What we consume in popular culture can affect how we see the world and each other. Even our beloved romance novels can change how we look at other people, and ourselves. Today Laila Blake is with us to talk about how fiction writers can avoid sexually objectifying women in their stories.
Growing up in Germany, there was one magazine every teenager read, whether they admitted to it or not.
On the surface, it was pretty much what you'd expect: news about celebrities, new CD releases or movies, a centerfold of the latest boy band. But there was one column that gave the whole magazine an air of exciting taboo. Every week, it would show a teenage boy and a teenage girl, each on one page by themselves, naked except for the little remote in their hand, posed in front of a neutral background.
One week, they would be tall and skinny, the next there would be someone chubby, or someone with freckles all over their chest, someone with small breasts and someone with larger ones. They varied in race, stature and personal style.
And secretly, at home, I would spend a long time looking at these people. I thought they were so brave. And even though I still thought they are all prettier than me, because I was a chubby teen with an inferiority complex, I could still see that they were real people and not the perfect, photo-shopped glamorized ones featured so prominently throughout the rest of the magazine: the actresses, the singers, the models. It felt good.
I didn't know back then, how unusual that was. Naked or semi-naked images of women are more ubiquitous now than ever before, but it's never about their personality or their relationship to their own body: it's to sell products — from magazines to perfume, beer and even TV shows and music.
This is one of the main ways in which we as a society objectify women’s bodies, and the detrimental effects of this range from poor self-esteem, eating disorders and depression, to a culture in which many people still believe that the way a woman dresses is a contributing factor to rape.
It causes all of us — men and women — to see women not quite as fully integrated personalities, but as an amalgamation of sexualized parts. That distances women from their strength and intelligence, and frankly makes it a lot less likely for both men and women to truly enjoy their sex life as an experience two people share together.
Changing society as a whole can be difficult. All of us are obsessed with photos, videos, with beauty and youth. But I do think that we have a unique chance to turn it around in books. Books are one of the last mediums relatively unencumbered by this image-obsessed culture. And still, more often than not, I read about a heroine's perfectly smooth legs, her perky breasts and flat abs. Even in written descriptions, I can sense the retouching brush at work.
But we don't have to do that. We can write and demand books that make us feel good about the people that we are, rather than those we wish we were in our fantasies.
Here are a few ideas to consider while writing and reading that might help us all to move away from sexually objectifying women in fiction:
- Focusing on a heroine's looks above the rest of her is not the mark of a desirable hero.
- Heroines who judge other female characters by their looks are difficult to like. And we definitely shouldn't present her as beautiful by placing her alongside less favorably looking characters or actively comparing her to them.
- Our heroines should be full human beings with their own agency. They have wants and needs, not just a desire to be wanted and needed (they are not objects to be acted upon, they can act themselves). They don't always have to be pursued, but can also be the pursuer.
- Heroines can have interesting jobs, or ambitions. They have opinions and talents, and a rich inner life with an important personal narrative. This does not always have to be one only of confidence, but reflect who they are as full, three-dimensional beings.
- When we describe our characters — both men and women, we can start to edge away from describing perfection as the only kind of body that is deserving of love.
What do you think? Is it possible to write a romance without objectifying the heroine? You can pick up Laila's latest story, After Life Lessons, available now.