Frontispiece illustration from part 2 of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), illustrated by her sister May Alcott. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. *AC85.Aℓ194L.1869 pt.2aa, Houghton Library,

Frontispiece illustration from Part 2 of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), illustrated by her sister May Alcott. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Image credit: Public Domain {{PD-US}} / *AC85.Aℓ194L.1869 pt.2aa, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

He could be skinny or ripped or somewhere in between, but never fat. He’s different from most of the men you meet: He doesn’t catcall, he doesn’t question your rape story, and he would never, ever put anything other than your pleasure and happiness first. He could be old or young, blonde or brunette, but he’s usually white. He could be a writer, or firefighter, or virtuously unemployed, but he’s invariably charming. He’s tall, he’s always smart, and never condescending. He buys you coffee, opens the door for you, but also values your political opinions and believes you’re his equal. Heterosexual women love him because he’s ostensibly the projection of their innermost desires. He might even be a feminist. 

He’s a man “written by a woman”—or at least that’s what this sort of man is now called on the internet, and in the jargon of Gen Z. 

Celebrating such male characters “written by women” first went viral on TikTok, and then on Twitter. Most of the first examples were characters in movies: Timothee Chalamet as Laurie in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, most male characters in Jason Sudekis’s Ted Lasso, and even Harry Styles himself were honored with montage videos set to popular songs. The phenomenon made some sense to start, when the person highlighted was a male character who was literally written by a woman, as in Louisa May Alcott’s Laurie. Fans all know that nearly half of the staff writing Ted Lasso are female: and male characters on the show like Ted, Roy, and Sam are generally kind, dote on the women in their life, and will sometimes even shut down expressions of misogyny with a well-informed reference to an appropriate feminist theorist. Even Laurie as he appears in the Gerwig film seems to genuinely listen and understand when Amy gives a feminist monologue about the alternatives she faces: marry to survive and hope the man is nice—or die socially rejected and poor. In many #WrittenByAWoman videos, clips of Chalamet as Laurie flit across the screen to whatever song is most popular on TikTok that week and commenters swoon, not solely for his looks, but mainly for his unique sensitivity and undying love.

But as often happens with memes, popularity has transformed their meaning. No woman wrote a script for Harry Styles, but he’s nevertheless been branded by TikTokers and Tweeters as being “written by a woman”—just because he wears androgynous clothing and flies pride flags at his concerts. He, and other male celebs like mega-famous K-pop stars, defy expectations of masculinity and thus are considered to be “written by a woman.”

You may have noticed that all of these men are celebrities. All of them are essentially inaccessible. Yet their inaccessibility only adds to their allure.

I think that desiring these inaccessible men “written by women” is in large part a way for heterosexual women to release their frustration over the supposed rarity of such caring and desirable men in real, everyday life. 

But these days, on the internet, it’s no longer just celebrities who can be “written by women.” Some TikTok “creators,” as they’re called, are now declaring that their boyfriends were “written by women” as if to brag: “he’s one of the very few good ones.” These TikToks show boyfriends cooking or cleaning or taking care of children—basic acts of survival—and commenters swoon. Perhaps one reason for Gen Z’s prevailing hetero-pessimism is that, in the real world, men who simply do the bare minimum are still so rare that they are glorified as being “written by a woman.”

A month ago, on TikTok a search for the top videos tagged with “written by a woman” produced videos of Chalamet, Styles, and an assortment of “bare minimum boyfriends.”

Last week, the most viewed section was populated with women themselves acting out scenes from daily life as if they were “written by a woman.” One video depicts what a woman “written by a woman” would do after a date—rip off her uncomfortable shoes, chow down on some cold leftover Chinese food, and throw on some sweats.

And so of course as memes beget memes, we now have videos showing what a woman written by a man would do.

One with the caption, “pov: i’m trying to study but I was written by a man,” shows a TikToker wearing a push up bra, a small tank top, and shorts; constantly putting her pen in her mouth to “think”; and eventually just dancing around instead of actually doing anything substantive. TikTok’s 4,000 plus likers of this video apparently agree that the way men have written female characters—existing to be sexualized—is a joke.

The “written by a woman” phenomenon seems to be a reaction—a protest against—the prevailing ways that men have “written” women to reflect their desires, rather than acknowledging the desires women actually have. It’s a reaction to the long history of dehumanizing portrayals of women written by men.

Young women and girls are, in effect, saying they want to escape an exclusively male gaze. This is an understandable reaction, a way to seize agency back from powerful male writers and producers. But is there in fact a distinctively “female gaze”—and if there is, is it beneficial, or necessarily feminist, to deploy it?

TikTok isn’t the only place where Gen Z women encounter female authors and these questions of gaze come up. Modern day romance novels are often written by women, and these female novelists are writing so-called feminist heterosexual female desire into their male characters. Many Gen Z’ers had their first foray into romance novels through celebrity fanfiction, published online. The main female character in these novellas, often called Y/N to be a POV stand-in for “Your Name,” were short, skinny, white, and always wore the trendiest clothes. The Harry Styles, or various other male celebrities, of these online pieces of romance fiction were often short-tempered, sometimes violent, and sexually dominant. These domineering male characters were literally “written by women” but don’t feel very feminist.

 Many of the romance novels currently published as books follow the same dramatic storytelling grooves to the same happily-ever-after endings. Still, some current authors like Emily Henry and Sally Thorne have modernized the genre and allow for a diversity of main characters in race, class, body type, and personality. Many of their feminist plot points, like women starting their own businesses, not being in a rush to get married or have kids, and investing in their female friendships, represent a departure from older novels in the genre.

In The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, the main character, Lucy Hutton, absolutely hates her officemate, Joshua Templeman, and is given the chance to compete with him for a better position and a raise. What makes Lucy desirable and interesting—being smart and confident—is a feminist improvement from the history of female characters written by men. The male love interest, though, doesn’t seem so different from his predecessors. Once the enemies become lovers the male character shows his “love” by being incredibly possessive, grabbing Lucy’s arm when another man smiles at her and verbalizing how angry it makes him to see her wearing something he calls provocative to the office.

The male protagonist of an ostensibly “girlboss” 2016 romance novel doesn’t exactly line up with feminist values. And this isn’t just a feature of Thorne’s novel but rather is part of a pattern. The male character may seem kind and interesting at first—different from the stereotypes of most men—but once layers are pulled back, he becomes more tortured and brooding.

The female protagonists written by these female novelists have rich personalities, interests, and feminist goals. But their male protagonists, and some aspects of the relationships, are remarkably stuck in time. The novels still sexualize a playground myth: that boys, and eventually men, show their love and affection by being mean and abusive, and that heterosexual women should desire this dominance.

Although characters like Thorne’s Joshua are literally written by a woman, their behavior is often quite misogynistic. The relationships at the center of the novels are often not equitable, nor feminist, and yet many are celebrated as if they were. The writers enact patriarchal themes in their books out of internalized misogyny and storytelling habit, but because of their female identities, the male characters’ behaviors are coded as sexy and the resulting relationship, empowering. The prevailing desires of a patriarchy —privileging dominant men and meek women—show up in new forms in these romance novels written by women.

In a world where tacking a sticker that says “Feminist” onto a book can increase sales, some publishers have predictably resorted to false advertising—never mind if the author didn’t ask for the label. Regardless of their intentions, the cultural milieu has put these writers, and their work, into a fraught space.

On the flip side, the TikTok videos romanticize the bare minimum of male care and reinforce the reductive idea that there is a singular female gaze that shows the “true” desires of heterosexual women despite the messiness of female desire in a patriarchal world (i.e. the pattern of women finding possessive men sexy even when they’re abusive). Both the novels and the TikTok videos provide a prism through which to see how heterosexual women are still caught in a cycle of perpetuating patriarchy. 

It can be discouraging to see the same stereotypes and storytelling tropes pass down from one medium and one generation to the next. As the same tropes in romance novels bleed into internet trends it seems that the ability to criticize lessens, as the misogyny becomes more embedded and internalized, and far less grotesque. A silly TikTok or a simple romance novel may seem inconsequential, but both the app and the genre are powerhouses, reaching millions of women and girls.

If a fictional work written by a woman doesn’t pass something like the Bechdel test—a checks and balances system created by Alison Bechdel that only passes a book or movie if two women in the work have at least one conversation that is not about a man—is it really all that different from what a man might write? 

The feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, among others, has argued that women internalize the male gaze within themselves, constantly judging themselves from the perspective of the patriarchy. If that is the case, then extricating “true” desire from what women have been taught to desire is a futile effort. What is not futile is to understand how desires are aroused—and to demand more critical attention to how contemporary women write their stories and create their characters, online and in books.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a romance novel or a lusty TikTok. But it’s worth asking how an internalized male gaze may continue to shape books and characters only superficially “written by women.”

Madeleine Janz is a journalist and graduate student at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism. Her writing has appeared in Document Journal, i-D, BUST, and World Wildlife among others. Read more on her website