Five Signs Your Narration Is Sexist

I cannot believe this trope tripe.

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

I guarantee that every one of these items has been used to describe a breast at one point – yes, even the duck.

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

Floating about all on its own!

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

If you say she’s got the best balloons in the army, these had better be the ones you’re referring to.

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

What is even happening here?

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

Please, please, please, do not describe this child’s melons.

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

Bad music is bad no matter who’s playing it.

“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.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about , , ,



  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Ok, gonna defend the Woodhouse metaphor a bit:
    The innocent-tasting drink: Clearly a drink that tastes like it’s low in alcohol when actually it has a lot of alcohol in it (certain other flavours can mask the flavour of alcohol a bit). So you think you can safely drink a lot of them, and then you get drunk and do stupid shit without realizing this is what happened.
    Comparison to a person: When hanging out with her, you start going along with all kinds of shenanigans that you wouldn’t normally do, but you also fail to see that she has this effect on you (because she’s not obviously pushy or manipulative or the like), at least until you look back at stuff with the benefit of hindsight.

    Woodhouse has this flowery prose stuffed with unexpected metaphors, and I think this is a large part of what made him so popular. Some people (including me) really enjoy that style. Sure, it’s gonna turn some people off as well, but I think that if his prose was all “normal”, he would have been less popular overall.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s pretty much how I understood that Woodhouse one, too. It fits with the way he describes basically everything, not just young women or women overall. I do like the way he writes, even though it’s old-fashioned by now, of course. I also like it when other authors, like Chris Dolley for his Steampunk stories, try to copy it.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Or that short story by Alan Moore about how Bertie Wooster and his buddies meet the Old One’s from Lovecraft, it’s priceless!

    • Chai

      Yes, I agree with your thoughts on Wodehouse, although I believe PAS was correct in identifying the “innocent-tasting American drink” as Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola containing cocaine, caffeine, and sugar). Advertising for this medical elixir promoted its ability to increase stamina and counter the effects of physical and mental fatigue.* It’s a mistake to see this quote as describing the actions of a woman, as it describes the impact on others. Wodehouse was a British humorist who loved America but did not shy away from poking fun at America. He was also someone who did not write about sex and he never wrote about women “that way”. *BTW, Wodehouse would have been familiar with American advertising for Coca-Cola that featured a demurely clad Hilda Clark — a super model of the 1890s. I also believe he pokes fun at American advertising.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    I should add, though, that I agree with pretty much all the rest, so this was small criticism.

    Re women who compete and see other beautiful women as a threat etc – in a cast with plenty of women, I think it would be fine to have one such character, if it fits the plot and she’s still three-dimensional. I mean sure, women can internalize misogynistic messages; that their worth lies in their appearance, and that it’s a constant competition for the top spot. The problem is that it’s so widespread in fiction, and presented as something typical of all women.
    (I read a blogger once critiquing the Anita Blake books for racism and misogyny… she presented an extract from a shorter Anita Blake story, where Anita a) totally thinks about every detail in her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s appearance, and comes to the conclusion that she totally “wins”, because she’s both sexier and cooler than New Girlfriend, b) WEIRDLY projects this exact attitude onto New Girlfriend, even though she can’t read New Girlfriend’s mind and nothing New Girlfriend actually says implies that she’s comparing herself to Anita – whereas we are inside Anita’s head and KNOWS that SHE did this competitive evaluation!)

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, in a cast with many women, one woman who tries her best to manipulate others through her looks and sees other women as competitors she has to defeat can work. There’s all sorts of women and some women do think every other woman is competition (few, but there are some).

      There also historically have been women who used their looks to control others (often a husband or lover who had power) and made themselves a grey emminence that way. That doesn’t mean every woman should act like that, but I can see stories where such a woman wouldn’t be wrongly placed.

  3. Jeff

    Is it ok if I also describe the men’s breasts in extreme detail to balance it out?

    • Cay Reet

      Considering how sexualized a woman’s breasts are, the right equivalent would be to describe the bulge in a man’s trousers instead. Men’s breasts/chests are not sexualized.

      • Jeff

        His balls were like melons bulging out of his pants trying hard to be noticed, they jiggled back and forth as we walked showing off he was a man who just wanted someone to take him.

        • Cay Reet

          I’d say that is an equivalent which gives you green light for describing women’s breasts in detail.

        • Nosimplehiway

          Your character’s balls are the size of melons? I assume you’re writing a medical thriller?

          The problem with fruit metaphors isn’t that one “team” has been fouled, and so the other “team” must be penalized to balance the books.

          It’s that such metaphors are rarely descriptive of a character’s actual appearance. Saying a woman has “aggressive” breasts (or, for that matter, claiming that a man has melon-sized balls) fails to provide useful and accurate information about the story element they’re ostensibly describing.

          If a writer feels the need to describe “aggressive” breasts, likely the salient plot point is that the character viewing the breasts feels frightened by them for some reason. So, describe that feeling directly, rather than externalizing it onto an entirely innocent body part.

          It’s not (just) a matter of fairness; it’s a matter of clarity.

      • Jay mean

        Um yes they are, look at the most appealing aspect of the men according to women, it happens to be the chest as for the most attractive aspect of women to men, it is the face.

        • Cay Reet

          Most women I’ve asked say the most appealing aspect in a guy is a good ass.

      • Marc Vun Kannon

        Talk about low-hanging fruit.

  4. Yora

    You should not describe men with food either. You should not describe any people with food. It’s always horrible.

    • Jeff

      What if I describe someone as a bottle of soda because they are really fizzy and active but ultimately unhealthy and a product of mass consumerism and wanting to have just a tiny spark of something unique in our dull pointless lives.

      Or their hair was spaghetti because its covered in grease

  5. Oren Ashkenazi

    Hey folks, editor’s note: I deleted a comment for a weird combination of promoting sexism and accusing the post’s author of trying to make pedophilia okay, somehow. Sorry I didn’t notice it until now.

  6. Julia

    The disembodied breasts are weirdly hilarious. I’m trying to think of the male equivalent:

    Stacy walked into the room only to encounter a pair of balls…attached to a man.

    • SunlessNick

      Stacy almost lost her footing as the balls she’d trodden on slid under her feet, and again as the piercing scream informed her there was a man attached to them.

  7. Innes

    Glad to see The Magicians on the list here (Lev Gross Man is right). The book had two different things described as ‘gropable’ one of which is breasts, and the others is, bafflingly, the hidden contents of a drawer.
    Don’t read this book.

  8. Dave L

    I think I’ve avoided most of this in my stuff, though I will have to more careful about number two

    >Unless those perfect breasts whip out switchblades and butcher the bad guy later on, stop centralizing them.

    Have you read Savage Breasts by Nina Kiriki Hoffman? A woman’s breasts start punching and assaulting people, completely against their owner’s wishes

    Troll fic:

    …And Tath Troll’s feet were large and soft, like two succulent human babies

    • Sandra Bond

      See also “Boobs” by Suzy McKee Charnas…

  9. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Excellent article. You mentioned it at the end, but I just want to ask to be sure – this language is okay to use for a character who’s supposed to be sexist, right? Obviously, it’s not okay to use for a character who’s supposed to be likable and everything, but could it be used for an openly villainous character?

    • Bunny

      Glad you enjoyed the article! As for villainous characters, I still strongly advise against using this sort of language. Because it’s so commonly and openly embraced by narrators and heroes who *aren’t* supposed to be villainous, there’s nothing about the language itself which will tell the reader anything about the villainous character’s villainy. Sexist narration is so widespread that it won’t be remarkable in its horribleness. It will likely just be another passage of tiresome and frustrating narration to add to the list. I won’t say that it can’t be done, but I still advise against it.

      • Yora

        If you have bad characters behaving horribly, you need to have a protagonist or at the very least a minion express the observation that it’s messed up.
        You can get away with almost any nasty things that a villain does, as long as you don’t leave it uncommented like it’s something ordinary. Even when your setting is supposed to be horrible, the way in which you describe it is a statement.

        • Leon

          What about trusting that your readers are intelligent enough to understand? Art Spegalman didn’t need to have any of his characters tell is that his father was an asshole.

          • Bubbles

            I agree. With that said, there is a balance between not doing “And That’s Terrible” (having the narration explicitly call out something that’s obviously bad and the readers can hopefully tell is bad, therefore insulting the readers’ intelligence), and seeming to encourage bad behavior if it’s not called out as bad. The amount it’s likely to be normalized in society probably is a factor. However, there are some times when it would not make internal sense for the behavior to be explicitly called out as bad within the story, and the author breaking in just to say that this is bad would reduce the quality of the story. I think that a solution might be to add a content warning before your work saying that bad things may be depicted but this does *not* equal endorsement. I’ve actually seen some who already use something like that.

    • Dave L

      It could be acceptable, but I’d suggest you read https://mythcreants.com/blog/what-storytellers-should-know-about-normalization/ if you have concerns

      It explains the situation better than I can

  10. Sam Victors

    The picture in the ‘Women as social manipulators’ looks familiar.

    I think I get the what’s happening in it; a young wife married to an elderly and ugly miser/merchant and stealing money from him.

    That was a common stereotype of women in Medieval stories, like in Chaucer’s Canterbury tales.

    • Bunny

      And she’s giving the money to a goblin?

      • Sam Victors

        Yeah, that one is confusing.

        But I am a bit familiar with Medieval sexist stereotypes, which boils down to all women as lustful strumpets or saintly maidens (Madonna-Whore dichotomy), women modeled after ideal passive and loyal wives (ala Patient Griselda, another Chaucer story), women as shrews to be tamed, women as catty gossips, young wives married to old misers and cuckolding them with younger men, nuns even get stereotyped as unchaste harlots with lecherous monks, friars or priests etc. etc.

        (Thanks Ms. Gore of Brit Lit class for teaching us this when reading The Canterbury Tales).

      • SunlessNick

        I have a disquieting feeling that’s meant to be a Jew.

        • PAS

          I share that disquiet.

  11. Shamanka

    Now I kinda want to have a male narrator assume his female companion is doing the Assessing Another Woman’s Clothing For Social Threat Level thing, then smash cut to her POV and she’s either figuring out how many knives the other woman could hide in that outfit or just finds the other woman incredibly attractive and is checking her out. Or both.

  12. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment for attacking the post’s author. That’s not allowed.

  13. PAS

    I wonder if Wodehouse’s innocent American drink is rather an early form of Coca Cola, back when it was still good and had the cocaine in.

  14. Sam Victors

    Can you have a queer female character (who is also the narrator) describe women’s anatomies?

    For example, my protagonist is a bisexual girl who wanders into an allegorical adult world veiled as a Masquerade Ball (similar to the one in Labyrinth), and she starts to notice the sexual themes/symbols in them, both repulsed and fascinated by it. At first, she explores her surroundings, and starts to notice a masked woman’s cleavage and bosoms, adorned with a jade necklace. The masked woman notices this and starts teasing the Heroine, who walks off frightened. She also notices the male dancers anatomies as well.

    Nothing sexualized or pervy in nature, but rather a 16 year-old girl starting to notice things that both attract and repulse her.

    • Bunny

      As someone without much experience in the field of sexual attraction and repulsion in general, I’d say a good first step would be to research what qualities queer folks look for in their partners. Read books written by bisexual women for other bisexual women, take note of what qualities bisexual people generally find attractive and which they don’t. Breasts may end up being simply irrelevant.

      Since the character in question seems to have a plot thread about growing into her sexuality, I don’t think mentioning anatomies in a scene about the character discovering that side of herself would qualify as “unnecessary,” but I recommend keeping breast mentions to a minimum for the reasons outlined above. And definitely be wary of food metaphors, because those are incredibly cliche. Maybe she could be interested in a dancer’s leg, or perhaps the curve of their face. Again, this is where the research would be helpful, as I’m not an authority on bisexuality.

  15. J Smith

    Not necessarily specific to narration, but I’ll add “Women are absent from the plot without explanation or criticism.”

    I was reading a science fiction novel, and they went through a seven-member ruling council of exclusively men without explanation, comment, or criticism from either characters or narrator.

    That was when I noped that book.

    • Writelhd

      Yeah, that’s a good one. Its probably been brought up on other mythcreants posts about sexism in stories but I think this is a good example of sexist narration specifically, narrating this all male world totsllt straight, with no commentary or explanation for how weird this is. This turns me off too, real fast.

      Sticking us too long in close third or first pov with a sexist hero, such as one who waxes poetic about fruit and female body parts, is another example. I myself love an unreliable narrator and can tolerate some warped thinking in a pov character (to a point) *if* the overall narration makes it clear that character is full of baloney, perhaps by switching later to close third or first pov of somebody with a totally *different* perspective. But if we start one way and take way too long to get there, then I’m done before the story had a chance to get me there.

  16. Feral

    “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’m sorry but this is just too much. How many editors failed to explain to the author that the obvious way this reads is that the breasts entered of their own accord without the rest of the woman’s body, which followed behind?

    “This slightly sadistic train of thought was interrupts as a magnificent pair of [insert anything that can move on its own, like, idk, pigeons] came in from the back room. These pigeons were followed by an equally magnificent young lady.”

    I mean it’s just basic sentence construction at this point!

    • Writelhd

      I sometimes think in examples like that it’s meant to be semi funny. Like the kind of joke I once heard a man tell at work conference before giving a presentation to lighten the mood and his nerves. The thing is, it’s funny only to people who aren’t objectified by it so it reinforces the assumption that the audience is only those in a position to find it funny and erased those in the audience who aren’t.

      • Feral

        Oh I understand why it was included in the article. What I don’t understand is how it exists to be included. Regardless of the sexism involved, it’s just badly written, and any competent editor should have seen it.

        • Cay Reet

          There is, and I kid you not, a novel where the police finds that a female murder victim has kept her ID in a small purse in her vagina. If that can go through an edit, breasts walking in with a woman attached to them are not a problem at all.

          • Bunny

            That one’s become infamous for good reason. For those curious, here’s the quote (try not to wince too hard):

            “‘Okay,’ he said. ‘The ME confirms his first estimate of time of death. The girl had a tiny purse tucked into her vagina, just big enough to hold her driver’s license, a credit card, and a few bucks. Her name is Elizabeth Sweeney.'” – Desperate Measures, Stuart Woods

  17. The Unsilent Majority

    Interesting how all your points are against sexism against women. Why don’t you take a look at the romance and romance-based subgenres of every other genre that are written by women and see if you still have a point.

    • Virago

      I fail to see how other instances of sexism existing invalidate her point here. It’s ‘five signs the narration might be sexist’ not ‘every example of narrative sexism ever’.

      • Writelhd

        If you read elsewhere on mythcreants you will find the authors do just this, at length.

        • Cay Reet

          Mythcreants has a full article on sexism against men I linked to a little further down.

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, as Virago has already pointed out, making an example of some kinds of sexism doesn’t invalidate the existence of others, just as talking about one kind of disability doesn’t invalidate the existence of others or talking about one genre doesn’t mean there’s no others.

      In addition, may I direct you to an article called “Five Signs your Story is Sexist – Against Men” here on this very site?

    • Jenn H

      Yes, sexism against men is also a problem. Your point?

  18. Wrongo Starr

    I do have to question the use of the Huxley quote here. It’s gross and sexist, certainly, but it’s used here as an example of paedophilia, which it doesn’t appear to be to me. Wouldn’t someone in their late teens be a legal adult in most cases?

    • Cay Reet

      Depending on where and when you lived (after all, the Huxley quote isn’t from yesterday), legally adult starts/started at 18 or 21. The fact alone that the quote calls the person in question a ‘girl in her late teens’ suggests that the narrator doesn’t consider her adult. Otherwise, he would have been more likely to describe her as a ‘woman barely into adulthood’ or something similar. She’d be more likely to be 16 or 17 (and at Huxley’s time, legally adult would, I think, still have been 21) than 18 or 19. In addition, the description itself relates to a more teenaged than adult body, in other words, to a body which isn’t completely developed already. This, too, speaks for an adolescent rather than an adult.

  19. Black Flower

    I also wonder about “Matriarchy In Name Only”, where a society is stated to be matriarchal, but men are still more privileged than women (while it technically also can apply to an “ex-matriarchy that has become an egalitarian society”, it’s a different topic). Like this: https://allthetropes.fandom.com/wiki/Matriarchy_in_Name_Only

    While it’s mostly a sexist trope, I wonder, is it possible to write a non-problematic story in which the society has been intentionally made a fake matriarchy? For example, to avoid criticism from women, men have instituted a puppet “matriarchal” government that consists entirely or mostly of women, but men actually make the decisions, while having some quasimisandric laws, that don’t actually harm men (or don’t even work), but used as an argument that men are oppressed. I also think of having a female protagonist that firstly thinks she lives in an actual matriarchy, but then discovers that the society is still a patriarchy and the alleged “matriarchy hurt women too” moments are actually moments of misogyny.

    What do you think about that idea? I think that it’s important here not to claim as a narrator that the society is matriarchal while it’s clear that male privilege is still there.

  20. Amniote

    About the fifth point: Why should we compromise the rights of the most discriminated against group on the planet, for the sake of fictional characters belonging to far more privileged groups? Will those bits of ink grow up with the trauma of an erection happening nearby?

    • Nowan

      I spent a solid five minutes looking at this comment trying to understand it and here’s what I can take away from what you wrote:

      You believe pedophiles are the most discriminated against group on the planet, a point I am not sure of but will accept as an hyperbole.
      By defending this group’s rights, I assume you chose to see them as not necessarily bad people, a vision that I actually agree with. People who exeperience attraction to children did not choose this situation, no more than queer folk did, as an example.
      However, I’m not so sure about those people having the *right* of consuming erotic material featuring children. I can see it as prickly topic, but I’d say the safest option is to protect the children.
      And that leads us to the next topic. “Will those bits of ink grow up with the trauma of an erection happening nearby?” The problem is not in the bits of ink (the fictional sexualised children) but in the fact that writing like that normalizes sexualization of children and may lead to actual abuse and assault of very real children by people acting under the assumption that it’s something ok to do.

      I will end this by saying that I, personally, do not feel sexual attraction to children, but I think that anyone who does has a moral obbligation of seeking treatment and not acting on their attraction. If they behave like that, they’ll have my utmost respect.
      But the bottom line is that children are unable of giving consent and therefore sexually engaging with them is wrong. Period.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Editor’s note that I’ve removed a comment for implying that being against sexist writing promotes child porn. There’s certainly some complexity around actual psychological issues and how to treat them, but that’s not related to anything in Bunny’s post.

      • Anon

        “Writing like that normalizes sexualization of children and may lead to actual abuse and assault of very real children”

        There’s no evidence to support the claim that reading fiction (however dark, abusive or taboo) causes people to commit crimes (in the absence of any other issues that is). It’s like the “violent video games cause shootings” argument all over again. Pieces of fiction don’t generally lead to “normalization” (by which I assume you mean the gradual acceptance of an attitude or idea, not bringing something back to its normal state.) The attitudes of those in high positions do. Government officials, religious leaders, celebrities, and on a local level, parents and communities, play a huge role in shaping how a child grows up to see the world. Books and movies that are accused of “normalizing” bad things usually reflect a society that already, on some level, accepts those things.

        Media certainly does have the potential to affect how people view something if they don’t know much about it or haven’t encountered it in real life. For example, someone who has never learned about mental illness, experienced it, or met someone suffering from it might come to inaccurate conclusions about how it affects someone’s mind after watching a movie with an inaccurate or theatric portrayal. However, you aren’t going to encounter this problem with a piece of media that describes the sexual assault of children, because society in general (at least where I am, in the USA) sees it as the horror it is, and criminalizes it severely. Virtually no one (regardless of what they’re attracted to) thinks sex with children is okay, and those who do tend to have low empathy to the point where they don’t care about others at all.

        Granted, things do seem to change when the victim is an adolescent as opposed to a child. I heard of an instance of a teacher raping a 14 year old and getting very little punishment because she “acted older than her age” or some nonsense. However, the refusal to take statutory rape seriously doesn’t come from books, it comes from a culture that blames victims for their assault and refuses to hold men responsible. A descriptions of a teenager’s breasts, however tasteless, isn’t going to make someone think sexual assault is ok- if they do, chances are society already convinced them of that. (On a side note, the breast descriptions referenced in the article are not examples of “pedophilia.” That word refers specifically to prepubescent children, who would not have breasts in the first place. I still think they are gross and distracting though.)

        This is a really huge topic (really it’s multiple topics) and I haven’t got into nearly everything I could potentially discuss. But seeing certain misconceptions about fiction, attraction, and IRL crime repeated over and over again motivated me to type this up. I hope what I’ve written will encourage others to research this further, but in the meantime, good luck writing.

        • Nowan

          I believe we actually agree.

          I perhaps wasn’t very clear (or maybe very sure) about what I meant with normalization. You are absolutely right, writing sexualizing children (and adolescents beneath age of consent) will not *create* a culture that sexualizes children. But this culture already exists, as you aptly pointed with your example of statutory rape, and those descriptions and depictions help further and empower this culture.
          The probable correct choice would be to completely abstain from such description and possibly boycott authors who employ it. I stand by the opinion that, as authors, it is our job to seek social justice for all and this involves subverting common cultural behaviors. We need fiction that holds men accountable. An erotic description of a teenagers breasts (especially if the looker is not punished) sends the message that it’s ok to eroticize teenager breasts and that’s a slippery slope eventually leading to statutory rape.

  21. Xandar The Zenon

    Ewwwwwwww. Just ew. Everything about all of those examples…

  22. Jenn H
  23. The Field Rose

    Also wonder, what do you think of a scene of a female character being topless? (assuming it’s just mentioned she’s topless and not sexualized in the text)

    • Cay Reet

      I’d say it depends on the reason for her being topless.

  24. Matt

    2. It’s a joke. The joke being that all men care about are breasts. I think it’s overdone at this point, but I definitely wouldn’t call it misogynist.

  25. Kathy Ferguson

    Very entertaining article. Thanks for the laughs.

  26. Alex Carter

    Can you give one example when “rape is treated like a cutesy and forgivable mistake”?
    Apparently this happens “often” but I can’t think of any examples or see any on Google.

    There’s a character in MisFits that uses supernatural powers to rape a friend and after some initial arguments they go back to being friends.
    Except this is a female character that rapes a man and the exact exchange following it is:
    Curtis: “Just because you’re beautiful you can’t go around doing that to people!”
    Alecia: “Don’t you get it by now? That’s exactly how it works.”

    And yes, in that situation it IS treated like a “cutesy mistake” that she accidentally raped him and several other men without thinking that what she was doing was wrong.

    • SunlessNick

      Damon Salvatore, The Vampire Diaries. That was the one that came into my head less than a second after reading your comment.

      • Alex Carter

        I’ve not seen Vampire Diaries but from a quick google it looks horrible.

        So this Damon Salvatore is an evil vampire that kills / eats and rapes people, I think when it says he “compels” a woman to have sex with him it means using his vampire hypnosis powers so the psychic equivalent of date-rape.

        But then apparently this character turns good and the rapes are all forgiven?
        This show sounds like garbage.

        • SunlessNick

          Strangely enough there’s a lot of good stuff in it. The first two seasons particularly are a masterclass in getting a lot of plot done without feeling rushed. But its rape issue is an albatross it rarely even attempts to deal with (made even worst by the fact that the one time it does, it does it quite well).

    • LazerRobot

      Late reply, but I have an example from the book Leviathan Wakes, from Holden’s viewpoint.

      Naomi, Holden’s second-in-command, is drunk, like really drunk. Slurring, stumbling, singing terrible karaoke and continuing to order more drinks. The text explicitly states that Holden himself has been “nursing a scotch for two hours,” so we can safely assume he’s quite sober. Then we get this inner monologue:

      “For a moment there, he’d had a vision of the two of them staggering back to the room together, then falling into bed. He’d have hated himself in the morning for taking advantage, but he’d still have done it.”

      I’m sorry, what? Did our good boy hero literally just admit to himself that he’d have willingly date raped this woman he supposedly respects?

      Fortunately, he does NOT go through with it. But the way this scene and Holden’s overall character are written gives the impression that this is a silly mistake that any average guy might make. It also implies that he’s got a good heart because he’d have the integrity to regret it the next morning.

      Lots of men are better than that, so it’s really annoying and gross when storytellers present “good guys” this way.

      • LazerRobot

        Quick note because my wording may have been ambiguous, rape of any kind is still inexcusable even if you don’t respect the person. Just wanted to make that clear.

  27. Bel

    Let’s see how we could describe the breasts as ducks

    “A couple of ducks came in, attached to a woman’s chest, and the male protagonist gaped.”

    “The male protagonist had never seen such magnificent ducks – oh, and her face was okay too.”

    “The male protagonist thought that his wife’s ducks were very well behaved compared to the ducks of his mistress, but his mistress had bigger ducks. He supposed that duck size helped to manipulate men and get one up on the other, small-ducked women.”

  28. Dr.

    This quote gave me a wonderful joke: ““Her skin was cream, her breasts cheeses, there was butter in her smile.” – Water Music, T. C. Boyle”~~~So, she’s made out of dairy products? What is that species called? Milk people?

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.