Part I: Introduction: On what this is and who it is and isn’t for.
Part II: Pretty Things To Look At: Visual descriptions and their fallacies; subjects, objects and breasts; exclusivity and accidental pornography.
Part III: Pretty Things To Use: A casting call gone wrong; age of consent and why it matters; on how Daenerys Targayen said yes.
Part IV: Pretty Things To Use, continued: On sexy rigor mortis; entertainment vs. insult; on how beauty standards make it harder to write well.
Part V: Pretty Things We’ve Read Before: On building mixed ensembles; on why everybody hated Tauriel; what The X-Men teach about gender defaults.
Part VI: That’s… Not How That Works: On why you should fact-check your erotica; on how your bible studies teacher was wrong about orgasms.
Part VII: Do It Right: All the positive examples and bonus advice on how to do it right for all who made it this far.
Pretty Things To Look At: Visual Descriptions
It’s said that men tend to process the world in terms of what they see and hear, while women are more commonly sensual thinkers, relying on the smell, taste and feel of things. Presumably, that’s why dudes prefer watching porn, while women prefer reading it. I won’t bother looking up in how far that’s a proven fact. What’s important to us is that this observation is certainly true for genres that are regarded to be “masculine” or “feminine,” no matter who actually reads them. Romance novels are usually on the sensual side, which is why sexy times – where feel, taste and smell play an important part – are fairly easy to write into a romance novel, while murders and battle scenes often fall flat, lacking in the spirit and panache of similar scenes found in political thrillers. Science fiction is traditionally a very audiovisual genre1, which is why it is not a genre known for strong emotional developments; but the descriptions of technical advances are usually pretty exciting. Here’s a little example of audiovisual descriptions vs. sensual descriptions:
| Oh God. Whatever had made her think that finishing that bottle had been a good idea? She barely remembered how she’d gotten home the night before. |
Jenny stared at herself in the mirror, at her bruised eyes and the sick pallor of her skin. There was a weird roaring sound in her ears. Through the wall she could hear her roommate stumble out of bed and crash right into her drum set. The cacophony of metal on metal made her flinch.
|Oh God. Whatever had made her think that finishing that bottle had been a good idea? She barely remembered how she’d gotten home the night before. |
Jenny propped herself up on the sink and took a deep breath to fight down the nausea, pressing her eyes shut. If only she could get herself to move – her mouth tasted like something had died in it, and it felt like some of her eyelashes had been glued together. But her hand shook when she reached for her toothbrush. Every attempt to blink her eyes open made another stab of pain shoot through her temple the moment her brain registered the light.
Subjects, Objects And Headaches
Is there something wrong with describing what a woman looks like? Of course not. There are many good reasons why you might want to do that in your novel, and that includes erotic descriptions as well as descriptions of her beauty. However, whenever you write or read such a description of a woman’s looks and body, it should ping you as sensitive because this is where you should pay special attention – offensive descriptions might be afoot. That has the following three reasons:
- You’re all writers, so I’ll assume you understand the linguistic difference between a subject and an object. Objects exist to be activated and perceived by subjects. It’s a defining feature. Subjects see, objects are seen by them. Subjects represent the inside point of view while objects are on the outside and they’re looked at by the people with the agenda. This is why we often use the term “objectifying” when we talk about women as perceived through the so-called male gaze, about descriptions that filter for what’s important about the character for straight men. Whenever you rely on audiovisual descriptions when you introduce your female character, you are automatically in more danger of objectifying the character than you would be if you described them in any other way. Worst case scenario, your female or feminist audience will feel like you didn’t describe a person, but a shell, a thing, a Stepford Wife.
- Pornography is the most audiovisual genre of all, since it pretty much consists of looking at people while they show off sex moves, and make sex noises, without any plot progress in evidence. If you pause the plot of your non-porn fiction story to give a description of something sexual, some critics will call it pornographic for that reason alone.2 Working off that same rationale, Millennials have taken to talking of “torture porn” or “battle porn” to refer to the phenomenon of scenes that are drawn out for the sake of the violence.3 If you spend a paragraph on describing a woman’s looks without moving or informing the plot by doing so, never mind if you focus on her sexy parts, you get in danger of evoking that association. So your female character suddenly isn’t just perceived to be an object, but a sex object, which is more likely to offend for obvious reasons.
- And of course, the idea that women only exist as objects of male desire is intrinsically misogynistic. To get a little philosophical: When a male writer uses such descriptions in his novel, he creates a fictional woman who literally only exists as an object to be looked at. When that goes wrong, I personally picture those female characters as lipstick-wearing zombies, shuffling after the guys with their arms loping about, threatening to lurch forward from the weight of their immense, unproportional breasts.
Exhibit A: How To Make Half Of Your Audience Feel Excluded
Some years ago, a male friend accompanied me to a reading by Nino Delia, a lesbian fiction writer reading from her then-upcoming novel Caged Bird Rising (at publisher | at Amazon). Caged Bird Rising is a satirical retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. The story starts in a small medieval town with its own town guard, whose commander is reminiscent of The Beauty and The Beast’s Gaston – a peacock, broad-shouldered and beautiful, pompadoured and unable to imagine that the woman he chooses wouldn’t be delighted to have him. I was so very charmed by the excerpt. It was hilarious and smart.
When asked how he liked it, my friend just shrugged indifferently, however. He muttered something about how it’s not really meant for men, is it? That reply stayed with me. The guy had tagged along to a reading of lesbian literature; it wasn’t that he was narrow-minded in his interests, or that he claimed to be unable to identify with a female protagonist. But then I thought about how the story had featured barely any men, and the only relevant one was a stick-figure, so far away from anything a real man would ever identify as a human being. It occurred to me that the author had very cleverly recreated the situation female audiences find themselves in almost every time they watch a blockbuster movie with a single token female character. It’s not that they’re being a bad sport about a product filmed with a male audience in mind; like my friend, they had merely been confronted with a representation of their peer group so grotesquely different from reality that it had broken the story for them. The only emotional reaction my friend had ranged from faint bemusement to slight annoyance. He did not buy the book.
The take-away? Human beings take conscious notice of characters who belong in the same peer group as them, and they have extremely sensitive reactions to their authenticity. But unlike my friend, who was one of two guys in a room full of women during an event specifically for women, female audiences encounter this problem everywhere. and. all. the. fucking. time. So their annoyance occasionally reaches levels higher than “slight.”
Exhibit B: Some Women In Some Books
Here are some descriptions of female characters that are sadly much more common than you’d hope:
“The safe house” was our code name for Denny’s.(David Wong: John Dies at the End. Origin Unkown, 2011)
I arrived and saw John at a far corner booth, a bundle of papers in his hand, a pair of boobs next to him attached to a girl. This wasn’t Crystal, the tall girl with the electric blue eyes and short hair and the peasant skirts, nor was it Angie, the sexy librarian girl with the dark-rimmed glasses and ponytails and capri pants. It wasn’t Nina, with the criminally short skirts and green streaks in her hair, or Nicky the Bitch.
This one was Marcy. Oh, Marcy. Contrary to the wisdom of the gay men who run the fashion industry (who, coincidentally, prefer their female models to look like thin males), the hottest girl I ever saw in real life weighed probably one hundred and fifty pounds. And her name was Marcy Hansen. And she was John’s girl. Rusty reddish-brown hair, about the same color as Molly’s, wide cobalt-blue eyes that looked at you like you were the most important person in the world.
(Observe: All these women are characterized by how they look. Since fashion models are literally in the business of being looked at, their mention enforces the objectification of these women. The only non-visual descriptions concern “the bitch” as well as Marcy’s ability to make the protagonist feel good. Both of these tell us more about the protagonist (the subject) than about Marcy. I’ll not comment on the “pair of boobs attached to the girl” and the homophobia, because I think you can figure out what’s wrong with those all by yourselves.)
Going through the gates he heard the clatter of running footsteps behind him.
Two giggling girls, both in short skirts, both with bouncing breasts, both about fourteen years old, flounced past.
‘Anyway, the crumpet’s good.’ Harris smiled to himself.(James Herbert: Rats. UK 1995)
He was halfway through the first lesson when Keogh walked in. He wore his usual uniform of short-sleeved, check shirt, braces holding his trousers at half-mast, showing the full length of his heavy boots.
“Good morning, Keogh,” said Harris.
(Compare the descriptions of the female teenagers vs. the dude right next to each other.)
Mary Lou stopped running, although her chest didn’t get the memo. It jiggled and settled for a few long seconds afterward. “You two are doing it again.” My sister might have sounded exasperated.(J.R. Rain: Vampire Sun. Origin Unknown, 2014)
You are entirely too focused on your sister’s chest, thought Allison.
Quiet, I hissed mentally. I think we’re in trouble. And I’m not focused on her chest. It’s just, well, so big. How can you not focus on it?
The women sitting on the three terraced benches were packed in so tightly that they could not help touching. Sweating away next to Tereza was a woman of about thirty with a very pretty face. She had two unbelievably large, pendulous breasts hanging from her shoulders, bouncing at the slightest movement. When the woman got up, Tereza saw that her behind was also like two enormous sacks and that it had nothing in common with her fine face.(Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Czechia 1984)
Perhaps the woman stood frequently in front of the mirror observing her body, trying to peer through it into her soul […].
Fanny Brunch was fresh from the creamery. Her breath was hot with the smell of milk, and it whispered of cribs and nipples and the darkness of the womb. Her skin was cream, her breasts cheeses, there was butter in her smile.(T.C. Boyle: Water Music. USA 2014)
Slowly the mist parted revealing a small clearing. The shape of a figure dissolved before his very eyes. It seemed to flicker like a candle before resolving into clarity. To his surprise it was a beautiful young woman oblivious to the cold.(Chase Blackwood: Tears of a Heart. Origin Unknown, 2014)
Her hair was unlike any he had ever seen, golden and radiant. Her eyes were large and unwavering, of the deepest blue. It was the fair skin of her naked body that caught Kirin’s attention. Her hair barely covered the swell of her rounded breasts. She was seated with her long legs folded together, casting the gentle curve of her sex in shadow.
Desire battled the anger in Kirin’s heart as his mind struggled to stitch reality together. He felt warmth radiating from her and was drawn closer to quench the terrible chill that rattled his bones. With each step he watched her blue eyes gaze upon him with the promise of passion, warmth, and an endless embrace.
The young woman shifted positions displaying her gender for the briefest flash of temptation. Kirin remained fixed to his position. […]
The girl in the last example, btw, is 13. We’ll get back to the topic of sexualized kids in a minute.
Before that, I’ll let you in on a secret:
A description of body parts is not, as such, a characterization. Certainly, the way a person looks, what they do with what they have – that tells us something about who they are. The mere fact that their body grew a certain way does not. Imagine adding to every description of a male character a remark about the length of their neck, or the size of their toes, or god forbid, the length of their oh so impressive flapdoodle. Every time. Imagine remarking upon their chubby toes, or their long ones, or how they lost a toes in an accident once but never fear – they can still walk. The notion that this would draw a relevant picture of the male characters in your audience’s head is ridiculous. If it doesn’t work for a male character’s toes, it doesn’t work for a woman’s breasts. It’s bad writing.
Boobily Breasting Around: Not A Real Behavior4
I’ll tell you another secret: All women have breasts.5
Let’s have a positive example this time and look at a humble local publication that I happened to read just recently. It’s a soccer-themed murder mystery by a male German writer.
She tried to find a distraction. Clean Rauscher’s apartment? Nah. Go to the grocer? Already did that. Sports? Not an ideal way to spend time on her own, either. Especially since the fact that she had to sit out this case bugged her more by the minute. She decided she needed some action and went to fetch a quick shower.(Gerd Fischer: Einzige Liebe, Germany 2017, my translation)
A short while later, she was stood in front of the mirror in her panties, adding some product to her hair and giving it a quick rub, until she liked the result. Hair had ceased to be a problem since she’d cut her hair. It looked wild now, almost daring. She added some lotion to bring out her tan, adding some eyeliner, and then she was already putting on a shirt, jeans and sneakers, filled with relief that she didn’t have to sit around and wait any longer. She couldn’t wait seeing what the day would bring.
This novel is hardly a feminist manifesto. It has barely any female characters, and does getting this one naked really add anything? How relevant are all these visuals, really? Still, I read this giving the author the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t know any other books by him and I don’t know if there’s a theme. (no empirical evidence!)6 Yet observe the writing in comparison to the scenes above. No mention of the woman’s chest. I’m willing to accept that the mentions of hair-do, make-up and clothes tell us something about what kind of person she is; it’s a reasonable visual to provide, if not a particularly exciting one. All in all, she is much too busy being a person for the narrative to linger on her body. We learn that she’s a casual type but no butch. We learn that she doesn’t like not working, a personality trait she shares with a great many protagonists of murder mysteries. It’ll be her motivation to get involved in the upcoming investigation.
Much as you don’t have to inform your readers of the fact that your male characters have toes (or, y’know, dicks), you do not have to inform them that your female characters have breasts. It is already implied and they will picture the character with breasts without any of your active doing.
Some authors try to be sneaky, to varying degrees of success. The part of them that’s a talented writer insists that you need a reason to mention breasts, and the part of them that isn’t sensitized to the issue insists that mentioning them is mandatory, so they look for ways of integrating them in the narrative. Unfortunately, thanks to all the empirical evidence the readers bring along, they are usually on to those writers rather quickly. Plus, the results may end up forced and bizarre.
But though she tried to probe her memory, Aomame could come up with nothing else. She looked around, stared at her palms, inspected the shape of her fingernails, and grabbed her breasts through her shirt to check the shape. No change. Same size and shape. I’m still the same me. The world is still the same world. But something has [sic] started to change. She could feel it.(Haruki Murakami: 1Q84. Japan 2009)
(No woman has ever.)7
Somehow, though, it looks like our original plan of returning to Japan on the 15th of August is going to change. After our work is done in France we may be taking a short holiday on a Greek island. This English gentleman we happened to meet here […] owns a villa on the island and invited us to use it for as long as we like. Great news! Miu likes the idea, too. We need a break from work, some time to just kick back and relax. The two of us lying on the pure white beaches of the Aegean, two beautiful sets of breasts pointed towards the sun, sipping wine with a scent of pine resin in it, just watching the clouds drift by. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?(Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart. Japan 1999)
Still kneeling, the takes a second can [of kerosene] from the other bag and pours it on her body. Now her sari is wet, almost see-through. It clings to her full breasts and buttocks. She bends forward, rests her forehead on the ground. Both security guards are out now, guns drawn. She holds out the plastic lighter again and they back off.(Stephen Norman: Trading Down. UK 2017l)
Not far enough. The camera catches the first, tiny spark from the lighter and instantly there is an envelope of flame, twenty feet across. The guard who was splashed catches fire.[…]
(Committing suicide, porny style.)
Ways To Make It Worse
There are some additional ways of enforcing the depiction of a woman as an object of desire, as her body being more relevant than her mind or her actions. Here’s one: Comparing body parts to objects enforces the implication that the whole thing (the body, the person) is meant to be an object, since bodies usually do not have objects growing out of them. 8
[…] you looked and saw a gorgeous woman, slim but abundantly stacked. Hips weren’t so great, maybe, but she had a great ass and the best set of tits he had ever seen. Tom Rogan was a tit-man, always had been, and tall girls almost always had disappointing tits. They wore thin shirts and their nipples drove you crazy, but when you got those thin shirts off you discovered that nipples drove you crazy, but when you got those thin shirts off you discovered that nipples were really all they had. The tits themselves looked like the pull-knobs on a bureau drawer. “More than a handful’s waster,” his college roommate had been fond of saying, but as far as Tom was concerned his college roommate had been so full of shit he squeaked going into a turn.(Stephen King: It. USA 1986)
Pauline came back into the bedroom, humming to herself, turned to the chest of drawers in the corner, and dropped the towel. As they always did at such moments Gary’s thoughts went something like – How the fuck did I pull this off?(John Niven: The Amateurs. Scotland 2009)
Pauline was tall – a couple of inches taller than Gary – and dark-skinned for someone from the west coast of Scotland (Italian grandmother on her mother’s side.) Her nose flicked up at the end – forming a little button that Gary delighted in but which its owner regarded as an imperfection – and her hazel eyes were flecked with tiny mint-green shards. Moving down, the breasts – larger and heavier than her slender body would lead you to expect – were capped with glossy mahogany nipples. Down over the stomach – flat and fluted from hours at the gym, or in the spare bedroom with the cycling machine and the weights – and onto the long, tapering legs that were permanently slick from their monthly waxing. But it was Pauline’s bum that stole the show. It jutted out so prominently it bordered on comic. Christ, Gary once overheard a guy on her way to the ladies’, ye could sit yer pint oan that. Gary possessed a clean soul, a decent soul, and was not given to jealousy. So he felt no anger, only mild pride, when strangers ogled and commented on his wife’s body.
(Objectification isn’t only achieved here by making her nipples be “mahogany” – which we’re undoubtedly supposed to find smart, or something, ‘cause she’s Italian, get it? It’s enforced by the depersonalized use of “the breasts,” “the stomach” rather than “her breasts,” “her stomach.” Not just because the body parts in question are treated like independent objects of individual merit, but also they encourage a reader to picture them to the exclusion of the whole picture, i.e. the person, imitating a slow-mow camera close-up. The fact that his prized possession fills Gary only with “mild pride” as if that were a sign of what a great guy he is constitutes the kind of detail that makes it impossible for women to believe that equality exists. Meanwhile, look at how much time is wasted on informing us that Gary has got a hot wife, while telling us nothing whatsoever about her personality or life. (even her Scottish-Italian heritage is introduced only to explain her tan, her workout routine to show off her dedication to maintaining her visual) Compare with how much we learn about Gary, in a paragraph meant to describe his wife – not only that he is a Good Guy™ but also that he possesses the virtue of modesty and the ability to overlook imperfection. I wish I had a way of impressing on you that all this is more disgusting than any misogynistic quip by a Marvel villain could ever be.)
Or you do it the other way around: Instead of treating body parts like objects, you anthropomorphize them. That means you suggest that individual body parts have a mind of their own.
[…] and she was about to cover her startled breasts[…](Brian Catling: The Vorrh. UK 2015)
“Perhaps even an offering directly to you, rather than the church,” continued Stephen. “I am sure your work here is little valued.”
“Most generous.” Her large breasts rippled in appreciation.
(An all-time favorite over at Men_Write_Women for sure)
She raised an eyebrow. Then slid off to the bar to buy another round. So this clearly wasn’t just a quick drink after work then. Mark wondered how he should play this, but was none the wiser by the time she’d returned. Her cleavage winked at him as she placed the drinks on the table. Whether this was accidental or not was impossible to tell.(M.J. Arlidge: Eeny Meeny. UK 2014)
(I’d show good faith and take the winking cleavage as a metaphor gone wrong, but since whatever that wink would look like apparently can happen “intentionally,” the author seems to believe that it would be a physical skill that the woman (or her chest) is in charge off.)9
These are rhetoric means that have their place and purpose. I have seen both the tools of objectifying and anthropomorphizing utilized very well in describing male genitalia. I remember a teen protagonist whose dick was described as things like a stick as a way of enforcing that he felt out of control of his erections.10. It’s also quite common to read something like, “I hated her on sight, but my dick disagreed” which is amusing on account of being ridiculous, and not tainted by overuse or reference to a stereotype. If you want to brave those when describing a woman, god speed. If you want to be on the safe side, I wouldn’t recommend it.
check in your head whether your metaphor would create a ridiculous image when
In case that’s not enough, I have some next level shit for you to cap it off. Because some authors don’t bother with that degree of subtlety. They go straight to creating women who don’t have any agency, or control of themselves, since they are slaves to their own bodies. It’s really pretty disgusting.
Don’t…. just don’t, alright? Look at just one example to understand how much the publishing industry forces female readers to tolerate, and what else lurks in the shadows where your breast description was conceived.
She didn’t see us at first and walked straight toward the pool. But our eyes were fixed on her with such intensity that they at least attracted her gaze toward us. She blushed. It is a beautiful thing when a woman blushes; at that instant her body no longer belongs to her; she doesn’t control it; she is at its mercy; oh, can there be anything more beautiful than the sight of a woman violated by her own body!(Milan Kundera: Czechia 1991)
So. Lack of agency. Let’s talk about that next.
Read the footnotes via mouseover. Or read them here:
- Historically male-dominated, though the demographic has been changing in recent years.
- When they do that, they usually also make a moral judgement. I’m not intending to do that here. I’m not a fan of moral judgements. I’m just a fan of quality writing. There’s rarely a good reason to pause your plot. Good sex scenes are integrated.
- Popular example of battle porn: The never-ending fight scenes in Matrix II and III. Tarantino did it in Kill Bill I too, though he did it intentionally, as proven by the fact that he stopped doing it in the second part. So in that case it was, like, art.
- Referencing this iconic Reddit threat: htttps://www.reddit.com/r/menwritingwomen/comments/740ypq/she_breasted_boobily/
- Baring trans women, cancer patients etc. of course, but I think we can agree we will all picture women with boobs until told otherwise.
- I would not say that this particular type of sexist description we’re talking about here is a common problem among contemporary male writers in Germany. I certainly don’t go in expecting it.
- The multiple appearances by Murakami in the example are coincidence. I’ve never read him beyond checking out the context of the quotes. I only added the sources to the examples after I was finished writing.
- Unless you’re a mutant, maybe.
- The linguist in me is also screaming to point out that a cleavage describes the absence of something – the empty space between the breasts – and an absence can’t do anything, so that’s yet another level of bad.
- Stephen King. I want to say in Needful Things.