Editing Rant: Male Gaze or Empowerment?

Photo by Dalton Smith on Unsplash

Right. So, is this manuscript I am editing awash with male gaze or empowerment?

What used to be empowerment in the 60s and 70s, an acknowledgment of a woman controlling her own sexuality and its presentation, has been turned on its head and now is seen as the male gaze.

Is the woman not wearing her bra because those contraptions hurt or because it’s time to show titties on the screen or page?

I think this manuscript could have worked even as late as the 80s, but times have changed, and the older writers and editors need to be aware of this. For heaven’s sake, READ GENRE from the last three years, not forty years ago.

Best way to explain the male gaze vs. empowerment discussion is by using two recent superhero movies: Wonder Woman (filmed by a woman) vs. Black Widow (in the Avengers filmed by a man).

Women have commented on their love of Wonder Woman landing and having her legs jiggle (not her boobs). Our heroine just goes in and gets things done. And when in combat, at least, the high heels get tossed out for combat boots.

Black Widow goes in and gets things done too, but the camera strokes her in a totally different way. Most people remember Black Widow in the Avengers scene with her tied to a chair. Yes, she is kick-ass, but it’s also her tied up and in heels, starts with a phone call and a high camera shot while she is seated. Avengers gets better once she gets into her leather armor fighting suit …. well, sort-of … not like it is an ACTUAL catsuit, even with the front unzipped to show off cleavage and she is shown in profile a lot for the boobs. I won’t start about the long hair in a combat specialist usually worn lose.


Since she was trained to use sex as a weapon so it is all okay. It is empowering to females.

Suuurrreee, it can be considered “empowering” but who is the director trying to kid?

That is male gaze.

In this manuscript, the female main character is both a ninja and geisha – basically a Black Widow. Brought onboard the space ship and into a culture “far in advance” of her own (colonialism much?), she is expecting to have sex with those around her, but they are all Proper Men Who Would Never Take Advantage.

They do have drooling and wolf whistle issues (I’m not joking).

To her question of “do you need to use me as a geisha here?” when dealing with political situations, the male love interest is constantly answering “no, you don’t have to have sex with anyone”. It’s a running joke to the point of Kindergarten’s Cop “It’s not a TUMOR!” invasiveness (ha-ha, cue laugh track as a woman bows and asks for punishment through sex for angering the man).

The men around them are constantly going “why did anyone damage a beautiful GIRL this badly”. Clearly they are not the Horrible Types that did this to her (though they go to joy-houses where they can take advantage of this, but that only happened Before They Knew Her).

The secondary female character has been captured by the enemy and is under constant Threat of Rape by the Horrible Men.

Can you guess what happens when the two female character get together for the first time and are completely alone? Of course, we get a lesbian sex scene.

Did I mention the male love interest is married? But his wife is a shrew and cheats on him, so his interest as a forty-something man in the nineteen-year-old ninja-assassin he Rescued is totally acceptable.

All the women in this SCIENCE FICTION story have been raised and taught to use sex as a tool.

So empowering. (sarcasm font)

Note that this is a science fiction manuscript, not an erotica, not even being sold for its romantic elements.

I guess the best way to really capture why this is male gaze is the wash scene. The male is in water up to his neck and is the first to become aware of the other. The female is stretching and leaning over, half out of the water. The woman when she realizes she is not alone feels SAFER because a potential PROTECTOR is near. (Not a voyeur, secretly watching her, intentionally or unintentionally.)

It took me a moment to figure out if this is male gaze since they are both undressed and in the water, but then I realized we never “see” the male be naked or viewed sexually on the page during that scene, only the woman.

This continues throughout the manuscript.

I have a couple worse examples, but … and here is the sad thing … anything else would identify the book once it is published. EVERYTHING ABOVE IS SO COMMON, you might run across it in a dozen science fiction stories – books, television, movies, anime. In fact you already have again and again if you like science fiction. Think Firefly Inara as a companion, Fifth Element Leeloo needing love for activation (and as little clothes as possible), …

Hey – you, sci-fi writers. Update your tropes. You are embarrassing yourselves with how dated you are. Push the envelope forward, not backward.

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