CW: This post contains NSFW language because, well, of course.
I recently sat down to enjoy a new novel - I didn't know much of anything about it except that the summary looked interesting and the cover was nice (this is how I choose a lot of my books). I was just getting into the story when the first female character was introduced, body-first and full of cliches. I cringed a little but kept reading. Truthfully, if I stopped reading every time I came across a bad instance of female characterization, I would cut my cannon very short.
It became clear pretty quickly that there would be no women in this 400-ish page novel that the main character would not either sleep with or imagine sleeping with besides his own mother and one woman who stated immediately that she was gay (although a conversation with her ex-husband included him asking if he "turned her gay"). I finished the book, and there was a lot worth praising - the ideas were good, the dialogue was fun and the plot moved along nicely. I wanted to like it more. Instead, it went in the pile of books that I would sing praises of - if maybe 10% more effort had gone into considering what exactly was being said about women.
In order to illustrate what I'm talking about, I've found that you can often separate the particularly glaring examples of MWW cliches into three categories:
1. "She never wears makeup" but is definitely wearing makeup
2. Confusion/sexualization of basic anatomy and hygiene practices
Part I: The Makeup Myth
Makeup and the expectations around its use is a complex issue that I won't fully cover here, but the cliche of naturally beautiful women who don't wear makeup shows up in a lot of literature. Almost every woman I know has been told, however well-meaningly, that they "look great without makeup" while wearing at least 4-5 products on their face, and most of us have also had the experience of being asked if we're ill or tired on the occasion that we don't. All this to say: it may not be hugely detrimental, but making your female characters less realistic than the men can be distracting to someone trying to simply enjoy the story.
"She feared getting fat so she worked out hard and often. Her smooth white skin contrasted vividly with her rose-colored cheeks, black eyebrows, and long eye-lashes - she seldom wore makeup, didn't need it. Most of the women she knew hated the way she looked, but not the men." - Bill Buchanan, Virus
There's to unpack here (like the fact that this woman is being introduced in the context of the story as a skilled pilot in command of several people, or maybe the lazy assumption that women hate other women who they perceive to be more attractive) but it is a particularly clear example of the makeup myth. Every feature listed is one that women regularly enhance with makeup, the end goal being to not look like you are wearing makeup. As a woman reading this paragraph, I assume that she does a basic five-minute face in the morning, including concealer for smooth skin, blush for rosy cheeks, eyebrow pencil to darken the brow to black, and mascara to lengthen eyelashes.
Or maybe she just happens to have extra rosy cheeks, long lashes, thick brows, and perfect skin all at once. I guess it is fiction.
Part II: A Womb of Ones Own
Literature is far from the only place where we find confusion about female anatomy - it is also apparent in education, pop culture, and government regulations. But literature can bring out the most confusing examples, mainly because several editorial eyes need to have gone over these passages before they were published, and not one of them thought to amend them.
"She felt more intensely feminine than she had in years - a warm, wet feeling both delicious and uncomfortable. She went into the bathroom and took a shower. She wished she had bought one of those feminine hygiene deodorants she had seen advertised, but, lacking that, she powdered herself and daubed cologne behind her ears, inside her elbows, behind her knees, on her nipples, and on her genitals. There was a full-length mirror in the bedroom, and she stood before it, examining herself...Her face was unblemished and unscarred. There were no droops or sags or pouches. She stood straight and admired the contours of her breasts. Her waist was slim, her belly flat - the reward for endless hours of exercise after each child. The only problem, as she assessed her body critically, was her hips...They signalled motherhood. They were, as Brody once said, breeder's hips...Her legs were long and - below the pad of fat on her rear - slender. Her ankles were delicate, and her feet - with the toenails neatly pruned - were perfect enough to suit any pediphile." Peter Benchley, Jaws
The paragraph begins with Benchley imagining what it would feel like to feel feminine - and coming up with a feeling vaguely like sex. Then she strips, of course, showers, and perfumes herself in areas that are not only confusing but can also definitely cause yeast infections. She admires her perfect body in the mirror - perfect, despite her having children, except for her hips, which unfortunately look like she's had children. She has delicate ankles (what century are we in?) and feet perfect for fetishizing, which she uses as a metric for determining their worth. And the worst part of it all is that she's probably about to be eaten by a shark anyway, so it was all for naught.
"The cold air made my hair stand up from the roots the way my nipples stood erect, every follicle on my arms and legs becoming a tiny clitoris, and every cell of me awake and alert at rigid attention." - Chuck Palahnuik, Damned
Fun fact: just the external section of the clitoris has more nerves and sensitivity than a full penis. So for our male readers, what is going on here is every hair follicle on this poor woman's body has just become more sensitive than an erect penis because SHE IS COLD.
"It's like she can feel her ovaries tighten, breaking off a decade's worth of ice and snow." - Chuck Wendig, Mockingbird
Please seek medical attention.
"She was the kind of woman that oozed sexuality from every curvaceous pore, the kind who gave the impression she was naked even when fully clothed - the kind who made wives angry." Marc Cameron, Code of Honor
I do not hate this just because of the disgusting image of anything oozing from pores, or because I can't seem to wrap my head around the spacial reasoning of pores being curvacious. I hate it because this kind of language is insidious. It finds its way into assault and shame and blame. A woman does not have to do anything to tempt men except exist. A woman can walk around fully clothed and somehow still be naked. A woman is sexual in every time and place, not by choice, and the reactions of men and wives will still be her fault.
Sorry, we'll go back to being funny now.
Part III: Breasting Boobily: The Titty Tendency
It goes without saying that literature written by men often reflects an obsession with breasts. Finding examples for this one was not difficult, but my favorite instances are when supposedly heterosexual female narrators are just as transfixed as their male creators.
"You could tell the kind of person Lucy was from her breasts. They were, as we already know, small and pert; challenging little tits, pointy and fierce, as were her nose and chin, although the latter were not so much so as to render her unattractive...Her breasts were the sort to make a man long to reach out and grab them and at the same time cause him to be afraid and want to run away and hide." - John Harding, One Big Damn Puzzler
I like to envision this passage setting off a new trend in crystal ball parlors and palm-reading over-lofts: Titty Tarot. Tell your future via mammary glands. Gain insight into yourself through mystical groping. Big nipples for a big personality. Darker for the more brooding types.
On the other hand, the idea that one's breasts could strike fear into men is fairly attractive.
"...a lime green polo shirt caught her eye. It wasn't the colour she noticed, but the jutting out chest of the girl wearing the lime green polo shirt...The stiff and curved chest moved past where Sara sat. 'Effin hell,' a third boy on the steps said. The girl with the big chest and negligible waist had to bend around the boys..." - Sheheryar Sheikh, The Still Point of a Turning World
This passage (narrated by a female character who has presumably seen breasts before) is a great example of the use of "synecdoche", defined by Mirriam-Webster as "a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (such as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (such as society for high society), the species for the genus (such as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (such as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (such as boards for stage)".
Or, as Mr Sheikh has chosen, chest for a girl.
"Verenskaya's lower legs had been cut off...But Verenskaya seemed all right. She was still in a deep sleep, and her firm breasts slowly moved up and down as she breathed. Normally, Ike would have admired such a sight, but right now she only felt a supernatural fright." Liu Cixin, Death's End
Speaking of parts for a whole, this lovely lady, while newly legless, seems languidly unconcerned. And why should she be - her breasts are still firm. Her worth is intact.
"Her big breasts, which had never suckled a child of her own, felt a merciless compassion."
"She felt responsibility move in her breasts..."
"...he saw a mouth which wanted the sexual embrace, the shape of breasts demanding a child."
"She sat there completely at her ease, her big breasts ready for any secrets."
- Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Here we have what I like to call the Uncanny Cleavage, or breasts that have seemingly achieved sentience. Just within one novel, we have breasts that can feel compassion, responsibility, self-advocate, and determine themselves ready to perform emotional labor.
Conclusion: Fighting the Fallopian Fallacies
My purpose in writing this was not to condemn all male authors to irrelevancy. Most of the authors listed above have other very worthy literary accomplishments. The point here is that it is so easy to avoid these cliches, and the benefit to both author and reader is enormous.
There is an obvious caveat here, which is: what if the authors are doing this on purpose to make their narrators unlikeable? What if they are trying to write a character who's an asshole and this is a way to do it?
In that case, congratulations. You've succeeded in making your character unlikeable. But if this is the only way that you show this particular tendency, while going for a sympathetic vibe overall, then it may not be the best method of characterization for you. If it's not, then I would encourage you to consider: does the world need another story about an asshole?