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Dear Kelsey,

This isn’t a direct response to your post about the inherent bias of gender labeling, but you got me thinking about the reasons such classifications exist at all, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

For some context:

It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.

What’s troubling though, is the implication that men should only read literature written by men, that men don’t need to bother with books written by women, and of course, that the only great books are those written by men.

Boys tend to resist reading stories about girls, whereas girls do not tend to resist reading stories about boys.

There are a lot of statistics on the gender gap in literacy, but this discrepancy in particular has always made me curious—perhaps because most literacy reports, if they mention it at all, recommend catering to male preferences in order to ameliorate the worst of the division.

But I want to know why it exists in the first place.

And while I’m sure the real answer to this question must look at many other important factors, I want to suggest one possible explanation.

In 1975, Laura Mulvey wrote a not-uncontroversial article called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” where she developed the concept of the Male Gaze. In brief, she suggests that cinematic audiences are placed in the position of the male viewer—that is, that the camera is oriented for a heterosexual male audience and through this lens, women become objects of the gaze.

Sexy Megan Fox Transformers Male Gaze Mikaela Banes

This Transformers still quickly illustrates the concept. Shia LeBoeuf’s character gazes at Megan Fox in amazement, and the audience clearly shares his perspective. The heterosexual men in the audience watch her in a scene designed solely for their visual pleasure.

But then, so does everybody else. Women (and non-heterosexual men) also watch this kind of cinema through the lens of the male gaze—they can’t help it. To watch the scene is to inhabit the male gaze. And so women begin to internalize that perspective. Despite being female, they are conditioned to view the world through a dominant masculine lens, and as a consequence, they begin to displace their own perspective.  In Ways of Seeing, John Berger perfectly characterizes the internalized male gaze: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

And that’s where I think Mulvey’s theory begins to make sense of this gender division in fiction. When women are regularly required displace their own perspective, they become more and more comfortable with the process. When a guy evaluates someone’s attractiveness, it’s often in terms of “yes” or “no,” but it’s not unusual for a girl to evaluate someone as “girl pretty” or “guy pretty,” demonstrating the regularity with which we can shift and displace our perspectives.

Now, as you know, I’m obsessed with Jane Smiley’s theory on perspectives in literature, so, as always, I’m going to block-quote her. In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Smiley says “When I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to me, the author’s or the character’s, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it.” (175)

Now, Smiley is referring to the impact reading novels can have on individuals and not this gendered male gazey business, but her logic still applies. She’s arguing that as we displace our own point of view for another’s, we become better able to view the world through alternate perspectives. And if, for better or worse, women are taught through cinema and larger society to displace their own outlook by internalizing the male gaze, then shifting to the perspective of a male character in a novel would hardly be an obstacle at all.

In contrast, male readers, as the dominant cultural group, are rarely forced to make these kinds of shifts–and I use the word force deliberately. Certainly, male readers (and viewers) can displace their perspectives, but they must actively seek it out. In a society dominated by the heterosexual male gaze, the heterosexual male perspective is constantly validated and rarely challenged.

While it’s true that, to court male readers, publishers must create rich, realistic, and engaging male characters, it also seems to be true that women authors with rich, realistic, and engaging male characters must still disguise their identities. The success of J.K. Rowling, S.E. Hinton, and J.D. Robbs (AKA Nora Roberts), all using initials instead of their first names, would testify to this fact.  And I do not mean to suggest that men are somehow incapable of identifying with a female protagonist or author, or less able to perform this shift of perspective. In fact, I would probably argue that frequent male reader could more easily enjoy a book from the perspective of the “other” than a female who doesn’t read often.

Because the shift to an alternate perspective can undoubtedly be a difficult one. When I first read Gone with the Wind, it was the first time I’d encountered an unlikable (or, at least, difficult to like) protagonist. Though I was determined to finish the book, the entire time I felt simply uncomfortable reading it. I was so used to a seamless transition, identifying with someone “just like me,” that the difference was challenging.

As a final thought, I would suggest that this argument applies not only to gender but to race, sexuality, and so on. Reading in Color and Dreaming in Books both talk about the lack of characters in meaningful/non-stereotyped roles with some frequency, making a good case for white/heterosexual gazes in addition to the gendered one I talk about here.

I don’t think Mulvey and Smiley’s theories offer the only explaination for this division, but if men tend to gravitate toward male authors and protagonists and women are less likely to distinguish, I would argue that, at least initially, the transition is eased by the cultural systems in place. Women are regularly forced to shift their perspective, to view the world through feminine and masculine lenses, whereas men are allowed—and even encouraged—to focus solely on the masculine.

Thank you for inspiring me to do the first bit of “real” research since graduation. Now I want to write another thesis!



P.S.  If you’re still confused about the Male Gaze, Dinosaur Comics has a short and highly amusing explanation

P.P.S. For some other great articles about gender and reading, see: NPR, the Huffington Post, Boys Don’t Read and Boys Don’t Read’s Wordstock Panel

P.P.P.S If you’re interested more in the research on literacy and the gender gap, I found a lot of sources that didn’t make it into this post:

Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow, a survey developed by UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, For easier reading: thoughts on the report from The Literacy Company

The National Center for Education Statistics (specifically Trends in the Reading Performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-Year-Olds) and thoughts on the report from Learn North Carolina

Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men

Jane M. Kendrick’s Middle Grade Boys: Reading Habits and Preferences for a New Millenium 

Boys, Literacy, and Schooling: Expanding the Repertoires of Practice by Nora Alloway et al. 

Boys and Books by Jane McFann