I’ve written seven novels in my Caitlin Ross series now, and unless the coming release of The Well Below the Valley changes things, the one that has prompted the most divisive opinions among readers is The Parting Glass. There are a lot of reasons I’d expect this to be the case–my PoC characters rely too much on tired tropes, for example. But that’s not what I hear. Simply put, reader response falls into two camps: Those who like Romance novels love it, and those who don’t, don’t. They see the entire second act, which focuses on Caitlin and Timber’s developing relationship, as a distraction from the main story. If they’ve started at the beginning of the series, which most have, they’ve read three books of magic and action by this point. They want more magic and action, not this icky love stuff, thank you.
This interests me.
When I started the series, I didn’t set out to write Romance. In fact, I set out NOT to write Romance. (I didn’t set out to write a series, either, but that’s beside the point, I guess.) I did, however, have two specific agenda. First of all, I wanted to portray a true-to-life Witch rather than a sensationalized one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the books, I did end up giving Caitlin some extraordinary powers because doing without them became far too complicated and adding them kept things interesting. For the most part, though, I stick to the thought process, actions, and world view one would expect from a long time practicing Pagan. I also wanted to present exceptional Tarot readings, because at the point where I began I was sick to death of every Urban Fantasy author inserting an obligatory Tarot scene when they obviously knew nothing whatsoever of the subject beyond reading the little pamphlet that comes with the deck.
Second, I wanted to show a realistic relationship between a stable, long-term couple who, though they disagree and even argue from time to time, actually communicate pretty well. That’s why I started the series with Caitlin and Timber several years into their marriage. I wanted to avoid the inevitable “sorting out” period every relationship goes through. In fact, I didn’t want the book to be about their relationship at all. I wanted the relationship to be part of the setting, like the house or the town: an interesting backdrop for events, rather than an event in and of itself.
I had numerous reasons for wanting to do this. I enjoy the occasional Romance, especially those that are well-written and/or have an interesting premise. However, stand-alone Romance novels tend to rely on certain tropes I’m not fond of. Even those with “strong” heroines often fall back on traditional gender roles. The hero may start out as kind of an asshole, at least on the surface, and it’s up to the heroine to pierce his soft center and get him to recognize her equal standing. Disagreements can usually be traced to lack of effective communication. I find this frustrating. I don’t mind when characters have secrets like “Honey, I’m from the future,” or “I conned my way into this social position.” Major revelations require a level of trust not usually present at the start of a relationship. But refusing to share pertinent information because the author needs to sustain the conflict is a sure turn off for me.
I created Timber MacDuff as a man who specifically does not balk at communicating. He has his share of flaws and secrets, sure. But when it comes to his relationship with Caitlin, he talks openly and honestly. He has to, because Caitlin is more than normally sensitive to nuance and hidden subtext. If she fails to call him on obfuscation, it’s because she has her own issues clouding the matter. More, they’re both self-aware enough that they don’t need the constant release of fighting over trivial matters to prop up avoidance of underlying conflict. If Caitlin reminds Timber to please rinse the sink after trimming his beard, he doesn’t take it as a personal affront and need to escalate to the point of a power struggle. He just rinses the sink. On the other hand, if Timber recommends against a course of action, Caitlin may not like it, and she may do it anyway, but she doesn’t question his motives. She trusts he has her best interests at heart, and isn’t trying to exert dominance by controlling her. I made their partnership as equal as I possibly could while grounding it in reality. Caitlin’s forthrightness and practicality balances Timber’s occasional emotional outbursts, and Timber’s wisdom tempers her tendency to take risks.
So what does all this have to do with the topic of this post, writing the female gaze?
With the exception of Demon Lover, which alternates between Caitlin’s point of view and Timber’s, I write the series from the Caitlin’s first person perspective. Being inside her brain, as it were, it doesn’t take long to see that she’s Timber’s equal sexually as well as intellectually. Getting back to The Parting Glass, the first time she lays eyes on him she goes weak in the knees. She thinks he’s hot. She wants him. We see this in other books as well. When the series begins, they’ve been together almost eight years, and the fire hasn’t burned out. She likes looking at him. She makes no bones about it. He has a fantastic ass; it turns her on. It’s not a huge part of any of the books except for The Parting Glass, but it’s there. And I’ve received more than a handful of reader comments leading me to believe that people find this uncomfortable. Things like “Caitlin objectifies Timber too much” and “Timber only exists in this book as a sex object.” None of this feedback, by the way, came from male readers, of which I have several. They all came from women.
Now, I’ve read a great many books where the male protagonist thinks or voices similar opinions of the female protagonist, and unless it’s taken to extremes, very few people comment on this behavior when it’s coming from a man. From a man, it’s flattering, expected, even admirable. I’ve never been criticized for Timber expressing his desire for Caitlin. He can throw her over his shoulder and carry her to bed or say outright that he wants her and means to “have” her, and no one raises an eyebrow. This leads me to wonder if the underlying reason for people’s discomfort is not the expression of desire and attraction in itself, but the fact that it’s coming from a woman.
We all know–or at this point we should know–that most entertainment media caters to the male gaze, the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze in particular. Female characters possess a specific kind of beauty, the big-boobed, small-waisted variety, with or without a shapely booty, depending on preference. Most leading women are under the age of thirty. Even those marooned on mysterious islands without modern amenities or stuck in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse have mysteriously smooth legs and armpits. Male writers of “strong female characters (TM)” dwell on details like the sensation of moving breasts and the slide of silk over newly-washed skin in a way real life women seldom do. Men can be loud, dirty, and combative without much personal consequence, but women can’t. Not and remain “attractive.” A dirty, loud woman is presented as flawed. A woman stepping outside the role of peacemaker is ridiculed; a woman reaching for power falls; a woman acting upon her sexual desires is punished.
But women have sexual desires and urges. Women look at men they find attractive (Disclaimer: I’m speaking specifically of het women). They like butts, and abs, and shoulders. They like bellies and beards and feet. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around a group of women knows this. Anyone even peripherally aware of the many, many fandoms revolving around shows with gorgeous male stars–Outlander, Supernatural, and Arrow, to name a few of the current ones–should know this. Men can be beautiful. Their beauty takes infinite forms, just as women’s beauty does. People in sexual relationships are attracted to one another. Isn’t it about time to admit it goes both ways?
Caitlin thinks Timber is beautiful. Sure: It’s the first thing she notices about him. Haven’t you ever seen a stranger and thought, “Wow, what a hottie!” I know I have. It’s Caitlin’s first impression, and it’s all she knows. As they come to know each other better, however, she adds to that first impression. He’s smart, talented, a craftsman, a shaman. Caitlin’s attraction doesn’t cause her to discount those things, as it would if she saw him as no more than a sexual object. And familiarity, if anything, deepens her attraction rather than diminishes it. After years of marriage, she still thinks he’s hot. It’s as much a part of their relationship as the magic.
It may be that women critique Caitlin’s sexuality and the way she views Timber because women are more overtly aware of sexual objectification, being more subject to it. I think, though, that there’s an aspect of internalized sexism in the act. All too often we still cram women into the virgin/whore dichotomy. We expect our female characters to behave certain ways around sex, to be the one acted upon rather than the actor. A woman who’s up front about her sexuality, who picks and chooses and directs instead of going along, is a challenge to our self concepts and our own relationships with carnality. In claims that Caitlin treats Timber as a sex object, I hear the echo of a patriarchal standard warning us that if we own our bodies and our desires, we must necessarily treat the men in our lives the way women have been treated: as lesser beings, unfit to be equal partners.
When you release a book into the world, you lose control over it. People interpret stories differently than you intended. They project their own issues onto your characters and read deep meaning in the most innocent actions (One reviewer had a real problem with Caitlin not wearing makeup on a regular basis because it was “obviously meant to show she’s superior to other women” and decided that despite Caitlin’s relative insouciance about her appearance “the reader is supposed to know she’s always the hottest girl in the room.”). I know this, and yet the claims of Timber being objectified because his wife likes the way he looks and enjoys having sex still bother me. They show we have a long way to go before women’s points of view become normal and women’s sexuality, in all its many forms, becomes as acceptable as men’s.