The Problem with “Almond Shaped Eyes”

So I’m going about my business, having a good time reading with this story, and then the author introduces us to an Asian character. Great, yay for not having all white characters!

Then this Asian character is promptly described as having “almond shaped eyes,” and I facepalmed so hard.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one other fantasy book I’ve read in the past year that uses this exact description. That’s two too many.

I get where this comes from. Especially as people in SFF are pushing more loudly for diversity, authors want to make sure readers know that they have non-white characters. And so the thought process goes something like, ‘How can I clearly mark this person as Asian? Physical characteristics. What do Asian people look like? Well, they can be pale, so that’s not obviously helpful, and white people have dark hair too… I know, eye shape!’

Do you see how quickly that already slippery slope went totally off the deep end? Let me unpack this a bit, because it was actually totally off already by the “clearly mark this person as Asian” point.

By deliberately marking non-white characters as having a separate, racial-wide set of physical characteristics, we literally mark them as others.

First, I hope I don’t need to point out that among ALL THE PEOPLE IN ASIA, there is a wide variety in eye shape beyond almond?

Second, I’m not trying to say that white writers are the only ones who do this. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be pulling examples from English-language SFF to illustrate my point. I’m also not addressing all forms of diversity that people get wrong. Okay?

Pressing right along then. Human brains fall easily into categorization and patterning. In writing, this can lead to a form of laziness, and a harmful one. How many times have you read a fictional black (especially female) character described as having “a warm, chocolate brown skin tone”?

In fact, think about female characters. This is one reason authors, when introducing women in their stories, will start out with references to their breasts or their beauty: to differentiate from the male default. But in drawing reader attention there in our very first impression, they mark those characteristics as the most important, the most notable feature of those characters.

This is where trouble is. If a character’s possession of a pair of breasts is worthy of note, that marks the trait as abnormal. By clearly marking a character’s eyes as almond-shaped, the implication is that “normal” eyes are not.

When have you seen a white character described by the shape of their eyes? Characters’ eyes may widen in surprise, narrow in suspicion, bulge out, etc., but I have never read of a white person’s eye shape as a defining characteristic. Nor their skin tone: if they’re pale, maybe they have a computer job; if they’re tan, maybe they can afford expensive vacations. But there are reasons the reader is learning any of those physical characteristics, because they tell us something about the character, about their life or disposition or how they act. Whiteness doesn’t tell us anything about a character. You know what? NEITHER DOES BEING ASIAN.

What “almond shaped eyes” tell me is that the author wanted to make sure that I immediately knew this person was not the default white, which assumes that white is the default. That if you don’t tell me a character is female, I will assume they’re male. Because those are the people who get to be in stories.

So I appreciate the effort to include diverse characters. I really do. And as the market is not exactly flooded with stories that don’t center around white cis male characters, it’s important to bear the need for diverse stories in mind.

But authors also need to make an effort to be aware of the implications of these descriptions, how they can actually work totally against the authors’ intentions and otherize where the author was trying for inclusion.

We all get shit wrong sometimes; no one can be perfectly aware of all of our own biases. But it matters that we try, and that we make a conscious effort to not mark people as “others” by accident.

So please, please. Find other ways to describe your Asian characters than with a quick marker of “almond shaped eyes.” We can do better than that.

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9 responses to “The Problem with “Almond Shaped Eyes”

  1. I can understand how you’d be quick to condemn the author, but coming from a Caucasian author who does attempt at writing diversity, it can feel like a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” type situation.

    Even with the most sensitive approach, it seems that someone will write a blog post with criticism. I want to be constructive, and I want to learn, so I’ll ask, what is the ideal way to write the description in your opinion? The most concrete example would be helpful.

    Thank you so much in advance.

    • I didn’t mean to condemn the author, actually, just to explain why a particular aspect bothered me. But for that one instance in the book, I think the author is doing a great job. This is a really tricky subject, and I know I’ve messed up before too and probably will again. I’m also white, and I often write high fantasy, which means I can’t get away with using a location descriptor like “Russian” or “Middle Eastern” to describe someone. So physical cues seem like they would be a good option, and they can be, but it depends on how they’re handled. It’s definitely something I’m still working on; I just think it’s important that we keep the subject in mind rather than using hackneyed phrasing. In the case of the book I’m currently reading, given the character’s name and references to history and mythology that came up within the next couple of pages, marking the character with almond shaped eyes was totally unnecessary.

      I wish I knew a solution that would apply to every circumstance! In my opinion (and I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me on this), the best way is to introduce characters as people first. Any physical attributes that feed into understanding who that character is are fantastic (“She was pale, like her skin had never seen the sunshine before, so she almost had to be a sheltered aristocrat” gives more information than a reference to breasts or ethnic group), but if it doesn’t tell me anything about who they are (eye color, height, etc. without some sort of context for why they’re relevant) then I think it can wait, or be left out entirely. POV can help a lot, in my experience: using attributes the narrator would notice given /their/ perspective tells me about both characters. And no one ever looks at a person and goes, “Would you look at that, he has almond shaped eyes, must be Asian!”

      Basically, for me it comes down to telling details, rather than just /any/ detail, and POV. I hope that helps! Thanks so much for your question, and if you have any other thoughts I’d love to hear them =).

      • I agree that it’s a tricky subject, and I’m aware that some authors do a horrible job of it.

        The only other thought I had is that in all things, you get what you encourage. If all we do is offer criticism, then most authors will be too nervous to try it ever again (even if there was a first time).

        I know a lot of authors (myself included) would love to include more diversity, however many are concerned about the backlash that might result.

        So rather than a quick criticism, I encourage us all as bloggers to encourage, reward, and sustain authors who attempt at diversity (while, of course, gently nudging those who are pretty awful at it). That way we get what we encourage. One way to look at it is that at least the author is trying at offering diversity. If we only nip at their heels, then those individual authors will just stick to the norm forever.

      • Yes, I definitely agree with your point about getting what you encourage. I do think there’s a balance, though, between encouraging portrayals of diversity while also continuing to talk about problematic depictions, rather than just cheering all good intentions. I review books at Fantasy Book Critic as well, and in those I always err on the side of encouragement and giving the benefit of the doubt — and when they get tricky subjects right, I will practically gush =P. On my blog, I like to unpack trends (not just in matters related to diversity, of course) that bother me without naming any names. I know people worry about whether getting issues of diversity wrong is better than shying away from them entirely, but the only way we learn to do better, with any aspect of writing craft, is through trial and analysis.

      • I feel that you’ve expressed your views rather affluently. I can certainly appreciate that. By the by, since you mentioned fantasy, do you read any Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, or Terry Goodkind? Fantasy is my favorite genre to read.

      • I’m a huge fan of Sanderson’s work! I think he’s killing it with The Stormlight Archive right now. I only ever read WIZARD’S FIRST RULE, and after the first 3ish WoT books still hadn’t gotten into it. Aside from Sanderson, one of my current favorites is Max Gladstone’s Craft series beginning with THREE PARTS DEAD (secondary world urban fantasy and totally mind-blowing). Have you read THE THOUSAND NAMES or THE CURSE OF CHALION?

      • I haven’t read either of those, no. I’ve read a lot of Robert Jordan, and some of Sanderson and Goodkind. I’m the biggest fan of the WoT series. It really heats up toward the end.

      • I’ve heard that before, but haven’t gotten through the rest of the series yet. I’ll have to give it another go one of these days. You may want to check out Brian Staveley’s THE EMPEROR’S BLADES — I feel like his kind of epic fantasy might be up your alley =).

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