A few days ago, I wrote more a squib than an essay, a piece that attempted to clarify my assertion (in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong) that in the world of cinema, the male gaze has shifted in the last-half century, that shift having involved a passage from male gazers entering into a relationship with the gazed at of transformational devotion to one of simple sexual attraction. Using Rita Hayworth as an example, I argued that in fact the simple selling of sex appeal is not, after all new. Scarcely a novel assertion, I know. The novelty came in the principle I adopted to explain why it is that though the movies have always sold sex, it appears to be so much more prevalent now.
So far so good. Where the previous piece fell down somewhat was in that it skated around the whole question of the way in which sex is sold, and how that has changed over the half-century, for there there really is a significant shift, towards a greater commoditisation, and away from (hypothetically) mutually rewarding eroticism to the clinical isolation of masturbatory fantasy. We can explain away the ‘there’s a lot more of it about’ phenomenon, but we cannot explain away this. Instead we need to explain it, and that is what I intend to do.
Therefore, in this essay I will start by recapitulating, more formally, the argument of the former piece as to why the appearance that there is more selling of sex now is just that, an appearance. Then I will proceed to analyse the underlying shift in approches to sex that the removal of the bias caused by time’s censorship makes clear. In the process I shall correct some errors that crept into the earlier piece, particularly the assumption that because with Rita Hayworth the emphasis was very much on the ‘sex’ part of sex goddess, that meant her passionate eroticism was on a par with the lifeless sexualism of a modern starlet.
Sex is always with us
My original hypothesis
The hypothesis put forward in the pieces linked to above, is that screen goddesses were arousing, yes, but what one felt one seeing them wasn’t simply erotic arousal. Rather there was some kind of pull, an attraction, a shock, similar to that created by experiencing great art, that created a space between them and the viewer that could then be filled, by the viewer, with new material derived from the devotion thus formed. Like any good work of art, they offered the viewer the possibility of a transformative experience which the viewer can then make use of to develop, to change, to transcend themselves.
On the other hand, looking at the cinema today, one finds innumerable more or less identical young women who pose in various stages of undress, and who are treated in movies purely as sexual objects. They do not send the message ‘ don’t I make you want to develop yourself?’, they send the message ‘don’t you wish you could have sex with me?’ And so they are offering not a transformational and ongoing mental journey, but a simple act of physical satisfaction. But maybe not even that, for they are objects of lust rather than promises of the satisfaction of lust.
This is not a false analysis. These two categories exist, and it is clear that the goddesses of today are thin on the ground. My error lay in thinking that there was no equivalent in the past to the sexual offer of today’s starlets. It turns out that there was, though different in kind. Enter Miss Hayworth.
Miss Hayworth puts the ‘sex’ in sex goddess
So, here we have four images of Miss Hayworth. I deliberately chose ‘glamour’ pictures as opposed to cheesecake shots, as I was trying to get her as close as possible to the style of the goddesses. Shot number two is more or less unique in entering true goddess territory, the others being much more representative.
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 message is pretty clear. Miss Hayworth is not offering an experience akin to that of first reading Devils, which may end with the viewer a quite different person. She is offering herself, as a (quite remarkable) subject of sexual desire. So clearly, sex was being sold in the past, just as now.
Before I move on, it is worth noting some further points about these images. For one thing, though pictures one and three may be focussed on Miss Hayworth’s breasts, there is a considerable subtlety about it. Clearly she and her couturier knew that eroticism is all about what is revealed, and that in order to reveal one must first conceal. The modern variety (I shall illustrate below) have nothing of the subtlety of, say a dress with a gauze over-dress and a fabric under-dress with the fabric colour precisely matched to skin-tone. But, passing over that level of detail, this is a sexuality that works by suggestion rather than by plonking assertion, so it is eroticism rather than sexualism.
Note also Miss Hayworth’s expression. This is not merely a matter of saying ‘look at me, I’m sexy, I bet you want me’. There is definite longing, desire. Though she is not offering the transcendance offered by the true goddesses, she is still selling more than mere gratification. Instead she is selling desirability and desire: a mutual experience not a solitary one.
I will return to those points. For now note that we have found that half a century ago there were pure goddesses and sex goddesses; there were actresses whose sole selling point was their body (Jane Russell springs to mind) and there were actresses so transcendant that their body was entirely incidental (Katharine Hepburn, for example). The oddity is surely that while now I can point at any number of sex kittens, it’s not entirely clear what has happened to the goddesses (of either description).
In an essay called The Censorship of Time I attempted to explain the phenomenon that art from the past seems to consist solely of masterpieces, while modern art seems to be predominantly of a very low quality. The argument, simply told, is that art from any period is winnowed, so the great and lasting endures, while the ephemeral ends up being consigned to history’s archives (until dug up by some over-zealous cultural antiquary). And so, for all periods of time but one we see only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to artistic production, the winnowed out wheat. The one exception is the present, when we cannot help but see the tares, simply because the winnowing process has not yet happened. And thus, modern art is predominantly dreadful, but then so was what constituted modern art in 1911, 1811 and so on. Art on the whole is predominantly dreadful, but the dreadful works of former years now languish in deserved obscurity, and we can guarantee that in 2111 people will look back on our time and see it as just as artistically golden as we see any past era as being.
So, we can adapt this thesis to explain a number of things. For example, there is a definite shift in the nature of mainstream movies over the past half-century, but before simply saying that cinema now is worse that (as opposed to different from) that of old, we need to remember that it is highly unlikely that any of the current slew of superhero pictures will stand the test of time as has The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that therefore a reliable analysis of changes in the moves needs to deal with thematic and technical trends (such as my analysis of creeping over-reliance on realism in The Tyranny of Realism) rather than at attempt at measuring changes in quality. Thus I still stand by my analysis in Whither the Movies? because it is thematic and not based on quality.
Censoring Miss Hayworth
So, let us apply the notion of the temporal censor to the cinema and sex. Well, it seems fairly reasonable to say that selling pure sex, be it erotic or sexualist, is an ephemeral thing. Yes, Miss Hayworth was extremely beautiful and highly concupiscent, but being a sex goddess is not a life-long activity: there will always be newer, younger women to appeal to the sexual urges of the male gaze. In other words, sexual allure is a relatively commonplace commodity, so there’s no real need for the targets of desire in one generation to be remembered by the next. Being a goddess is different. Obviously it is a much rarer commodity, and as such it is worth preserving, for things that can offer the transcendant experience, whether they be pinups, pictures or symphonies, are clearly of great worth. And thus goddesses will survive the winnowing process whereas only the most exceptional of sex goddesses will.
The consequence of this is that the censorship effect means that we would expect the sirens and sex goddesses of yesteryear to be largely forgotten, while the goddesses are remembered. As a neat example, consider the three leads of How to Marry a Millionaire. Miss Bacall is a goddess pure and simple and is still considered one of Hollywood’s greats. Miss Monroe is that rare thing, a sex goddess so supernal that she has survived (though that may be in part because she was a fine actress who deliberately adopted the persona of a sex goddess who didn’t know that she was one). Miss Grable, who was a sex goddess at the time, has suffered more than a little diminution in her image, and seems well on the way to obscurity.
What this means is that the censorship effect predicts that we will appear to see sex by the bucketful in modern cinema, and, apparently, little in the past. And that is precisely what we do see. Everywhere we look we see modern starlets showing of almost literally their all, but we tend not to remember Ginger Rogers giving us a good look straight down her cleavage while wearing her most inviting smile, or sitting on top of a piano wearing a see-through dress.
The wider picture
From eroticism to sexualism
I have written about this before, but it is worth discussing again. As I noted above, these older examples of selling sex, where what matters is basically the woman’s body and her sex appeal rather than anything else, are of considerable subtlety. I noted the way that Miss Hayworth’s dress, though exposing (and forming, there appears to be some subte corsetry at work, as one can see by comparing her waist in images 3 and 4) her bosom in a most admirable way, is even more admirable in that it appears to be exposing much more than it really is. Again, there is just a touch of room for the imagination to enter. Likewise, Miss Rogers’ dresses in the two pictures advertise her charms most effectively, but they merely advertise them; they do not demonstrate them.
Now part of this is, obviously, a consequence of censorship of another kind, and the need to encode rather than state explicitly, but it is more than that. It is this allowance of the imagination into the picture that raises these images above the level of fodder for masturbatory fantasies and turns them into a source of erotic reverie. And before I am accused of playing semantic games, my point is that in all of these older cases the male gazer sees a highly sexually attractive woman, but his sexual fantasy has to engage imagination. He is not just looking at a body, it is a body that he has to relate to, that he has to get to know, that has an owner, who is saying, by her manner, that she wants him. And who, by virtue of that, is a person and not an object.
As a somewhat more modern example, consider this short scene from Don Levy’s great film Herostratus, where the (very) young Dame Helen Mirren flings herself into the part of a woman who is quite literally selling herself, or rather using herself to sell rubber gloves. The scene is overpoweringly erotic, but though Dame Helen’s undoubted physical charms play a part in that, more of it comes from her acting. From her very first ‘Do you want me?’ we see a woman filled with desire, looking only for someone who can satisfy it. The image she creates is that of a very sexy woman who wants to give herself to the male gazer, but as a whole, not as just a body. And of course, it is testament to both the film’s and Dame Helen’s greatness that whereas Miss Hayworth was a sex goddess, here Dame Helen is a professional actress playing the part of a professional actress playing the part of a sex goddess. In fact, it is arguable that Dame Helen is that rarest of things, a true goddess who is also a sex goddess.
Now let us look at the modern alternative. We have here two posed shots of the leading actress Katherine Heigl, who would appear, judging from her extreme popularity, a good candidate for modern-day sex goddess status.
There are two things to note. First of all, there is no longer any pretence at subtlety (it is hard to imagine how much less subtle than image 8 one could be), and these images do indeed demonstrate as opposed to merely advertise the wares. So eroticism is gone, and we are firmly into the territory of the male gaze objectifying that at which it gazes.
Second look at Miss Heigl’s expression. Or, rather, lack of it. There is no allure, nothing. She is making no effort to engage, even at a remove, with the viewer of the image. She knows perfectly well that she is an object pure and simple, and so she is acting as one. All in all looking at these images is a rather depressing experience, and one feels rather sorry for Miss Heigl (the alternative, of course being that she is not being exploited, but is a willing conspirator in her objectification, in which case one should be sorry about her).
Forms of the male gaze
To summarise what has happened, it seems worth trying to fit what we have seen into a more general model. As so often, ideas from medieval philosophy turn out to be quite useful; I am referring to the theories of different styles of love, from the spiritual, via courtly down to physical love and then base lust at the bottom. So I shall, translating this into more modern language, define three forms of male gazing: the creative form (corresponding to courtly or spiritual love), the erotic form (physical love) and finally the sexual form (lust).
Before I go any further, let me expose a simple psychological model. In Jungian psychology, the mind has two main parts: the conscious and the unconscious. We all know more or less what the conscious is, but the unconscious is a bit of a mystery. What we think of as intellectual pursuits are largely conscious, but they are generally driven by deep roots in the unconscious, which provides the energy and source that drives them. In particular, creativity involves considerable conscious work, but is driven from the unconscious.
The unconscious also has some structure. In fact there are two distinct divisions. One is into the human unconscious and the reptilian unconscious. We all have, within our brains, a fully functioning reptilian brain, parts of which are constantly suppressed so we do not, in fact, act like crocodiles. And with that brain, we all have the basic animal urges of lust, fear, aggression and hunger, which are pure, simple and primal, with nothing of the human about them. The human unconscious deals with more complex, nuanced emotions and so, in our particular area of enquiry, it is the locus of eroticism and sexual desire (as opposed to sexual lust).
The other division is into the visible unconscious and the shadow. Basically the shadow constitutes those parts of our minds that we have pushed away from ourselves and are dissociated from, either by desire or by force. So those aspects of the personality that we do not wish to express or even to admit to having will end up in the shadow. So, positive creative behaviour and thinking are driven from the visible unconscious, from the well-integrated parts of our personality. Uncharacteristic behaviour comes from the shadow.
Kinds of gazing
So, I see a clear distinction between male gazing which is primarily sexually driven and that which is driven by something else, such as the urge for self-transformation. I spoke before of a shock, as of that of experiencing great art, or religious revelation, or some great insight, as it were the ‘wow’ factor. Now, Lauren Bacall is quite capable of inducing that simply by staring rather severely at the camera while giving no hint at all as to what shape her body might be (image 9), and that is what makes her a goddess proper. Here thoughts of sex are irrelevant, or else so transformed as to scarcely be describable as sexual.
So this is the abstract, non-sexual form of the gaze. It speaks to those parts of the mind that make us truly human, the intellect and non-sexual passions, such as passion for justice, or truth, or beauty (including creativity).
Now, moving on to the sex goddesses of the past, this form of male gazing is driven by eroticism or sexual desire, which is the humanised form of the basic animal sexual urge. This humanisation is seen in the way that there is still room for the human attribute of imagination, and that the gaze speaks of desire for a person rather than for satiation.
Finally, today we see the animal lust of the reptilian unconscious, without any embroidery. The images 7 and 8 of Miss Heigl, and innumerable even more blatant images of other starlets, make it quite clear that we have moved beyond desire and on to the simple urge to satisfy sexual need.
So what happened?
So, what I believe has happened in the transition from Miss Hayworth’s erotic allure to Miss Heigl’s impersonal sexualism is as follows. The reptilian unconscious has, for much of human history, been very firmly embedded within the shadow. That is why, though abominations happened, and animalistic behaviour happened, it occurs as a sudden eruption from the shadow, and is contrary to the trend of society (and even, quite often, the individuals in question) as a whole. And so, with the reptilian unconscious hidden away, the outlet for sexual feeling has been erotic desire.
It would appear that, at some time in the last half-century, the reptilian unconscious has started to emerge from the collective shadow, and so now naked lust, naked greed and so on are becoming more acceptable as people begin to integrate those urges directly into their personality, rather than going via the intermediation of some other more complex emotion. And so the sexual male gaze has shifted simply because, distressing though it may be, pure lust is a more efficient way of getting what you want than the perfumed garden of eroticism.