The Normative Gaze In Fiction

In October, I attended the fabulous Sirens Conference in Stevenson, Washington, which consisted of two amazing days of programming with all sorts of interesting panelists and a lot of great discussions. Both inside specific programming and in casual conversations in the lobby and elsewhere about the lodge where we stayed, I came away with a lot of food for thought; it was great to be in a place where I could talk with like-minded people about a whole range of topics that fascinated me, and where we could have critical, in-depth discussions about complicated and sometimes nuanced subjects.

One of the more interesting panels I attended (and really, it’s hard to choose which was the most interesting) was one on the female gaze, featuring Kate Elliot, Malinda Lo, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Nalo Hopkinson. The women talked about how fiction is primarily written through the lens of the male gaze, by both female and male writers, and how this can affect the way readers interact with fiction, right down to confusing the gender of characters because they’re not used to encountering texts written from the perspective of the female gaze. The male gaze is one that becomes very normative, so standardised that people don’t even consciously realise that they’ve come to expect it and find it jarring when it’s not there.

Elliot briefly covered some definitions at the start of the panel to avoid confusion, and she made the important distinction between point of view and gaze; a story can have a female narrator or protagonist and still be written with the male gaze in mind, for example. The male gaze is a specific way of seeing and framing the environment, and one doesn’t need to be male as an author, narrator, or character to engage in it. Certain expectations and underlying beliefs come along with the male gaze; think, for example, of the idea that female bodies are there for the observing and taking.

When a book is written from the perspective of the female gaze, especially the queer female gaze, as Hopkinson and Lo pointed out, it becomes more textually complex. Readers may be forced to adapt to a shift in narrative that they aren’t accustomed to or ready for, one that they may not be expecting. Authors can sometimes use that to their advantage, as in a case where they want to create a nebulous framing that leaves certain aspects of the story ambiguous, making them more shocking when they’re unveiled.

Over the course of the panel, I started thinking more generally about the normative gaze, not just the male gaze; they didn’t have time to plunge into the fact that people assume the gaze is not just male but also white, nondisabled, fitting in with other groups in positions of power in society. The panel unfortunately didn’t have time to address this because it’s a complex subject and they only had an hour to talk, and as it was, we were running over, but it’s something that could definitely benefit from another assembly of smart, incisive women to expand the conversation about gazes and narrative.

What happens when you write from the perspective of the disabled gaze, for instance? How does this radically change the framing of a story? The nondisabled gaze is such an invisible part of our society that most people don’t even find it remarkable; it’s the thing that exploits disabled bodies, viewing them as freakish horror shows and figures of fascination. It’s the thing that fetishises cures and seeks ways to minimise and hide disability. How would a book’s treatment of disability, and thus the reader’s interpretation, change if the author made a conscious choice to write in the disabled gaze? How would we relate differently to characters with disabilities, including narrators and protagonists?

And what about racialised gazes? How does fiction shift as we force readers away from the white gaze? This came up at Sirens as well, the fact that many readers assume characters are white unless it is explicitly stated, and if a character’s race is ambiguous or unclear in Western fiction, readers will automatically assign whiteness. This can occur across the board with people of all races because the white gaze is so normalised, and because some people of colour and nonwhite people may be so unaccustomed to seeing themselves in Western fiction and thus unused to reading themselves into it, unlike white people, who rest in confident assurance that if a character’s race is not known, that character must be one of them.

Discussions of race can change radically in fiction when the author makes a conscious choice to shift away from the white gaze, but these waters can also be muddy. White people might mistakenly think they can successfully explore the subject, but they would do well to act carefully, because they could create a muddled mess in an attempt to create a diverse or innovative text. Authors of colour and nonwhite authors, meanwhile, can push at the boundaries of what white people expect from fiction and challenge assumptions and beliefs in their narratives by flipping the gaze, forcing the reader to move beyond the normative gaze.

A theme that came up in the female gaze panel is that the female gaze makes many readers uncomfortable. They don’t like having their norms and standards upended and they want stability in their fiction. The same holds true for other nonnormative gazes; readers in positions of dominance in particular want to stay in a world where they retain their dominance and unquestioned position as not just the tellers of tales, but the shapers of the lenses through which we see the world. Texts pushing at this dynamic fascinate me, and they’re tragically hard to find.