My female readers will surely be familiar with the following scenario: you’re reading something, preferably nonfiction and not very formal, so that the author frequently addresses the reader to explain things, joke around, relate anecdotes, etc. Obviously you, the reader, knows that said author has probably never met you in his life (and it is a ‘he’ in this case), but nevertheless, while reading the book it’s expected that you and the author will form something of a rapport – an imaginary relationship, if you will – wherein the author is relating facts or a story to you and you’re indulging him because you find the subject matter and his way of relating it interesting.
Most of the time, it’s also assumed that anyone with an open mind and interest in the book topic would be welcome to read the book – and ostensibly, that’s true. I’m sure most book authors – certainly the authors of the books I read – are happy to get all the readers they can. Even if royalties and publicity were not motivating them, I want authors of things I read to have at least a nominal commitment to empathy and openness, with a distinct lack of hate or hang-ups vis-a-vis any particular group. There are plenty of authors who wouldn’t feel that way, but I try not to read things they write.
So. You’re happily zipping along, learning new things, wrapped up in the narrative, and then – BAM! All of a sudden the illusion that the author was speaking just to you, or had you in mind at all when he was writing this, is gone. The author has, completely unintentionally, revealed that the only readers he had in mind when writing this book were people like him – in short, people who were straight males. It’s not his fault, really – one of the hallmarks of privilege is that the privileged group is viewed as the default. In a joke, it’s never a woman who walks into a bar – unless, that is, the joke revolves around her being a woman. The majority of characters in books, movies, TV are men – unless there’s a reason for them to be female (like a love interest or to act as a gendered foil to a main character). And so on.
One of the most common ways that an author can make me acutely aware of my own lack of male privilege is by invoking our old friend, the male gaze. This excludes female readers in two possible ways:
- It establishes the idea that everyone views women – and ONLY women – as sexually attractive and appealing beings. Of course, there are many women who are attracted to other women, but a good deal more are not, and as we’ll see later, I think it’s pretty clear that these authors are not directing their words toward queer women.
- Much more insidiously, it communicates the message that a woman’s primary value is dependent on her physical appearance. If she’s attractive, than she’s wonderful and deserving of rhapsodic waxings-on about her breasts and thighs and rosy cheeks (she should be honored!). If she’s unattractive (to the writer, of course), then she is an affront to humanity who should be stamped out , mocked, or at the very least locked away where no one can see her. By forever bringing up the topic of how a female character, celebrity, or other personage appeals to the author sexually, he unwittingly reveals his subconscious belief that women exist primarily for male consumption.
Women who are not sexually interested in other women get hit with a double whammy here, but anyone who doesn’t fit the template of “straight male” gets some shrapnel. Anyone who isn’t attracted to women (for example, gay men) suffers from number 1, and anyone who identifies as female is slapped with number 2. As one of the aforementioned double-hitters, I feel confident in saying that number two is much worse. Better to be ignored than actively belittled.
Want to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I know you do. Here are just a few of the ones that have given me a psychological hypnagogic jerk in the past couple of months. (more…)