be read, studied, and analysed today. 

Thus, the representations of women that are produced by male authors can and have been, throughout history, proven to inform how femininity has been defined and how women have been and remain to be perceived within modern society. So, whilst these ludicrous, shoddy depictions of women and exaggerations orchestrated by the male gaze may seem humorous, amusing, and entertaining, there is a danger that comes with encouraging these careless, unrealistic representations of women within modern and contemporary literature.

It seems ridiculous, the difficulty some male authors seem to face in trying to write about a woman whose character and qualities goes beyond their beauty and appearance and is not limited to self-concerns and physical insecurities. From voluptuous breasts and curves, to wide hips and tiny waists, to long legs and kissable lips, these descriptions of women are reduced to focus on their sexual appeal via whatever physical features are determined most valuable by the gaze of the male author writing about them. 

Debasing women in literature from having any other value or worth as a person, other than how conventionally attractive they are to a man, has been a consistent and normalised theme within fiction. But it’s most damaging when these are the kinds of values that are constantly being presented to female readers, who will most likely internalise the information they are being fed through these characters. They set up impossible beauty standards, as well as an unattainable image of what it means to be a woman. So, it is most certainly poor representation – both for men who are likely to adopt the same expectations about women from reading these kinds of depictions too, and for women who have to suffer with the expectations that these descriptions bring.

Perhaps instead, if male authors want to write about female characters, they should look to the experiences and voices of their sisters, mothers, partners, friends, and peers. Or, read about female characters written from the perspective of their female contemporaries, and witness what a woman really is outside of the constrictions of the male gaze.

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Lily Boag

April 2021
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