The Porter Zone

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Tag Archives: eroticism

Rita Hayworth, the male gaze and the unconscious mind

Introduction

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
3 4

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
5 6

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
7 8

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
9

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.

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Rita Hayworth shows up the temporal censor

Introduction

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 Male Gaze Gone Wrong

Introduction

Sexy

Sexualised

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

Bacall

Heigl

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

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.

Psychology

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.

Politics

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

Fox

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.

Rabbit

?

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

Introduction

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.