The Porter Zone

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Category Archives: Film studies

The new objectification


It is scarcely news that objectification is rampant in our culture.  The treatment of women as sexual objects has become so commonplace that it is now scarcely even worth noting any more when yet another ’empowering’ film or book or TV show turns out to just be an excuse for wall to wall tits and ass.  This piece by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times manages to be both hilarious and depressing at the same time in that it shows that the (generally male) creators of these shows tend to claim that they are depicting strong female characters, and yet what those female characters spend their time doing is, well, giving us as much jiggle and joggle as possible.  And though it is mildly comforting to learn that the proposed Wonder Woman show never actually got aired, because it was too bosom-fixated even for TV executives, it is not at all comforting that now an empowered woman is defined as being one who goes out of her way to become a sexual object.

Now, I could go on about what this says about male attitudes to women, and male attitudes to sex, but I have covered those subjects before, and at some length, most recently and comprehensively in my piece Rita Hayworth, the Male Gaze and the Unconscious Mind.  What I propose to do here is to discuss the more complex question of women’s attitudes to this objectification.  This is a complex topic, as the standard myth of our time is that men sexually objectify women, while women object like anything, but cannot do anything about it due to the dead weight of the patriarchy.  This is, in bare bones, the base of Laura Mulvey‘s ‘male gaze‘ theory, that is to say, that men objectify women and women suffer objectification.  The reality is more complex.  First of all, to say that women do not sexually objectify men is nonsense.  However, there are a number of pointers to something deeper and more disturbing.

First look at the strange world of the modern romantic comedy.  As I noted in a piece I wrote some time ago, the standard current romantic movie portrays women as helpless things who are basically miserable until they find a good manly man who will make them his sex-toy and absolve them from having to think, ever, ever again.  This might be taken as being pure male chauvinistic fantasy about what unrepentantly sexist men would like women to be, only these films depend on a largely female audience, and surely if they didn’t like the message they wouldn’t go to see them?  In answer one only has to cross media and look at the amazing success of the Twilight franchise, which proposes that the correct role for a modern woman is gazing adoringly at her perfect man, while doing whatever he says and showing no independence of spirit or mind.  Again, it is women who consume (and produce) this pabulum, so it can scarcely be the case that they object to being objectified.

Therefore the Mulvey theory, and the myth are false: at least some women seem to embrace being treated as sexual playthings.  This seems inherently wrong: why would any woman want to be reduced to a mere breast-transportation device when she has the chance to go out there and have a life not at all dependent on her sexual attractiveness?  The rather frightening conclusion that I work out over the remainder of this piece is that any marginalised group is likely to end up embracing precisely the stigmata of its marginalisation as a part of its identity, and this positively welcome and encourage its marginal status, leading to an unholy feedback loop.  Thus Christina Hendricks turns herself into little better than a walking bosom, Amanda Conner cheerfully produces quantities of grossly objectifying comic book art, and Stephenie Meyer tells young women that they just want to be door-mats.  They would all be interpreted, according to the myth, as being dupes or agents of the patriarchy, but the awful truth is that they are not, and probably seriously believe that they are doing their bit for women everywhere.  For by the lights of the group of women who have come to identify with that which is used to marginalise them, they are.

About objectification

Though is common currency to use the words ‘objectification’ and ‘objectify’ as meaning ‘bad’, in fact objectification is not only a very natural thing to do, it is a very necessary part of human intercourse.  When you or I interact with anything – your computer, a pet or another person – the interaction is mediated by a mental model that we have of that thing.  That is to say, when I interact with someone I know, I do not approach the interaction as if it were our first.  Instead I bring with my my mental model of that person based on all our previous interactions, and I am liable to interpret everything they say and do in terms of that model.  So if someone has a particular verbal tick, or has a tendency to express themselves somewhat gloomily, then I will respond to their statements differently than I would to someone who could announce their impending demise as if it were good news.  This model is therefore an extremely valuable thing, as it allows me to take short-cuts, and use previously acquired knowledge to gain a better understanding of what is going on than I would if I were to be ‘unprejudiced’.  But this means that in fact I am interacting with the model rather than the person, because I say what the model tells me I should say in order to make my point, and interpret what they say based on the model.  In other words, I interact directly with the model and only indirectly with the person, so I have objectified them, in that I am replacing them with my model.

Now it could be argued that this is not quite the same kind of objectification as is treating a woman as nothing but a sex object, but a little thought shows that in fact they are exactly the same thing.  If I treat a woman in a way that represents her purely as an object of sexual desire, then that means that the model which intermediates all of my interactions with her is based purely on her sexual allure and my reaction to it.  So when I turn a woman into a sexual object I am merely applying the same mechanism whereby in all interactions we represent people as private models which become, for us, those people, and taking an extreme approach in terms of those of her characteristics that I consider memorable.  Viewing a woman as nothing but a mind, and ignoring her sexual nature would be just as much a distortion.  So objectification itself is not a bad thing.  Problems arise only when we do not allow our model to reflect all the information we have about the person, but choose only to represent certain characteristics.  Again, we all do this to some extent, but the greater the mismatch between our representation of the person and the actual person, the larger the problem, and the greater the extent to which we do indeed negate their personhood and make them into an object purely of our own construction.

The problem we face then is this: many men, for one reason or another, find it hard to treat women as their coequals, and prefer to model them purely as sex on legs.  The curious thing is this: we would always expect a small number of women to play along with this (there have been gold-diggers down the ages), but we seem to find large numbers of women who enthusiastically embrace the role of man’s brainless sexual object.  Simple logic says that this should not be so, but it manifestly is so, and the reason why is my next topic.

Embracing the oppressor

As I said above, one only has to look at the utterly mystifying enthusiasm with which large numbers of women of all ages have embraced the Twilight phenomenon to see that the role of being an object of the male gaze and no more is actually quite attractive to women.  It is worth observing that the reasons aficionados give for this (in so far as they do articulate them) appear to be something along the lines that it would be so wonderful to be so desired, to be loved by so wonderful a man, and that that is enough.  In other words, becoming a sexual object is not a problem so long as one receives the tribute of the whole-hearted adoration of a good, or exemplary, man.  That this is wish fulfilment is obvious, but it is a very strange kind of wish to have.  Obviously being in a position to have somebody else take over managing all of life’s little inconveniences for one is superficially attractive, for who has not felt the urge to just let go and have everything done for one, but to extend this from a passing hankering into a permanent end state of pure passivity, in which one only has to be in such a way as to satisfy the male gaze’s requirement for sexual excitement, is not so obvious a goal.

Moving on, the modern movie romantic comedy preaches a basically anti-feminist message, telling us that what women really want, if only they can be honest with themselves, is to forget career self and any form of ambition other than the ambition to find a real manly man who will give them so many orgasms that they need never care for anything again.  It is fashionable to explain this as the back-lash of the misogynists who run movie studios against uppity women, but this explanation forgets one basic fact: if the men who run movie studios go so far as to have an agenda, it is that making money is good.  If there was a market for intelligent films about women, then Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have been one of the biggest grossing films of 2011, whereas in fact it failed to recoup its extremely modest production expenses.  The simple truth is that many women choose of their own free will to go and watch sexist drivel for the same reason that they choose of their own free will to read Twilight.  Clearly the idea of being a woman who has nothing to do but be a sexual object is attractive.

As evidence for this hypothesis that the attraction lies in being able to merely be, that being a sexual object is better than being an active agent, here are some examples from the world of comics.  Now, comics are generally a male preserve, but there are a few characters and comic series that have appealed to women.  Let us start with Harley Quinn, about whom I have written in this piece.  All that we need to know is that Miss Quinn started out as a villain’s girlfriend, in a highly abusive relationship, but eventually she went independent.  Now I observed in the referenced piece that there are essentially two versions of Miss Quinn: the utterly dependent girlfriend who sticks by her man no matter how much he abuses her, and the forceful (if deranged) woman who runs her own life.  What I found strange was that observation of comments by woman fans showed that they largely preferred the abused girlfriend version, the reason given (indeed, given in some comments on my essay) being that that relationship involves a great love, and that being with such a great man she had to expect that her ego would be destroyed and that she would be dependent, and that his trying to kill her from time to time was just something she should tolerate, because she had found true love.  So, once again, but now in even more extreme form, we find women actively preferring what they should recoil from, because a great love, and becoming the lover’s object of affection, is the best thing a woman can have, and compensates for all else.

Objects by their own will

We see a theme emerging here.  It is that there is a clear belief among a large number of women that being a man’s sexual object, and being utterly dependent on him, is life’s only legitimate career goal.  Now, we could see this as a form of Stockholm syndrome, with the oppressed woman identifying with her oppressor’s view of her, much in the way that (say) many Saudi women seem to have convinced themselves that the fact that their lives are utterly circumscribed shows how special they are, because they have to be looked after at all times.  However, Stockholm syndrome only works as an explanation if the sufferer has no option but to go along with an imposed reality.  In spite of the dire warnings of those feminist critics who see oppositionism as an end in itself (which is, dare I suggest, just as much a distortion and a form of objectification as is seeing being a man’s sex toy as an end in itself), the cultures of Western Europe and North America do not on the whole prevent women from exercising basic freedoms.  What we see here is not conditioned adoption of an enforce abnormality, but deliberate retreat from reality into the self-created abnormality of desiring to become a sexual object.

To see why this might be the case, let us look at one last example.  The character of Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, needs no introduction.  From 1958 to 1974 she had her own comic, titled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (note that her name comes second).  The stories are largely light froth, but, as I discussed in this piece, they are notable for their extremely misogynistic tone.  They read as if they were written by a typical chauvinistic 1950s man, which was in fact the case.  And yet women bought the comics in sufficient numbers for the series to last sixteen years.  What I concluded was happening was that women were saying to themselves: ‘Look at that, Lois Lane has everything, but even she has to put up with stuff from men that I do; obviously my life isn’t that bad after all.’  Now, that might sound just like a natural precondition for Stockholm syndrome, but what comes next is the distinguishing factor.  If a group has been socially excluded on some grounds or other, then the only way its members can achieve any form of social stability is for the group itself to cohere.  But now, the only factor that its members have in common, the only thing that makes the group make any sense, is precisely the factor that led to its exclusion.  So, American women in the late 1950s were a hugely diverse lot: scientists, secretaries, housewives, actors, writers, academics, politicians, musicians, etc.  The only things they had in common were the stigmata of misogyny: the idea that women were silly, childish and frivolous, and obsessed with getting their man.  And so, the one factor promoting cohesion, the cause of the exclusion, becomes not just a factor imposed from outside, but a way of defining the group.  Women, in order to define their own in-group ended up embracing the 1950s male idea of women as their banner, and could then look down on those women who refused to play with any categorisation and insisted on being themselves.

My thesis is, then, that what we are seeing in the curious embrace of sexual objecthood is simply the definition of an in-group of women who obtain social cohesion from maintaining and emphasising outmoded traditions, and who look on those who do not play along as being some kind of enemy of stability.  For being a sexual object is the great leveller: anyone can do it.  All one needs to be a sexual object is to have a body and to be prepared to allow men to use it.  Making ones own path is much harder and requires work and talent.  So young women queue up to prostitute themselves to unpleasant young men on television programmes, and others flock to absorb regressive piffle, not because of a conspiracy of men, but because of a conspiracy of women.


Rita Hayworth, the male gaze and the unconscious mind


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

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
1 2
Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
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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).

Time’s censor

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.

Ginger Rogers Ginger Rogers
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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.

katherine heigl Katherine Heigl
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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).

Some psychology

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

Lauren Bacall

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.

Rita Hayworth shows up the temporal censor


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:

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
1. Take a look at these! 2. Let’s be classy
Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
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
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.

And so?

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.

Patronising nonsense

1 Introduction

Something that vexes me – one of the many things that vex me – is that so often those who take it on themselves to speak out on behalf of various oppressed or minority groups often seem to espouse positions that, had they been expressed by one of the oppressors or majority they would have instantly labelled (and rightly) as being part of the problem.  And yet when they express them, they are the solution.  How can this be?

Think about it.  We have anti-racists who inform us that those of non-European heritage should not be expected to comprehend, say, higher mathematics because it is not part of their culture.  We have self-proclaimed anti-fascists who announce that, in the interests of liberal values, everything they disapprove of should be banned.  And – and this is my subject – we have feminists who assert that women are built to be nurturing mothers, not senior executives, and who don’t seem to appreciate that it is highly unlikely that any male chauvinist pig would disagree with them.

Now, I’ve written a fair amount in these pages on the ‘Male Gaze’, but so far I have chipped away at the foundations of the theory rather than confronting the theory itself.  It is time to do so, for it is awe-inspiring in its combination of inanity, logical incoherence and offensiveness.  To women, that is.  And moreover, examining what it is about it that is so patronising, so offensive, leads on to one of the favourite notions of all the theorists I have grouped together, but especially feminist intellectuals, that is to say the notion of power relations between in-groups and out-groups.  Which also, on inspection, turns out to be quite offensive to the out-group it claims to defend.

So, what I’m going to do is talk about male gaze theory, dissect it, broaden the discussion to other favourite feminist theories and end up showing that though the language may have changed, the sentiments are those of a Victorian patriarch.  Now, this isn’t very satisfactory, as it seems that women are being told by their self-proclaimed leaders that they should get back to the nursery, which offends against my idea of feminism, if not theirs.  So I’ll conclude by making some only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestions for appropriate modern roles for women, based on that fount of all knowledge, The Powerpuff Girls

2 Feminist neo-Victorianism

2.1 Male gaze theory

Stated baldly, it’s hard to see why anyone cares about male gaze theory.  The idea is as follows: men like to look at women; womanly beauty is defined in terms of what men like to look at; the idea that womanly bodies are inherently more beautiful than manly bodies is a consequence of the fact that, until very recently, men dominated the marketplace of ideas.  Now, this rests on a number of extremely questionable assumptions (as I have discussed in my piece The Gendered Gaze), but if we set definitional worries aside for one moment, the actual thesis as stated here is trivial beyond belief.

It begins to get more interesting when we see what Laura Mulvey (who came up with the idea) does with it next.  She says that ‘gaze’ as defined has the effect of objectifying that which is gazed upon.  So when I gaze, awestruck, at (say) Carole Lombard, I am not actually thinking about Carole Lombard, but am turning her into a depersonalised body.  Well, I think that’s questionable, but it’s not too contentious as assertions go.  Unlike what comes next.  Mulvey then says that only men are capable of expressing gaze, therefore women cannot objectify men, therefore gaze establishes a power relationship, because men make women into objects, but women cannot reciprocate. 

This extraordinary statement is, of course, unsupported, as it must be, because it is unsupportable.  The idea that women are somehow prevented from forming their own notions of male beauty, and from objectifying men is simply ludicrous.  Looking at Mulvey’s own field of film, the otherwise entirely inexplicable career of Keanu Reeves is testament not only to the existence of the female gaze, but of its acknowledged power and commercial significance. 

It gets better.  In some variants of the theory, women can gaze, but they do so only by sacrificing their female nature and acting as men.  Or, in other words, a woman cannot have feelings, sexual or purely aesthetic, about the image of a man, that is if she is being true to herself.  She can only have such feelings if she compromises herself by somehow becoming like a man.  And thus, she gives in to the power of the patriarchy, by accepting their notion of having feelings based on images of others (presumably we should have feelings only for specific individuals of our acquaintance, and the whole eyes meeting across a crowded room thing is an invention of the maleocracy).

2.2 The ‘power’ theory

Now, that may have seemed pretty barking mad, but we’ve only just started.  I mentioned several times the idea that the gaze is an expression of power, so if I see a woman in the street and think ‘she looks sexy’ then I am somehow asserting my power over her (one would have thought it was the other way round, but no matter).  This concept of everyday acts carrying hidden messages of power and oppression is not unique to gaze theory.

Now, it is entirely true that unspoken, and even unthought-of, assumptions about the world can influence the way we act.  However, there is a long way from that trivial observation (notice once again, as with male gaze theory, we start from a statement of the obvious and end somewhere quite startling) to some of the assertions that we see, such as, for example, that any sexual coupling of man and woman is an expression of the power of the man over the woman (woman-on-top strikes me as a fairly strong expression of the opposite, but perhaps I’m just unusual).  This seems somewhat implausible.

In fact, this theory can metastasise in some surprising ways.  For example, in many accounts of animal homosexuality (from dolphins to ducks) commentators fall over themselves saying that these couplings are assertions of power and are not (heaven forfend) the consequences of animals other than humans finding pleasure in sexual acts with others of their own sex.  And yet these writers are often impeccably liberal.  It is all most strange.

2.3 The nurturing woman

So, as my final deduction from gaze theory, note that it follows from what I have said that a ‘natural’ woman could never, walking in the street, see a man and think ‘he looks a bit of all right’.  So woman’s sexual feelings can only be expressed, if at all, in appropriate, hallowed relationships.  But then again, if every sexual act is an assertion of power, presumably not even then.  Sexual feelings are the sole prerogative of the male, and are used by him as a means of controlling the female.

So what is the ‘natural’ woman’s lot, then?  Well the idea that by doing X women give in to male power and act as pseudo-males instead of as women, that was used in gaze theory, is actually quite popular with feminist theorists.  And somewhere the original goal of feminism – that there should be no male roles or female roles, but only people roles – has been lost and replaced with the idea that for a woman to take on a traditionally male role is to give in to the patriarchy’s expectations.  Instead she should seek out a uniquely female space.

This in itself sounds faintly worrying, and more than a little regressive, but it gets better.  For what is this uniquely female space?  Well, apparently women don’t think like men, and are more concerned with states of being rather than arguments and goals (I once heard this earnestly asserted by the composer Nicola Lefanu, whose mother, the infinitely greater composer Elizabeth Machonchy, wrote some of the most aggressive and goal-directed music I have ever heard).  And their key role, the one that truly expresses their female nature, is nurturing.

So being a woman, in this new sense, involves retreating from the world of the intellect and argument and embracing nurturing and motherhood as one’s defining features.  Am I alone in finding this faintly worrying? 

2.4 How is this different from Victorian views of womanliness?

So, what have we learned that women are incapable of having objectifying feelings (sexual or aesthetic) about men.  In fact, sexual feelings are an exclusively male thing, used to establish power over women.  And it seems that there is nothing a woman can do to establish power over men, unless she sacrifices her natural womanhood.  In addition to this, there are quite a lot of things that women are naturally incapable of.  These include most, if not all, traditionally male roles.  In particular, women, naturally, think in terms of states of being rather than rational argument, and their natural domain is that of mother and nurturer.

Okay.  Let me restate that in slightly different language.  Women are weak things, unfitted for the male world, illogical and unreasonable by nature.  Their forte is to be the wife and mother, naturally submissive to their husbands and nurturing their children.  And, of course, sexually they are a blank: sexual pleasure is for the boys.  Any woman who attempts to overturn these truths is an unnatural freak who has ceased to be truly feminine.

Right, so that re-statement was putting the ideas from the first paragraph into the mind-set of a Victorian man.  The fit is frighteningly good.  It seems that these feminist thinkers have managed to recreate the Victorian model of the pure woman, and yet convince themselves that in doing so they are striking a blow for liberation from the patriarchy.  All while saying implicitly that the patriarchy is necessary, because without it women would be, essentially, helpless.

This is pernicious nonsense.  Thus we must conclude that if the goal of feminist theorists is to establish the right of women to freedom from gender-oppression, they have failed.  If, however, their goal was to establish a theoretical framework justifying male chauvinism, they have succeeded admirably.

3 What feminism should be saying

3.1 Roles for modern women

So, let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the original goal of feminism, to obliterate gender-based prejudice, is a worthy one.  Clearly the path of the women’s studies theorists is a dead end, so where should we look for guidance on what modern women ought to expect of society?

Now, obviously this is my opinion, that of a man who proclaims himself a feminist of the old school, before theorists discovered the narrative of victimhood and started progressively to paint women back into the corner from whence they had come.  I’m not going to say up front what my ideal for the place of women in society is; instead I’m going to let it emerge from an analysis of some archetypal female roles in search of a type for modern women.

3.2 ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ – source of all truth

And what better place to look for modern archetypes than in the doings of superheroes?  But not those tedious superheroes that are all about jiggle and joggle and making men feel warm inside.  I will look at a superhero saga where men and their opinions are largely irrelevant: The Powerpuff Girls.  And no, this isn’t a joke.  The truth is that The Powerpuff Girls presents us with a number of interesting female archetypes, and looking at them lets us see what our type should be like.

3.2.1 Not so keen on Miss Keane

Miss Keane is the teacher at the kindergarten that the Powerpuff Girls attend.  She is almost always seen in that context.  In the one episode where she actually develops a life outside of teaching, that is seen as a bad thing, and it is quickly corrected.  So, she has a strong nurturing function.  Things are not looking good.

They get worse.  In one episode we learn that she does actually have a powerful intellect, but having briefly given it free rein she quickly, and with some embarrassment, suppresses it again, and returns to her role as the good mother.  And just to make her even more a caricature of the feminist theorists’ ideal, whenever anything goes wrong she always tries to find a peaceful way out that involves everyone being nice, and preventing the Powerpuff Girls from doing the right thing (i.e. kicking butt).

Finally she is almost exaggeratedly sexless.  She is shaped like a bowling pin and always wears ill-fitting, shapeless clothes.  Almost always.  In the one episode where she acquires a life outside of her stereotypical nurturing role, it involves her (all too briefly) developing a sex-life and the change is dramatic: even her body shape changes!  But order is restored, sexuality is banished and she returns to her nurturing.

So, all in all, Miss Keane is the perfect feminist theorist woman.  She has her little space of being everyone’s mother and only very seldom ventures out of it, always retreating again as soon as possible.  Though she clearly could compete in the ‘masculine’ world of the intellect, or the complexities of realpolitik, where being nice is not always the answer, she chooses not to.  In other words, she is the perfect neo-Victorian woman, and hence is the anti-type for the truly liberated modern woman.  

3.2.2 A near miss with Miss Bellum

Miss Bellum, the Mayor of Townsville’s aide, is at first sight the total antithesis to Miss Keane.  For a start, and rather obviously, she isn’t shaped like a bowling pin, but has curves and then some.  And she is sufficiently confident about herself and her body that she positively invites the male gaze; indeed, in a neat reversal of Mulvey’s concept she objectifies men by forcing them to become mute worshippers of her splendour.

But here’s the thing: she’s not a vamp (we get to see what a successful vamp she could have been in one episode where Seduca impersonates her).  She effectively runs Townsville (the Mayor being a pickle-obsessed moron), but she doesn’t do it by seducing people into obeying her.  She does it through immense competence and efficiency.  That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to use sexuality as a weapon when it’s appropriate to do so, but she does it when her intelligence dictates that it is the correct approach to use.  She rules Townsville by being effective, not by being a sex-bomb.

So, have we found the desired type?  Unfortunately, not quite.  Sure, Miss Bellum is easy within her body, and confident in her sexuality, and sure she can take on men at their own game and win without sacrificing her essential self.  But there’s one problem: she is content to remain in the Mayor’s shadow.  Why is she the Mayor’s aide and not the Mayor herself?  So in spite of all the confidence and the other positives, she still falls somewhat into the traditional feminine role of subservience to a man.  Which means that she is a near miss; almost the type for women, but lacking in just that final degree of confidence that allows her to do entirely without male authority. 

As an interesting footnote, when it comes to over-sexed fan art (my old bête noire), there is, somewhat to my surprise, considerably more relating to Miss Keane than Miss Bellum.  This seems counter-intuitive, given that Miss Keane is sexless, while Miss Bellum is a goddess, but it is entirely plausible that the male ego finds Miss Bellum’s confident sexuality somewhat threatening.  Which means that in viewing Miss Keane as the anti-type and Miss Bellum as the starting-point for a type, we must be on to something.

3.2.3 The girls themselves

There are three Powerpuff Girls, which is an interestingly magical number, given that goddesses tend to come in threes.  Though each has her own personality – Blossom, the leader, is analytical, thoughtful and sometimes rather bossy; Bubbles, the airhead, is, well, an airhead, and wishes everything were nice with no need for argument, though she can be remarkably violent when roused; Buttercup, the tomboy, sees violence as the solution to everything and is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fiery-tempered – they don’t really function as individuals.  They are an eternally linked trio representing, dare I say, aspects of the type that goes to make the perfect, in their case, little girl, in our case, woman.

Looking at the girls and how they behave, one thing is immediate.  They may have been created by a man, and they may technically speaking work for a man (that pickle-obsessed Mayor again), but they  make their own decisions about what to do with the various threats that menace Townsville, and they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  They do not need anyone else to tell them what to do or whether it was done well.  So they represent woman as independent, self-determining individual.

And they are anything but limited.  When a group of superheroes of the traditional mould refuse to let women into their club, the girls’ response is so overwhelming that the superheroes end up asking to join their club.  Rather then avoiding the male domain as being somehow something that negates their womanhood, they effortlessly encompass it, but without, at any moment, ceasing to be women.  Because that is the thing.  They are neither jiggle-merchants nor boys in drag; they are clearly girls, quite capable of using their feminine wiles to trap unwary prey, and enjoying their femininity, while also being amazingly powerful superheroes who kick wrong-doers’ butts.

It seems that we have found our type.  One final point: the combination of analytical leader / brain  Blossom, gentle air-head / heart Bubbles and tempestuous fighter / body Buttercup creates a perfectly rounded assemblage not of feminine traits, but of human traits.   They are truly everywoman, a primal type for woman able to stand on her own two feet.

3.3 So now what?

So, what have we done?  We’ve seen that feminist theorists, seemingly without realising it, in their haste to divorce themselves from the patriarchy actually end up ceding to it all of the space that it traditionally denied women anyway, and so end up worse off than pre-feminist women, who at least didn’t have their own supposed leaders telling them that they could hope for nothing better.  

The idea that lies at the root of this catastrophic retreat is that terribly tempting, but terribly dangerous notion: the narrative of victimhood.  If one makes oneself a victim, then one automatically cedes ground to the victimiser, and so, even if one does not realise it, ends up doing his work for him.  But it is, of course, easier to submit, and loudly complain about having to do so, than to take the only positive approach to being a victim and resist, intent on achieving a relationship with no victor or victim.

So, if women are not to simply re-live the Victorian hell, it is necessary to say farewell to the narrative of victimhood, comforting though it may be.  Miss Keane is a victim pure and simple.  Miss Bellum has fought back, but gave way in the crucial final battle.  The Powerpuff Girls seemingly didn’t even realise that there was a battle to be fought, and blithely treat the world as their own.  And that is the role model, I humbly suggest, that women today should try to emulate, and not Mulvey’s cringing, unempowered, sexless objects of male desire. 


The Gendered Gaze

Fifty years ago I put on pants and walked the middle road

Katharine Hepburn


This essay is by way of being a reaction to MaryAnn Johanson’s definition of a female gaze analogous to the ‘male gaze‘ of film theory.  Johanson’s approach is a valuable step towards a more generally applicable theory, but her current definition inherits from  ‘male gaze’ theory a somewhat essentialist view of human gender. The problem lies in the implicit assumption that people can be categorised as being ‘male’ or ‘female’. Indeed, it is not even clear what those terms mean. I will argue that there are at least two independent factors that contribute to a person’s appreciation of images of other people, and that both of these are insusceptible to rigid categorisation.  This means that in addition to the ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ (both of which are now approximations) there is an ‘in-between gaze’.

It could be argument that my approach (which takes in Jungian depth psychology, probability theory, epistemology and some deftly hidden analytic topology) is using an intellectual sledgehammer to smash a nut whose contents are well-known.  Maybe so.  But I, at least, find it satisfying to understand precisely what are the assumptions on which such obvious conclusions rest, and to see the steps in the argument leading to them set out with great care.

Note that my purpose in this essay is to examine the definitional issues relating to gendered gaze theories.  I do not discuss the function of the gaze in defining gender roles, partly because that is a very complex topic, partly because until we actually know what the gendered gaze is such a discussion is pointless.  Therefore this essay attempts to place the concept of ‘gaze’ on a sound footing, as a preliminary to an analysis of its wider cultural ramifications.


I state my conclusions here, for those who are prepared to take the argument on trust.

  1. When treating people en masse, we can speak only of instinctive preferences, as opposed to intellectually motivated preferences. So I might really be homosexual, but pretend to be heterosexual because of societal pressure. Intellectually motivated preferences are too complex for our discussion, as they have to be treated on a case-by-case basis, whereas instinctive preferences, being simpler, are susceptible to generalised arguments.

  2. Gender and sexuality cannot be treated as simple dichotomies. People are predominantly-homosexual, predominantly-heterosexual or of mixed orientation, while being predominantly-masculine, predominantly-feminine or of mixed gender. No combination of gender and sexuality is forbidden (though not all  need be equally likely).

  3. Sexual attraction is based on an individual’s gender and sexuality, but not their sex. This is, on consideration, obvious, because what matters is not what sex one is, but what sex one thinks one is. It leads to some rather startling conclusions, such as that a feminine homosexual man will prefer women as sex-partners, and so appear like a masculine heterosexual man.

  4. We can derive a precise quantitative probabilistic model for an individual’s sexual preference, based on their gender and sexuality. In terms of qualitative models, we can choose between a nine-fold typology, a five-fold typology or a three-fold typology, depending on how much detail we want to capture from the underlying quantitative model. Again, classification into a simple ‘male’ / ‘female’ dichotomy is impossible.

  5. For our purposes the three-fold typology is sufficient: predominantly man-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘female’ category), predominantly woman-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘male’ category) and mixed-preference (which is new). The sexual reaction to images of other people will be reasonably predictable for individuals in the first two classes (so if I was predominantly woman-preferring, I would respond appreciatively to images of beautiful women and only minimally to images of beautiful men). The interesting class is mixed-preference: the reactions of people in this class are essentially unpredictable.

  6. Aesthetic preferences may be more or less correlated with sexual preferences, but remain distinct because they are influenced by culture and learned taste rather than instinctive reactions. Therefore there is little of a general nature to be about aesthetic preferences.

  7. Given that all of us (barring a vanishingly small number of extreme cases) are constituted of both male and female parts, though it is not true that one sex’s body is more desirable than the other’s, it is plausible that there should exist universal standards for what make a man or woman attractive (in Jungian terms, these would exist within the collective unconscious).

A note on terminology

Throughout this essay I shall use the words man and woman and their adjectival forms manly and womanly to denote the biological sexes. So I take ‘man’ to denote an individual with a Y-chromosome, and ‘woman’ to denote an individual without. I am aware that there are a small number of confusing cases where biological sex is unclear: double-X men, XY-women, hermaphrodites and other liminal cases; however, this is a complication that adds little to the argument, so let us make, for now, this simplifying assumption (which, after all, works over 90% of the time).

I shall use the words male and female and their adjectival forms masculine and feminine to denote genders, which reflect the psychology of the individual rather than their anatomy. I shall argue below that gender and sex are essentially independent, so it is perfectly possible to be a feminine man, for example (this is what I would expect to be the initial state of a man-to-woman transexual).

I shall use the words homosexual and heterosexual with their familiar formal meanings, with the attraction based on sex and not gender. So a homosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, while a heterosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the other sex. So sexuality is taken as being about attraction to types of body, not societal roles. I will (apart from within this sentence) not use the word bisexual, as part of my argument will render it essentially unnecessary.

In contexts where it is clear that some kind of sex/gender-related meaning is intended, but it is not clear what the explicit intention of the originator of the concept under discussion was, I shall use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ with scare-quotes. I apologise if this becomes tedious, but unfortunately we have too few words with which to describe complex concepts (after all, the mere idea that sex and gender are not identical is relatively recent), and precision is a crucial part of my argument.

Finally, when I say two attributes of a collection of things are independent I mean that all possible combinations of values of the two attributes occur in the collection: there are no ‘forbidden’ combinations. This does not mean that there is no correlation between the attributes, in the sense that certain combinations may be more or less common. I am concerned not with how oftencombinations occur, but with whether they can occur at all.

Possibility and actuality

In the definition of independence I said I was concerned with whether states can occur, not how often they occur. In my analysis of sex, gender and sexuality I will be concerned with possibility: what combinations of these variables can occur and which are forbidden. So when I say that a particular value or combination can exist I am not saying I can point to a thing with that combination of attributes. I am saying that there is a non-zero probability of such a thing existing; its existence is not forbidden.

Thus, later on I will demonstrate that all possible gender mixes between the two extremes of pure masculinity and pure femininity can exist, and similarly for sexuality, and for combinations of gender and sexuality. This does not mean that there are living today, or have ever lived, exemplars of each possible mix or combination, but rather that there is no mechanism inherent in human biology or psychology that prevents such a mix or combination from being realised. This point is absolutely crucial, as it allows the use of thought experiments to consider possible cases that, so long as they are psychologically plausible, can be said to be realisable, if not realised.

Understanding the problem

Gendered gaze theory

The original theory of the ‘male gaze’ is an attempt to explain the over-representation of women in visual art. The thesis is that essentially this is because prior to the twentieth century the majority of art patrons and artists were men, and that though some of them may well have been homosexual, societal disapproval would force them to give the appearance of being heterosexual. Heterosexual men prefer looking at women it is asserted (though I question whether this is automatically true), so we see many beautiful women in visual art, but few beautiful men (the obvious exception is in Carravagio’s work, but he is unusual as an artist in so many ways that he does not constitute a significant counterexample). Such well-known women artists as Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun painted beautiful women because by the time a woman could actually make a living as a painter, the convention that beauty was a property of the womanly body alone was deeply ingrained.

And so art-theorists who argue that it is true that womanly bodies really are more beautiful than manly, or somehow have aesthetic properties that those of men do not are reflecting societal pressure. Indeed, it is rather startling that in so subjective a field as aesthetics anyone would even begin to think they could assert that any position taken was more than opinion: the mere fact that some appear to argue for the aesthetic primacy of the womanly body as some form of natural law should be a warning sign that something strange is happening. And similarly, women who allow themselves to be convinced that beauty is theirs alone are reflecting centuries of indoctrination by a heterosexual-man-dominated society.

Thus the basic ‘male gaze’ theory. Johanson’s proposal is that, as we no longer (at least ostensibly) have a heterosexual-man-dominated society, the time has come to reclaim the beauty of the manly body, and so in addition to the woman-preferring ‘male gaze’, there should be a man-preferring ‘female gaze‘.

Problems with the theory

I have placed scare-quotes around the expressions ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ as it is not clear what the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean within this context. Some obvious problems are as follows:

  • Is the ‘male gaze’ the property of heterosexual men or heterosexual males? Or both? (and mutatis mutandis for the ‘female gaze’)

  • Do homosexual women count as being ‘male’ for the purposes of the theory? (and mutatis mutandis for ‘female’)

  • Is it really the case that each of us find pleasure in contemplation of a particular sex’s body based on being ‘male’ or ‘female’?

  • Is it really possible to produce a simple classification of people as ‘male’ or ‘female’?

Technical background material

The sorites paradox

The sorites paradox has been a rich source of philosophical debate for millennia, so I do not pretend to give an exhaustive discussion (no such could be possible). I shall merely state what I need.

The paradox is most simply explained through an example. Say I have a rectangular strip which is red at one end and blue at the other with a continuous modulation from one colour to the other in between. It might look like this:


I now have three facts:

  1. One end is red.

  2. The other end is blue.

  3. If I start at any point on the strip and move a very small but non-zero distance in either direction, the colour does not change (in terms of what we call it).

So we get a paradox: start at the red end. Step along the strip using steps small enough for fact 3 to be true. Eventually you reach the other end, so red = blue. Contradiction. So at some point fact 3 must have failed, but the problem is that any attempt to define precisely where that is results in nonsense, because wouldn’t the points just to the left or right do equally well, in which case we are off again, and get another contradiction.

This example actually repays further study. At each of the two ends of the strip there is a region in which the colour is clear: close enough to the left-hand end it is clearly red, and close enough to the right-hand end it is clearly blue. It’s what happens in between that’s interesting, because about half-way along the strip is purple: neither red nor blue. So there is no systematic way of saying whether the colour is red or blue: there is no hard and fast dividing line (which this example makes happily self-evident).

There are many ways of resolving this paradox. I will present the one that I find most convincing, because (a) it is conceptually simple, (b) it is highly intuitive, and (c) it is consistent with what I believe to be the correct resolution, but as that requires three-valued logic it would take us too far afield (those interested in the details should see Understanding Truth by Scott Soames). However some philosophers (e.g. Roy Sorensen) reject this resolution’s consequence that a sorites problem inevitably leads to radical unknowability.

The resolution is as follows. Imagine a group of people looking at the strip independently. Each of them sees an indisputably red region and an indisputably blue region. Moreover each can assign some point they consider to be the best choice for the dividing line between blue and red (or at least a region within which they believe such a point should lie). Now consider the consensus view. They all agree that a region near one end is definitely red, and another region near the other end is definitely blue. They will not agree on the position of the dividing line (or region). So, on consensus, there is an indisputably red region, an indisputably blue region and a debatable region where there is no systematic way of assigning a colour.

So after this argument we want to take away two basic ideas:

The sorites problem

Say we have a collection (finite or infinite) of things (points on the strip in the example) such that:

  • The things can be assigned a property within some range (so in our example this property is colour).

  • A way of assigning one of two kinds to a value in the property’s range, such that values at one end of the range are of the first kind, while those at the other end are of the second (so in the example, this looks at the colour of a point and says whether it is red [at one end] or blue [at the other]).

  • Sufficiently close values have the same kind; so things with sufficiently similar properties have the same kind (this is just fact 3 from above).

Call this a sorites problem. Given a sorites problem, entities can be categorised as follows:

  • For each of the two kinds there is a region of certainty, consisting of things to which we can definitely assign that kind.

  • All other things belong to a region of uncertainty, where there is no systematic way of assigning a kind; the best one can do is to assign kinds on a case-by-case basis.

So in the example, the parts of strip near the two ends are the regions of certainty for red and blue, while the purplish area in the middle is the region of uncertainty.

The strong sorites argument

Now suppose we have a sorites problem, such that:

  • The things in the population have a population of things with a property, and a way of classifying them into one of two kinds based on that property,

  • It is provable that small changes in the value of the property never change the classification,

so fact 3 never breaks down, as we forced it to in the discussion of the paradox above. Then, based on our initial discussion of the sorites paradox, it is easy to see that:

  • If one thing in the population is of a kind, then all things in the population are of that kind.

I call this the strong sorites argument.  The crucial difference from the sorites paradox is that resolution of the paradox forces fact 3 to break down, whereas now we are forcing it to be universally true.

It can be quite hard to find categorisations into kinds for which fact 3 never breaks down. In fact we will only use one categorisation: ‘can exist’ and ‘cannot exist’. Unlike the kinds that leads to sorites paradoxes, this knows no middle ground (ignoring some rather complex epistemological issues that would enormously complicate the argument without noticeably adding to it), so we can be confident in asserting that, for it, fact 3 is true everywhere.

Jungian gender theory

Jung’s analytic psychology is interesting in that he does not take an essential view of gender. So rather than asserting that, for example, all women are purely feminine, he asserts that each of us has both masculine and feminine components, the balance of which determines our gender. This is in marked contrast to the essential quality of sex and gender asserted by other psychological theories.

To simplify the discussion of the theory, I will assume that my subject is a woman. So a woman’s conscious mind is dominated by a female component. However, there is a key aspect of her psyche which is her male component: her animus. This is part of her subconscious mind, but depending on its development it may have a greater or lesser influence on her conscious mind, thus creating a greater or lesser masculine component of her personality. So a woman can range from being almost purely female (undeveloped, and hence wholly unconscious animus) to being predominantly male (overdeveloped animus). This whole discussion goes through mutatis mutandis for men, with sex and gender terms interchanged and replacing animus with anima.

Finally, a quick note on individuation. Individuation is the process of psychological integration that the psyche undergoes through an individual’s life, resulting in a fully developed personality, resulting in a distinct and well-defined individual. The development of the unconscious gender component referred to above is one part of this process.

Analysis 1 : sex, gender, sexuality

In this section I start the analysis by examining the notions of sex, gender and sexuality and their relations to one another. The key results are:

  • That rather than the simple dichotomies used in popular discourse – male, female; homosexual, heterosexual – both gender and sexuality are continua (in the sense that no state lying between the two extremes is impossible to realise), with some individuals being clearly defined as being of one kind or the other, while others are simply a mixture. So there are three types: predominantly at one extreme, predominantly at the other and mixed.

  • That sex, gender and sexuality are independent (in the sense defined above), so no possible combination is forbidden.

Psychological variables are continuous

My argument depends critically on one hypothesis:

  • If I can find an individual for whom a psychological variable (e.g. gender, sexuality) takes a specific value, then nearby values of the variable can be realised by individuals in the population (albeit possibly with very low probability).

(Recall that can implies possibility – that it is not impossible – rather than that such individuals actually exist). Rephrasing the hypothesis less formally: the ranges of psychological variables are (in some sense) ‘smeared’.

To see why this is a plausible assumption, say it is not true. If I know an individual who is assigned the value 90%, what could happen is either:

  1. Values on either side of 90% can occur, which is consistent with the hypothesis.

  2. The variable can take values close to and greater than 90%, but none in a range just below 90%. This means that there is a hard edge at 90%, so the entire population exists either above 90% or some way below it.

  3. The value at 90% is isolated, so individuals are either assigned the value 90%, or a value some non-zero distance away from 90%.

Cases 2 and 3 are those incompatible with the hypothesis. Such hard edges and precise values do not occur in psychology, where behaviour is never hard-edged or precise. Small changes in the structure of the psyche are endemic. As a thought experiment, I can perturb an individual’s psyche slightly to achieve the required small change in the selected variable. As the result is a possible human psyche, there must be a non-zero probability of it existing in the population.

Looking at the specific cases I am interested in, it is intuitively obvious that if an individual can be homosexual 90% of the time, then it is not impossible for an individual to be homosexual 89.9% of the time, because that requires only a tiny change in the individual’s behaviour. Similarly, if my anima is so developed that I an 70% feminine, then at some point it must have been slightly less developed, meaning that I would have been 69.9% feminine, and if I developed it a bit more then I could be 70.1% feminine.

Therefore the contradictory scenario is extremely implausible, which means that my hypothesis is extremely plausible. Call it the continuity hypothesis. It allows us to apply sorites-type arguments to gender and sexuality.

Gender and sexuality are not simple dichotomies

The method of attack is to show that gender and sexuality are sorites problems, so each results in a classification into two predominantly pure types and a mixed type.


It follows from Jungian gender theory as described above that an individual’s gender falls within a range, with fully-male at one end and fully-female at the other. An individual’s position on the range is determined by the degree of development of the unconscious gender component (I write this being, as I am, a strongly feminine man). Assigning an individual a label male or female and using the continuity hypothesis gives rise to a sorites problem, and so by applying the sorites paradox we get three gender classes: predominantly-malepredominantly-female and mixed-gender.


Unfortunately, there is no good equivalent to Jungian gender theory for sexuality, so I shall have to use a longer elementary argument. The existence of people of homosexual and heterosexual inclination is a given. And, though there seem to be trends in certain circles to adopt the essentialist view that one is either homosexual or heterosexual, and there can be nothing between (see, for example, Mann’s biography of Katharine Hepburn, which seems to argue that as Hepburn had very strong loving relationships with women, her well-documented relationships with men were somehow not real; see also attempts to label Virginia Woolf as a pure lesbian, which end up having to deny that she loved Leonard Woolf, rather contrary to observed fact), it is not hard to think of examples, numerous examples, of people who inhabit the region in between: predominant heterosexuals who nonetheless have homosexual affairs, predominant homosexuals who nonetheless have heterosexual affairs, and individuals who take part, to a greater or lesser extent, in both orientations.

Having established that sexuality is not a binary opposition, but that there exist states in between, concluding that there is a continuum of possible states is relatively simple. It would be nonsensical to assume that all the individuals who spend most of the time in one orientation spend exactly the same amount of time in the other, so we have a blurred region starting at 0% which contains people, and another ending at 100% homosexual. Likewise it would be nonsensical to assume that all ‘in between’ individuals are precisely 50% homosexual, or even that they all share same value, so there is another blurred region around 50%. So we have something like this (where orientation changes from homosexual to heterosexual as one moves across the page):

Now, one could model human sexuality as consisting essentially of polar opposites, with a certain amount of deviation due to psychological factors (experimentation, deliberate transgressive acts, simple human cussedness, etc), but is hard to find any plausible model that allows two polar opposites and a mixed region in the middle but nothing in between.

So, let us set up a sorites problem. At one end we have 0% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. At the other end we have 100% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. Now let the categorisation into kinds be ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’ as applied to points in between these extremes. By the continuity hypothesis, small changes in the value of the parameter ‘how homosexual is an individual’ do not change the property of existence, so we can apply the strong sorites argument to fill in the gaps. So I conclude that sexual orientation is a continuum.

Classifying people into kinds as homosexual or heterosexual and using the continuity hypothesis again gives rise to a sorites problem, and here the classification is not obviously always valid (which we know, because of the debatable middle region), so we end up with three regions: predominantly-homosexualpredominantly-heterosexual and mixed sexuality.

Sex, gender and sexuality are independent

I want to show that the three attributes sex, gender and sexuality are independent. To simplify the discussion I will start by showing that this is true of all three pairs of attributes, and then use this to deduce independence for the triad.

Sex and gender are independent

It follows from Jungian gender theory that gender is largely independent of sex, and may even change over time, as the individuation process proceeds. In many cases the subconscious gender component will be undeveloped, either through lack of self-awareness, or due to societal pressures to conform to stereotyped sex-specific behaviours. This is undoubtedly the reason why it took until the twentieth century for it to be fully understood that the gender that one thinks one is is not necessarily the same as ones sex. As examples consider people who decide to undergo gender reassignment (ignoring, as I said earlier, the small number of cases of people whose biological sex is confused): I would argue that these are individuals whose unconscious gender component (so the anima in a man) is so strongly developed that they simply cannot identify with their bodies, and so feel compelled to change their sex to the one that fits their self-identification.

Sex and sexuality are independent

That sexuality and sex are independent is trivial: homosexual preferences are not the prerogative of one sex, and neither are heterosexual preferences.

Gender and sexuality are independent

The independence of gender and sexuality, while non-trivial, is also relatively simple to prove from direct observation (so there is no need to rely on analytical psychology). At the homosexual end of the spectrum there are the well-known butch and femme gender roles. At the heterosexual end there are both masculine and feminine individuals. If we imagine gender and sexuality as being set out as the axes of a square, this gives us the four corners.

I want to apply the strong sorites argument with the categorisation into kinds ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’. Using the continuity hypothesis, I can apply the strong sorites argument, so all combinations are possible.

Note, as a final critical point that the basis of this argument, i.e. the existence of male-ish and female-ish individuals near both ends of the sexuality spectrum is independent of sex. There are butch and femme lesbians and gay men, and there are masculine and feminine heterosexuals of either sex. Thus the whole gender / sexuality spectrum exists independently for each sex.

Sex, gender and sexuality and independent

Pick a sex. For that sex we have shown that all possible genders and sexualities can exist. Moreover, we have shown that all possible combinations of gender and sexuality can occur in that sex. Repeat the argument for the other sex. Independence is now demonstrated.

Analysis 2: sexual & aesthetic preferences

Finally we reach the core of the essay: the discussion of how sex, gender and sexuality effect aesthetic preferences in terms of to bodies of which sex(es) is an individual attracted aesthetically. The argument proceeds in two stages. First I tackle the (relatively) tractable problem of determining how these three variables influencesexual preferences, i.e. to bodies of which sex(es) is the individual attracted sexually. This done, second I turn to the much more complex question of aesthetic attraction; complex because (as I will show below), though many theorists (including those who formulated the original ‘male gaze’ theory) treat sexual and aesthetic attraction as if they are identical, they are not. They are very similar, but it is possible to have sexual feelings for a person one finds unattractive, and to find attractive a person towards whom one has no sexual feelings.

Throughout this discussion I deal with what one might call instinctive preferences, that is to say those determined by the structure of an individual’s psyche. There are, however, also conscious preferences: an individual may decide, consciously, to find a particular body beautiful despite not being naturally drawn to it (this, after all, is how fashion works), or that, for entirely rational reasons, they should make another individual their sex-partner (e.g. arranged marriages). As conscious preferences involve intellectual decisions, I cannot speak of them within my framework, which works in terms of the unconscious mind, and so, bearing Wittgenstein’s dictum in mind, of them I shall remain silent. Therefore, note that all of the following discussion relates only to instinctive preferences.

Sexual attraction

Which factors are relevant to sexual attraction?

Sexual attraction is an expression of desire to have sexual relations with an individual, and desire is a psychological state. Thus the sexes of the individuals to whom I am attracted will be determined by the structure of my psyche. As such it can depend directly on psychological variables, but only indirectly on physiological factors like sex. By which I mean that physiological factors may contribute to psychological variables (e.g. via the action of hormones on the brain), but these psychological variables will not be determined solely by physiological factors. As we see with even the most basic of physiologically driven psychological variables – pain – other psychological factors can modify and even over-ride the physiological factor. Thus rather than working with (potentially) relevant physiological factors, we should identify the relevant psychological variables. Therefore, provided we understand which relevant psychological variables it influences, we can remove sex from the equation (for the moment).

Start with the two variables discussed at length above. Obviously gender is influenced by sex: as an individual’s gender is how they themselves identify their sex, sex is bound to be a contributing factor, even though other factors can, and do, over-ride it. As for sexuality, there is some evidence that homosexuality is slightly more prevalent among men than women, but given that we have shown that any attempt to categorise people as either homosexual or heterosexual is doomed to fail, it is not clear how much credence would should place in this. However, using the principle of charity, let us accept that there is a weak dependency of sexuality on sex.

We leave for future study the question of whether any other psychological variables impact on sexual preference. A model based on gender and sexuality is sufficient for our purposes.

How is sexual attraction determined?

The naive answer to this is that sex plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted. This view is inherent in the ‘male gaze’ theory’s assertion that art disproportionately represents female bodies to cater to the desires of heterosexual men. However, we have seen that sexual desire is a psychological construct. Psychologically, an individual’s ‘sex’ is determined not by their actual physiological sex, but by the sex that they conceive of themselves as being, that is their gender. Thus it is surely more correct to say thatgender plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted.

Let us explore some consequences of this by looking at extreme cases (reintroducing sex as a factor to make the consequences of the hypothesis more concrete):

  1. A purely masculine heterosexual man.  This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so forms the traditional ‘male’ stereotype, as per the ‘male gaze’.
  2. A purely feminine heterosexual man. This is more interesting, as the individual will be attracted exclusively to men despite being heterosexual. Two outcomes are possible: the individual is a transexual and reassigned as a femme straight woman, or the individual becomes a femme gay man.
  3. A purely masculine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to men, and so will be a stereotypical butch gay man.
  4. A purely feminine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so will appear, to all intents and purposes to be a femme straight man. However, as the conflict of body with gender will most likely lead to psychological unease, a more likely outcome is transgendering, with reassignment as a femme lesbian woman.

Examples are all for a man purely for reference (not because of any preference); for a woman interchange genders mutatis mutandis. It can be seen that as we look at both sexes, all eight combinations of butch / femme + straight / gay + man / woman occur. In particular, the treatment of transgender is very comprehensive.

This is rather interesting, as it implies that apparent sexuality need not always be the same as intrinsic sexuality: apparent sexuality is the result of a combination of intrinsic sexuality with gender. This is because sexuality is about attraction to bodies, i.e. sexes, whereas the thing that determines which bodies that sexually attracts one to is not one’s sex but one’s psychological sex, i.e. gender.

To reiterate, the reason this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong, is that we tend to assume that bodies attract bodies. But in fact, bodies attract minds, and minds need not necessarily consider themselves to be of the same ‘sex’ as the body they inhabit. Once this is accepted, the surprising, but, on a second look rather compelling, outcomes described above arise. And the more convincing seems my model:

preferred sexsexual orientation applied to gender

Classifying types of preference

A quantitative analysis of the influence of gender and sexuality on preference arrives at the following result. If an individual is masculine with probability g and homosexual with probability s, then the probability of their being attracted to the two sexes is:

Attracted to men with probability = 1 + 2gs – g – s

Attracted to women with probability = g + s – 2gs

The derivation of these results can be seen easily from the following figure:

Interpreting the mathematics, we deduce the following:

  • At the extremes of the ranges (so g and s are both equal to 0 or 1) we get ‘normal’, i.e. exclusive, homosexual or heterosexual behaviour.

  • Along the four edges (i.e. where one of the two variables is equal to 0 or 1) the formulae give probability of attraction equal to the other variable or 1 minus the other variable (this is to be expected, given our analysis or exclusive cases above, where we showed that flipping either sexuality or gender reversed preferences). So on the edges, preference is defined by only one variable.

  • If g is equal to one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, irrespective of sexuality. Similarly, ifs is one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, independent of gender. So if either gender or sexuality is (close to) evenly balanced, the individual’s preferences will be entirely unpredictable.

In the four ‘in-between’ regions the probabilities interpolate between these values, the interpolation taking the form of parabolic curves. This can all be visualised as follows (the graph shows the probability of attraction to women):

Thus we conclude that there are nine regions in total:

  • Four regions close to the corners, where both gender and sexuality are exclusive, so preference is exclusive. These can be labelled predominantly-man-preferring and predominantly-woman-preferring regions.

  • A region where one or both of gender and sexuality is close to being equally balanced between the two extremes. This is the region of mixed-preference, where we can say nothing at all about the preference of individuals falling within it.

  • Four regions of approximate-preference, where the preference is predominantly for one sex, but with an admixture of the other. They can be described as falling into two classes: approximately-man-preferring and approximately-woman-preferring.

So there is a five-fold typology:

  1. Predominantly-man-preferring
  2. Approximately-man-preferring
  3. Predominantly-woman-preferring
  4. Approximately-woman-preferring
  5. Mixed-preference

This is illustrated as follows:

So what do we do with all this? There seem to be three approaches:

  • Keep full generality and use the underlying quantitative model given by the probabilities. This is very useful for detailed studies, but not for the relatively coarse-grained work we are interested in: there is little point in defining a ‘43% male, 37% homosexual gaze’!

  • Adopt a five-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferring, predominantly-woman-preferring, approximately-man-preferring, approximately-woman-preferring and mixed-preference. This complicates things somewhat, but it has the merit of being the best qualitative representation of the underlying quantitativemodel.

  • Merge approximately-man-preferring with predominantly-man-preferring, merge approximately-woman-preferring with predominantly-woman-preferring, thus obtaining a three-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferringpredominantly-woman-preferringmixed-preference. This trades off accuracy against simplicity.

We adopt the third approach, as it is all that we need for gendered gaze theory. However, it is recommended that subsequent work investigate the full five-fold typology (or, better still, the underlying quantitative model).

Aesthetic attraction

As soon as we try to switch from looking at sexual attraction to aesthetic attraction problems arise. Naively one might believe the two to be strongly related, but that isn’t the case. Yes, there is a relationship, but a little thought can show that it is possible to be sexually attracted to individuals who one does not consider beautiful (the sexiest woman I have known was not remotely beautiful, and yet the sexual allure she generated was enormous) and to consider beautiful individuals who we do not consider sexually attractive is equally possible (I find Virginia Woolf beautiful but absolutely un-sexy). So what can we do?

This problem is symptomatic of the point I made above distinguishing instinctive and conscious preferences. Sexual preference is overwhelmingly instinctive: we know when we are attracted to an individual because our bodies respond without our appearing to tell them to do anything of the sort. Aesthetics, almost by their very nature involves conscious preferences. Aesthetic values are undoubtedly, at root, based on sexual preference (so if one could find a naive individual, who had had no cultural contact with other individuals they would desire those they found attractive and vice versa), but overlaid on that are the very powerful input of culture and deliberately learned taste. We even speak of things as ‘acquired tastes’, meaning that they are learned. So, for example, I find Francis Bacon’s horrifyingly distorted figures beautiful, because I have cultivated a taste that allows me to do so. Overall, this is perhaps not surprising in view of the much-commented-on fact that the current ‘desirable’ shape for women in western culture seems to be completely at odds with the kind of womanly shape that is sexually desirable.

What this means is that there is no way that the theory developed above can be extended from sexual to aesthetic preferences, as any model for the latter involves not just modelling the (relatively) simple unconscious mind, but potentially all of the conscious mind. The best we can do is to say that there is some (strength unknown) correlation between sexual and aesthetic preference. Therefore gendered gaze theory can be stated as follows:

Gendered gaze theory

Individuals can be categorised based on their sexual attraction to other individuals as follows:


  • Predominantly-man-preferring

  • Predominantly-woman-preferring

  • Mixed-preference

Which class an individual falls into depends on their gender and sexuality in a relatively complex, but understood, way. There is a statistical correlation between the sex of figures appearing in art-works created by an individual and which of these classes the individual falls into. The strength of the correlation will vary from individual to individual.

It is hardly surprising to find that this is a much more circumspect conclusion than that made by the theorists of the ‘male gaze’. This may seem like a defeat, but is cannot be entirely negative to replace an over-confident assertion with one that is more nuanced.

Whither the movies?


After my recent exhaustive excursion into the depths of unknowability, I thought it would be a good idea to relax a little, but at the same time to attempt a summation of the thinking in my most recent essays about film.  In brief, they have established that, starting in the latter part of the twentieth century and gaining momentum in the twenty-first, there has been a distinct shift in mainstream cinema.  I have said quite a lot about the nature of the change, and made some suggestions as to why it may have come about, but have said little about the mechanism that is driving its acceleration, or (beyond some rather alarmist speculation) considered much what is likely to be the end-state of this process.

So, that is what this essay is about.  I intend to gather together the strands from my recent pieces in order to extract their key unifying features, so as to get at the basic nature of the change process.  Then, I have analysed causes but never mechanisms, so I want to examine the process that can have brought the change about.  I will propose a model for this.  Then, based on the proposed model, I will examine what is likely to happen.  It turns out that there are basically two possibilities, one catastrophic and the other static, but in either case, though I was somewhat excessive in claiming in The Male Gaze Gone Wrong that a barrier to communication and comprehension would inevitably form between the mainstream audience and the non-mainstream, things will probably be nearly as bad.

Why I am writing this?  Partly for the sake of clarifying my thinking, but also because a lot of rubbish is talked about the change in film.  Commentator after commentator pins the blame squarely on the studio bosses, who are said to care only about money.  But that’s the thing: they do care about money.  If there was more money to be made in producing films like Secretary than films like Transformers, then people who care only about money would be producing intelligent, witty films by the bucketload.  But the thing that we have to face is, it is more profitable to make films like Transformers because they are what the mainstream audience wants to see.  In fact, the true situation is that there is a complex interaction between the studios and the mainstream audience, a folie a deux if you like, and it is that interaction that I want to analyse.


In The Tyranny of Realism, I established that starting in the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been a shift in mainstream cinema away from the creation of provocative visual effect and towards grand guignol spectacle.  It has been suggested that this is a side-effect of the increased audience-base for movies, which has expanded to include those from many cultures.  I reject this argument, first because it is unduly simplistic, second because it is so patronising as to verge on suprematism, third because its logic implies that I (as a Briton) should be unable to appreciate films like, say, Valerie and her Week of Wonders, and fourth because I showed quite conclusively in The ‘Other’ in Culture that such cross-cultural barriers to comprehension do not, in fact, exist (at least, within one species).  Let me rehearse what I consider to be the correct analysis.  There are some putative causes and (promisingly) a suggestion of a process:

  1. With the increased emphasis on the individual, as opposed to society, starting after the Second World War, came a fear of any experience or activity that might threaten the self.  This can include quite legitimate fear of threats such as the totalitarian urge to collectivism, but it has the negative of rejecting enhancing experiences that threaten the self by promising to reshape it.  In particular, this translates into a fear of transcendance, and hence avoidance of the complex artistic effects that cause it.
  2. There has been a general move away from the challenging to the easy, which can be seen as being a move from challenging oneself and ones preconceptions to having them gently reinforced, and so is just another aspect of the move to protect the unstable self from threats to its equanimity and smooth over its instabilities.  In the wider culture we see this as part of the general confusion of the simple and the simplistic, leading to the extraordinary situation where a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is not a satire. 
  3. I made the observation that if your concern is with the bottom line, then you want to be able to predict whether a film will make lots of money (i.e. fill lots of seats) before green-lighting it.  And the way to have predictable returns is to have a predictable effect on audiences.  Which means that you want to short-cut all the nasty, complex, sophisticated machinery that makes up the upper part of the human psyche and go for the reptile within, with its concern for the four Fs.  So subtlety is out and spectacle is in.  And people flock to see if because it gives an easy emotional ride, with exhilarating release of hormones, but without any troubling questions.

  So we see a move towards a preference for simple sensation, dare I say gratification, as opposed to more complex, and potentially troubling emotions.  A nice piece of evidence supporting this is the massive shift in the horror genre over the same period.  We move from a theatre of suggestion and suspense, where terror can be found in a shadow or an otherwise everyday misplaced item, which was briefly and honourably sustained for a while by the Hammer horror series, and still exists in isolated non-mainstream films (Shadow of the Vampire – simultaneously a horror movie and a deconstruction of horror movies – or The Others), to the crapulence of Hostel, Saw and (heaven preserve us) The Human Centipede where all we find is grotesque acts of physical violence.  But this is consistent with my thesis: seeings others dismembered or tortured gives a thrill but it also makes you feel good, because the bad things can only happen in the private world of the movie; the genius of the older, suggestive horror is that it leaves the viewer uneasy, for the world could go wrong in exactly the same way outside of the film.  So once again we move from challenge to affirmation.

This was a theme I took up in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong, here looking at the issue of eroticism, and its portrayal in the movies.  Looking at the portrayal of female eroticism, we again see a shift from the complex to the very simple.  So we progress from actresses who were beautiful, indeed sexy, and yet could dominate the screen by virtue of their acting and character, and who were given roles to match, to actresses who seem all but interchangeable, and an increasingly powerful emphasis on their bodies, indeed, on everything below the neck, as if the woman herself doesn’t matter, let alone her ability as an actress: it sometimes seems that actresses exist purely as carriers for surgically exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics.  In other words, we have replaced the sensibility of glamour with that of pornography.  And lest we think only the male of the species is guilty, we have reached the point where there are any number of young (and not so young) men who have no discernable acting talent, yet who are successful simply because they are sexually attractive.  Once again, complexity has given way to primitive emotion.  Actors no longer have to inspire love or devotion; all that matters is that they can reliably trigger the right hormones.  Note, in addition, that this shift fits perfectly within the observed trend to self-affirmation: the new sexual sensibility is that of the masturbator or voyeur, not that of the lover. 


So, it seems that my basic thesis is that in the second half of the twentieth century, the audience for mainstream cinema underwent a change of appetite.  Increasingly as time went on, until now we reach the point where its dominance seems total, we see the advent of a paradigm in which emotions are simple and direct, anything hinting at complexity is shunned, as is anything that might lead to doubt or questioning of ones self or preconceptions.  The movies now inhabit a strangely Panglossian world where everything would be perfect if only people wouldn’t occasionally (and not for very long, for they are always slapped back into conformity at the end) try to buck the established order.  For it is a strange quasi-paradox that the constant talk of self-affirmation in film and the wider culture in fact constitutes a hymn to conformity.  To not conform means to challenge and question why one is what one is; far easier and happier to conform while seriously believing that by dressing and eating and drinking and thinking exactly like millions of others one is somehow expressing oneself (a former manager of mine once complained ‘Julian, you’re so conformist’, when I enquired, it turned out he was referring to my dress; I was wearing a smart shirt, linen trousers and a tie, the only person in the office so to do; he said ‘Why don’t you dress like everyone else?’  I rest my case).

This uniformisation of emotion and identity seems to affect both the audiences and the pictures and suggests an increasing drive towards productisation, which might lead one to conclude that this is all a story of big bad business taking over the movies and ruining them for all of us.  And that would certainly fit with the other observation that I made above, that I have so far left unexamined: the idea that simple, bold emotions make it easier to shift product.  So is this just a story of how the suits took over the studios and robbed them of art?

No.  There are two problems.  First, making mainstream movies has always been about making money.  Making a movie for wide-scale distribution is an expensive business, so if there were no profit to be had the movie would not get made.  And, that being the case, it is very hard to explain why it is that the change that I have been describing only really got going some time between the end of the war and the mid 1950.  Second, there is still the problem that even if the suits in charge of the studios were all philistines, as it is posited that they love money more than art, if high art had been what sold then it is high art that would have got made, even if in their souls the suits longed for dreck.  Giving them what they want is what being a good businessman is about.  And want it is very clearly what the audiences did and still do in increasing numbers, even though by now the mainstream has become so moronic that it is hard to see (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) what audiences gain from going to the pictures as compared to say, staring at a blank wall for ninety minutes.

And there, of course, is the beginning of the answer and the start of my thesis.  If one is insecure about ones place in the world, the last thing one wants is that blank space that can allow dangerous questions to enter the mind.  One will urgently seek out displacement activity, pabulum, preferably as unchallenging as possible, to quiet the mind, thrust the dangerous ideas back into the depths of the unconscious, and confirm, with any luck, that one is all right really.  So a safe middle-brow (without even the vigour of good low-brow entertainment) show is just what one needs.

So I posit that this is what happened.  Something in the post-war world created an imbalance in people’s minds.  It doesn’t really matter what it was (though it would not be hard to make an educated guess), though it is interesting to note that while the Great Depression and its aftermath bred dreams of sparkling, unreal utopias, with the world of Fred and Ginger as the perfect escapist fantasy, the post-war darkness led to a retreat inward into mediocrity: to see this one only needs to compare the introverted escapism of Meet Me In St Louis with the exuberantly extroverted escapism of Roberta.  

However, we have the imbalance, possibly small, and people feel the need for reassurance.  That translates into a differential in return on movies, with the most consoling doing better.  And that leads to the studios, eager to make money by giving people what they seem to want, to skew in that direction.  But now, the need for reassurance being fed will not go away, but become more demanding, and so the returns for movies bias even more in the direction of wholesome pabulum.  And so now we get a positive feedback loop: the more people choose dull, emotionally simple movies over complex ones, the more studios will make them, and as more of them get made, the more people go because, even with the original cause of the insecurity long forgotten, ego-reinforcement is a highly pleasurable experience and helps soothe the stresses of modern life.  And so the audiences and the studios feed off one another in an escalating cycle.

Quo vadis?

 The reader will, of course, have recognised what I have just described as being a description of runaway evolutionary adaptation on a particular characteristic.  So, as with any evolutionary system, a small pertubation in the state of things causes an initial deviation within the population, but in this special case there is a very strong reward factor for a particular kind of deviation, so with each generation the rewarded factor is represented more and more strongly in the population.  Now, the problem with a positive feedback loop like this is that it is inherently unstable: one cannot go on for ever adapting more and more, either because the adaptation will become so extreme as to be maladaptive and positively harm the population, or because the whole process, as it were, runs out of gas.  We can see examples of both these scenarios in the natural kingdom.  The first was effected by the Irish Elk, in which strong sexual selection on antler-size resulted in males with enormous antlers, so huge that the animal could not sustain carrying them, and so the species essentially selected itself into extinction.  The second has happened with the Sperm Whale.  There appears to have been very strong selection on a particular food source (deep-dwelling squid) with increasingly bizarre adaptations arising to serve foraging.  Here, however, it appears that the feedback loop ran out of gas and left the Sperm Whale stranded, as an evolutionary isolate, dependent entirely on one particular ecological niche for its continuance.

So, what does that mean for the movies? In the Irish Elk scenario, movies get bigger and louder and simpler and dumber until the demand of the audience for even more simply cannot be met any longer because there is nowhere else to go.  At which point the audience will desert the movies en masse in search of their next fix.  In fact there is some evidence suggesting that this may be happening in the general trend over recent years for lower box-office revenues, which gimmicks like 3D have done little to disguise.  What the audiences will take to instead I do not think I want to know (dumbed down porn?), but they will leave behind them a movie industry that will implode under its own weight.  And that, for all the chatter about the evil of the industry bosses, is not something we want to happen.

The other scenario is more benign, but much more bizarre.  What may happen is that the industry and their audience establish a kind of plateau of awfulness, where each is content to remain, promulgating and consuming something which is a distant cousin of the movie as we know it, but which is almost entirely incomprehensible to those of us used to less mainstream fair (and let us be honest, given the inexplicable popularity of post Scary Movie ‘comedy’, a genre so devoid of actual humour as to be entirely incomprehensible to those of us brought up to believe that, say, Bringing up Baby and Blazing Saddles are comedies, we may not be all that far from reaching that point).  And then we will have reached the point I made at the start of this essay.  We will have two populations who both believe they are going to see movies, but who will inhabit conceptual universes so different (go back to my parenthetical comments about comedy just now if you don’t believe me, or if you are not convinced, recall that there are people out there who believe that Eat, Pray, Love is profound) that one might be tempted to say that communication between the two camps would be impossible.  As I showed in On Epistemic Barriers, this will not, in fact, be the case, but it will undeniably be the case that translation will be excessively difficult.  And then what will happen?  I have no idea, but I am sure that it would make a far more interesting movie than any released in the last few years. 



The Male Gaze Gone Wrong




In this essay I’m returning to a theme that has featured in several of my earlier pieces, but most especially in the most recent: Less is More. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, let me recap. I expressed a certain amount of surprise at the fact that while a highly abstract cartoon character, who is drawn as a stylish caricature using a minimalist artistic technique (left), is very sexy, in the sense that she created complex erotic feelings that can go on to lead to creative activity by the person having those feelings, fan art versions of her, which are far more detailed in their rendering (right), are highly sexualised but not in the slightest erotic. I concluded that they were part of a phenomenon that I started to analyse in The tyranny of realism, that is to say, the need for instant gratification. The right-hand, sexualised image is perfect if what is wanted is an instant, masturbatory rush of lust. The left-hand image creates something less well-defined, that might require time to make its effect, and which may well end up transforming the viewer.

Now you may feel that I am exaggerating somewhat in my claims for what is, after all, no more than a few lines on paper. Maybe so. What I intend to do is to extend my view to look at the male gaze in general, particularly in cinema. My conclusion, which has been hinted at in earlier pieces, is that something seems to have gone very wrong with the male gaze in the last decade or so, and what has happened can be encapsulated nicely in the transition from the sexy left-hand image to the sexualised right-hand one.

After that, the obvious question is why: this is rather interesting, as it relates to aspects of modern culture, from the rise of hyper-realistic pictures that eschew complex thought-provoking issues, to self-help books and the nature of contemporary religion. Without giving too much away, it is a cultural shift from the idea of permanent self-improvement, as expressed most forcefully by some of the great medieval mystics who saw the goal as overcoming the self, to the idea of permanent self-affirmation, where the goal is to celebrate the self.

Finally, I will look at the wider implications of this shift in the male gaze, and whether it is the beginning of a genuine shift in our culture, is simply the consequence of popular culture pandering too much to the tastes of teenagers, or is (a rather frightening possibility) the beginning of a bifurcation of Western culture and hence society.

So, let’s begin.

Whither the male gaze?

Look on this picture and on this



Here are two more pictures that, I think, encapsulate rather well what I am talking about. Now they’re both movie actresses, Miss Bacall hit her high-point in the 1940s and 1950s (though she continues to do great work to this day), while Ms Heigl is a major figure right now. And before you complain about the vulgarity of the image of Ms Heigl, it is as nothing compared to a large amount of what Google throws up if one searches on her name. Believe me, I used the most tasteful I could find that would suit my purpose. And yes, repeat readers will note that I have used these pictures before.

Let’s start with Ms Heigl. Well, there’s no doubt about it, this is a highly sexualised image. And it is deliberately so. Anyone wearing that dress knew what she was about, and that was getting noticed by the male gaze. But the thing is, what does she promise? Well, there’s the suggestion that if you were lucky (?) enough to enter her sphere of attention, the physical act of sex with her would be not unpleasant. But sex is, when you come down to it, about more than bodies. Contrary to D H Lawrence, a large amount of sex is in the head, and relies on more than the body of ones sex-partner. And looked at from that perspective, Ms Heigl falls short. She may have big breasts, and be blandly beautiful, but she also has a vapidity about her that means that there is no emotional reaction to the picture at any level higher than the purely animal response of lust. Or, to put it another way, for all the emotional involvement she creates between her and her audience, she could be a high class prostitute (except, of course, that the grandes horizontales of the past knew that their job was about far more than just sex).

Now on to Miss Bacall. What a contrast. For a start, she’s fully covered. But, and here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to expose (nearly) everything she’s got to make an impact. She’s beautiful; far more so than Ms Heigl, but what matters is her expression, the expression of the essential her that comes across. And she is very far from being vapid. Her look promises – not just sex, indeed, not necessarily sex at all, though she oozes sex appeal from every pore. In fact the picture suggests that she is a woman you would want to follow to the ends of the Earth, that she can inspire love and devotion, and, by so doing, be a source of inspiration to her devotees. And that’s an interesting observation: the leading ladies of her day were not called screen goddesses for nothing. There is something like religious awe and devotion in the attachment that they can inspire, and, like religion, it can be a force driving great deeds. They may be good or bad deeds, but the thing is that the devotee will be shaken out of their current state; their devotion is a driver for transformation and not stagnation. It is entirely plausible that people who have never met her should fall in love with Miss Bacall (or Miss Hepburn, Miss Lombard, Miss Rogers, the list goes on) as a result of seeing her films, and this love can be channelled into greater things, can inspire the urge to transformation of the self. The most that Ms Heigl can inspire is a wank.

What does it all mean?

In the previous section I took two carefully chosen examples, one from the golden age of film and one from the – not so golden age of film. And the contrast was between a male gaze that focussed on complex women, who inspired complex emotions, who acted in complex films in which very often men were transformed by meeting them (think of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Godfrey in My Man Godfrey, Mike Conovan in Pat and Mike), and who hold out the promise of a lifetime of emotional fulfilment, and one in which women are presented as brazenly sexualised figures who hold out little more than the promise of fifteen minutes between the sheets. Now, I am not saying that there are no good actresses out there right now – there are (Streep, Mirren, Roberts, Kidman, Foster, Swinton, Portman come immediately to mind), but on the whole the film industry doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, and it (and its audience) seems to prefer identikit sex objects.

So, the male gaze has shifted in its focus from preferring women who held out promise of complex, potentially transforming, interaction, and women who offered no more than their bodies, but, who, strangely, are nothing like as beautiful as the stars of yore. It almost seems that the male gaze has become so focussed that it pays attention only to the explicitly sexual aspects of women, and ignores not just the intangibles of personality, promise, complexity, but even such tangible features as beauty. We have moved from sexy to sexualised. Why is that?

Here I need to recapitulate some of my argument from The tyranny of realism. In brief, what I observed was that the trend in modern films (and other art forms) is towards producing pieces that:

  • Appeal to simple, direct emotions, because they are predictable, and so make it easy to predict audience reaction and hence box-office appeal. To put it in the terms of this piece, a male heterosexual or female homosexual will feel an immediate jolt on seeing Ms Heigl and her breasts, or rather on seeing her breasts, the rest of her being sadly irrelevant. This is pure animal lust and is as predictable as the reaction of a male rat on seeing a female rat in heat. It is pure desire for the sexual act and it is transient. On the other hand, anyone watching Miss Bacall in action can hardly avoid being inspired, but how they are inspired is going to be complex, and depend on them and their history and their ideas.
  • Pander to the fear of transcendance. Modern people seem to be deeply insecure about themselves and feel the need for constant self-reinforcement. The last thing they want is to undergo anything that might change them, presumably because at root they fear that there is nothing there to change, so they might cease to exist entirely. Again, in the terms of this piece, lust is deeply self-reinforcing, it proves that you are okay if you can feel lust for an unnecessarily copiously displayed woman’s body (forget the woman; she doesn’t matter here). While, on the other hand, if you fall in love with a screen goddess then, even if you never meet her, you are in a relationship with a person, albeit strictly speaking a persona rather than a person, and relationships cause change.
  • Avoid challenge. This is closely related to the second point, but brings out a useful extra factor. Complex is out; simple is in. Why spend three hours watching Katharine Hepburn give the performance of her life in a draining, depressing, arduous play like A long day’s journey into night when you can spend thirty seconds staring at Megan Fox’s cleavage? Lust and sexualisation require almost no work: feeling lust on seeing the appropriate other is more or less hard-wired into us, and so involves no conscious effort at all. The complex emotions that a devotion to Miss Hepburn can inspire might involve real work, because (see above) they might make you want to change and grow.

What I seem to come to is this: there is a mutual feedback loop going on between producers and consumers of film. We’re talking about eroticism here, so let’s stick to that, but it could apply equally well in other areas. So, consumers want simple, disposable emotions that give them a swift buzz, reinforce their sense of self and are an easily swallowed pill. That means they don’t really want the complex world of erotica, but the simple world of porn (so there has been no successor to the great Russ Meyer, whose wild, absurdist erotic fantasias can brighten any day). In terms of the movies they don’t want actresses who inspire complex emotions, they want ones they can drool over. So film-makers move away from complex women and complex parts for women and converge instead on the stick with big boobs but no personality. Which packs a bigger punch in terms of simple, self-reinforcing lust, and so the audiences want more, and so on. And what this means, at the end, is that whereas in the past men wanted to gaze at women they could become involved with, and derive ongoing emotion from, now they want to gaze at cleavage. So that’s what they get.

As an aside, to end this section, note that this means that the male gaze is not solely driven by sexual attraction. For women of the two balloons on a stick variety are not, in fact, what people should be attracted to, given that good child-bearing depends on things like the hip to waist ratio as well as the size of the bosom. What we are seeing is a cultural intervention between sexual desire and actual desire, which substitutes a figure who, increasingly, is a metastatisation of the secondary sexual characteristics, while conforming to the cultural assumption that skinny is good. This is not, perhaps surprising. As I have said elsewhere, we have seen, in the second half of the twentieth century, a general shift in culture away from striving and towards self-satisfaction. Which leads neatly on to the next section.

I like me

I have argued that the shift in the male gaze (whether as a cause or as a consequence it is now too late to say; the feedback loop means that it is both) is largely attributable to a desire for simple means to the simple end of making people feel good about themselves. Well, what could be wrong with that? Let me count the ways.

My main problem, the main problem with people being constantly assured that they’re great just they way they are is that the point at which a culture gives up striving is the point at which decadence sets in. And decadence is the beginning of the end, as we have seen all too often. It is the way of things that species and cultures adapt to meet fresh challenges. Now, in the West, we have a culture whose reaction to challenge is to pretend that it isn’t there. That can lead to catastrophe, and as I have a certain amount of affection for Western culture, I would hate to see that happen.

The other problem is smaller and more personal, but equally awful in its implications. Imagine a child that has been brought up always being told that it’s right, it’s the best it can possibly be, and so on and so forth. What kind of adult will it become? Indeed, will it actually ever become adult? The answers are fairly obvious: a sociopath and no. As philosophers, theologians and psychologists of all persuasions have said, we grow and develop into better adjusted people by working out how to overcome obstacles. We are socialised precisely when we learn that we are not always right, and that all is not for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And a society functions only if the majority of its members are adequately socialised, which will not be the case if they are rampant egotists. Thus, if we are not careful, too great an emphasis on being okay will turn Baroness Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society from a nonsense into a sad truth.

So, unremitting self-affirmation is not a good thing. But surely it doesn’t matter if it’s only in the movies, which are all about escapism anyway? Parenthetically, isn’t that interesting? That’s the way people view the movies now. But people didn’t go to see Vertigo or Dark Victory or Keeper of the Flame for escapism. Once again, what was once a challenging art-form has become an instant form of self-gratification. Parenthesis over. The thing is, it isn’t just in the movies. So, let’s have a look at some other areas where we see the impact of the urge to self-affirmation.


Theology hit its high-point (says a very biassed source) in the fourteenth century, with such profound thinkers as AquinasPorete and, of course, Eckhart. Now, they made some amazing claims: Eckhart essentially set out a programme whereby believers could, by virtue of hard spiritual work, achieve unity with the Godhead. And one can’t imagine a higher goal than that. But something that he, Porete and the other mystics of the time all agreed on was that the self was something not to be celebrated, but to be overcome. Porete is quite clear: she says that the will / self must die before the soul can become one with God.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all go back to the fourteenth century and believe whatever Eckhart told us. My point is to say that back then, religion was hard work, it was about overcoming oneself and striving to become something new and amazing. Let us look at religion today, and for these purposes I am looking at mainstream religion, and not the liberal variety. It seems, to this spavined eye, to be all about the state of ones relationship with God, and ensuring that one has a good time in the afterlife. But there’s very little about changing oneself. Indeed, prosperity gospels make it quite clear that one should congratulate oneself on ones own life. We even find that Eckhart and the other mystics are re-invented for our time as wooly new-age shamans, who tell us good news. Gnosticism is very fashionable, but not the complex, world-hating faith of the true Gnostics with its three hundred and sixty-five heavens; rather, again, a vague belief that sitting back and smiling gently is the answer to all.

I think I have made my case, but let me consider one more, particularly pernicious example. Buddhism is an incredibly rigorous system of thought, enjoining on its followers all kinds of ethical and behavioural rules that must be obeyed if one is to have a hope of breaking out of the cycle of reincarnation. As with the medieval mystics, the self is to be destroyed, not affirmed and celebrated, and one must become nothing in order to achieve everything. It isn’t easy being a good Buddhist. Now look at the amazing travesty of Buddhism presented by The Simpsons. Here, Lisa decides she doesn’t like Christianity and, after some rather dull adventures, discovers Buddhism, which is presented as a way for her to be religious without having to believe all that stuff about sin and so on and so forth. In other words, the accidents of Buddhism (lotus position, prayer wheels, incense) are retained, but the essence (destroying the self) is not just lost but inverted. And millions around the world will now believe that that is what Buddhism is. Negation of the self has become affirmation of the self.


In classical psychoanalysis, be it Freudian or Jungian, the key notion is that the psyche of the individual is misshapen as a result of a lifetime of negative experiences, and that the individual, with help from their therapist, must work hard to undo the damage. In Jungian psychoanalysis there is the concept of individuation, in the course of which the individual discovers those things, aspects of themselves, that they have hidden away, or that are too frightening for them to confront. Individuation is about gradually coming to terms with these aspects of the self and reintegrating them with the visible parts of the psyche, so as to once more be whole. It is, of course, a life-long process, and unlikely to be achieved in total. So we are presented with the necessity of going through a very long, very hard process, which will involve dealing with unpleasant things, and without even the guarantee of achieving the promised result. One can only strive.

In popular psychology, everything is strangely different. There are a positive plethora of self-help books out there, but they can be summarised by saying that you have to decide that you like yourself really, and positively come to love yourself. When you do, when you accept yourself just the way you are, then all will be well. Once again, we switch from a model that says that the way you are is flawed and must be overcome, to one that celebrates the way you are. Once more, affirmation of the self. The title of one of the greatest hits in decades says it all: I’m okay, You’re okay.

Popular culture

This shouldn’t take long. In the past artists, composers, bands used to practice, practice, practice some more, and then, if they were very lucky, get a gig. Now they get manufactured, and the Christmas number one single will be of the winner of a talent show – not because they’re good, but because they’re the winner of the talent show. With the instant star comes the idea that talent and hard work are unnecessary. What matters is that you be who you are, not that you try to become better and transcend who you are.


A great man said ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. That was John F Kennedy in his inaugural address. That epitomises the old culture, that of dedication to self-overcoming and transformation. Now the mainstream political discourse in the United States seems to be thoroughly centred on the individual, and what the state should or should not do for them. And I write this in a week when President Kennedy has been criticised because he did not make his personal relationship with God the centrepiece of his presidency. I rest my case.

Two cultures?

The first culture

So, I think we can say fairly safely that the strange shift in the male gaze from interesting, sexy women to women whose sole feature is their secondary sexual characteristics is actually symptomatic of a wider shift in popular culture: away from complexity to simplicity, away from promise to instant gratification, away from transcendence to self-affirmation. What does this mean in terms of our culture?

Start with the obvious. The dehumanisation of women in the movies is largely down to the target audience being teenaged boys. The sort who find making jokes about contraceptives funny, and who talk up their sexual prowess, but who would be speechless with fright if a real woman actually came on to them. So, will they just grow up? I’m not sure. To grow out of something, you need to be aware that there is something else more desirable to grow into. And though it’s obvious to me that Lauren Bacall is more interesting than Katherine Heigl, if all you’ve been taught to expect of a woman is cleavage, it won’t be obvious to you. And if it involves work, and accepting that you’re less than perfect – why leave the comfort zone? So if they’re going to grow up and learn to experience the joy of watching Tilda Swinton in a real movie (i.e. not one with talking animals) then it has to be made more attractive to them than their current state, and I’m not sure I know how to do that. The other thing is that we have a second feedback loop going on. Because boys and young men are coming to see women quite literally as sex on legs, girls and young women are adapting to meet that requirement (hence, I now believe, the freakish popularity of the gross anti-feminist modern rom-com that I identified in Sexual politics and the contemporary rom com). So it isn’t even as if they will have to branch out when they reach the age of wanting to couple, because they will find women willing to live out this degrading life, not because they’re bad, or stupid, but because that’s what the culture tells them to do, and it tells them to do it because that’s what more and more of them are doing. Once again, there is neither cause nor effect.

Where could this lead? Let me spin a skein of conjecture. You will see that some of its first stages are starting to happen, and the rest of scarily plausible. If the urge to instant self-gratification goes unchecked, then increasingly individuals will seek it in cyberspace, because virtual friends are somehow safer than real ones. These friends may be real people at another computer; increasingly they will be computer-generated. So eventually each individual will end up enfolded within their own private world which is devoted only to making them feel good about themselves. And that cybersphere will do whatever is needed to make them happy. If being tortured to death is their deepest fantasy, it will do so, then revive them, then do it again, and so on, forever. There will be no culture, just a collection of individuals who happen to share the same planet (if you happen to recognise some of this, it is because it is drawn from the great Stanislaw Lem’s book The Star Diaries). And before you dismiss this as dystopian pessimism, consider the really rather scary way that Japanese culture is shifting to an increasing use of robots in place of human interaction, and virtual, as opposed to real (or are they real – if enough people think of them as existing then do they not exist in precisely the same way that a quark, one of which no-on has ever seen, exists) entertainers and celebrities.

The Second Culture

Von Teese


That is a ghastly end-state. How can we avoid it? Well there is a sign of hope. Again, look on these two pictures. And by the way, if I had trouble finding a tasteful picture of la Heigl, finding one of Ms Fox was even harder. There were pages and pages of dreadful, vulgar ‘look at me, aren’t I sexy’ poses in underwear or less, which were in fact not in the slightest sexy (in the sense of being erotically or sensually as opposed to animally aroused), and this was the best I could find. Anyway, Ms Fox is a rising star of the popular culture I have been describing. But Miss von Teese, on the other side of the page, looking effortlessly sexy, and not nearly so vulgar, in spite of being wearing distinctly less, is the star of another culture – the Burlesque culture. For in parallel with this sad degeneration of the target of the male gaze in popular culture, we have seen the rise of Burlesque culture, in which sassy women like Miss von Teese are almost revered, and these are real women with sensible shapes and character and everything. It is possible to imagine falling in love with Miss von Teese, whereas the best one can ever do with Miss Fox is to fall in lust.

Now, I am not saying that Burlesque is the answer. Far from it, for though its women are more interesting than those of contemporary cinema, they are still essentially bodies on display, albeit more interesting bodies and a very much more interesting and artful display. But it is a long way from Dita von Teese to Katharine Hepburn, and, as role-models for women go, Miss Hepburn is still the better choice. But the popularity of burlesque is a sign of hope, that there is another culture than the spiritually dead ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ culture I have been describing, that the spirit of the screen goddesses of old, or Russ Meyer’s lunatic amazons of not-so-old, is not yet moribund. We just need to do that which the adherents of the culture of self-love fear the most and transform ourselves, so that we can build an alternative culture where the male gaze would sooner seek out powerful women who can give it something to aspire to than pasteboard clones who give it something to masturbate to.

The Two Cultures

Today, sex appeal is reduced to taking your top off and sticking one hand in your knickers (can someone please explain to me why this is meant to turn me on?). Glamour is dead in the mainstream. But let us be clear: glamour is not, as is sometimes claimed, synonymous with objectification. Being one of a countless horde of near-identical skinny young women with large breasts who knows no more than to pose for vulgar photographs designed specifically to press the male libido’s big red button, and to behave in a way that would make a prostitute blush – that is objectification, because it could be Heigl, Fox, Lohan, Hilton, Spears the list goes on and there is honestly nothing to distinguish them (in fact, an interesting observation is that in the past good prostitutes aimed to look like and behave – outside the bedroom – like fashionable ladies, while now middle-class young women do their best to look and behave like prostitutes – as the ever-perceptive Matt Stone and Trey Parker have observed). And yet this is marketed as being empowering. How? How is being reduced to wet-dream fodder empowering, when it no longer matters who you are, all that counts is what you’ve got below the neck?

Glamour, on the other hand, is and always has been, something special. It has received quite a negative press because it is confused with the productisation I have just described, but in its true meaning, glamour is a numinous quality that adds to the individual and makes them more than merely a person. It does not take away the fact that its possessor is a person, but gives that person extra qualities. So it is unlikely that fans of Miss Bacall or Miss Hepburn or Miss Lombard or Miss Rogers ever forgot for a moment who it was that they were a fan of. Glamour added that special something that is the sign, in so far as it can be signified on this plane, of the transcendant, or potentially transcendant. And very appropriately in view of this, glamour was originally conceived of as being something other-worldly and of the Gods. Now, the screen goddesses of old had glamour, the new targets of the male gaze have only glitz. Miss von Teese and her cohorts have glamour in abundance; what they need is to add in the substance that the Hepburns and Bacalls had, to turn that glamour into something positive and active.

Should we care?

I have assumed throughout that the culture of glamour, of screen goddesses, of eternal passion rather than easy fulfilment, is a good thing, but I haven’t proved that anywhere, or even argued for it (much). So, should we be upset at the cultural shift of which the realignment of the male gaze is symptomatic? I think so. Partly because of the rather frightening scenarios for where the culture of self-love will lead us, none of which I find particularly comforting, partly because I feel that anything that has as its end result the increased disengagement of the higher brain functions, leaving huge numbers of people acting at a more or less reptilian level of behaviour, cannot be a positive step. Technology may have made it possible for people to regress, but, let us be honest, life would be rather dull if all we had to entertain us was Saw 367Transformers: the Revenge of Michael Bay and films like the dreadful The Ugly Truth and Burlesque (honestly – who in their right mind would make a movie ostensibly about Burlesque and then choose as its principal actors – pop-tarts?)? Haven’t we lost something when people are so inured to violence that they laugh at the vile tortures that have replaced true terror in the modern horror movie and can’t accept that a misplaced letter, a piano-lid that is up when it should be down (The Others – a great film, showing that Nicole Kidman can really act if only she has a good script to do it with) can be truly terrifying, whereas the Saws and Hostels of this world are simply distasteful? If – I am trying desperately to think of the modern-day equivalent of Fred & Ginger and failing horribly, so let’s end it there. To even think of the Step Up franchise in the same brain would be a form of secular blasphemy.

I know that my argument is rhetorical, but it cannot be gainsaid that though the simple life of the self might be very serene, if somewhat unstable (a psyche based on self-affirmation will crumble if that affirmation is not constantly forthcoming), but it would also, without a doubt, be very, very boring. And I don’t know about you, but I do not enjoy being bored. I find it a pain. And I believe that I am not alone in that. It is not surprising that adherents of the me-culture drug themselves in various ways as a way of escaping from mundane reality.

Shall we dance?

The other question is: can the two cultures coexist? Can they communicate? Is there an ineluctable epistemic barrier between them? I have argued in The other in culture that such epistemic barriers cannot exist. But let us look again at the argument, for there is a possibility, a frightening possibility, that might make such a barrier possible after all. That argument made it clear that in any act of translation (which need not be literal translation; converting from English as I speak it to English as you do is, in itself, an act of translation, as we will give individual words subtly different meanings, so, for example, the word ‘glamour’ to me evinces something more complex than simply a glossy, well-finished facade) meaning is lost, but the meaning that is lost is that which cannot be distinguished linguistically. So if you and I say respectively ‘rabbit’ and ‘gavagai’ under exactly the same conditions, we are each justified in guessing what the other means, even if our private inner meanings are quite at variance. Clearly, if I can express some distinctions, so sometimes I call it a ‘rukh gavagai’ then you can start to analyse when I say ‘rukh’, and evidence suggests that even if it is something complex and cultural, not related to the empirical world at all, you can make a guess at its meaning.

But all this rests on one single fundamental assumption: that as we are both human, we both see the world in more or less the same way, we have the same senses, and so if you see a rabbit loping across a field, you can be pretty sure that I can see it too, even if that isn’t what I call it. In other words, we inhabit the same paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense). To put this into perspective, imagine that in fact I was not a human, but an alien whose species had evolved on a neutron star, and who could sense quantum wave functions directly. It would make no sense to me to say that there was a rabbit over there right now, because it would be everywhere all the time, as would everything else. So based on our localised, macroscopic sensorium is our ontology and language that we could not even begin to communicate. There would be a genuine epistemic barrier.



So, the question is, is the shift in the male gaze the tremor that foretells the earthquake of a paradigm shift? To say yes might seem faintly ridiculous, but there are some worrying indicators. Let’s go back to the question of what’s sexy. I think that the caricature cartoon character is more sexy than the sexualised fan-art. I think that Lauren Bacall fully clothed is more sexy than Katherine Heigl baring very nearly her all. I think that Dita von Teese is more sexy than Megan Fox. But here’s the thing. I could, if pushed, define what I meant by sexy, and begin to explain what it is about those three women that makes them have that quality. Look at my latest apposition, a pair of Jessicas: the incomparable Jessica Rabbit (you really don’t want to see the fan-art) and the very comparable Jessica Alba (and, yes, that is one of the less tasteless images of her – the most tasteless would make me put myself up for adoption if only I knew some friendly aliens who didn’t think that pictures of women in exiguous bikinis sticking their butts in the air were particularly exciting). Well, I know who I’d want to go on a date with, and yet Miss Alba is viewed as a modern-day sex goddess. Why? What has she got that thousands of other women haven’t? Is that the point? Or is it just that the expectations of the male gaze are now set so low that more or less anyone will pass muster provided they have breasts (check) a skinny torso (check) and are prepared to show them off, no matter how degrading to their sex the driver for doing so might be (check)?

There is a total disconnect between sex as part of a complex web of behaviour, which can lead to the most fulfilling part of a relationship being the non-sexual parts, and sex as physical release. And this seems close to being a paradigmatic division, as I imagine that my tastes would be equally mysterious and inexplicable to one who partakes of the modern male gaze. We have moved from a conceptual scheme based on the idea of the more-than-real (stars were called larger than life), role models who gave one aspirations to self-overcoming, to a paradigm based on the extremely ordinary and role models defined not as people but as collections of organs. That seems to me like the beginnings of a paradigm shift, for I can see no obvious way to translate from one ontology into the other, where we don’t just use words to mean different things, but there seems no obvious way to relate the two usages. If this is the beginning of a paradigm shift, then that is bad news, for once the shift has occurred then our culture will be split irrevocably asunder. And I go back to my comments above to rebut any claim that this is simply evolution in action and that I am part of the out-competed residuum, destined for extinction.

Now, you could say that I am being overly pessimistic, and that all that we have here is the traditional communication problem between parents and children. And yet in previous generations, youth movements looked on the world their parents had made, decided they didn’t like it, and announced a desire to change it. The movement may often have not got far beyond expressing the rage and disdain, but at least it looked at the world around it. The focus was outward; now it is entirely inward. Instead of the Beats or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Anarchy in the UK we have Smells Like Teen Spirit – incoherent self-obsession in spades – and Chicken Soup for the Soul volume four hundred and thirty-seven. Rage against the world has turned into worship of the self. So, modern youth culture is impoverished as compared with that of earlier generations. But, though we started out by looking at youth culture, the shift I am describing is wider. The good actresses I mentioned earlier are either limited to niche fare, or else they appear in fearful drivel like Eat, Pray, Love, which is simply self-love translated to the forty-something generation. Joe Queenan, in his hilarious memoir America, notoriously discovered a whole new, horrible world of mindless dreck that just didn’t fit within his conceptual scheme. It seems that the paradigm shift has started with the young (where else would it start?) but is now spreading.

So what can we do if we are to avoid cultural bifurcation? As I have said above, the challenge for those of us who find the culture of self offensive is to find a way of luring people out of it, and to tease them into a situation where a meaningful dialogue is possible, so we can begin to tear down that epistemic barrier while it is not yet too high. It will not be easy, and it will involve compromises – one does not go straight from lusting for Heigl to longing for Hepburn in one leap – but I believe that we can meet this challenge. We have to.

Less is more


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.


Miss Bellum


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.

That Dress

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.


The tyranny of realism

‘There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization’ – Werner Herzog

A surprising contradiction

If you look at the history of film, two big developments are immediately obvious:

  1. The technology to create visual effects has grown ever more advanced, to the point where now it is almost impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is an effect, and (in principle) if you can visualise it, it should be possible to put it on the screen.
  2. Films have grown progressively more and more realistic, in the sense that they now almost entirely eschew the deliberately ‘unreal’ aspects of older films (think the Moloch machine turning into the god Moloch in Metropolis, or the consistent avoidance of right-angles in the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). Instead we get an ever increasing desire to make events on screen look as ‘real’ as possible.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is that that just when we finally have the technology to create astounding artistic effects, twisting reality to create images that will provoke, disturb or inspire the watcher, instead we use them to make things look more real, less artistic, less like the product of someone’s imagination?

I don’t think that point 1 really needs further discussion. The progression from 1902’s A Trip to the Moon to 2008’s Wall-E and beyond is, I believe obvious. But point 2 needs some discussion: I’ve given some examples already, but it’s worth hammering it home; in addition there are some subtleties that are worth drawing out. So I’ll do that, then I’ll try to work out what this means. And then, just to show off, I’ll link these developments to trends in twentieth century art, and conclude with some observations on the role of the new in the creation of great art.

Films just keep getting less interesting

What do I mean by ‘interesting’?

Where by ‘interesting’ I mean that as time progresses there is less and less by way of artistically interesting visual effects in film. That isn’t to say that there aren’t amazing images. It is quite astonishing how realistically film can depict things blowing up, or people killing one another in inventively gory ways, or the exact details of an alien planet. But once you’ve watched V for Vendetta or Saw 47 or Avatar, what are you left with? And I don’t mean in terms of memories of the plot (so a strong urge to vomit, or a sneaking suspicion that there is more to leadership than having a neat mask does not count): I mean in terms of artistic visual effects? The thing is that the explosions and dismemberments and big blue buggers are so realistic that they just skate over the surface of the imagination without ever provoking a visual artistic response.

Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Let’s take an example from painting. Look at anything by Jack Vettriano, say this one:

Okay, it looks pleasant; it’s mildly erotic – the curve of the dancing woman’s rump is nicely limned; it’s a bit surreal. And sure it provokes you to wonder what the back-story is that lead to this couple dancing on the beach. But is there anything in the image that creates a moment of revelation, some new insight, the ‘wow’ factor that leads to a new understanding of art, culture and yourself? No.

Right, now look at this:

This is Max Ernst’s The Angel of Hearth and Home. I remember when I actually saw it face-to-face, as it were, I just stood for ten minutes staring at it, trying to take in that amazing image. It communicates raw energy, a terrible jubilation, but also a feeling that something very, very evil is going on. This is done without sign-posts like a woman’s sexy bottom, a maid with an umbrella, or dancing on a beach. No, it comes straight out of the image without any need for interpretation. And this is completely independent of whether or not you like the painting, just as I insist the relevant factor in film should be independent of the plot (or indeed of whether the film as a whole is good or not).

To summarise then: what I am looking for is cases where images and artistic effects are used to create an emotional state independent of plot or event. Where merely seeing the image makes an impact. And that this impact happens at a deep, pre-conscious level. You respond consciously to the Vettriano; you respond viscerally to the Ernst.

So take the much vaunted 3D immersion within Pandora in Avatar. Sure, there’s a ‘wow’ factor, but it’s because you’re exploring the contents of the screen. Nothing there is actually very surprising. And as the film’s purpose is to make you think that this is a real, mundane, boring (if alien) place, it has no ambition to give your unconscious mind a shock. Now consider one amazing moment from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari:

This image on its own has a jarring emotional impact: it conveys fear, dread and other forms of disquiet too complex to put into words. It creates that ‘spine-tingling’ effect, which is, of course, entirely under unconscious control, and which is a sure sign of being moved at a deep emotional level. And here’s the thing. That’s a still from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and it has emotional impact without any need to know its context. Here’s another example, from Fury:

In the movie this is presented to us in a shot of its own, with no commentary. Lang knew that he was creating an image. Even out of context it is still immensely powerful as a depiction of fear, terror, horror. And the technical resources required were: one woman. At the other extreme (in several senses), here’s a (rather impressive) still from Avatar:

Yes, as I said, it’s impressive. The structures are intellectually interesting (is that really geologically possible?). But does it have the sudden jolt or spine-tingle factor? No. It’s just a landscape, rendered so realistically that I could be there. Indeed, critics praised the film for precisely this ‘you could be there’ quality, and in the process missed the point. We’re used to reality; the artistic shock comes from that moment when we go beyond reality and touch something other: the moment of transcendance.

So that’s what I am looking for: the ability of an image, or a sequence of images to have a direct emotional impact without any need to think about context or plot. I find it in abundance in pre-war movies, and very little thereafter, dying away to essentially nothing today.

So are all the interesting films really old?

Let me make an immediate exception. When I generalise about modern movies lacking the artistic shock factor, let me except once and for all the entire output of Werner Herzog. Herzog, with his stated aim of showing us what is true as opposed to what is real, is about as far from Avatar or Harry Potter or Wall-E or Random-Animal-Man or Latest-Generic-Tim-Burton-Movie or any other modern effects-fest as you can get. So I will observe right now that Herzog does the spine-tingle factor in abundance, then set him to one side as an honourable exception to a dishonourable trend.
Let me make another exception. I am talking about mainstream Western (west European and North American) cinema here: the kind of film that might get general release. The point is that The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu and Der Mude Tod and Metropolis and M and The Man with the Movie Camera and The Goat and Fantasia and Glen or Glenda (remember: a movie doesn’t have to be good to be visually arresting) and most of the Fred & Ginger movies and . . . so on were all mainstream movies (or intended to be), not the sort of thing you’d have to go to a art house cinema or a film club to see. So it is with mainstream movies today that I will compare them. My purpose is to detect a broad cultural trend, and you don’t do that by examining what lies on the fringes.
So: let’s start with the past. I listed a bunch of movies just now. I’m sure you can think of more. Here’s are some of my favourite visual jolt moments from them:
  • The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: the way that all the angles are wrong-angles, and the ground often consists of broken fragments pitched at changing angles creates a continuous feeling of unease, that something is very, very wrong, as a background to the entire movie. This is brilliant use of pure visceral effect that needs no words or plot device to communicate it.
  • The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: the somnambulist opens his eyes (see the still above).
  • Nosferatu: Count Orlok rising, as if on a plank (which of course, Max Schreck was) out of darkness.
  • Der Mude Tod: the moment when we see the opening in the wall of Death’s domain, a narrow bright slit in a dark wall, with an enormous shadow.
  • Metropolis: the Moloch machine in operation.
  • Metropolis: the Moloch machine becomes Moloch the God.
  • Metropolis: the montage of eyes watching the false Maria.
  • M: Peter Lorre’s haunted face.
  • The Man with the Movie Camera: the Bolshoi Theatre folds in on itself.
  • The Goat: a speeding train comes at us and stops with a close-up of Buster Keaton sitting on the front of the engine.
  • Fantasia: the abstract animation of the Bach Toccata and Fugue.
  • Glen or Glenda: Barbara lying crushed by the tree.
  • Glen or Glenda: the accusing fingers point at Glen.
  • Fred & Ginger: in the seven ‘canonical’ Fred & Ginger movies, the sets are amazing Art Deco structures which create a subconscious feeling of stylisation and artifice absolutely essential to such artificial films. This is just a less extreme version of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’s approach to set design

I think that will do. As I said, I’m sure you’ll be able to think of more. So, basically in pre-war movies there’s plenty of visual excitement. In other words, pre-war, film-makers had no trouble with the idea of using what was a visual medium to create purely visual effects that tampered with viewers’ expectations of reality, and hence created the aesthetic shock (Ed Wood was clearly a hang-over from the pre-war era, but then that is evident from his whole output: he may have been filming in the ’50s, but he was emotionally rooted in the ’30s).

After the war cinema seems to have lost its way, and the idea of using the visual medium to expand reality was gradually replaced with using it to create an increasingly great semblance to reality. This was true even when the events depicted were technically speaking impossible. Rather than glorying in their impossibility, and making an artistic statement out of it, film-makers preferred to try to con their audiences into think that they were possible after all. By the time of Star Wars, the battle was pretty much lost: the point was to make the audience think it was real rather than to present them with something unreal, but make it so compelling that they were sucked into it anyway, and ended up conspiring with the film-maker to transcend mere reality and replace it with something else.
In fact, one of the few modern effects to be remotely ‘unreal’ is bullet time. This is a fascinating effect, given that it allows us to create an image and then, slowly and deliberately, examine it from all possible viewpoints. But its use in practice is, to be mild, uninspiring, because it always seems to be used with determinedly ‘real’ (in the sense of pretending to be real) events. So this effect has potential, but it needs to be placed in the hands of a visionary intent on creating art, not a hack intent on creating dollars.
Let me finish this section with what I think is an interesting observation. You might be tempted to object to my claims about modern movies by saying ‘but there are way-out movies today: what about Being John Malkovich, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘. Well what about them? Sure, there are weird events galore. But, for example, the portal into Malkovich’s head is portrayed with immense realism, with real mud and all. Similarly, when the house collapses near the end of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it doesn’t do it in any visually exciting way: it just falls apart, plank by plank. Even in movies with completely surreal screenplays we end up with the film-makers determinedly setting out to render that surrealism in as realistic a manner as possible. They want to make it believable. And in the process they remove the magic, they remove the wonder, they remove anything that raises the film’s visual presentation above mundane, boring reality.
So to repeat: cinema is intrinsically a visual medium, and yet modern film-makers, rather than making use of the near-infinite possibilities offered them by CGI and creating truly artistic visual effects, prefer to play it safe, and try to make the things they depict look as real as possible. It is as if they don’t trust their audience to be able to manage the challenge of following a supra-realistic discourse. This is a critical observation.

Okay, so cinema isn’t visually exciting any more: what happened?

Let’s start off by knocking some ideas on the head. First, it isn’t the shift in power in the film industry from Europe to the USA. Many of my examples are Hollywood products, and it wouldn’t be hard to find more. Second, it isn’t the advent of sound. Many of my examples are talkies, and I could have mentioned even more (The Testament of Doctor MabuseFurySleeping Beauty, anything choreographed by Busby Berkeley).
So what is it then? Recall the critical observation at the end of the last section: film-makers not trusting their audience to be able to cope with anything other than hyper-realism. Let’s explore this. In fact, there are several ways of looking at it.
The need for control
Bizarrely, in this era of big, dumb action films, where the dialogue is usually reduced to exclamations of terror and the heroine’s sole function in the movie is to show off her cleavage (I would have said figure, only, for interesting reasons I intend to go into in a future essay, shapely figures are in short supply in Hollywood right now), film-makers don’t want to stir the audiences emotionally. Let me make that statement more precise. They’re quite happy for us to react emotionally to their movies, but they want to be able to dictate the emotions that we feel. So you are meant to feel awe on seeing that still from Avatar, you are meant to feel lust when you see Susan Sarandon take her top off, you are meant to feel excited when you see one big heap of junk thump another big heap of junk in Transformers, and so on. What they don’t want is for you to feel your own emotions.
Now the problem with artistic effects is that they’re quite hard to pull off, precisely because you’re dealing with the unconscious mind, which is a complex mix of pre-human instinctive reactions, structures common to all humans (the collective unconscious) and material deriving from the individual’s experiences. You can (as my examples above showed) do it with very great artistry, but it’s a subtle and complex business, requiring a lot of time and effort, and it’s bound to be a bit hit-and-miss because you’re using something unpredictable (your unconscious mind) to try to influence something unpredictable and disparate (the audience’s unconscious minds), so success is not guaranteed.
If you’re driven by the bottom line, success is required, so you want to be sure of your audience’s reactions. Much better to either use the screenplay to tell everyone what to think and feel, or, better yet, short-circuit the human parts of the unconscious mind, with all their complexity and variability, and target the one part of the human psyche that is absolutely predictable: the instinctive unconscious that hasn’t changed to any great extent in the last few million years (just as each of us has within our brain a complete, fully functioning reptilian brain, so we have a pre-human hang-over in our psyche). If I show a straight man a picture of Susan Sarandon’s breasts, he will get aroused, and the same will happen if I show a straight woman Keanu Reeves (why?). If I show them someone being disembowelled, they will cringe with disgust. If I show them an explosion, they will react with shock and amazement. And, for reasons I really don’t care to think about, if I show them someone farting, there’s a good chance they’ll laugh.  And all of those responses are pre-human, and easily correlated with specific classes of stimuli.
So, as the art of cinema has become more of a business, as the need for predictable return on investment has become ever greater, artistic effects have been left behind and replaced with simplistic visual effects guaranteed to produce precisely calculated results from the audience. And here’s the thing: the instinctive mind gets confused if things depart from reality, because reality is what it’s wired to process in its basic mission of controlling the ‘food, flee, fuck, fight’ circuits in our brains. So if you want to make films that work at this very basic level, you have to aim for total realism. And the end result is that if I eschew any hint of visual interest, and instead go for immersive ‘reality’, I can predict how audiences will react, and my accountants will be very happy. Or, to put it another way, we’re making movies that would appeal to chimpanzees.
Fear of transcendance
I’ve just given a sound business-based reason for avoiding the use of transcendant effects, but there’s another, subtler trend going on. Culturally we seem to have become suspicious of the very idea of transcendance, as if reaching for the supramundane is somehow bad or elitist (one of our culture’s ultimate terms of derogation). Now the experience of the artistic jolt is a transcendant moment: you are almost literally taken out of yourself, losing conscious control and your individuality in the process. In Jungian terms, we could say that art is talking directly to us through the collective unconscious that is part of all of us. And individuality is very prized in our post-war culture: what matters is me, not me and my interaction with society. When Baroness Thatcher said that ‘there is no such thing as society’ she was wrong in principle, but in terms of modern values she was right: we are no longer a society, but a collection of individuals. And it is since the war, with its terrible examples of collective beastliness, that the idea of the individual and individual rights have come to the fore. The fascist dictatorships, with their emphasis on subordination to the collective, and their terrible acts of collective murder, made the rise of the individual, and the downfall of transcendance and that which causes it, inevitable.
Consider that other great source of transcendance: religion. Christian worship (I shall limit my discussion to Christianity as I am discussing mainstream Western culture; however my argument can be applied more widely) is, of its nature, a collective thing. We enact rituals with the purpose of (so the theory goes) losing our individuality within God by a collective re-enactment of Christ’s self-sacrifice. No wonder church attendance has fallen off since the war: it’s nothing to do with a lack of religiosity – Eastern religions and a particular kind of Christianity are booming – but because people want to be individuals. So, what’s happening with these successful religions, then? Well, to be honest they’re all religion-lite. Mysticism is big, because people like the implications of exclusivity and specialness that it implies. But of course, it’s a cut-down version. There are heaps of dot-it-yourself religion books about Meister Eckhart, but the Meister wouldn’t recognise what is being said in his name: very tellingly, his insistence on the need for the death of individuality before transcendance can be achieved has been quietly dropped. And the same is true for Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Complex theological ideas are replaced with simple rules and self-help; overcoming the self transforms into self-worship. So we have religion re-packaged for the age of the individual. And transcendance is, outside the small rump of traditional believers, a thing of the past. No wonder films are so boring. Because, let me make it clear, I am not arguing for a return to traditional religion. Far from it. I am arguing that the decline of conventional religion is a symptom of an underlying cause, one of whose other symptoms is artistically dull movies.
The desire for comfort
My final point is based in the fact that though the artistic shock may come from the unconscious mind, it has quite a significant impact on the conscious mind, in the form of powerful emotions. Now these aren’t the simple animal emotions of the kind discussed above, but more complex, conscious, specifically human, emotions. And as such they are very hard to describe: our language for describing emotions is based around the simple, animal emotions of fear, pain, lust, hunger, anger and so on. The best description seems to be as a massive release of energy, coupled to a heightened awareness, as if the consequence of the artistic shock is to remove barriers to true perception of the world, to allow one to perceive things as they really are. And this is not the same as photographic realism; that is just a precise reproduction of the world as it appears to our normal, limited senses, which has nothing to do with the supra-real world one experiences (however briefly) after the artistic shock. In Herzog’s words, this is the distinction between truth and ecstatic truth.
Now a huge energy flow and heightened awareness can be very exciting. In fact so exciting that it can be among the most intense emotional experiences one can experience (it is no often that discussion of reactions to art – and indeed of mystical experiences – is often couched in quasi-sexual terminology). And while the energy is flowing, and one is living with the consequences of the transcendant moment or moments of contact with the other, great things can happen: inspiration, creativity and more. But remember that these emotions are conscious, and so they perturb the viewer’s conscious state. In other words, there’s intellectual effort involved. This is principally in the form of intense concentration, in which one examines the world through new eyes, but in addition, as one comes down from the ‘high’ of the transcendant state, there is a feeling both of euphoria, but also of being drained: all that energy had to come from somewhere.
So what I’m saying is that the artistic shock heightens the experience of watching a movie immensely (think how mundane The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari would be without all those wrong-angles), but it involves quite a lot of intellectual effort. And this leads to part of what I think has happened: when film was (comparatively speaking) new, audiences were prepared to put in the work in return for getting not just entertainment, but heightened entertainment. Compare The Wizard of Oz to any of the seven ‘canonical’ Fred & Ginger movies. The Wizard of Oz is an amazing spectacle, but that’s all it is. The Fred & Ginger movies are self-conscious works of art: the team behind them (led by Fred) were happy to assume that their audience would put in the effort. Of course, as good art, the movies can be enjoyed as pure entertainment if that is all one desires, but they make no effort to hide their aspiration to be more.
But after the war, people had had their fill of austerity and hard work and effort. They just wanted to be entertained. And so entertainment is what they were given, and so things snowballed, and we reached the point we are at now where mainstream movies are, on the whole, simple commodities which audiences take in, pretty much in the same way that might scratch an itch. Yes, movie critics might complain and rate Transformers 2 as one of the worst movies of the year, but it was perfect mindless entertainment, so it was a smash, grossing $402,076,689 in the USA alone. By way of comparison, Synecdoche New York, a truly great movie, which makes no bones about expecting its audiences to engage their brains throughout, grossed $3,081,925 (all figures from IMDB). And given that (as observed above) the bottom line is, increasingly, what matters to studios, mindless films are, increasingly, what the mainstream produces. And artistic merit is not a consideration.

Okay, so where else can we take this argument?

I think there’s a lot of room for extending this argument to other art-forms, and, as a consequence, make the beginnings of an attempt at answering one of the most mystifying features of art in the twentieth century: the growing disconnect between high art and popular art. In 1927, two novels were published: To The Lighthouse and Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy. Well, To The Lighthouse is a masterpiece, and the other, to be charitable, isn’t, but no prize for guessing which sold more copies. Salvador Dali’s later kitsch made him a very rich man; the incomparably greater Max Ernst was only ever well-off. Harrison Birtwistle is arguably one of the two greatest living composers, and yet, for reasons that I shall never understand, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber that people seem to like. And in all these cases, just as with the movies, serious critical taste is absolutely at variance with that of the public. And why?

First a quick comment about what I mean by realism and irrealism. I could get away without definitions for cinema, because the terms were kind of obvious, but now I need to make things more precise. What we consider real or irreal is, one might think, determined by our senses, but, as we know only too well, the relationship between what we experience and any objective reality that is possibly out there somewhere is, at best, somewhat tenuous. Reality is culturally determined. For example, I claim that there are separate colours green and blue. A native speaker of Vietnamese would see only one colour: xanh. So what I experience as ‘real’ depends on my cultural baggage. ‘Real’ is what is considered the norm in my culture in its depiction of how the world works; ‘irreal’ is everything else.  So culture, by defining the vocabulary used by ‘normal’ art (as opposed to innovative or conservative art) defines what we expect things to look / sound like, which defines what is real.

Argument 1: control

Here the argument for film was that you can sell more cinema seats if you can predict audience response. This actually works quite well for the other forms.

  • There’s no way of predicting how readers will respond to To The Lighthouse, just that they will respond strongly. Contrast this with what publishers churn out now: lots of nice simple novels about basic emotions. Rename Eat, Pray, Love as Hunger, Self-Love, Fucking and you kind of get the point (note the nice appearance of religion-lite and the cult of individuality). And this appeal to basic emotions is culturally ‘real’ if you portray people and events that, even if they are caricatures, are immediately recognisable, set within a simple, linear narrative.
  • The situation for plastic arts is almost identical to that for film. Vettriano’s picture produces a clear and simple response of ‘I wouldn’t mind doing her‘. Ernst’s is far more complex (and quite negative) emotionally.
  • For Western culture, tonal music is culturally ‘real’. Now, atonal music is actually rather good at depicting complex (usually negative) emotions, but if you want big, bold, simple emotions, tonality’s what you need.

Argument 2: fear

Carries over to all the other art forms without modification. Note in passing that atonal music is very clearly ‘other’ by its very nature, and hence worryingly closer to transcendance.

Argument 3: comfort

Again, carries over to other art forms. What is unfamiliar is less comfortable; what is demanding is less comfortable. Culturally ‘irreal’ art is both.

So basically the situation is the same as in film. And we even see in high culture evidence of a terrible malaise that has overtaken non-mainstream film. That is to say, independent film-makers have grown so used to the world of hyper-realism that they seem to fear breaking the rule of ‘everything should look as real as possible’. As I said before, Werner Herzog breaks this rule left, right and centre, but he stands alone. Who are his followers? And the same is increasingly true in other media. ‘Classical’ composers have started writing tonal music again. We are told that accessibility matters. Even, apparently, if that means compromising your artistic values.

So there you are. This isn’t a problem unique to film. Realism (or its equivalent) has taken hold everywhere. So when do we start the campaign to take the arts back for irrealism, then?

Conclusion: transcendance, newness and greatness in art

My notion of artistic ‘realism’ has some interesting consequences, one of which is that our idea of what is real changes.  But that is surely the case: one need only look at, say, how portraiture has changed over the centuries to see that.  For an ancient Egyptian, being true-to-life meant making as much of the subject visible as possible, leading to the curious flattened-out (and physically impossible) stance in Egyptian portraits.  But to an Egyptian our portraits would look unreal.  Likewise, we are not surprised to see all kinds of colours in a face, and yet in the latter part of the nineteenth century the idea was revolutionary.  Going back to my discussion of film, we can interpret the shift back to realism after the war as being a retreat in what was culturally ‘acceptable’ compared to more adventurous tastes before the war: this is just a restatement of my earlier arguments in the new, more general, language.

A gradually shifting definition of what is ‘real’ and what is culturally acceptable is what causes the ‘shock of the new’ effect.  It is very hard now for us to feel viscerally just how revolutionary the early impressionists were, but those we remember we don’t remember for shocking us, st least not in a ‘shock of the new’ way.  Many of the composers of the sturm und drang movement of the eighteenth century are justly forgotten: they didn’t look beyond the surface effect created by the new tools to see where they could lead, creating a promise that was only realised in the next century.  In cinema, effects technologies amaze when new and are old hat a few years later; merely using the technology may be enough to wow the first audiences, but it will not create lasting art.  More generally, innovations in the creative vocabulary shock, but do not of themselves create transcendance.  This could, of course, be a factor in the ‘censorship of time’ phenomenon that I have discussed elsewhere.  Works that seem transcendant masterpieces to their contemporaries are, with time, revealed as purely shocking, and pure shock does not last.

Therefore newness does not imply transcendance.  But transcendance requires a form of newness. I do not mean that transcendance can only be achieved with the latest technical means.  The Grosse Fuge is still transcendant today (though it was loathed in its own day).  But in the course of achieving transcendance, going beyond the real, the art shock creates an emotional space within the consumer that is something wholly new and unexpected.

Now, in principle, a great genius could still create transcendant art today using the technical means available in 1826.  However, thinking back into an earlier cultural epoch without producing pastiche is well-nigh impossible, as too may great artists of the twentieth century discovered to their cost.  And pastiche, almost by definition, cannot be transcendant.  Similarly, using the vocabulary created by the cultural norm is unlikely to create transcendance, if only because it will create work that is part of the reality it is trying to transcend.  Generalising the way that (as Roger Ebert has observed) greatness in a movie director lies ‘between the frames’, greatness in art can almost be thought in lying in the artist’s having, through effort, transcended the norms of the art of their time.  This doesn’t mean that their transcendant language has to be avant garde: Sibelius is a case in point, his amazing final works creating a wholly new sound-world within a (more or less) traditional tonal language.  But the transcendant language must be significantly other, and we feel that otherness down the ages.  This is a key observation: great art sits significantly outside the cultural norms of its time.

So transcendance does not require the latest technical means, but an artist who sticks to the artistic language of the present or past without a compelling aesthetic reason is risking degeneration into kitsch.  For example, in film using practical effects rather than CGI is perversity unless there is something about the practical effects that CGI cannot (yet) create, or some aesthetic purpose behind their use (in some unclear way it seems obvious that Fitzcarraldo would not work with a CGI boat, but it is hard to see what the director of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gained artistically by insisting that all his effect be practical).  Because of this, great artists have always pushed the bounds of the possible (though maybe in unexpected directions), seeking that new tool that might help them capture transcendance, while lesser artists have been content to stay in the cultural shallows.  So while neophilia has its noticeable demerits, even more so does neophobia.  Great art comes from the creative tension between new and old and not from over-enthusiastic exploitation of new tools, or a deliberate refusal to expand the expressive vocabulary.

Art that provokes thought; art that doesn’t


Art can be broadly classified into two groups: narrative and non-narrative. Within the narrative group, there is a further division between those art-works, which I will call closed, that are complete in and of themselves, and those, which I will call open, that were made deliberately incomplete, so that they would force their consumer to take up the work the artist has started, whether it be by exercising their imagination, or by analysing issues raised within the art-work (it is worth noting that by this I do not mean analysis along the lines of ‘But what would Fanny Price have done had not Henry Crawford committed adultery with Maria Rushworth?’ but rather consideration of questions deliberately posed by the art-work but left unanswered).

My purpose in this essay is simple, but ambitious: to attempt to understand what characteristics there are of a narrative art-work that mark out to which of these two classes it belongs. My conclusion is simultaneously negative (there are no overt characteristics of an art-work that allow one to point at them and say ‘That means this is open’) and positive (everything depends on the attitude that the artist brings to the act of creation).

This may seem a rather abstract endeavour; it is not. In fact, it is a necessary preface to a wider work I am undertaking which considers the translations of narrative art from one medium to another: most obviously filmic adaptations of books, plays, opera, etc. The emphasis in this wider work will be on filmic adaptations, hence the reason why the analysis below uses examples drawn from the medium of moving pictures.


For the purposes of this piece I will limit myself to narrative art-forms: novels / stories, theatre / opera, film, narrative painting. It is arguable (and I will argue it elsewhere) that my definitions could be extended to other art-forms, e.g. non-narrative painting, but it simplifies the argument if the art-work being analysed has the intention of telling (in however complex a manner) a story. My examples will (nearly) all be taken from the world of film, but it will not be hard to find examples in other media.

The definition, then, is quite simple. A piece of narrative art is open if it is deliberately constructed so as to provoke its consumer’s imagination. So it does not provide a simple story that answers all questions at the end. Another way of saying this is that an open art-work is not complete in and of itself: it requires the active collaboration of its consumer’s intellect.

A piece of narrative art is closed if it is not open. So it aims only to entertain or inform; that doesn’t mean it can’t provoke, but it intends to provoke specific actions that it sets out, whereas an open art-work merely provides the starting-point for a train of thought that could lead anywhere.

Another way of saying that is this: closed art wants to see the world in (figurative) black and white. It knows exactly what its consumer should think, and proceeds to communicate that to her. Open art has no answers; some ideas may be preferred to others, but there is no certitude, so it knows only a multitude of shades of grey.



What I want to do here is to see if there is any way of determining from external formal characteristics of an art-work whether it is open or closed. So, let me begin with one obvious candidate: the ending. At the end of the narrative is everything neatly tied up, so the consumer understands exactly what happened, and why it happened (which I will call a resolved ending), or is the consumer left with questions regarding the narrative: why events happened, exactly what was going on, etc (which I will call an unresolved ending).

So, consider Birth. In this movie the heroine’s dead former husband may or may not have been reincarnated in the form of a small boy. At the end of the movie, the heroine appears to separate herself from the boy and remarries, but the final scenes give no resolution. Moreover, the movie is very finally balanced so that it is quite possible to argue with equal plausibility that the boy is and isn’t the dead husband. The film, very delicately, opens up questions about identity, what it means to be an adult or a child, the nature of love and the possibility of sexual love between adults and children, but it only pushes at the door: it gives no answers. So it has an unresolved ending and is open.

Now consider The Big Sleep. In this case, notoriously, a scene in which Marlowe attempted to explain whatever it is that was going on was actually cut from the film to make way for more footage of Bacall and Bogart doing their thing. The plot is so complex as to be incoherent: there is no logic; the only thing tying events together is that one happens after the other. At the end we know that Marlowe loves Vivian Rutledge, and that’s about it; everything else is a mystery. So we have a very unresolved ending, but the movie itself is clearly closed (and here one must also mention the Coen brothers’ homage, The Big Lebowski, which is cheeky enough to have an unresolved ending, but to pretend to have resolved it with a resolution that is, on examination, totally nonsensical).

Now consider Secretary. The heroine is a troubled young woman who gets a job as a lawyer’s secretary. She falls in love with him, and gradually persuades him to realise that he loves her. They marry. The end. About as resolved a plot as one can get: it could have come from a Fred and Ginger movie. But now we get on to the bit that would have sent Fred and Ginger scurrying away. The heroine has a history of self-harming; what starts off the process of her falling in love with her boss is his introduction of her to his little kink: sadomasochism. And their subsequent marriage has at its core a sadomasochistic relationship that they both find fulfilling and exciting. So what is generally a taboo subject is forced on our attention: when does something cease to be loving and become abusive? What is permissible within the bounds of a loving relationship? The movie provides no answers, but it forces us to ask these questions, so it is open.

Finally, consider The Thin Man. This is clearly a closed movie: a (relatively) straightforward comedy detective story. It doesn’t pretend to be about anything more than entertainment. And what’s more, at the end Nick Charles very kindly summons all the characters (well, those who are still alive, that is) together and carefully explains exactly what happened. A perfectly resolved ending.

So, we have one open-unresolved movie, one closed-unresolved movie, one open-resolved movie and one closed-resolved movie. Therefore we conclude that the nature of the ending of an art-work’s narrative cannot be used as an indicator of whether it is open or closed.


This shouldn’t be necessary, but there will be a natural tendency to assume that open movies are somehow better than closed ones. Let us examine the evidence.

Consider Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. This is almost an exemplar of the open movie: it portrays a mysterious world in which mysterious events (such as a voice reading very strange experimental poetry over the radio, but such that only one receiver can pick it up) are taken as normal by the inhabitants. Some aspects of the plot are obviously derived from the Orpheus myth (the crowd of vengeful women are clearly the Furies), some have relatively simple symbolism (the cafe is the world), but on the whole we are left to attempt to make sense of what we see with no help from the movie. It is also, by common consent a good, no a great movie.

On the other hand, consider Glen or Glenda. This is definitely thought-provoking: it brings the whole cross-dressing / trans-gender issue to the viewer’s attention, and inevitably provokes consideration of the nature of gender, and how it relates to sex. It also contains some provocative material relating to the nature / nurture debate. So it is open. It is also, by common consent, one of the worst movies ever made.

Now consider Bringing up Baby. It need scarcely be said that this movie is closed (the only real thought it provokes being to wonder what it would be like being married to a woman that deranged): it is pure entertainment and has no intention or desire to be anything more. And it is a great movie, with brilliant performances by the whole cast: Katharine Hepburn’s almost unhinged performance may stand out, but there are no weak links.

Finally consider Batman and Robin. Alas, one cannot say the same of it. Its (mis)casting is extraordinary, and it is deservedly considered quite dreadful. And it is the epitome of closedness; its plot can be summed up by saying that a bloke wearing a funny costume beats up other blokes wearing equally funny costumes, while in the background things explode and women are helpless (though, this is, of course, the plot summary of every Batman movie ever made). There is nothing there to provoke the intellect (I do not count wondering why anyone ever green-lighted this disaster).

So, we have one good-open movie, one bad-open movie, one good-closed movie and one bad-closed movie. Therefore we conclude that there is no direct relationship between openness and quality. I would, however, be prepared to posit (without being able to prove it) that in a statistical sense there may be such a relationship, i.e. that an open movie has a higher probability of being good than a closed movie.


Now consider plot. Is there a relationship between the nature of the plot and whether the art-work is open or closed? This can be broken down into several sub-questions, so let us start by asking whether complexity of plot is indicative of being open.

So consider Georges Franju’s Nuits Rouges. This has a plot so complex that I will make no effort to summarise it; suffice it to say that there are many mysterious and secretive powerful groups that exist in parallel with the official executive powers of the State. And we are left with all kinds of questions about who they are, what they are, and what exactly was going on, as well as any number of startling images. Is the overt machinery of the state a sham, with real power wielded by one or more shadowy organisations locked in eternal conflict? Is there an esoteric world parallel to the exoteric one, the two meeting only occasional? So it’s open with a complex plot (the same is true of Orphee).

Now consider Ocean’s Eleven (either version, though especially the remake). This has an extremely complex plot, and yet is a pure piece of entertainment. There is no intellectual agenda, or intention of provoking thought, only a desire to shock, surprise and amuse. So it is closed with a complex plot.

What may be, in many ways, the ultimate open movie is Synecdoche New York, which achieves it not through plot (the plot, in as far as there is one, is actually quite banal) but through a complex multi-layering that means that we are never sure whether the events we see are real or not, and how many degrees of separation there are between them and reality, which means that our whole concept of reality is called into question. Something similar happens with Dogville. The plot is very simple, and at the end we know exactly what happened. We just have no idea what it signifies: it is clear that something larger, beyond the mere plot, is going on, that the actions are symbols rather than mere acts, and we are told (next to) nothing about what that larger something might be. So these movies are open with simple plots.

Finally consider The Muppet Movie. This is pure entertainment, and it has a very simple linear plot: the classic quest plot, in fact. So it is closed with a simple plot.

So, we have open-complex, closed-complex, open-simple and closed-simple moves, so there is no direct relationship between being open or closed and the complexity of the plot. The next question is, does plot matter at all: that is to say, does the plot necessarily influence whether a movie is open or closed? Note the use of the word ‘necessarily’: obviously there will be such an influence in some cases; what I am asking is whether there is a universal functional relationship between the two parameters of plot and open / closed.

First some antinomic pairs of films which are either similar or identical in terms of ‘plot’, but which differ as to whether they are open or closed. So, two films that (entirely in one case, partially in the other) deal with penguins. March of the Penguins is strongly closed: it knows what it wants you to think and tells you what that is. Encounters at the end of the World, even if we limit ourselves to only the section relating to penguins, is open: it presents some startling images and facts, such as a penguin deliberately setting off on a journey that must inevitably lead to its death, and wants you to think about them yourself.

Now consider Solaris. Tarkovski’s film is wide open: though famously Lem did not like it, and though it changes the ending of the novel, it produces a sense of wonder, because we feel always the looming presence of the ocean; and we never really understand what the ‘visitors’ were: all we learn is how to get rid of them. And Tarkovski’s ending raises many questions regarding just how real what we have been witnessing actually is: were the scenes on Earth real? Was any of it real? What is ‘real’? Tarkovski also uses images to create a sense of wonder and provoke the imagination, e.g. in the sequence of driving through the streets of Tokyo. The Soderbergh film, on the other hand, chooses to remove the ocean entirely, concentrating instead almost entirely on the psychology of Kelvin and his love for ‘Rheya’. Rather surprisingly, for a movie ostensibly about a planet-wide sentient ocean, there is no sense of wonder, or of the alien; ‘Rheya’ behaves just like a woman, not like a construct made in the form of a woman. The movie is closed. So two movies with the same ‘plot’ manage to differ as to whether they are open or closed.

Now some other examples. First two Terry Gilliam movies. Both Brazil and Time Bandits present fragmentary views of very complex worlds, and force us to guess what is going on in order to understand the movie. Time Bandits is open. The Supreme Being says that Kevin must stay on to continue the struggle, but the struggle against whom: Evil or the Supreme Being? Does Kevin become the new embodiment of Evil, or a knight in shining armour? Did any of it even happen? And if it didn’t, what on Earth is going on in the final scene? Is Evil necessary to the functioning of the Universe? And what about the question, the answer to which is ‘something to do with free will’? Brazil, on the other hand, is closed. One might, at a very low level, discuss how such a society might work, but there are no big ideas and little ambiguity. So despite have a similar approach, these two movies differ as to whether they are open or closed.

And finally, an example to demonstrate just how disconnected openness can be from plot. Barbarella has either an insanely complex plot, or no plot at all, depending on how you look at it, but that doesn’t matter, because plot is not what the movie is about. It’s a succession of startling images and ideas (feeding prisoners on orchids?) that can’t fail to provoke the imagination simply because they are so bizarre. It is therefore open and the plot (if there is one) is no more than a clothes-line on which to hang interesting events.

Thus it appears that subject-matter of a movie does not necessarily influence whether it is open or closed. Rather, it is beginning to look as if what matters is the attitude that the creators brought to the process of turning raw material into a movie.

Other parameters

But there is one final pair of parameters: age and whether or not the film is mainstream or ‘art house’. I am not certain, but my suspicion is that ‘old’ movies could be open and yet still remain part of the mainstream (e.g. Woman of the YearThe BirdsThe Forbidden PlanetFantasia), while now we find that such open movies as there are (and there clearly are some, as can be seen from the comments above) are most likely to be niche products (though South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is an honourable exception). I find that hypothesis somewhat disturbing, and rather hope that it isn’t true.

Finally, note the interesting phenomenon of accidental openness. I very much doubt that Billy Wilder intended Some Like it Hot to provoke intellectual debate, and yet it can form the vehicle for discussion of the relationship (mentioned above) between sex and gender. Who is more real: Jerry or Daphne (Jerry seems to take to being a woman far more than does Joe)? Likewise, My Man Godfrey was almost certainly intended to make one laugh, not think, and yet if one is in the mood, there is all kinds of interesting material to be mined: the life of the idle rich vs the working poor; love vs infatuation, etc.


So, it seems that there is nothing inherent in the structure of the art-work itself that dictates whether it is open or closed. All we can say is that it’s something about the attitude of the art-work’s creators. This chimes with Roger Ebert’s observation (in his review of the remake of Psycho, where he noted that while the remake was not very good, the original is a masterpiece) that anauteur‘s genius is to be found ‘between the frames’, because it seems to be independent of the material being filmed.