The Male Gaze

When writing sex, a common trap for both male and female writers when writing sex is writing the female character from the perspective of the male gaze without being aware of the perspective. For example in the novel and film, Requiem for a Dream, Marian is the ultimate expression of male gaze.

Repeatedly, the men in her life use her sexuality and beauty as a means to an end: money, gratification, drugs, mob satisfaction… She comes to see herself in this position. She is mindful of it. She attempts to explain to her boyfriend that she is uncomfortable with asking for money. She is not sure what she’ll have to do to get it. At dinner, she fantasizes about lashing back—i.e., stabbing her smug dinner partner in the hand. Yet, she does not stab her dinner partner in the hand. She joins him in bed so to receive a monetary “loan.” Her one condition is that he shut off the lights.

Marian is a product of the male gaze, and yet, it works in this narrative because she is aware of it and the sexual narrative is specifically focused on this discussion of male gaze in her characterization. Likewise, her boyfriend might have been portrayed as an unapologetic pimp, but he is not. He is an addict who promises they will get their lives together. Just this one last time. Both Marian and her boyfriend are vulnerable, uneasy and scared about their states of being and choices, and yet, they still make choices that put them in vulnerable and misogynistic positions. They want to be better, and they have a general idea of what this might be, but their addictions to drugs and each other are perpetuating their spiraling arcs.

In this example, we see how the male gaze can be an intriguing and an essential literary focus. However, imagine that Marion had no conflicts about using her body for money and her boyfriend had none as well. In this case, the writer should ask where the internal conflicts are? Without internal conflicts regarding one’s own sexuality, why write the sexuality? To get readers off? This, a literary work, does not make. Writing sex in a literary work must be about more than merely the sex.

Writing the Male Gaze Exercise

A primary focus is point of view. From whose point of view will the scene unfold. Whether you are writing a sexualized mundane moment—i.e., a woman or man simply crossing the street and being watched in an objectified way—or writing a graphic sex scene—i.e., a character being attacked or sexually exploited—the perspective and point of view will set the tone. Choose such a scene from a work you’ve already written and complete the following:

  • Write the “other” character’s perspective. If you first wrote from the objectified character’s point of view, write a new scene from the objectifier’s point of view and vice versa;
  • Now, rewrite the original point of view. What details might you now add because you’ve explored the other’s point of view?
  • Which point of view is most resonant and creates the most tension? How many other scenes in your work might benefit from this exercise?

Remember: the “gaze” and sexual objectification are very much real and have a place in our artistic works. It is how we represent them that will either explore the social issue critically or perpetuate the issue.

In early drafts, our personal perspectives and experiences will take precedence, and for this reason, it is necessary to explore the “other’s” perspective. For many, it will be a loathsome task to explore the objectifier’s perspective. To soothe this process a bit, think of yourself as an FBI profiler. To address and catch the perpetrator, the profiler must engage intimately with the perspectives of the perpetrator. Even the most heinous of individuals have both a background and weakness. On the same note, if you find that you are often writing from the objectifier’s point of view without excavating the critical nature of the objectification, I strongly encourage you to look at this from a craft and personal standpoint. Further development in this area will not only improve your gender awareness and sex scenes within your narratives, it will open new perspectives et al.

Course Materials


Contributing Faculty

Rae BryantRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.

One on One Creative Writing Workshop

If you would like to share your narrative, post it to the discussion board below and share it with your course peers. If you end up expanding this narrative into a fuller work and would like written, individualized feedback on it, we invite you to join us for a One on One Creative Writing Workshop.