By: Kara MacKenzie
July 7th, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Any fiction reader has probably encountered a male author describing a female character in meticulous, borderline-creepy detail. Descriptions that characterize fictional women as thoughtless, powerless beings with giant, expressive breasts and appearances that seem to substitute for personalities are all too common — so common, in fact, that many readers have become desensitized and do not even notice them.
The hugely popular subreddit r/menwritingwomen helped to bring this problem to the public consciousness, but it has existed for decades. Bad examples of men writing women can be found from the classic Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey to the more contemporary George R.R. Martin and Stephen King, who, in his 1986 bestselling horror novel It, describes an eleven-year-old character’s breasts as “small like peaches, sweet like peaches.” Not only are these descriptions of female characters unnecessary and disturbing, they also reveal the deep levels of objectification and dehumanization that women face in both media and their everyday lives.
Grace Carney, an author and avid reader of fiction, says this problem is nothing new. “I have definitely noticed that a lot of male writers put way too much emphasis on breasts, which always makes me extremely uncomfortable because it is done so naturally.” She adds that she doesn’t think that this is always done on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. “I think a lot of male authors don’t understand how talking about [a character’s] boobs for way too long is extremely offensive. To me it comes across as a power play in the sense that [the female character] is so casually being sexualized and reduced to the purpose of serving men. ”
There are many reasons for this dilemma, one being a long-standing and pervasive patriarchy that has been extremely harmful toward women. Historically, female-presenting people in Western society have been the victims of intense objectification, defined by scholars Fredrickson and Roberts as “whenever a woman’s body, body parts or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her.”
Women have been treated like this for centuries, being controlled and stripped of their humanity, treated like property and objects and sex dolls. Because of this history and its continuing influence on current society, male authors (whether consciously or subconsciously) may not think of women as fully human, autonomous beings with complex thoughts and emotions. Instead, they project their views onto their female characters, describing them in the same one-dimensional and vulgar ways that they have been taught to think about women in the real world.
Carney agrees that this is a leading cause of the problem, saying “I feel that men objectify women more often because they are used to it [and] it was normalized in society for so long. Everyone is taught to objectify women, even women themselves.”
Author and reader Sydney Savage also sees the problem as stemming from the historic objectification of women. “Things like that [from] society then show up in literature. I think this makes men think they’re allowed to do it to women.”
Journalist Jade King describes this in an article for An Injustice! magazine, explaining that this tradition of objectification leads to unnecessary and disturbing portrayals of female characters. “Instead of listing out a woman’s features in a grounded and realistic way, men will [reduce] them to their body parts in an objectifying, fetishistic and condescending manner. Men’s obscene sexual fantasies are often reflected in their work.” It seems that male authors often forget that physical traits are not personality traits, and their female characters and readers pay the price.
“It makes me really sad,” says Savage. “It makes me feel disrespected. It may seem harmless to the people doing the sexualizing at first, but it does a lot of damage.”
She is right; one 2020 study from Vassar College found that seeing themselves or another woman be objectified can cause lower self-esteem and self-confidence, increased feelings of shame and anxiety, and even decreased cognitive performance in women. Male authors that do this may not realize it, but objectifying their own characters, even in fiction, reinforces the negative effects of objectification in their readers’ everyday lives.
Another reason that male authors feel so comfortable describing their female characters this way is because they write through the male gaze. This means that instead of considering a wide audience of all genders, sexualities and ages, much of the media that is created today targets heterosexual, cisgender men. Because of this, male authors are not taking into account non-fictional women’s bodies, thoughts or feelings — rather, they are writing what they would want to read. Unfortunately, what men want to read is often a flat, oversexualized woman with long hair and huge breasts where her personality should be, which leads to male authors creating characters like this over and over again.
This also results in strange, inaccurate self-descriptions from female characters, like in the novel Reader for Hire, where author Raymond Jean has his female protagonist introduce herself the following way:
“I’m on the tall side, slim in my upper body, wider lower down … Even if I do have a slightly hooked nose, I actually have full, very cushiony lips, and I think my complexion is more like peaches than feathers. To get back to my body, my neck rises tall above my shoulders, my arms are slim, my waist is slim and my breasts are nicely separated.”
It is not uncommon for a male author to write about a woman looking in the mirror, appraising her own body by observing how sexy she looks, even though most women would be more likely to comment on their own perceived imperfections. But it is not what real women would do that matters to the author: all that matters is how he is looking at this female character. If he is imagining a scantily-clad woman with a slim waist and perfect breasts because that is what he wants to see, then that is what his character will see too, no matter how unrealistic or objectifying it may be.
The historic lack of female representation in publishing also contributes to the problem of male authors objectifying and dehumanizing their female characters, and explains why there are not nearly as many examples of female authors egregiously sexualising and dehumanizing their male characters in the same way.
According to one article from BookRiot, a study of almost 200 bestselling fiction books published from 1300–2015 found that over 70% of the books were written by men. Additionally, only 25.6% of these books had female protagonists, and men were far less likely to write a book with a protagonist of a different gender than themselves. Finally, and most notably, books with male protagonists sold an average of 10 million more copies than those with a female protagonist.
Clearly, most literature — especially classic literature — is focused on the experiences, thoughts and needs of men, which means that women grow up reading these things. Exposure to male-centric literature from a young age makes it easier for women to write male characters, as they have been surrounded by examples of this for their entire lives.
However, there is a lack of accurate female-centric literature, especially in school curriculums. Without exposure to positive examples of female characters, men often do not have the experience and representation necessary to write detailed, three-dimensional women into their stories.
“What we consider to be literary canon does not seem to benefit oppressed groups, and it’s important we value the books that can benefit those oppressed groups and broaden perspectives,” says Carney. “Publishing people outside the norm would not only diversify the writing people today consume, but it would also encourage people with different perspectives to become writers and destroy stereotypes.”
Platforming female authors is certainly one solution, but there is another simple way for male authors to fix this problem: by listening to women.
“The best thing you can do is just talk to the women that you know,” says King. “Ask them questions. Ask for their opinions and advice. These types of conversations are essential in order to educate and understand each other. We just need to find men who are willing to listen.”
If male authors really do listen to the women around them, they can begin to understand how disrespectful and offensive their objectification of female characters is. With a bit of patience and effort, they can strive to do better.
And for female readers who are bothered by the unnecessary and disturbing descriptions of their favorite female characters, the best way to cope is to educate the men around you, scroll r/menwritingwomen for a laugh, and write what you want to read.
Kara MacKenzie is currently a senior studying Professional & Public Writing and Women’s & Gender Studies. She is interested in the intersections between rhetoric and social justice, and hopes to one day use her communications skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In her personal life, she is an intramural volleyball player, plant mom, artist, and avid reader.