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.

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Discovering Metaphor within the Textures of Your Narratives

A metaphor is an analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second…. The tenor is the idea being expressed or the subject of the comparison; the vehicle is the image by which this idea is conveyed or the subject communicated. (A Handbook to Literature)

Metaphor and Simile

The simplest distinction between kinds of comparison, and usually the first one grasped by beginning students of literature, is between metaphor and simile. A simile makes a comparison with the use of like or as, a meatphor without. Thought this distinction is technical, it is not entirely triviial, for a metaphor demands a more literal acceptance. If you say, “A woman is a rose,” you ask for an extreme suspension of disbelief, whereas “A woman is like a rose” acknoledges the artifice in the statement . . . . (Writing Fiction)

The Cliche Metaphor

Cliche metaphors are metaphors so familiar that they have lost the force of their original meaning. They are inevitably apt comparisons; if they were not, they would’t have been repeated often enough to become cliches. But such images fail to surprise, and we blame the writer for this expenditure of energy without a payoff. (Writing Fiction)

The Far-Fetched Metaphor

Far-fetched metaphors are the opposite of cliches: They surprise but are not apt. As the dead metaphor far-fetched suggests, the mind must travel too far to carry back the likeness, and too much is lost on the way. When such a comparison does work, we speak laudatorily of a “leap of the imagination.” But when it does not, what we face is in effect a failed conceit: The explantation of what is alike about these two things does not convince. Very good writers in the search for originality sometimes fetch too far. (Writing Fiction)

The Mixed Metaphor

Mixed metaphors are so called because they ask us to compare the original image with things from two or more different areas of reference: As you walk the path of life, don’t founder on the reefs of ignorance. Life can be a path or a sea bu it cannot be both at the same time. The point of the metaphor is to fuse two images in a single tension. The mind is adamantly unwilling to fuse three. (Writing Fiction)

The Obscure and Overdone Metaphor

Obscure and overdone metaphors falter because the author has misjudged the difficulty of the comparison. The result is either confusion or an insult to the reader’s intelligence. In the case of obscurity, a similarity in the author’s mind isn’t getting onto the page. (Writing Fiction)

Metaphor in Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

There are many craft elements to value and cherish within Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, but arguably, one of the more cherished beauties is how she earns extended metaphor within a single, short paragraph. In the short story, “Inbound,” the narrator, Sophie, makes a connection between a comment made by her father and her little sister, Lily, who has Down’s Syndrome: 

“Lily clarifies life,” Sophie had heard her father say to one of his friends. Sophie didn’t agree. Clarity you could get by putting on glasses; or you could skim foam off warm butter—her mother had shown her how—leaving a thin yellow liquid that couldn’t even hold crackers together. Lily didn’t clarify; she softened things and made them sticky. Sophie and each parent had been separate individuals before Lily came. Now all four melted together….

In this very short paragraph, Pearlman introduces and earns an organic and extended metaphor born from the narrative versus a metaphor or analogy imposed upon the narrative in a way that feels forced and author driven.

Often, we struggle with metaphor: how to discover metaphor within the organic textures of our narratives rather than force metaphors upon our narratives.

In the above example from “Inbound,” the reader senses a depth of history, characterization, connection and foreshadowing, all accomplished within a short paragraph. The craft is so smooth and certain one might assume the passage came swiftly and without much effort; however, it may have taken Pearlman months or even years to perfect this single paragraph. Then again, it might have come to her in a single moment. However this passage came to Perlman, it was born so thoroughly from the characters—Sophie, her sister, mother and father—that it is not only believable, it is essential.


Searching Mundane and Common Character Details for Authentic Metaphors

The simplicity of butter and the process of clarifying is a mundane detail, a cooking lesson common between mothers and daughters. The father using this common detail to explain Sophie’s sister and her impact upon the family is believable. Sophie questioning detail and its accuracy provides a turn and defining moment for Sophie. She is a girl who values logic and keeps her own counsel. In this short paragraph, Pearlman earns our interest, our trust and our wonder.


Writing Exercise

Choose a short story you’ve already written. Scan the story for a metaphor you would like to further explore and revise then ask the following. Does the metaphor:

  1. Connect one or more main characters from the chapter or preceding several paragraphs?
  2. Further the reader’s knowledge of the narrator and/or protagonist?
  3. Provide a sense of foreshadowing?
  4. Provide an organic sense of detail that suits the setting and characters? (For instance, are you using a medieval reference for a contemporary character who knows little to nothing about medieval history?)

This last question is key. Too often writers will force metaphor and detail upon their characters because the detail is interesting to the writer. In early drafting phases this is okay because the writer is still in an exploration phase of the writing process. However, in later revisions, the writer must be weary of how closely the details reflect self and/or character and be on alert for moments when the writer’s details have taken over the character’s details. When our characters begin showing us where they are different than us, our characters are taking true form and shape. Of course, there are writers who write self again and again, and this can work, but the writer must still ask whether or not the characters have been fully explored.


Writing Guidelines

First Draft: As you explore and rewrite the metaphor, remember, this will essentially be a first draft again so let your creativity go where it needs to go. If you discover something entirely new about your characters, allow this to continue, keep writing. You might find you have an entirely new story or an additional story. This is okay. Let your characters lead you. 

Second Draft:  You aren’t under any quick turnaround deadlines, so take your time with this draft. Don’t worry yet about the line edits and so on. Be curious and authentic to your narrative and characters. Ask questions, logic questions, personality questions, detail questions.

Third Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day, few weeks, months, before your next step. In the meantime, explore another metaphor from the same work or another work.

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