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This Twitter Experiment Explodes The Literary Male Gaze

A Twitter challenge for women to “describe yourself like a male author would” serves as an amusing, illuminating summary of how men tend to write women.

This Twitter Experiment Explodes The Literary Male Gaze
[Photo: Oscar Chevillard/Unsplash]

John Updike and Jonathan Franzen are two literary lions with one thing in common: the way they describe their female characters often leaves a lot to be desired.

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Women’s breasts are either “pendulous” or “plum-sized,” but readers never have to wait around very long to find out about their shape and magnitude. This little quirk isn’t just limited to these particular body parts, though, or these particular authors. In general, when male writers describe men, they aim to create a vivid image of who this character is, and when they describe women, they aim to convey that woman’s precise level of fuckability. That’s the literary male gaze in a nutshell, readily observable in endless globs of overheated prose and every Margot Robbie profile. A recent Twitter experiment eviscerated this epidemic quite impressively.

It began with an observation culled from the hashtag #ownvoices, where Twitterers recommend novels with diverse characters that were written by someone in the same ethnic group as those characters. (The hashtag also encompasses books written about women, by women.) On March 30, YA author Gwen C. Katz tweeted about a male author using the hashtag to offer himself as proof that male authors are capable of writing authentic female protagonists. Katz included in her tweet a screenshot of some prose from the unnamed male author’s book:

“I sauntered over, certain he’d notice me. I’m hard to miss, I like to think — a little tall (but not too tall), a nice set of curves if I do say so myself, pants so impossibly tight that if I had had a credit card in my back pocket you could read the expiration date. The rest of my outfit wasn’t that remarkable, just a few old things I had lying around. You know how it is.”

Lo and behold, every woman in a three-tweet radius immediately felt seen. Well, not exactly. Instead, writer Kate Leth responded with a tweet parodying this familiar flavor of male-penned descriptive language:

The tweet struck a chord with many of Kath’s female followers, inspiring podcaster Whitney Arner to throw down the gauntlet for all of Twitter:

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Seemingly every book-loving, female-identifying Twitter user accepted the challenge in kind, setting the stage for an entire day’s worth of spot-on send-ups of the literary male gaze.

Some of the responses highlight the tortured language often used to describe the female anatomy. Others focus on the leering tone that tends to creep in on such descriptions.  A few highlighted the disturbingly common trend of using culinary words to describe the skin of women of color. Nearly all of them highlight the male writerly obsession with breasts. Have a look below at some of our favorite responses–a solid argument for why men should be forced to vet their descriptions of women with an actual woman going forward.

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