Male vs Female Gaze: What Makes Each Gaze Unique?

There are stark differences in novels with a male gaze vs a female gaze. Read on to learn more about these differences.

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A sexy lounging woman vs a smart-looking man on a blueish-purple background.

Most of the time, readers are seeking pleasure out of their books. They want to look from a perspective that will create specific enjoyment. While that enjoyment may be different for everyone, certain gazes lead to enjoyment for individual groups of people. One of the more dominant perspectives is the male gaze. Male writers depict their female characters with a focus on them being sexual objects. It has existed for centuries and is often in place without a strong female character.

Lately, there has been a female gaze popping up, which is the same concept in reverse. While the former may be seen as over-sexualization, the latter is often seen as modern empowerment. Let’s compare the two gazes and their evolution to see how they really function.

What is the Male Gaze?

While there hasn’t always been a name for the concept, the male gaze has existed in written work for quite some time. It’s seen through the sexual descriptions of women in novels being the center of their personality. That gaze is clear in Lolita. Dolores is a child, yet the protagonist only sees her as a sexual and seductive person. When people think of this novel, they think of the sexual relationship at play, and there isn’t much seen of the main female character as a nonsexual person. The fact that this male gaze comes into play when dealing with a child being viewed by a much older man shows some of the problems that take place within the male gaze.

Book cover of "Lolita" which displays the bottom of a person's face and half of their lips.

The Virgin Suicides is a large spot for the male gaze. The book is told from the point of view of boys, and the sisters, who are the objects of their affection, are perceived as simply beautiful creatures. Many plots and perspectives circle back to the men’s desires. There are many dreamy sequences where the women are sexual and become a bigger pull towards the men’s affections. These women are going through serious struggles in their lives, but since the story is told from the men’s perspectives, the focus is on the women’s sexuality. It doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book; it’s just pointing out the perception of men and what male audiences want: they want a beautiful and sexual woman.

Manic Pixie Dream Girls

A common way that the male gaze is used in modern media is through the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While not always overtly sexual, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character, usually a love interest, that is seen as quirky and cute, but she lacks any real substance. She’s just there for a guy to think she’s cool and hot, but there isn’t always a deeper connection. What man wouldn’t want a fun girl with surface-level wackiness but nothing too deep so that he has to support her needs? This trope plays into the male gaze because it’s wish fulfillment for the men who want that quirky and cute girl to fall desperately in love with them because they want that devotion.

Book cover of "The Great Gatsby" with a crying face on a blue background with bright city lights on the bottom.

Let’s take a look at Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. We don’t see much of her personality, but we know from her appearances that she’s alluring and that Gatsby wants her more than anything. Gatsby throws all of these parties for her and tries to steal her from her husband, yet we don’t read about any interests or core parts of her personality. She’s a gorgeous and fun character that any guy would want on the surface, but who’s she really? How about Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower? She’s seen as fun, cute, and supportive, and that’s what Charlie wants. He ignores his own girlfriend for Sam because Sam just seems so special and different. She stands in cars and sings old songs, so she’s so cool. She’s written as the perfect dream girl, but her pretty existence seems almost like a fantasy.

The male gaze creates these characters to present a shiny girl for the male reader to latch on to, as some men would like to find that girl.

What is the Female Gaze?

When it comes to the female gaze, it’s less sexual in nature but still relies on people’s fantasies. The female gaze is basically written with the intent of what women want to see in a man. Men in the female gaze are usually sweet and sensitive, with qualities that take down expectations of masculinity. In addition, the female characters in the female gaze will usually be strong and powerful without a man needing to uplift them. The female gaze can include sexual actions, but there’s usually more thought and emotion placed behind what’s happening.

Book cover of "Normal People" with a green woman's face on the top half and a blue man's face on the bottom half.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation has a strong female gaze in terms of the female characters in the novel. The main character is fleshed out and intriguing, but that isn’t based on sexuality. There are issues that happen in reality in this novel, which creates a relatable woman experience. The main female character is depressed, with all the characters around her being fleshed out with their own problems. It isn’t about her alluring qualities.

Regarding love interests, Normal People has a romance that strongly notes the female gaze. The novel shows realistic love that isn’t too focused on sex. In addition, there’s a male love interest that piques women’s curiosity. There’s a sensitivity to their romance that isn’t based on hard sex but sweet romance. The male gaze may emphasize sex, but the female gaze emphasizes emotions.

The Jane Austen Female Gaze

While the male gaze has dominated a lot of popular literature, many female gaze influences can be traced back to Jane Austen’s novels. We may be more progressive almost 200 years later, but Austen writes books with a female focus in mind.

Book cover of "Pride and Prejudice" with a woman reading a book.

Her novels usually center around strong female characters who fall for men when they express deep affection through their words. They don’t pick slaves to deep masculinity, as it’s about what women want. Novels like Northanger Abbey and Persuasion show confident women with unique personalities that don’t just settle immediately. Specifically in the former, Catherine has a deep interest in Gothic literature and isn’t so easy to be won over, but time is taken to get there. The film adaptations of novels like Pride and Prejudice really put forward the type of men that women want with the emotions portrayed. Women have fallen for Mr. Darcy because of his development, which turns him into a passionate man who will fight for Elizabeth. Media may focus on men’s desires, but Jane Austen always considered what strong female readers desire.

Men Writing Women vs. Women Writing Men

The concept of male gaze vs female gaze has been popularized through writing styles. Based on those comparisons, it looks like a lot of preference is given to female writers, based on the critiques. When discussing how men write women, the conversation almost always leads back to sex scenes by men… Women laugh about how this writing will show that they don’t know how women’s bodies work, with statements about women’s bodies and breasts that sound like the men have never actually seen a human woman before.

There are whole subreddits based on this concept, with criticism for the bad sexual nature of these novels. Phrases like “breasted boobily” show some problems with this sexual writing. It demonstrates that the male gaze can be too sexual to the point of inaccuracy.

Keanu Reeves staring at the camera in a black suit.

Then there are the women writing men. The internet seems to be more favorable towards this idea. When people talk about women writing men, they talk about the men that they wish they had in their life. Women know how to write a dreamboat boy who’s also a caring gentleman. A nice golden retriever boy, if you will. The sensitive and caring men that exist in novels written by women sound like a dream, and all women want is a man written by a woman.

There are even some celebrity men with these vibes, with women saying that they want Keanu Reeves and Chris Evans because they are kind souls that could only be written by women. They are just that wonderful. When men write women, it becomes notable in the weird sex, but when women write men, it becomes notable in the amazing men that should be real. It goes to show what men seek out in the media and what women seek out.

Based on what’s written here, it would appear that I prefer novels with the female gaze. While that may be true in some aspects, I don’t want to generalize how I feel about the perspectives here. Some novels with the male gaze still have a respectable story, while others with the female gaze can feel shallow. These novels don’t exist under a monolith. Nevertheless, both perspectives are very much prevalent in the literature today. It can be clear when reading a book that some basis may come from the author’s fantasy, bias, or stereotype of a certain gender’s fantasy/experiences with love. So the next time you pick up a novel, ask yourself who this novel is really for.

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