Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.
And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically unsuccessful loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.
The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist – specifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:
Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…
Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.
And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:
His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.
Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland’s] achingly full and gropable breasts,” a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.
In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional connection or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.
Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.