This is by way of being a spin-off from my essay on the tyranny of realism. However it is sufficiently distinct to merit a brief note in its own right. So, this all originates in one of the more regrettable feature of the Internet, which is that whereas before the coming of the information superhighway some of the more artistically reprehensible things people got up to for their own fell purposes were kept in the decent obscurity of the community of individuals who liked that kind of thing, now they lurk ready for the unwary to trip over whenever they use a search engine. So for example, you found this piece, which is surely deserving of greater obscurity, and more (I hope) reprehensibly, there is the phenomenon that given just about any subject, there are apparently people out there who try to turn it into an excuse to indulge in a spot of sexual fantasy. Call me a prude, an overly sheltered individual, if you will, but I had never expected, when looking for images of H P Lovecraft’s race of Elder Things (as part of research for a novel), that within the first page of images thrown back at me by Google would be three sexualised images, including two which attempted to merge a naked woman with Lovecraft’s bizarre meeting of a barrel and two star-fish. And I thought I was strange.
Introducing Miss Bellum
So, having established the principle that given (apparently) any subject there are people out there who will try to sexualise it (and one has to wonder just what it takes to be turned on by an Elder Thing), let me introduce the example of this regrettable phenomenon that sparked this train of thought.
Not Miss Bellum
The authentic Miss Bellum
I am a fan of the great cartoon series The Powerpuff Girls. I won’t give much background, because little is needed. What you need to know is that one recurrent character is Miss Sara Bellum, aide to the incredibly short Mayor of Townsville. She is an incredibly curvaceous red-head dressed in a smart red suit who is basically the brains behind the Mayor. As a running gag we never see her face; either her head is cut off by the top of the frame or something (often her hair, on one memorable occasion her bosom) obscures the view. Well, here, on the left, are some images of the authentic Miss Bellum, to give you some idea what I’m talking about. As you’ll see, we are left in no doubt that she is highly concupiscent (though interestingly, in the show, her behaviour is that of a cool and intelligent woman, not that of a sexpot).
Ersatz Miss Bellums
Now it may come as a bit of a surprise, given that, in view of what I have said about sexualisation on the Internet, one would expect such an overtly sexy character as Miss Bellum to be quite popular, but in fact these are pretty much the only images of Miss Bellum out there on the Internet. Or, to be more exact, the only images of her as she appeared in The Powerpuff Girls. Because apparently this version of her is not sexy enough. So, in fact, there are very many Miss Bellum-derived images out there, but they are largely, Miss Bellum ‘fan art’. Which mostly consists of the kind of regrettable thing that I mentioned in the introduction; not perhaps as weird as sexualised alien monsters, but every bit as tasteless. Here, on the right, are two of the more, er, tasteful examples.
I’ll just comment here that this phenomenon is far from being unique to poor Miss Bellum. If you want a really nasty surprise and are feeling strong, try doing a Google image search on Miss Piggy some time. It seems clear that whatever the image or character, be it ever so exaggeratedly sexual (or asexual) there is somebody out there who will make it yet more explicitly sexual. What had been closeted and referred to as ‘specialist tastes’ is now exuberantly out of the closet and making life that bit less pleasant for those of us who still have some illusions intact. What is interesting is that we are seeing the creation of a penumbra around mainstream (popular) culture. The impulse that leads to gross images of Miss Piggy, sexy alien monsters and Miss Bellum with breasts the size of watermelons (no, I didn’t feel up to reproducing that one) is the same impulse that led to books like ‘Pride and Promiscuity: the lost sex-scenes of Jane Austen’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice with Zombies’. I shall return to this point in a future essay.
An interesting observation
When I discovered this strange fact about images of Miss Bellum, a thought that had always been lurking in the back of my mind when faced with the aggressive sexualisation of, well, everything, in modern popular culture finally articulated itself. The authentic Miss Bellum is a stylish minimalist caricature, build from a couple of sinuous lines and a block of solid red colour. The ersatz Bellums are more detailed, semi-realistic pictures of women with strongly defined sexual characteristics. And yet the authentic Miss Bellum is far more sexy than either of them.
Why is less more?
Miss Bellum – a second look
Let’s look at Miss Bellum a bit harder, starting with the authentic Powerpuff Girls version.
If this Miss Bellum is taken as a picture of a real woman then she is a non-starter. No real woman could have such exaggerated curves and such high hip-to-waist and bust-to-waist ratios. Legs and arms defined by a single straight line down the front are a physical impossibility. Real bosoms do not balloon out in such a dramatic way and yet with such an elegant outline. In other words, she does not and cannot represent a real woman. But she can, and does, represent ‘woman’. That is to say, she is very clearly a work of art. Art in that she is an attempt (quite a successful one) to represent the concept ‘highly desirable woman’ which achieves its aim by abstracting out as much detail as possible, leaving eventually only the bare minimum needed to represent the concept (a Platonist could have a field-day with her). And that bare minimum is important: by suggesting rather than stating, by giving room for the viewer’s imagination to engage with her, rather than telling it what to think, she creates a potent mix of suggestion and carefully directed imagination and fantasy contributed by the viewer that results in her becoming an extremely sexy woman, in spite of being only a few spare lines on the page. In other words, she points the way, and the viewer responds with their own imagination to create their own ‘highly desirable woman’.
Now look at the ersatz Miss Bellums. They are both much more ‘realistic’. Both have more-or-less believable body proportions, and both give much more prominence to secondary sexual characteristics, with the simple line defining the authentic Miss Bellum’s cleavage being replaced by lovingly rendered breasts. As far as line goes, simplicity of line is replaced by an attempt to accurately reflect what is clearly the important thing to these artists: the way fabric stretches and shapes itself in response to the shape of the body underneath. So the aim is clearly to create a highly sexualised body that is realistic in the sense that it represents, if not a real woman, then a shape that a real woman could have. And this shape is then dressed in such a way as to show it off. While at the same time borrowing the iconography of Miss Bellum. So at one and the same moment, the images give the viewer a far more explicitly sexual input, and yet gives them far less freedom as to what they can do with it.
Whereas the authentic Miss Bellum is symbolic of sexual desire, and so becomes, in Aristotelian terms, an essence to which each of us adds our own accidents, these images are all accident. They dictate that the viewer should be drooling over those legs and those breasts, and as such – they are very effective at creating a brief surge of simple lust, but when that is over and gone, there is nothing to them, whereas the authentic Miss Bellum remains as elegant, mysterious and desirable as ever. Her appeal continues. And this is probably why it turns out that so many people try to capture that appeal with their overtly sexual realisations of her, only to discover (if they are sufficiently self aware) that once the initial excitement is over, they are no nearer to realising what makes her so desirable. Which is precisely the fact that she asks questions (what is your perfectly woman?) and never answers them (these breasts, those legs).
Examples from film
Let us now move beyond Miss Bellum to see what can be said more generally about this phenomenon. I am going to try to distinguish between eroticism, as something positive that can enable creative energies, and sexualism, which is simply an aid to masturbation. I am deliberately eschewing the word ‘pornography’, largely because I don’t think anyone actually agrees on what it means, and such meaning as it has is simply pejorative, and I am trying (very hard) to not denounce sexualism as bad, but rather to suggest that it is to eroticism as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is to the Eroica Symphony.
She is therefore she is sexy
Now, eroticism need have nothing explicitly to do with sex. Back when the power of the censor forced film-makers to actually apply their minds to the problem of creating a sexual effect, instead of, as now, simply stripping off their protagonists and telling them to get on with it, film-makers knew that you could create an unbearably erotic atmosphere while the protagonists were clothed from head to foot. And if you don’t believe me, I suggest you watch the scene in Some Like it Hot where Marilyn Monroe is kissing Tony Curtis as part of a clinical experiment to determine whether his character is capable of feeling the softer emotions, or any of the scenes of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart together in any of their movies, but especially The Big Sleep. Both remarkably erotic (Bacall could probably make a laundry list sound sexy) and yet there is nothing of sexualism in these scenes.
Indeed, the overwhelming impression in the Monroe / Curtis scene is of naive innocence. And yes, Monroe is wearing that dress (see picture), which is quite – alluring – but which is merely part of a mood created by two fine actors with a great script that puts every man in the audience of being kissed by Marilyn Monroe and every woman in the position of kissing Tony Curtis. But it goes beyond that, and here’s why. The whole scene is several times removed from reality. First, obviously, this is fiction. But then, not one but both of the characters are lying about who they are (in fact, you can argue that Tony Curtis’ character is lying twice over, given that he is Gerald, pretending to be Geraldine, pretending to be . . .). And then they start to play an elaborate game even within the imaginary characters that they have donned for the evening’s entertainment. The script abstracts away any vestige of reality from the characters until all we are left with is the empty containers of desirable humanity, one woman, one man. We are back to Aristotle: the accidents of the characters have been removed by the successive abstractions from such ‘reality’ as exists within the film until all we have is the essence of an erotic connection between man and woman that we, the audience, can fill with whatever we want of ourselves and our hopes and desires.
Ekberg knocks them cold
And, of course, I haven’t even mentioned La Dolce Vita, have I? Anita Ekberg plays her part brilliantly; she is an absolute innocent with the mind of an unspoiled child inside a body that could demand kingdoms and get them if it wanted. And, basically, what does her celebrated sequence with Marcello Mastroianna consist of? They go for a walk; she jumps into a fountain; she sweeps aside all his attempts to become more intimate, seemingly not because she’s playing hard to get, but simply because she doesn’t understand, because that isn’t part of her world. And yet it must be one of the most erotic filmed sequences ever made. But that is the point; the fact that our hero won’t get to sleep with the bombshell, the fact that she is unwitting: these leave that empty space which is room for co-creation between the artist and the audience, which is surely the highest thing art can aspire to. And I don’t just mean that in the realm of eroticism. Art that asks us to look and say ‘wow’ is dead; live art must instigate co-creation or, as I put it in my earlier essay, transcendence.
So what’s wrong with sexualism?
Fine. That all sounds very poetic, and it seems reasonably convincing. But why can’t I get the same from an image of an anonymous couple coupling? If Lauren Bacall is that sexy fully clothed, wouldn’t she be even more so not? To get that rather displeasing thought out of my mind (not that I imagine that Miss Bacall was displeasing when naked; rather than I have too high a regard for her to want to think about such things) let me say that no she wouldn’t be, and the reason why is because, as all good fashion designers know, eroticism is all about what you reveal, and you can only reveal if you conceal (which sounds rather paradoxical, but does make sense when you think about it). And concealment gives room for imagination and for the viewer to insert themselves, and so for the image to grow from sexualism to eroticism.
Let’s consider that mainstay of the modern movie: two naked bodies writhing in the throes of supposed ecstatic delight. Is it a turn-on? Well, if you’re after a simple surge of lust, then possibly yes. But then what do you do with it? It’s just like the situation with the ersatz Miss Bellums. Once you’ve had your pulse of lust there’s nothing you can do with it, except have another pulse of lust. And if you expectations of what eroticism should be are so minimal then that’s fine, though you are to be seriously pitied. But what can I do with it if I want more? Fine, I see two writhing bodies. It might give me ideas, but it won’t fill me with energy, because there’s no creativity, no energy, nothing. Just two bodies following a script. And if you still don’t believe me, consider two cinematic sex scenes, one a masterstroke, one – not. The masterstroke is in Godard’s Alphaville and involves both Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina keeping their clothes on throughout. In a complex sequence the camera moves around a hotel suite; occasionally we see Constantine and Karine, sometimes apart, occasionally just touching hands. We know what the characters are doing, but we are left to create for ourselves, and are energised by the amazing images we are shown. As my not a masterstroke, I present to you the infamous ‘love-scene’ from The Matrix Reloaded, a clinical exercise in body-rubbing which is about as un-erotic as you can get. The emotion it inspired in me was dismay, but perhaps I’m unusual.
So where have we got to?
This comes back to a subject that my readers will be very aware of: the tyranny of realism. Sexualism is sexual realism: it serves up a precisely calculated portion of arousal and then leaves nothing behind. Which is fine if your ambition as an artist is limited to getting bums on seats and then shifting them out again as fast as possible, because your goal is the count of bums on seats, not the degree to which you have inspired people to be better, more inventive, more creative, more loving, more at one with themselves and the world. If your goal is the latter, then you won’t do sexualism. And indeed, think of my examples: from Miss Bellum to Alphaville the positive examples are distinguished by the fact that they are all highly unrealistic. The fountain scene in La Dolce Vita is utterly unrealistic, but that is part of what makes it resonate so, and become far more powerful and, are I say it, seminal, than any number of images of Mastroianna making love with Ekberg would have been.
So, earlier I suggested that part of the reason why older film-makers were more artful was their fear of the censor. Maybe so, but that does not explain the European films in my list, or Miss Bellum. It may have been a contributing factor, but the real drivers seem to be those descried in the earlier essay: the desire for predictable emotional responses (arousal is so much easier to predict than eroticism) and the fear of transcendence. Great art, as I said above, turns us from spectators into co-creators. Somebody who fears transcendence will not want to be a co-creator, because who knows where it may end? Rather than emerging from the cinema or the gallery with our sense of self re-confirmed, we may emerge as different people. And our culture’s tragedy is that so few people now are willing to take up that challenge and see what they may become.