Men Only Notice T&A

One of the bizarre pieces of advice that I hear all the time about writing from a male POV is that men don't notice the cute little details of a woman's figure or dress, they really only pay attention to T&A.  I find this deeply frustrating and so, in an effort to test (and hopefully refute) the theory, I've pulled books from the most sexist authors in my personal library and will now quote the first physical description of a woman that I find in each. Let's start with Michel Houellebecq.  A contemporary French author I happen to love, he's a literary sensation whose mind is stuck in the gutter and seems to enjoy making sensible modern women clutch at their pearls in horror.  Here's a guy who really, really wants to come across as a sexist pig.

"Djerzinski walked across the parking lot with one of his colleagues.  She had long black hair, very white skin and large breasts.  Older than he was, she would inevitably take his position as head of the department.  Most of his published papers were on the DAF3 gene in the fruit fly.  She was unmarried." (The Elementary Particles, 10)

One afternoon in October, Bruno found himself talking to Patricia Hohweiller.  She was an orphan and had to stay in school year-round except for the holidays, when she went to stay with her uncle in Alsace.  She was blonde and thin and talked very quickly, her animated face occasionally slipping into an odd smile." (The Elementary Particles, 44)

Two quotes, from the two POV characters.  Surprisingly the second, Bruno, is the more sexist.  Breasts feature equally here, weight, skin, speech patterns and professional status.  Not just T&A.  Not just physical, either.

Next is Ernest Hemingway - man, was he a famous sexist!  He really did not treat women very well, or seem to care very much about the grey matter between their ears.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window.  She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.  (A Moveable Feast, 5)

Now she came in sight, walking across the open toward the camp.  She was wearing jodphurs and carrying her rifle.  The two boys had a Tommie slung and they were coming along behind her.  She was still a good-looking woman, he thought, and she had a pleasant body.  She had a great talent and appreciation for the bed, she was not pretty, but he liked her face, she read enormously, liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much.  (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 12)

Apparently sexist pigs pay attention to haircuts.  They feature much more prominently than breasts in these first two piggish authors' descriptions.

How about Milan Kundera?  I have never found Kundera to be sexist but I know many people do.  I skimmed the first twenty pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which are full of lascivious scenarios and no description of a woman's body more than a sentence long.  The most literal and physical is this:

She arrived the next evening, a handbag dangling from her shoulder, looking more elegant than before. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 9)

Hmmm.  His first literal description involves a purse and not much else.

Let's take a look at Saul Bellow, another famous sexist.  He makes a point of describing characters as he introduces them, so we should get a hefty helping of T&A, right?

"The one unmarried daughter, Eleanor, had a gypsy style and got herself up in flaming, bursting flowers and Japanese dyes.  Fat and pale, with an intelligent Circassian bow to her eyes, very humane, overreconciled to a bad lot, taking it for granted that she was too fat to get a husband and forgiving her married sisters and mobile brothers their better luck, she had a genial cry, almost male and fraternal." (The Adventures of Augie March, 40)

"The girl's name was Hilda Novinson, and she was fairly tall but small-faced, with pallor and other signs of weakness of the chest, light-voiced, hasty-spoken, and shy....With her Russian facial angle and pale eyes, placed low and denying you a direct glance, she had the look of an older woman.  She wore a green jacket, she smoked, she walked with a raft of schoolbooks held to the breast and in open galoshes, the clasps clinking." (The Adventures of Augie March, 47)

No T, no A.

Henry Miller seems to live up to the stereotype - finally!  As far as I can tell he starts his description of a woman with her vagina and then adds other details as they take his fancy.  Here's a quote that I don't feel too bad about repeating (none of his descriptions are clean):

"She had a German mouth, French ears, Russian ass.  Cunt international." (The Tropic of Cancer, 15)

So, for once, full points.  Any romance authors featuring Henry Miller as their heroes will be right on target if they focus on the reproductive organs when writing from his POV.

Finally, Emile Zola - a bit of a perv in real life, all of his books (at least all the ones that I've read) are about destroying women in some brilliantly symbolic way.  He's like a literary Lars von Trier.  Here's his first description of Nana, the prostitute at the heart of the novel Nana, which ought to be a real softball for the "it's all T&A" camp:

Nana, very tall and very plump for her eighteen years, in the white tunic of a goddess, and with her beautiful golden hair floating over her shoulders, walked toward the foot-lights with calm self-possession, smiling at the crowd before her"  (Nana, 17)

In the next page or so he continues with his physical description of Nana.  We find out about her "large light blue eyes," her "pink nostrils," the hair at the nape of her neck "which looked like the fleece of an animal." (18)

These guys ought to be the worst of the worst - authors who take pleasure in objectifying women - and yet only Henry Miller's first impression of a woman focuses insistently on her secondary sexual characteristics.  Most of the authors are more likely to notice a woman's face, her way of dressing, moving, speaking, her haircut and attitude.

And presumably when we write a romance, the hero does not belong to the lowest common denominator.  But even if he's proud of being a pig, he sees the whole human being.  He can't help it.