Meg Elison has written a McSweeneys post about The Gaze which strikes a chord.
IF WOMEN WROTE MEN THE WAY MEN WRITE WOMEN.
At The Guardian, Lindesay Irvine (incidentally, a man) responded to this spoof gender reversal with:
Anyone who’s ever had a brush with cultural studies will be familiar with Laura Mulvey’s influential theory of the male gaze in film and fine art and photography. But I’d never quite thought the male gaze could function equally well in fiction.
Yes, of course the male gaze functions equally well in fiction.
I’m sorry to say that this gaze is just as prevalent in children’s fiction.
After chuckling at Meg Elison’s piece I made a note to blog an example from kidlit. I wasn’t actively looking for it because I have plenty of other ideas for blog posts, but it took less than a week to stumble upon an example.
Here we encounter the male gaze by the time we’re halfway down the middle of the very first page of an upper middle grade/young adult novel.
“Haven’t you loaded that chainsaw on yet?” Lisbeth asked.
Craig Dawson paused with one hand on the helicopter cabin door. He breathed deeply.
“I’ve been checking to make sure its tank’s empty,” he said. “You never carry anything with petrol in it, if you’re in a chopper.”
“Is that right?” Lisbeth’s voice was as cool as always. “Thanks for the lecture.”
This time, Craig breathed deeply twice. He slide the chainsaw into the main locker inside the Mongoose’s cabin, snapped the safety clips over it, then pulled the storage net tight, holding it in place.
“OK,” he announced as he straightened up. “That’s the lot.”
Lisbeth had finished stacking the supermarket bags of milk, fruit and vegetables in the Mongoose’s small locker. Now she stood with perfectly clean hands on the hips of perfectly fitted jeans, watching Craig.
– Cold Comfort by David Hill, 1996, published with the support of Creative New Zealand
It’s hard to imagine the character of Craig standing in perfectly fitted jeans (unless we’re reading specifically gay fiction marketed quite differently), and if you’re wondering about the narration of Lisbeth watching Craig, well, that’s it. I didn’t cut anything pertinent off by ending the quote there. The story goes back to Craig.
Importantly, the commentary on the teenage girl’s hips comes from an unseen third person narrator. That narrator is unambiguously male. The author chooses to pull in more closely to Craig’s head than to Lisbeth and there are writerly reasons for that; the reader’s sympathies are supposed to lie with Craig, not with Lisbeth. In short, this tendency to sexualise the female body rather than the male body is partly to do with how many more books are written about boys and men. (In kidlit, across the board, it’s about 3 male characters to every 1 female.)
David Hill’s work has been widely read (and taught) in New Zealand schools (I’ve had to teach his work myself, in a girls’ high school) and, like a couple of other big name educational authors from my home country (William Taylor is another), this is typical of the sort of narration that gets purchased by schools as class sets. It’s written from a blokey point of view with sympathies directed at the put-upon male character whose opponent is the annoying but sexually alluring female character. These characterisations are thought to engage those hard-to-reach reluctant boy readers.
(Fortunately in New Zealand reading lists have become a bit more diverse since the 1990s. This has happened in part because teachers have started to acknowledge that it’s not just boys who are failing to take up with fiction these days.)
However, when it comes to the male gaze, there’s more to it. Continue reading “The Male Gaze In Children’s Literature”