Narratorial Male Gaze is when the narrator—particularly if it’s a supposedly non-judgemental third person narrator—provides unnecessary objectifying commentary about female characters, while male characters aren’t given the same sort of attention. (I don’t know how this applies to nonbinary and genderqueer characters because a. they’re disappointingly rare and b. the sort of writers who include them tend to be the same sort of writers who don’t get behind narratorial male gaze).
There are two types of narratorial male gaze (NMG, hereafter). Type one is when the narrator uses apparently complimentary judgement terms (“beautiful,” “cute,” “pretty,” “sexy,” “sensual,” “feminine”) to describe female characters. Type two is when the narrator feels the need to constantly remind the reader of the character’s body—and not in a physical-grounding way. This usually involves a lot of sexualized comments centered on the character’s breasts, curves, ass, or if you’re particularly lucky, all of the above.
There are three good reasons why these things don’t belong in your writing:
- It’s bad writing. To start, type one is a direct violation of show don’t tell. Rather than showing the reader that a character is attractive, it provides vague, subjective terms that tell the reader how they’re supposed to feel about the character. Judgement words are useful for telling us how a character feels, but coming from a distant third person narrator that don’t make sense and they don’t help readers picture the character. Each person has a different idea of what “beautiful” looks like.
Type two violates conservation of detail. Unless you’re writing a sex/seduction scene or this lady is secretly using the Magical Orb of Undead Summoning as a breast implant (plot twist?), her breasts do not warrant description. Every sentence that you spend on them is a sentence that doesn’t advance the plot. In other words you’ve got mildly offensive fluff with strange cultural baggage.
If you want to your character to be perceived as sensual, beautiful, or cute there are better ways to go about it. Show how they act. Show how other characters react. Talk about how they carry themself. Write it into their personality. There’s a huge difference between a character owning her sexuality and the author leering at her.
- It alienates readers. Male gaze is defined by the assumption that the observer is a heterosexual male, and so it privileges straight men above non-male and queer readers. This is a big problem in fantasy, which often acts as an exclusive boy’s club and features a number of tropes designed to keep women out.
Whenever you engage in NMG, you flatten female characters into sexual objects. Moreover, you imply that it’s alright to regard women in this manner and encourage this sort of thinking. This is essentially another way of making women feel unwelcome in the fantasy community, and of reminding them that the books they are reading weren’t written for them. Do this for long enough and they will flock to other authors who treat them like equals.
NMG also upholds problematic, narrow beauty standards. The fact that anyone genuinely believes that “beautiful” is an adequate description also implies that we should all have a similar idea of what “beautiful” looks like.
- It’s uncomfortable. NMG basically reads like the author is ogling their own characters. That right there is some weird emotional baggage. It’s awkward to read and it’s more than a little cringe-inducing, especially when the character in question is under-age.
Bonus points: In works where NMG is present, it tends to be drawn towards more than one character. In fact, it’s not uncommon for it to be drawn to all female characters. The sword wielding blood-knight? “Sexy.” The bookish mage? “Cute.” The wizened mentor? “Elegant.” Women don’t need to be pretty. They don’t all need to have soft hair (for the love of god, stop describing women as soft), smooth skin, and radiant smiles. Some women don’t. Not all women fit western beauty standards, and that’s okay. Not all women want to fit. Insisting that the women in your story must be conventionally beautiful suggests that it isn’t okay to be anything else. It also implies that women should care about how society judges their appearance rather than acknowledging the implicit sexism of policing how they present themselves.
What to do instead:
There are two solutions to NMG. The first is to go back through your work and expunge all of the objectifying statements delivered by the narrator and to replace them with hard-hitting effective character descriptions. While your at it, make sure that your women have agency and don’t act like objects. This will make your work more inclusive, your characters more compelling, and your readers more engaged.
The other option is to go back through your work and add equally creepy, equally objectifying statements delivered by the narrator in regards to the male characters. While no one deserves to be objectified, this will level the playing field, quell some of the non-straight/non-male readers, and make it so that your narrator is merely rude rather than openly misogynistic. (One of these things might be more effective than the other).