The Beautifully Curving Lips of Ella Milana and the Male Gaze: a brief explanation

The reader’s name was Ella Amanda Milana. She was twenty-six years old and the possessor of a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries, among other parts. ( – – )

She’d made a mental inventory.

First off, she had good lips. Her fingers were said to be delicate and beautiful. Her face couldn’t be called beautiful, as she had sometimes been reminded, but it was a pleasant face, sensitive, even appealing. She could see that for herself in the mirror. And a lover had once detected something artistic in the colour of her nipples – -.

 

Some of my readers have found this description of the protagonist of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Ella Milana, to be somewhat disturbing. I have even heard that this piece of writing of mine is a good (= bad) example of the male gaze and sexism in books written by men.

It is true that in many parts of the novel, especially in the beginning, Ella Milana sees her own physical appearance through male gaze and in any case she really doesn’t feel good about herself. Apparently it’s quite possible to read these parts as clumsy writing and a sign of sexism of the male author but all this was originally meant to describe Ella Milana’s state of mind. So, it’s basically a question of focalization. In this case it belongs to Ella Milana, no to the author.

Let me explain: The working title of this very first novel of mine was The Disintegration (of Laura White). There are at least two women in the novel who are experiencing some degree of psychic disintegration: mysterious Laura White (who literally disintegrates and disappears into the whirl of snow at her parties) and this young teacher Ella Milana, who learns in the very beginning that she can never have a child and soon after that also loses her fiance. Her future as she imagined it changes drastically and before she is finally able to get herself together and becomes a true writer, her self-image takes some serious damage and goes to pieces. She doesn’t trust herself anymore and thus, for a while, she only is able to see herself through other people’s eyes, not as a whole person as she should see but as an incoherent collection of separate features evaluated by other people – in other words, she ends up objectifying herself.

So, the way I chose to describe this young woman, Ella Milana, isn’t so much a sign of my sexism as it is my sincere attempt to describe the mechanisms of a human psyche when a person loses her self-confidence and self-coherence as a result of a personal crisis (and maybe also partly because of the modern day consumer or patriarchal culture around her) and starts to see herself solely through other people’s eyes.

I think many of us writers have experienced something like this at some point of our lives. Being an outsider, a stranger in your own life – experiences like that can make you see everything, including yourself, differently; in a way through the eyes of an alien.

And that’s how writers are born.

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