I gather that in a certain period of European history, it was common for men holding forth about their lady-loves (in literature, poetry, or song) to give extended and enraptured descriptions of said women's body parts. Among other things, I gather the Petrarchan sonnet was often full of such descriptions; that's what Shakespeare was parodying in Sonnet 130 with "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" and so forth.

And I seem to recall from a medieval literature class at Swarthmore (probably the one titled "Pilgrim, Dreamer, Mystic, Knight") that such a description was known as blazoning (the same term used for a heraldic description of a coat of arms).

The reason I mention all this is that I see variations on this approach surprisingly often in submitted stories. Almost always stories written by men, often in descriptions of a female protagonist. Sure, there are stories in which a male character stops to look at himself in a mirror and notices his own sharp cheekbones and widow's peak and snazzy outfit, or whatever; but the descriptions of women that I'm talking about seem to me more exaggerated and more extended and, usually, more sexualized. Made-up example: "She was well aware of the effect that her vermillion lips had on those of the male persuasion. Her sparkling sapphire-and-azure eyes and long wavy hair of finest spun gold caught the attention of men as well, along with her perky button nose, her luscious curves, her ample bosom, her long slender legs that could go all day, her tight firm ass that swayed from side to side as she walked, drawing all eyes, and her delicate yet somehow domineering feet, whether dressed in strappy black high-heeled sandals or, as today, tall black leather high-heeled boots."

It keeps surprising me, even though I encounter a story that does this about once a month. Having never been a woman myself, I don't know for sure that most women wouldn't describe themselves in the same way that a lustful and worshipful straight male admirer-from-a-distance would; but I think it's telling that I almost never see this kind of description in stories written by women.

(I know, I know, there's all sorts of societal baggage and subtext here; this could be the subject of an extended essay that would fully explore a variety of related issues with the subtlety and nuance the topic deserves. (Like, I could mention that the women emblazoned in these stories almost always fit modern societal ideals of female beauty. And I could mention that the stories where I see this generally do a decent job of portraying a female protagonist aside from the blazoning. And I could note that I may well just be oversensitive to this.) But I don't have time for that right now; this is just a quick observation.)

Okay, speaking of stories, I really ought to be reading some instead of blogging, so I'll step down off my soapbox. For the moment, anyway.

4 Responses to “Blazoning”

  1. Claris

    I noticed that my male GMs tend to describe new female NPCs muuuuuch more than they describe new male NPCs.

  2. David Moles

    The only thing worse than that is the thriller writer’s stock “she was drop-dead gorgeous”.

  3. Heather Shaw

    Try editing erotica sometime. Lord, at *least* every other story does this, usually in the first paragraph or two. It actually is a HUGE pet peeve of mine and, unless there’s something else about the story that has snagged my interest, it usually spells rejection for the author. I know it’s more relevant in erotica, but I strongly prefer the physical descriptions come a bit later in the narrative.

    Not that such a technique can’t be used to good effect, but most stories suffer when they linger over the descriptions of their female characters.

  4. barth

    are “horse-girls” emblazoning horses?


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