The Goblin Emperor and the female gaze

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I am trying to get down some preliminary thoughts about something that occurred to me while I was rereading, and loving all over again, Katherine Addison’s recent release, The Goblin Emperor .

I was about three quarters of the way through, and during a complicated conversation between several key characters it occurred to me that one of the things I was loving about this book (and there is so very much to love) was that, though all the characters in the scene were male, who was noticing what, and how they responded, dialed in my perception over to female gaze.

I know how shifty the sand is here. The instant someone seems to be possibly maybe hinting at an idea that “all men write like this” or “all female authors write like that” howls of protest rise. As they should. And yet, while I am no proponent of that “all,”  the longer I read, the more patterns I perceive.

Even that can be dangerous ground. Patterns are not math: we don’t all see the same ones, because our experiences are not the same.

But right after I read The Goblin Emperor, I saw a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Hmm, I thought, kings again! I opened it. The first fifty pages, in three nested sets of openings, was solid blood, guts, and fighting. No women. I put it down at that point, so I have no idea how the rest of it goes. Obviously it was extremely popular, sold millions of copies. But that opening, which happens to have been written by a man, represented what to me reads as standard-for-genre male gaze. This is still the default for many.

The Goblin Emperor also opens with male characters, but the violence is off-screen. Maia, the unwanted half-goblin son of the emperor of the elves, abruptly finds out that his father, uncles, and cousin all died in an air crash, and he is now emperor. And the story carries on with what he does about the news.

A woman appears briefly on page 28, otherwise the characters are mostly male. After I finished, I could not help wondering what the opening would have read like as male gaze. Would it have begun with a graphic description of the crash of the emperor’s airship, right to the last bit of congealed blood and ash drifting down into the empty eye sockets of the emperor & family’s skulls?

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Coming at the idea of female gaze from another angle, as I read this book, it occurred to me now and then that what Maia sees is how I often look at individuals. Again, the foundation for gender remarks is such shifting sand, but I think a lot about patterns I see in my reading, after more than half a century at it.

What is female gaze, precisely? I heard someone say once that it’s all about how characters are perceived. Charles Dickens, it was pointed out, writes brilliant male characters, yet his women all seem confined to types, except for the caricatures. Conversely, George Eliot was praised for her brilliant insight, but it’s her female characters who linger in memory: as Henry James said about Middlemarch, arguably one of the best novels of the nineteenth century, Will Ladislaw, the heroine’s hero, is weak stuff, a collection of admired traits and not nearly as well drawn as her other characters.

I think that’s too easy, too general. I’ve never heard anything useful come out of maintaining that men can’t write about women nor can women write about men. First thing people do is point to exceptions, and I’m no different. One of the best female characters of my reading is C.S. Lewis’s first person protagonist in Till We Have Faces. And I’ve seen plenty of male readers say that Lois McMaster Bujold gets the male gaze right in her Miles Vorkosigan space operas.

I think this is more of a question about what the writer, any writer, sees as important to notice, and maybe it’s also a bit about certain kinds of interactions, plus the language that the scenes are cast in. When I was in college I was taught to look at fiction in a way that made it clear men wrote about important things, about power. Men’s language, reinforced by authority, made things happen. Male power depended on role as well as action; women could only react. Women couldn’t successfully carry off heroic action because role reinforces action in order to be meaningful, and women’s roles were not those of power. So women wrote about trivial things, even if those things encompassed all the vital parts of life, from birth to death, and all the range of relationships in-between. Important literature was about men, written by men for the males who dominated the literary and academic scenes.

Of course now we see those once accepted assumptions being challenged by male and female writers, and changing in dynamic ways. For all the old patterns that persist, there are new patterns that embrace role, power, and meaning, yet inform a distinctively female gaze. And one that I thoroughly enjoy in certain hands.

A third vector: I tried a couple of female-written male/male romantic fantasies a few months ago, noting the storytelling, plot, and emotional patterns. One was by Ginn Hale, and the other by C. S. Pacat.  Women seem to be the main audience for female-written male/male romances. Why aren’t these women reading romances written by gay men? Some of them are, but I think what they like in the female written ones is that the men in the stories are seen through the female gaze. Roles, power, meaning, are played with in ways that don’t map over the old rules, pleasing a female audience.

Contrast that to Game of Thrones, which is most definitely written from the male gaze. It, like the Sanderson, is selling millions of copies. That suggests to me that women like the male gaze, too, because it’s not just men enjoying the books and film adaptation. Or in certain ways is the male gaze still the default?

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As I said above, The Goblin Emperor is mostly about men, but the power dynamic is turned inside out in fascinating ways, and I believe that the female gaze is what makes this book work so brilliantly.

The main character’s emotional spectrum is that of a victim of abuse. He sees himself as powerless, and has to (painfully) adjust to the mindset of one who discovers himself to be the most powerful person in the entire land. The subtleties of the female gaze imbue the the emotional verisimilitude of the main character with verisimilitude, informing his perceptions of interactions, his attempts to evaluate the total overthrow of what he’d accepted as paradigm, as power dynamics, and in his profound moral struggles.

As you can see, I haven’t come to any firm conclusions. The book is so new, and I, being cis-gendered female, see the world, and literature, through my own perceptive lens, with all its distortions. But I thought, why not throw a few ideas out there and see what others think, and incidentally I hope get more people to read a terrific book.

Then put the book on my reread shelf for another go.

 

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The Goblin Emperor and the female gaze — 53 Comments

  1. I am wondering whether it might be useful to start talking about subsets of gaze. Such as the soldier gaze, or the politician gaze. Part of the problem with this idea is that most of the subsets are going to be named for positions/statuses that were previously only held (publically, officially) by men. But you could get psychologist gaze and nurse gaze and adolescent gaze and crone gaze …. and you see where I’m going with this.

    A problem with male gaze and female gaze is that then we get into strong gaze and weak gaze and all that yin yang light dark good evil wiffle, which bogs us down and prevents us from thinking about how the gaze of the narrator or protagonist invites us to understand the story.

    It would be fun to write a critical essay about a book thinking about a subset of gaze.

    So, basically I think you are right, but I’m trying to side-step the landmines.

    • Yes, you are right. I have this linked at my LiveJournal blog, where someone made a similar statement. I really like gaze, but I have to admit it is so diffuse. And female sensibility? No. Awareness? No. Paradigm? Too amorphous.

      • No no, I think gaze is exactly right because it is an all-encompassing mind-set that appears to be passive while having huge power over the things gazed at. I’m just trying to resist drinking from the stream of male/female dichotomy.

        • Yes! Yes. Exactly. Which is why I absolutely troweled on the qualifiers, in hopes of getting any possible discussion going in another direction than the same old.

  2. I wonder how much the “female” gaze comes from most women writers growing up in a subordinate position in their worlds. The powerless ignore the powerful at their peril. Women have had to study those above them in statue, learn their moods, look for subtle signs of feeling and impulse. I’ve not read enough male-written slave narratives to talk about them, but I wonder if they share this gaze, because their lives depended on what the white overseers were thinking about them.

  3. The first fifty pages, in three nested sets of openings, was solid blood, guts, and fighting. No women. I put it down at that point, so I have no idea how the rest of it goes. Obviously it was extremely popular, sold millions of copies. But that opening, which happens to have been written by a man, represented what to me reads as standard-for-genre male gaze.

    Now, I’ve heard “male gaze” used as a subset of gaze theory. In gaze theory, “male gaze” isn’t about paying attention only to male characters doing traditionally male things. It involves a straight male viewpoint, especially in media being marketed to mixed audiences, where the camera/male POV character objectifies female characters, focusing on their breasts, ass, legs, etc., often from the first shot/first paragraph/first panel, or where the camera/male POV character/narrator lingers on their beauty in inappropriate situations (as Victor Hugo does in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where he sexualizes Esmeralda when she’s en route to her death, and as the directors of various Supernatural episodes do with various female characters, who have a tendency to end up in sexualized poses while dying). Male gaze is far more common than female gaze (because most directors, cameramen, cartoonists, advertisers, etc. are male) and hence tends to be the default, save in media specifically marketed to women.

    I think that what you’re talking about isn’t so much about sexual interest and objectification as it is about power and powerlessness. And you’re right. Many stories, especially those involving intrigue or action-adventure, have been from the point of view of someone with power or someone who doesn’t have that power yet but who’s trying to acquire it. Stories of those who were powerless (by virtue of sex, race, economic status, religion, country of origin, disability, etc.) were a lot rarer.

    Why aren’t these women reading romances written by gay men?

    Many do. But it’s not always easy to tell by the name of an author who’s male or female, (let alone genderqueer or non-binary); only a few years ago, a number of friends of mine were advised by their publishers to use male or gender-neutral names and fake male bios when publishing male/male romances. (I did that myself with one story.) We’re not talking about the 1800s; we’re talking about the early 2000s. But the same attitude–if you want to be read by men, you’ll have to pretend to be a man–prevailed, at least in some houses.

    • Interesting facts, thanks!

      Yes, as I’ve noted in some of the other comments, the word ‘gaze’ has its drawbacks, but it fits so well in other respects that I haven’t found a better.

    • I was thinking about this while reading the post, actually, but in a slightly different fashion. While in general I can see the difference between male and female gaze in terms of sexualizing characters at inappropriate moments, sometimes what one person sees as male gaze might, to another, be a perfectly normal observation.

      For instance, I don’t remember the original scene, but someone commented on how Daenerys in Game of Thrones (the book) notices her breasts under the thin leather of the new style of shirt she’s wearing (or something like that — I don’t have it in front of me). And while you can categorize that as a male gaze and say that a woman wouldn’t notice her breasts that much or in that situation, it’s also possible that a woman would. If I put on a shirt without a bra, or a new bra, I’m going to notice how it feels and how it’s different than normal. Which means that the “male gaze” scene could in some ways be categorized as a “female gaze.”

      I don’t have the comment in front of me, but I have a vague suspicion that it was originally written by a guy, commenting on the male gaze and how a woman wouldn’t actually think that. Which is a whole other level of male/female gaze going on.

      • I’ve seen this discussion. While in no way do I want to limit gaze to sexualization (which is why I am groping for another word), I think it’s important to acknowledge that indeed, women do look at their own breasts, and even enjoy their own figures. But they don’t evaluate themselves by them; they might compare their figures to someone else’s if they are in a competitive frame of mind, but their gaze also goes up to the face, and there is a sense of the person behind the breasts, so to speak. The male gaze that most women object to is the evaluation of (and in fiction a description limited to) women solely by how attractive their sexual characteristics are.

        • Yes, I agree. I just think it’s interesting how the discussion can get turned in such a way that it essentially says “women wouldn’t notice their own breasts, therefore it’s a male gaze.” Not that you were saying that — the fact that you’re expanding the idea of what a “gaze” is at all is probably what made me think of how it can be narrowed. Because the question you’re essentially asking is, what makes it a male or female gaze at all, when it’s not obvious? And sometimes (maybe rarely?) what one person puts under a male gaze might be a female gaze to someone else. (Apologies for not being clear enough in my first comment.)

  4. I think April above has it right–there appear to be many subsets of gaze, but in thinking of it generally it is very hard–and I know you are alert to this–to avoid stereotyping. Some men and women gaze deeper and more widely than others and it’s their books I enjoy. I got tired of one revered series in large part because of the unrelenting masculinity of the “gaze.”

    • On the flip side, I’ve also been completely turned off by works with an unrelentingly feminine “gaze.” I agree, it’s the more neutral (read: more complex and varied) “gazes” that tend to hold my, uh, gaze…

      • Yeah, one of the problems with trying to formulate some kind of term, or define a “thing” I notice in my reading is that everyone’s reading is subjective.

  5. I keep hearing people rave about The Goblin Kin, so it needs to go on the To Read queue.

  6. Like (some) other people in the thread, I would tend to use the terms “male/female gaze” in a more restricted sense, largely related to who is the sexualized Other in a narrative. When I think of trying to define different “gazes,” I think of a novel I read about a year ago, which was written by a man, but (supposedly) from the POV of a straight female character. She described another female character as having “legs that went on forever,” which was when my suspension of disbelief shriveled up and died. It is perfectly true that straight females can and do look enviously at the bodies of other females, but that phrase implies a gaze that is less “oh , wow, I wish I were that hot” and more “I want to keep looking at that hottie, and looking, and looking, OH WOW THIGHS, let’s keep looking…”

    I read The Goblin Emperor a few weeks ago and loved it. I’m not sure I would describe it as having “the female gaze,” because there were not many words spent defining any of the characters as objects of desire for the readers. What I did find interesting (and compelling) about it was that it was extremely focused on interpersonal relationships. You could almost call it “domestic.” The Fate Of The Empire is at stake, and Maia does learn to assume and wield power–but the sign that he has fully come into his own power is when he’s able to confront and handle the cousin who was once his abusive guardian. And his other great political triumph (the bridge) comes about through his willingness to listen to generally scorned strangers and evaluate what they have to say. This type of personal interaction is generally coded as female, so I guess you could say the novel has a female sensibility? Or a domestic sensibility, which in our culture is almost the same thing.

    • I think in retrospect I have been trying to change ‘gaze’ to what I want it to mean, rather than what others now see it as. Futile, futile! Must go truffle-hunting for a new term. Female sensibility or domestic sensibility . . . not quite it, but on the right track.

      • But I like the “gaze” part of the whole discussion. It suggests that the gazer is not completely engrossed in what they are looking at, that the place of observation is a little removed from the sphere of the observed. It is this beautiful suggestion that the gazer’s attitudes cannot cause influence, while the gazed-at is utterly aware and constrained by who is gazing.

        I think the sexualizing of “gaze” is already a subset of the whole idea of gaze, since we already talk about male gaze and female gaze. Which is a good place to start, because we can see the obvious implications of power and whatnot, but it is only a place to start. Sort of thing.

        • That is exactly where I started, but most people are going straight to the sexualized gaze, as can be seen here in the comments. Which is where most discussion online has focused, of course.

    • The cringe-inducer for me wouldn’t be so much that he got his gaze muddled as that he used such an egregious cliché (“legs that went on forever”) to describe his character.

    • She described another female character as having “legs that went on forever,”

      Actually, when I have heard a woman use this phrase, it is usually either in envy or as a disparaging comment. So when thought or uttered by a woman, it does not have the same meaning at all.

      • Interesting! The character in the book was describing her envy of the other character’s good looks, so it fits with your experience. I’ve only heard that phrase used in fiction, and–except for this one book–it’s always been uttered by a certain type of macho, aggressively heterosexual male narrator. But I guess this is a case of people using language in different ways.

  7. I can’t come up with a better qualifier than ‘gaze’ either. I keep trying stuff like ‘spin’ or ‘bias’ but there is too much baggage and not accurate enough either. But I definitely think you are on to something here. I am frequently astonished by some man looking at the same movie or reading the same book, and as soon as they comment on it, I think *that* is what you come away with? It reminds me of the old puzzle-pictures where if you look at it one way, it’s a young girl with a big hat, while looked at another way, it’s a crone.

    But it has been going on for a long time now, because I remember reading about sci-fi in the thirties and how it was mostly gadget-oriented and how, as soon as you had women writers, the stories were more about how people reacted to the gadgets rather than a paean to the gadget itself. There seems to be a couple of different ways to go here–make up a word yourself and stick a definition to it, or troll foreign languages for something closer to what you are talking about. (For example, Eskimos have lots of words for snow and Jews have lots of words for idiot, so it might be just a matter of looking for a language where they are used to dealing with relationships more mindfully than we have been up till now.) Meanwhile, keep chipping away at it–everything started as an observation before it wound up as a recognized term.

    • Actually, English has more words for snow than Inuit. 🙂 But it is probably because we steal words from every language we come into contact with!

    • Other languages are rich in words — I’ve been stealing swear words from Japanese lately — but the idea that some languages have many more words for some action or phenomenon is very overblown. The idea that Eskimos have 40 (or more) words for snow, for example, is not true. In fact, the regular invocation of this expression led the bright and cranky linguists on Language Log to coin the phrase “snowclone.” Here’s Ben Zimmer on words for snow.

      • I used to wonder if some Eskimo somewhere was having some gentle fun with an earnest-eyed anthropologist with his notebook at hand. (One who hadn’t really considered all the idioms, slang, and other descriptive terms in his own language)

  8. If we (we, for pete’s sake!) cannot make up a new word that will be perfect, that will be pretty sad.
    What should the term be like? Short. Snappy. Not pejorative. Encompassing that ‘looking’ aspect.

        • I like lens or frame. Possibly preferring lens. It has the idea of “gaze” but doesn’t come with the same sexual assumptions that gaze seems to have. (You gaze through a lens, right?)

            • Use it in a sentence. “I could not help wondering what the opening would have read like with the male lens.”
              “I believe that the female lens is what makes this book work so brilliantly.”

              • But right after I read The Goblin Emperor, I saw a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Hmm, I thought, kings again! I opened it. The first fifty pages, in three nested sets of openings, was solid blood, guts, and fighting. No women.

                It might be better to speak of “the lens of the powerful” and “the lens of the powerless.” Or perhaps “the lens of the outcast.” Both might be clearer and less easily misunderstood than “male lens” and “female lens.” The point, after all, is not masculinity and femininity as Western society sees them but how unusual it is to tell a society from the viewpoint of someone who has no power, be it political, emotional, social, legal, economic, or magical. Many stories are told through the lens of the powerful, because Western society is competitive and likes winners.

                The lens of the powerful doesn’t have to be told by a man, and the story doesn’t have to be about a man or about male-dominated institutions (like armies or law enforcement). The only qualification is that the main character has to have power, be focused on gaining power/strength/influence/money/whathaveyou, or both.

                By the same token, the lens of the outcast is not necessarily the work of a female writer or about a female character. The lens of the outcast would view the world from the point of view of someone who is an outlier in their society–possibly because of sex, but also possibly because the outlier has been abused (like Maia), or is of a minority race, or is of a hated ethnicity (the Roma come to mind), criminal activity or record (Fantine and Valjean, anyone?), age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, unpopular politics, heresy, etc. And, because so much depends on the arbitrary good will of those who have power when you have none, the lens of the outcast would view the world very differently…as Sherwood Smith said.

                • Yes. I threw down these preliminary thoughts, and I’ve had such excellent feedback that I can see where I stepped off my own road. There is nothing inherently female about what I am discussing, it’s more that I happen to have read this particular perception more from female authors. And I think largely for the reasons you state.

                • But is it possible that there actually is a male and female component to the viewpoint, at least a Western one? Based less on power and more on how men and women are taught to see the world — especially for what we’re taught to like. For instance, blood and guts, along with action movies and things blowing up, are supposedly not “girl things.” So a book that opens with blood and guts *is* a male lens, because we are taught that that is how boys and men should and do see the world. Even if it’s not actually true.

            • Doesn’t “frame of reference” convey pretty much the meaning being discussed here, even though it’s more than one syllable?

  9. I wonder, now that you mention, if it isn’t so much the powerful or outcast as much as those who are self-absorbed as opposed to those whose primary focus is on others (usually the ones who employ or own them). I recently saw a documentary on Donald Trump building a golf course in Scotland and casually bulldozing hills so that he would not see the houses of those who chose not to sell their land to him. The fact that he was cutting off the water supply to these people didn’t impinge on his conciousness as much as the fact that they were spoiling his view. Self-absorbed.
    And I remember from the film Gosford Park (a lot of fun, that one, if you have not seen it–the precursor to Downton Abbey) Helen Mirren saying that the thing that made the perfect servant was ‘anticipation–they (the masters) are hungry and the food appears, they are tired and the beds are turned down.’ This sounds like the ultimate in other-than-self-awareness and has the virtue of having nothing to do with being male or female.

  10. I’ve only read The Goblin Emperor once, at this point, so my reaction is still very much off-the-cuff. I was struck by how many elements of Maia’s experience have cognates in the early reign of Elizabeth I: coming into the court from a period of being “close confined” in the country, being expected to address the royal marriage as a priority decision, being threatened by various coteries with alternate interpretations of the succession. I wonder if these similarities don’t set up a kind of narrative harmonic that feminizes the monarch’s perspective.

    Also, about a third of the way through the novel, I looked up at my husband and said, “Look, sweetie, it’s a second-world fantasy that reads like it has a roller-coaster action plot, but they actually spend all their time in meetings! There’s no work/life balance, and the protagonist is going to get a massively unfair performance evaluation.” In short, it’s set up to call on contemporary corporate experience, which I suspect resonates with both genders.

    I’m convinced that administration, as an activity, has its roots in the medieval household, therefore domestic at the ground floor.

    And listening, which Maia does a lot and very well (starting as a tool of survival), is a skill often associated with women.

    I wouldn’t use the term “gaze,” for reasons well-covered in the comments above, but I would say that the narrative is imbued with elements that resonate with women’s experience of exercising power, even though the protagonist is a man (well, male elf/goblin) in a traditionally male role.

    I also just love it to bits.

  11. Sorry, I’ve come late to the party. I wondered a few things. One, wouldn’t the word perspective work in place of ‘gaze’? Not as pithy, of course. But it removes the sexualized connotation somewhat. Two: I read a work by a male author who used a gender neutral name: Morgan Howell. When I first read the books, a series called The Queen of the Orcs, I was totally sold on the view as one of a woman’s perspective. It helped that the main character was female. I think that the writing/story direction is somewhat dictated by whether the main character is male or female. Yes, characteristics are not set in stone as solely masculine or feminine, but there is a definite ‘feel’ to how a female character views her world–which by necessity is often a passive or reactionary one. In the Queen of the Orcs, the main character is a woman who is sold into slavery to serve the Orcs who are soldiers under the control of a human army. The interplay between the human female who is branded to prevent escape is juxtaposed against the seemingly violent Orc culture. (Spoiler Alert) The twist of the story is that the Orcs are a matriarchal society. They male is usually subservient to the female. This has a lot of instances where the ‘view’ of the characters toward each other play with what is traditional in roles and how the roles can bend, change or reverse depending upon circumstances. When I was done with the series, only then did I realize that the work had been written by a man. I was totally convinced in the feminine ‘voice’ of the narrative. Perhaps the way in which we see the story is partially formed by our expectations and our own perspectives. I can’t say. There, I’ve chipped in my two cents (adjusted for inflation: a buck fifty). Rebuttals commence.

    • Interesting stuff!

      I avoided the word perspective because I’ve used it in conversations and it seemed to me the leap was to some imagined romance pinkie-sentimental lens, and so having to stop and define effectively derailed the original conversation. But so did my experiment with gaze! So am thinking about lens . . .