Sexism in stories can be quite egregious. Heroes may outright state that women don’t belong on the battlefield, rape is often treated like a cutesy and forgivable mistake, and supposedly likable characters act in blatantly misogynist ways. Although these cases remain distressingly prevalent in popular stories, greater cultural awareness of their harmful effects has brought about wide-scale denunciation and calls for improvement.
Sexist narration, however, is such a common and inescapable occurrence that we’ve become desensitized to it. The most blatant narrative misogyny is excused simply because of how often it’s seen. So let’s examine sexism in narration to better identify and banish it from our stories. Be warned; many breasts will be mentioned.
1. Women Are Described With Food Metaphors
Metaphors can bring characters to life. A good comparison can make bland descriptions vivid in an interesting and useful way to carry information about a character. It’s understandable that writers looking for new and innovative methods to spice up their descriptions often reach for metaphors to do the job.
When it comes to describing female characters, though, food metaphors have become low-hanging fruit. They crop up in many forms, but they’re most commonly applied to a character’s breasts. The buffet of food metaphors that have been used to describe breasts is more than a bit disturbing: plums, melons, apples, charcuterie, jumbo popovers, and so much more.* At this point, I wouldn’t call it unreasonable to chalk food metaphors up next to “chocolate-colored skin” in terms of descriptors to avoid. It’s tiresome, objectifying, and so, so overdone, not to mention how absurd some of these descriptions get.
“Her skin was cream, her breasts cheeses, there was butter in her smile.” – Water Music, T. C. Boyle
Come one, come all, to see the jarring and befuddling dairy trifecta! “What?” you’ll cry. “What does that even mean? Are they triangular and covered in wax? Go green and moldy after a few weeks? Give some people an allergic reaction?” Science may never know the answers!
Joking aside, this metaphor is not only completely confusing, but it also fails as a description. What does this tell us about her character? How does it help us to visualize her? What does it contribute to the story? If anything, it detracts from the reader’s experience by pulling them out of the story to contemplate how cheese and breasts relate. This problem, however, is far from breast specific.
“She was rather like one of those innocent-tasting American drinks which creep imperceptibly into your system so that, before you know what you’re doing, you’re starting out to reform the world by force if necessary and pausing on your way to tell the large man in the corner that, if he looks at you like that, you will knock his head off.” – Leave It To Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
What is the purpose of this metaphor? How does comparing the female character to alcohol inform the reader of who she is as a person?* Is this meant to convey that she’s violent and encouraging others to knock off peoples’ heads? Somehow I doubt it.
These food metaphors are overdone and lazy. As with the examples above, they’re nothing more than a bit of flashy but empty narration, saying little about the character in question and only serving to take up space or disrupt a reader’s experience. That’s not to say they can never be used well, but as with all metaphors, they need to have intent behind them or they’ll simply be distracting and disorienting. If the metaphor and whatever it’s describing lack a clear connection or interpretation, the result will be confusion and frustration, not to mention how clichéd anything linking breasts to fruit has become.
2. Women’s Body Parts Are Sentient
How strange would it be if every time a new character entered a scene, the narrator paused to explain the position, shape, and relative magnificence of their right arm? The character isn’t described further until the narrative clarifies that they are connected by the shoulder to their previously-mentioned right arm. That would be pretty bizarre.
Usually, this trope has to do with a very specific female body part, and it’s not the arms. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve already guessed what it is: breasts. Sentient, floating, autonomous breasts.
“This slightly sadistic train of thought was interrupted as a magnificent pair of breasts came in from the back room. These breasts were followed by an equally magnificent young lady.” – The Cross-Time Engineer, Leo Frankowski
“‘I spoke with the count this morn—’ Logan said when he was suddenly silenced as breasts went past. No, not just breasts. The breasts. They were perfect. Not precipitously exposed, but perfectly shaped, these floated past him, held in a gossamer embrace of fabric rejoicing to cling to such nubile curves. Logan didn’t even see the woman’s face.” – The Way of Shadows, Brent Weeks
“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.” – John Dies at the End, David Wong
Why, oh, why is this such a common motif? Breasts do not take priority over the person who owns them, and laying it out this way in the narrative is disgusting and objectifying. In a society that commonly sees women as objects to be drooled over or property to be owned, introducing female characters as first and foremost an oversexualized body part is abhorrent and unnecessary. Chances are a character’s chest size and shape will never play an important role in the story. Unless those perfect breasts whip out switchblades and butcher the bad guy later on, stop centralizing them.
3. Breasts Are Mentioned Unnecessarily
While we’re still on the topic of breasts, let’s get this one out of the way as well. Commonly, this narration trope manifests in characters thinking of their breasts in the middle of a conflict or noticing other characters’ breasts at random and inappropriate times, such as in the middle of an action scene, while sneaking around, or when comforting a loved one. A female character breathing heavily or sighing is often used as an excuse to slip in some unnecessary breast description.
“‘I’ll tell you what we trust that fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!’ She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly.” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick
“‘Oh, Fitchner,’ she sighs, her breasts rising aggressively from under her too-tight golden dress.” – Golden Son, Pierce Brown
If a character breathes rapidly or heaves a sigh, just say that. There’s absolutely no reason to bring breasts into it; the mention of breasts is superfluous at best and downright aggravating at worst. These examples, however, are on the low end of the “yikes” scale when it comes to unnecessary mentions. Things can get really icky really fast, for example, if breasts warrant a mention while the narrator is mourning his dead sister.
“That morning we’d eaten breakfast together, said goodbye to each other at the front door, me going off to high school, she to junior high. And the next time I saw her she’d stopped breathing. Her large eyes were closed forever, her mouth slightly open as if she were about to say something. Her developing breasts would never grow.” – Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami
Why is this necessary information? How does it add to the scene? And why is it framed in such a tragic way, as if this is the worst part of this situation?
Breast mentions are equally gross when a narrator is describing their mother.
“His mother hesitated, searching Lucas’s face. She seemed to be struggling to remember him. Then, abruptly, as if pushed from behind, she fell forward. Lucas caught her in his arms and held her as best he could, awkwardly, with one hand under her arm and the other on her right shoulder. He could feel the weight of her breasts. They were like old plums loosely held in sacks.” – Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham
Ah, this one’s a double-dipper, both an unnecessary mention and a bizarre fruit metaphor. Take a moment to appreciate that, in this paragraph, the narrator is essentially copping a feel on his mother. Yeah, the chemical showers are over there. Scrub up.
This trope is also sometimes seen, bizarrely, coming from female narrators, which is weird and off-putting because nobody thinks this much about their breasts or anyone else’s around them. During a heist, or a robbery, or a battle, they’re about the last thing on any woman’s mind – unless, I suppose, she forgot to bring the proper fighting bra, but even then, a mention would still seem arbitrary and distracting.
Random breast mentions send the message that a female character’s breasts are somehow an important part of her personality and that no picture of a woman can be complete without describing them, which is sleazy and misogynistic. As with sentient body parts, if these breasts don’t play an important role in the scene, leave them out of the description. It really is that simple.
4. Women Are Obsessed With Social Manipulation
The idea that women consciously tailor their appearance with the explicit intent of manipulating a situation is distressingly common. In this trope, female characters style their bodies like weapons to achieve their desires, with the end goal of either competing in some kind of female social hierarchy or exploiting male characters around them. Both of these supposed goals have extremely problematic implications.
First, let’s examine the former. Many people hold the strange assumption that women are in a state of constant competition with one another, usually for the affection or attention of men around them, but often just in general. The literary result is a spate of female characters who view each other first as enemies, often resulting in inexplicable “cat fights” between women for some kind of social standing.
“Susan smiled at me, giving Molly the Female Once-Over – a process by which one woman creates a detailed profile of another woman based upon about a million subtle details of clothing, jewelry, makeup, and body type, and then decides how much of a social threat she might be.” – Changes, Jim Butcher
When a woman sees another woman, few things are less relevant than “social threat.” Strangers generally don’t approach each other with hostility and antagonism, expecting to one-up each other on first sight. Furthering the woman-on-woman competition trope is harmful and unrealistic.
Next, let’s take a look at what I’ll call the “Feminine Wiles Fallacy”: deliberate manipulation of male characters by those devious ladies with their sexy bods.
“Babette is tall and fairly ample; there is a girth and heft to her. Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond. If she were a petite woman, the hair would be too cute, too mischievous and contrived. Size gives her tousled aspect a certain seriousness. Ample women do not plan such things. They lack the guile for conspiracies of the body.” – White Noise, Don DeLillo
“Pretty rather than beautiful, she had a flat, flapperish figure, but she used what she had to maximum advantage […] and there was something vibrantly sexy about her ravenous, too-wide gaze.” – The Magicians, Lev Grossman
“At first she’d felt she’d been pathetic, but now, in light of Alan’s painting, she retroactively amended that take. She’d used her feminine wiles. She beamed. She still had feminine wiles. She’d seduced him.” – Pariah, Bob Fingerman
Feminine wiles are a common example of false empowerment, with cunning ladies snatching power through sexy manipulation, which is just not true to life and gives the wrong impression about how oppression works. Women are shown to be duplicitous and scheming, controlling male characters left and right with “conspiracies”* based on seemingly nothing more than their looks. Depictions like this are sexist to male characters as well, pushing the idea that men simply cannot resist their animal instincts and will chase anything flashing enough cleavage.
5. Immaturity Is Presented as Sexy
It should go without saying that pedophilia is bad, but here we are. This trope has two equally repulsive facets: using immaturity and childish characteristics as signifiers for the sexiness of a female character, and sexualizing a female character who’s established to be underage. Narrators commonly remark upon young girls’ sexual development out of the blue or describe their love interests’ various attractive traits as “childish” or “girlish.”
First, let’s examine the former.
“To Eileen they looked like kids anywhere, the girls in skirts and leggings, their bosoms just beginning to bloom, Luke and his friend Rolf in baggy cords – this year’s fashion statement for young men – and t-tops.” – The Institute, Stephen King
“Her eyes had the green of the writing on a tram ticket. Her breasts in a soft blue linen dress were small, thin, and fiercely pointed. It was almost a cause for fainting on his part, he had never witnessed the like. […] She was just thirteen in that time.” – The Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry
“Dressed in a blue skirt and short buttonless jacket that left her midriff bare and only sometimes covered a pair of apple-round breasts, a girl in her late teens walked briskly into the room.” – Island, Aldous Huxley
This is pedophilia, pure and simple. In a vacuum, without knowledge of the characters’ ages, the description in these examples would be simply random and off-putting, but once this is clear, they become downright heinous. Imagine a gender reversal. Will you turn and describe to me, Mr. King, the way in which the bulges in those two boys’ trousers are “just beginning to bloom”? In many cases, it seems like this gross sexualization of underage characters gets a pass because said characters are female. This problem, to my knowledge, has never cropped up in the reverse.
Next, let’s take a peek at the other side of the coin, attractiveness attributed to immaturity. All of the examples below are describing adults.
“When he thought of her, he could call up a vivid picture of her to himself, especially the charm of that little fair head, so freely set on the shapely girlish shoulders, and so full of childish brightness and good humor. The childishness of her expression, together with the delicate beauty of her figure, made up her special charm, and that he fully realized.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“Once or twice when he was teaching her, bending to look over her shoulder at a piece of written work, he’d caught a faint scent from that hair, not of shampoo but of young warm girl […].” – The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman
“Her upper eyelids and her earlobes were tinted a pale rose and the rest of her youthful (almost girlish) face was a startlingly milky white.” – The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov
A female character being considered attractive for appearing youthful is nothing new, but explicitly expounding upon her youth or outright comparing her to a child hits the noxious twosome of infantilization and pedophilia at once. Childishness is not sexy, immaturity is not seductive, and describing them as such is repugnant and toxic.
A Note on Unlikable Narrators
“But wait!” I hear some of you cry. “That character is supposed to be sexist! You aren’t meant to like or agree with them – that’s the whole point!” The argument goes that if a point-of-view character is villainous, horny, or otherwise established to be in a certain mindset, this excuses the sexism in their narration.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that with sexist narration, there’s often no clear difference between whether the narrator is likable or unlikable. For every passage that has the villain waxing on with food metaphors, there are at least two heroes elsewhere speaking in exactly the same way. Because of this, the presence of sexism in narration is not an indication of the narrator’s likability. There just isn’t a way to tell when good guys and bad guys use the exact same terminology. Take this excerpt, for instance:
“I resented the attention Denny paid to her small hands, her plump, round buttocks, her modest hips.” – The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
This description makes the narrator seem like a jealous stalker, lusting after someone else’s significant other. However, contrary to what the description here would suggest, the narrator is sympathetic, likable, and also a dog. A dog who has absolutely no reason to take a vested interest in any of these characteristics. If anything, he should be wondering, “Where’s her tail?”
Or take, for example, this instance of a schoolteacher describing his pupils:
“Two giggling girls, both in short skirts, both with bouncing breasts, both about fourteen years old, flounced past.” – The Rats, James Herbert
Someone expressing this view has to be the pedophilic villain, right? No teacher should think of their students in such a skeevy, sexual way. But nope! The narrative treats this teacher (who’s also the main protagonist) as a good guy, and this instance is never brought up or addressed again.
Now let’s compare two passages. One of them has an unlikable narrator, and the other doesn’t.
“[The breasts]? Sweet as apples beneath the tight T-shirt.” – Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, Luke Jennings
“He noticed Vyann’s blouse sticking to her breasts; for him they were the sweetest fruits aboard the ship.” – Non-Stop, Brian W. Aldiss
The first one is the unlikable narrator, but it’s almost impossible to tell when literally the same language is used in both.* This is why these tropes are utterly useless at conveying the relative villainy of a character.
Even if there were a clear delineation between the language of supposedly different narrators, sexist narration is still largely unnecessary. Objectification of female characters almost never drives the plot forward in a meaningful way. There are plenty of other ways to show through narration that a character is unlikable or villainous.
Catching the big stuff in terms of sexism is important, but we must also be watchful of details and prepared to reject common patterns. As with other problematic depictions, a good test to use with narration is the gender reversal: If you wouldn’t describe your male character like that, don’t describe your female character like that. Keep the sleaze away.
And please, for the good of this fine world, stop it with the breasts.
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