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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Barbie movie’s success evokes dialog on the female gaze in fiction

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This summer, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie shattered box office records making her the highest grossing female director in the United States, prompting discussion on the female gaze and what it means across different forms of media. 

“I mean you are talking about ‘Barbie.’ The film is not going to work the way it does without Greta Gerwig and without some female producers and studio execs. People have the power now to give that movie the green light,” said Stephanie O’Brien, a lecturer in the Mass Communication department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. 

Allister Marie, a 32-year-old Las Vegas native, works as a graveyard dispatcher for 911 at night but, during the day, is a social media influencer for booktok and bookstagram, harboring a community of people of all backgrounds to come together with a shared love of books. 

Due to privacy concerns, Allister Marie does not give out her government name and instead goes by her screen name or the nickname Ally with her community. 

“The female gaze is intimate, raw and emotional. And not only things we as women, but as human beings, relate to most. It really draws into your emotions. It is what drags you into a book,” Allister Marie said.

According to Forbes, “Barbie” made $162 million in ticket sales during the opening weekend in North America, breaking the previous record held by a female director by almost $60 million. 

“My favorite thing about the community is the people involved in it. Bookish people are the most welcoming, loving, creative and fascinating people to get to know. It’s a supportive community. My biggest thing I love about it is how inclusive It is,” Allister Marie said. 

Booktok and bookstagram are communities on Tiktok and Instagram where readers can share book recommendations and talk about their favorite stories online. Other similar communities include booktube, which is on YouTube, and Goodreads, an Amazon-owned app where people can track how many books they have read, will read and recommend to others. 

“If I don’t see myself in the written word, what does that mean for my self-worth? What does that mean for my place in the community for which I am in,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said when reading characters, if it is not expressly mentioned, there is an automatic assumption of whiteness, straightness and based on the name written, gender for the character.

“That is a colonized mind,” O’Brien said,” When I was growing up, I was trying to figure out who I was. In one way those characters that weren’t specifically written about my experience I used them. We use these characters to live vicariously through them.” 

Allister Marie said she became attached to specific characters because she could relate to the struggles those characters are going through. 

“It tends to be more about the raw emotion versus the physical attraction of someone. It is much deeper and it tends to grab you,” Allister Marie said. 

Allister Marie said it is empowering to connect with and understand a character similar to herself.

“Maybe going through something extremely similar or looks similar in some way. You may have the same body shape,” Allister Marie said. “For me, I hated the way I looked. I didn’t feel sexy, I didn’t feel powerful, I felt I was extremely insecure. I was constantly wearing baggy clothes.”

Allister Marie said social media can be damaging because of the lack of representation and women being told to look a certain way to be desirable.  

“I didn’t really want to expose myself. I covered up my stomach,” Allister Marie said. “All you see are these perfect people and their perfect bodies. You think that is what the real world is like, when in actuality they are the vast few and the minority.” 

Allister Marie said she uses her platform to post photos of books and share pictures of her body that make her feel empowered. 

“Most of these characters in these books are just normal people within normal bodies, suffering from normal Issues. I have what is called an invisible disability. I have chronic Rheumatoid Arthritis that I was diagnosed with when I was a kid, and I have an autoimmune disease. It’s extremely debilitating and affects my body,” Allister Marie said. 

“The Fourth Wing” is a book by Rebecca Yarros about a character named Violet Sorrengail who leaves her life’s work as a scribe for the challenging and dangerous world of dragon-riding.

“When I see characters for instance like Violet in “The Fourth Wing”, who suffers from something very similar. It was so impactful for me, reading a story about somebody with a similar chronic illness to me. It made me feel stronger as a person. I got done reading the book and I felt like I could do more. I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more proactive. Even though I was struggling I could maybe feel like I could be a better person,” Allister Marie said. 

The Fourth Wing explores themes of love, loss, trust and stepping out of your comfort zone while embracing uniqueness in a landscape not built for someone different. 

“My favorite book is probably “Going Postal” by Terry Pratchet. It’s a fun story that has a lot of interesting characters, involves quite a bit of city politics and begins the journey of one of my favorite Discworld characters, Moist Von Lipwig. Pratchet’s sarcastic writing style combined with a nuanced plot and Discworld’s incredible cast of characters creates a story that practically writes itself,” said Joe Knox, a 22-year-old senior studying political science and human rights at UNCA. 

Knox said he does not typically read books written with the female gaze in mind because the books he reads focus on the forward actions of characters and the world around them rather than romance. 

“For instance, it’s easy to describe an attractive man by simply saying he has muscles and he’s handsome, but describing in detail what it is about those qualities that make him attractive is a lot harder. ‘This guy is hot’ and ‘I want this hot guy’ are very different things,” Knox said. 

Knox said he could not think of any examples of male authors capturing the female gaze successfully.

“While theoretically male authors can capture the female gaze in writing,” Knox said. “I think most male writers don’t really make an effort to do so, and those who do often fall short by describing men in ways they would like to be described by other men who would admire them, rather than the way women would find them attractive.”

Knox said male writers often describe desirable men as overly muscular, aggressive and powerful, skipping over the behavioral features women may find attractive. 

“As a mirror of the classic concept of the male gaze, I suppose it would be the way women typically look at men and their physical appearances. It isn’t necessarily limited to physical appearance, but more focuses on a man’s overall attractiveness from a female point of view,” Knox said.

Knox said writing the female gaze has to be considered from the perspective of someone actually attracted to women.

“There are some great male authors out there who are doing a lot more research Into the feminine gaze and understanding what it’s like from a woman’s standpoint. Romance specifically is something that has for years only been geared toward women. It’s like we are the only ones who are romantically inclined and we want roses and grand gestures. In actuality a lot of the things these authors are doing really well are small things women appreciate,” Allister Marie said. 

Allister Marie said the female gaze is about the woman’s train of thought. She said women are more in tune with their emotions than men because of societal expectations.

“I think a big thing that this world is finally starting to open up their minds to a little more is mental health struggles. Men actually struggle with significant mental health issues because of the societal norms that were pushed on them. Don’t talk about your problems. Don’t show your problems. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Now it’s like we are kind of coming out and they’re like no. That’s not healthy, that’s not a good way to do things,” Allister Marie said. 

Knox said the female gaze can represent a shift in literature’s perspective on masculinity and expand on how men are described. 

“I think this shift can provide a more complete view of relationships between men and women in literature, and hopefully opens up the door for more accurate representations of female points of view overall,” Knox said. 

Knox said it is more difficult for men to write with the female gaze in mind. He said how men see other men is limited because it is clouded by how they see themselves. Men project that view onto masculine figures in their writing. 

“I think that there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to examine the female gaze from a masculine perspective, but it needs to be done carefully,” Knox said.

Knox said the person doing the examination needs to keep in mind the female perspective on men is not something that can just be replicated by describing an attractive man.

“I am talking about it just as looking at men mainly because it has just been men looking at women for so long, but women looking at women or women looking at a man and a woman. It opens up the idea of not feeling like you are wrong for the way you feel,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said representation of the LGBTQIA+ community creates a space for people who typically feel ostracized for who they are and the ability to live more freely. 

“I have had several lesbians tell me I need to read “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” and I just started reading it. I am reading it thinking, dang if this was around when I was in my 20s,” O’Brien said. 

“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”, written by Taylor Jenkins Reid, is a novel about an old Hollywood star telling her life story to a New York City reporter. 

“I don’t need somebody else telling me what they think my story is. I think it is imperative that the people who are telling the stories across the board are the people that are living those experiences,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said when there are stories where women are allowed to be sexual and erotic, it empowers women to do that in their own lives.

“It gives me at times when I feel beaten down more agency to stand up to the people that want to change policies that want to argue that if children read about my life it is smut. They want to ban books about people like me,” O’Brien said. 

According to the PEN America Index of School Book Bans, in the 2022-2023 school year, 3,362 books have been banned. 33 states have engaged in book bans, with 40% occurring in Florida. 

“I grew up a southern baptist. I mean all of this would damn me to hell. That is all I knew when I was young until I went away to college,” O’Brien said. 

Allister Marie said the roles are not traditional anymore. In today’s day and age, it is not survivable to be a single-income household. 

“It’s okay to be a strong independent person who goes out and works hard and does everything herself as a woman. That is looked upon as a great thing and it is very empowering for other women. It is also okay for men to be caregivers. To stay home and take care of children, to not be this ‘work hard all the time’ and be the only breadwinner because that is not the real world,” Allister Marie said. 

Allister Marie said she pictures herself as the main character when reading. She said feeling the character’s emotions is therapeutic for her. 

“Those are emotions I love or I’m struggling with myself. Reading can be so healing because even though you are reading a story about a fantasy female character who is made of magic. She rides dragons and lives in this mythical world. When you are reading these really emotional and intense situations that can be applied to real life. You yourself can kind of go along your own healing journey along with this character,” Allister Marie said. 

Allister Marie said watching the character process their emotions and deal with relational problems allows for self-growth. 

“I’ve read all different genres, but fantasy for me is probably number one, which has to do with my job. I work in a very dark, very difficult job. People aren’t calling 911 on the happiest day of their life. They are calling 911 on the worst day of their lives,” Allister Marie said. “I want to read a book about dragons, faeries, mythical creatures, in a world that I can escape to that is outside the realm of reality because to be in reality can be kind of dark.”

Queer novel “The Song of Achilles”, by Madeline Miller. (Sarah Booth)

The why choose genre, also known as reverse harem, are stories with three or more love interests, typically male and one female main character. In these stories, the protagonist does not have to choose between her love interests. She gets to keep them all. 

“I love why choose and dark romance. I like all of these different genres for different reasons,” Allister Marie said. 

The dark romance genre includes traumatic scenes and morally gray characters. There are typically trigger warnings in the first few pages of the book. 

Allister Marie said when coming from trauma, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse have a tough time with their bodies and sexuality. She said in writing these books, the author helps the reader who is struggling with something similar to what the characters are going through work through their trauma. 

“Den of Vipers” by K. A. Knight falls into the why choose and dark romance categories. The book is a reverse harem where the protagonist, Roxy, falls in love with four mafia bosses who have taken her prisoner to get back at her father who owes them money. 

“The way in which the male gaze has portrayed women. The way Ursula Andress comes out of the ocean in James Bond. The camera starts on her legs,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said women are supposed to be seen as beautiful specimens built for others’ enjoyment.

“My mother used to tell me. ‘Stop walking like a football player’ when I was growing up. It wasn’t acceptable to walk like that for a young girl. I was a tomboy and didn’t fit the description of what a young southern girl was supposed to be,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said she was not one of the people who protested the male gaze in her previous work in film, but she is grateful for the women who have. 

“There has been a history of women who have challenged that. They don’t get a lot of mainstream work but directors have challenged that and tried to turn that gaze around,” O’Brien said.

Allister Marie said there are always harmful things that can come about when doing something improperly.

“My thing with any kind of drawback is going to be ideas of consent and what is being shown in that way. Consent of the viewer to watch or read,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien said her experience growing up as a southern baptist and those with similar traumas from her generation has created women who don’t believe in themselves or own their sexuality. She said the female gaze is needed to take back power and help women know it’s alright for women to gaze in ways that are either platonic or erotic.

“All of you men have gazed at us for so many years. We can have that too and it will give us some agency and some power. How do we not use it as a weapon but as a tool for ourselves,” O’Brien said.

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