Books / Reviews

The Male Gaze in Beautiful Creatures

By: Kristen Gregory

Beautiful CreaturesIn Beautiful Creatures (2009), Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl make the unusual decision to narrate the romantic plot through the male point of view.  Instead of being inside the head of a teenage girl, the reader views the narrative through the eyes of Ethan, a sixteen-year-old boy. At first, I welcomed this shift in perspective because I anticipated that it would be a refreshing change from the traditional, female-narrated young adult romance. However, only a few pages into the book I wanted out of Ethan’s head. It turns out that being inside this sixteen-year-old boy’s head means listening to him objectify teenage girls, rank them on a scale of hotness, mercilessly mock the girl whose body type does not fit his ideal, and slut shame girls who dress too promiscuously for his taste. As our point of view character, Ethan invites the reader to judge the girls’ bodies and sexuality in a way that is especially problematic for a book whose target audience is teenage girls.

Of course, a certain level of objectification of the opposite sex is par for the course in young adult romances. For example, Jacob Black’s six-pack abs are seared into the minds of Twilight readers; however, Ethan and his friends go beyond checking out teenage girls by ranking them in order of hotness. When Lena, Ethan’s future girlfriend, comes to Gatlin, Ethan and his friends ask if she is “Savannah Snow hot?” Ethan then describes Savannah Snow as “the standard by which all other girls at Jackson were measured,” who is “5’8” worth of the most perfect legs you’ve ever seen” (18).  We then learn that Emily is Savannah’s less-hot sidekick who has more to offer under her bikini top. Between Emily’s bra size and Savannah’s legs for days, it is apparent that the hottest girls at Jackson High look nothing like most sixteen-year-old girls. Nevertheless, even these sixteen year olds who are built like twenty-somethings cannot compete with Lena and her cousin, as Ethan tells us that they are the hottest and second-hottest girls in Gatlin. Ridley, Lena’s cousin who wears see-through lingerie as clothes, gets ranked as “third degree burns” hot which is above “Savannah Snow hot” (116). This culture of ranking girls based on their bodies not only objectifies teenage girls, but it also sets unrealistic standards for “hotness” that most sixteen-year-old girls do not meet.

In addition to ranking girls on their hotness, Ethan also harshly mocks girls who do not fit certain standards. This troubling habit is most evident in his description of Charlotte, one of Savannah’s less attractive friends. Ethan first lets us know that Charlotte is overweight when he is disappointed that, when the boys were waiting for a glimpse of Lena, “the only thing we got to look at was too much of Charlotte Chase in a jean skirt two sizes too small” (18). Ethan repeatedly refers to Charlotte’s clothes being too tight, at one point even saying that she is “gasping for breath” because she is squeezed into too-small clothes (338), but in case the reader did not pick up on the fact that Charlotte is chubby, her prom dress rips and the whole school sees her in her underwear. When this happens, Ethan describes her panties as “the size of the state of Texas” and describes her resulting cry as a “now-everyone-knows-how-fat-I-really-am scream” (269). Ethan invites the reader to join in on the humiliation of an overweight teenage girl who is ashamed of her body. The last look we get at Charlotte is when Ethan sees Emily glaring at Charlotte and interprets her look to mean “maybe you should lay off the pie and put some effort into looking that gorgeous” (338). While Ethan’s ranking of girls’ hotness could possibly be excused as the male equivalent of the descriptions of chiseled abs in most young adult romances, there is no excusing his harsh criticism of Charlotte’s body throughout the novel.

Finally, Ethan also assumes the authority to determine which high school girls are sluts. Ethan divides Gatlin girls into two groups depending on where they buy their prom dresses: Little Misses or Southern Belles (260). Little Misses were pageant girls, the daughters of pageant girls, or the daughters of “women who wished they had been pageant girls” (260). Ethan notes that “these were the same girls you might eventually see holding their babies at the Jackson High School graduation in a couple of years” (260). While there is some biting humor in this remark, his prediction of which girls will become teenage mothers based on what they wear to prom problematically links clothing with sexuality in a way that is reminiscent of rape arguments that blame the victim. However, not even the girls who choose Southern Belle dresses are safe from being skanks in Ethan’s eyes; the last view we get of these girls is of them “looking skanky in their tank tops and baby tees” at Lena’s birthday party (357). Ethan divides high school girls into sluts and nice girls, but Lena is the only teenage girl that escapes being labeled as a slut by Ethan. Ethan’s identification of high school girls as sluts disturbingly links a girl’s clothing with her sexual desire and suggests that teenage boys have authority over adolescent female sexuality.

In many ways, Ethan’s biting criticism of girls’ bodies and sexuality is reminiscent of the voice of the “mean girl” of series like Gossip Girl; however, the mean girl invites sympathy in a way that Ethan does not. Oftentimes, the mean girl adopts the persona of the “bitch” as the only route of power she sees available to her as a woman. Readers are also aware that her treatment of other girls is problematic, so we are not invited to share her viewpoint. Further, mean girls are frequently dethroned, and they usually learn to forge female bonds and make reparations for their past deeds.  On the other hand, at the end of Beautiful Creatures, Ethan is left as our trusted point-of-view character; there is no sense that we are supposed to be aware that his perspective is problematic, and he does not come to any realization that he has been treating girls wrongly. Instead, Beautiful Creatures invites the readers to agree with Ethan’s girl hating and slut shaming, which encourages teenage female readers to accept his chauvinistic view of the female body and possibly even turn his discriminating male gaze onto themselves. While Beautiful Creatures breaks with tradition by allowing us into the mind of a sixteen-year-old boy, Ethan’s mind is not a welcoming space for young female readers or one I am comfortable inhabiting.

Kristen Gregory is a PhD student at the University of Florida.

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