Some of you may recall that in essays too numerous to contemplate (like, say, these: Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong) I cast a number of aspersions at the male gaze, suggesting that something had gone seriously wrong with it in the last half-century or so. It is, after all, a long journey from being dazzled by Lauren Bacall to being filled with lust by Megan Fox, and it’s downhill most of the way.
However, I did, I now discover, make a slight mistake in this argument. That is to say, I cheerfully assumed that this shift from eroticism to out and out soft porn in the way we males interact with female movie stars was an entirely modern phenomenon. And I still maintain that, by and large, my thesis is correct. But I had failed to take full account of Rita Hayworth, and on this rock the simple Manichean duality of the thesis founders.
Why Rita Hayworth?
You see, I had assumed that the screen goddesses of old were objects of erotic allure, creating that open space into which the viewer’s imagination could fall and emerge enriched. Rather than (as do the majority of the starlets of today) saying ‘don’t you want to have sex with me’, which is a question answered with a quick surge of lust and then done and dusted, a neat, hygienic, disposable experience, they offered, or so I thought, a complex world of longing and unspecified promise, something that can lead to a transformational experience.
And then I came across Miss Hayworth. Feast your eyes on these:
|1. Take a look at these!
||2. Let’s be classy
|3. Or not
||4. Wow, I’m sexy
Now, let me make two points clear right at the outset. First, these were the most glamorous shots of Miss Hayworth that I could find. Many were much more, shall I say, explicit in their intent. Second shot number two is more or less unique in being a proper attempt at creating allure. Interestingly, it’s copied all over the internet, but there aren’t any others (there is a small variation, but that’s it). So this is the pick of what’s out there.
And what do these pictures say? I think it’s fair to say that pictures one, three and four are all focussed on one, or rather two, things. And it’s not her face. And the clear message is not ‘I am full of mysterious allure, which you must quest to understand’. No, it’s more along the lines of ‘I am sexy as hell; want a piece?’ In other words, the only real difference between Miss Hayworth and the starlets of today is that in her day selling sex was not quite so unsubtle as it has now become. It was all still about tits and ass, but the purveyors of tits and ass had not yet forgotten that subtle revelation is more arousing than crude exposure.
That’s a point to come back to, but the real point is this: sure the goddesses of yesteryear were light-years from the starlets of today, but they were equally light-years away from those starlets’ equivalent in their own era. In other words, in the second tier, just as there are actresses today whose career is predicated solely on their body, so there were fifty years ago. So there are two questions. First, why does it seem as if things were different back then? And second, where are the goddesses of today?
Censorship in action
Some of you may recall that a while back I wrote an essay called The Censorship of Time. It was an attempt to explain the well-known phenomenon that art from the past seems to consist solely of masterpieces, while much of what we see produced today frankly sucks. Cultural conservatives gleefully claim this as evidence of a decline in civilisation. I don’t.
Instead, I observed that if you look at art from any period, it has undergone a form of winnowing process, whereby the vast majority of bad or just mediocre art (which can, quite often, be that which was most popular at the time) is gradually set aside, and what remains are the gems. So nearly all of the art ever produced is forgotten save by desperate graduate students in search of a thesis topic, or those who live in the past (parenthetically, I find it amusing that the latest fad in classical music is for ‘contemporaries of Mozart’, as if merely to have lived at the same time as dear Wolfgang is enough to confer some unusual merit). And this is absolutely true and effective for all periods in history save one: the present. Because we live in the present, the winnowing process hasn’t happened, and so the wheat is swamped by the chaff, especially as the chaff is more likely than not to be what sells. And the consequence of this is that, yes, modern art appears to be worse than the art of the past, but that is only because we are seeing all of it, and not just selected highlights.
If you think about it, this is pretty obvious. Think of popular music in the 1960’s and it’s The Who and The Rolling Stones and so on. It’s not Engelbert Humperdinck, and yet he was more popular than they. We remember the pinnacles of noir like The Big Sleep, but we don’t remember the vast numbers of absolutely dreadful noir movies that it spawned. While now, films that will last, like Synecdoche New York are swamped by instantly forgettable dreck like Transformers, while a fine actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal is criminally under-utilised, while Katherine Heigl seems to be in every romantic comedy made.
|Not even close
So, what was my mistake? Well, it’s quite clear that, though popular taste has unquestionably degenerated in the last few decades, the main reason why the movies seem so awful is simply that, well, most of them are. It didn’t occur to me that the same might be true when it came to sexual gratification. Part of the problem is that, as noted above, there has been a general shift towards greater explicitness. The picture of Miss Heigl makes the point for me: by the standards of modern starlet pinups this actually quite sophisticated, and yet, when compared with Miss Hayworth, it really is quite lacking in subtlety. And so it is entirely possible to miss the equation. Miss Hayworth was selling her body, as is Miss Heigl. And just as Miss Heigl is everywhere, while Miss Gyllenhaal is hardly anywhere, Miss Hayworth reigned supreme while the more beautiful, more intelligent, more sophisticated, more alluring, infinitely more talented Miss Bacall made only a handful of movies.
So the conclusion from all this is as follows: popular taste sucks. Both artistically and in terms of its preference for the surgically applied arousal of pornography to the complexities of erotica. But it always has sucked. We’re just unlucky that it’s busy sucking at us right now, and it’s hard to avoid.
Well, we have the obvious question of where this takes us? Are all of my previous arguments that movies and the male sex are going to hell in a hand-cart mistaken? No. Movies that used to be mainstream now would not get made, because the prime audience has shifted from being adults to teenaged males. And, for the same reason, the manner of sexual arousal has shifted so as to be more simple and direct. Gone are even the subtleties of Miss Hayworth’s dress, with its careful gradation from flesh-coloured fabric to flesh, the edge being artfully hidden. The feedback loop I have noted before means that audiences demand more, quicker, and so that’s what they get, which habituates them to need even more, and so on. So heaven only knows where things will go next.
And as for who are the goddesses of today: well, you tell me.