Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Her naked narcissism
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is a Herald columnist.
To openly desire the female form or keep a respectful distance? Elizabeth Farrelly finds the debate murkier than ever.
Scenario 1: ” ‘Enough talking!’ He growled the order against her lips, and his kiss felt like a lightning strike, the hot brand of his mouth preventing any further protest on her part. … but there never had been any going back, she thought dizzily, as he bent his arrogant, dark head and claimed her mouth again in a possessive kiss that branded her as his property.” – The Sheikh’s Virgin Princess, by Sarah Morgan for Harlequin Mills & Boon.
Scenario 2: It’s an eastern suburbs waiting room, day procedures. Smiling, the youngish nurse approaches one of several patients, an attenuated teen with incipient whiskers, velvet skullcap and a mouse-brown ringlet tucked behind each ear.
“Hi Isaac, I’m Carole.” Still smiling, she extends her hand. For a moment the boy does not respond but sits motionless beside the fat man we take to be his father. Carole looks nonplussed. Then, very slowly, the boy speaks.
“I only shake hands with members of the same sex.”
“Oh, OK,” her smile is now apologetic, slightly ashamed, as though she was saying: stupid of me, so sorry, my fault entirely.
THE link between these seemingly distant scenarios – one breathless, the other chaste – is what you might call the catmeat question. It’s essentially the same as the burqa question, the orgasm question, the handshake question, and curiously, the women’s art question. And it’s this: if, as it seems, we must politicise female sexuality, what is the proper relationship between woman-as-sexual-being and woman-in-the-world?
On the one hand Mills & Boon still, a century on, sells 200 million mostly corny formulaic books a year. So it must be touching some kind of (hot, throbbing) nerve. On the other hand, the Isaac-Carole exchange is so unremarkable that few of us – including Carole – would give it a second thought. But buried within it are two premises that demand scrutiny. One is the postmodern presumption that, when difference arises, it is Western orthodoxy – call it the wasp meme – that must yield. (Even here there lurks the paradoxical suggestion that to yield is to dominate, since yielding is often a prerogative of privilege.) The second is the presumed need for a barrier, a veil, between female sexuality, too hot to handle, and the public realm.
This has long been a central issue for feminism, but the debate now is, if anything, murkier, more veiled, than ever.
Germaine Greer, who owns this issue, touched on it again recently in an essay titled “Why do so many female artists put themselves in their work – often with no clothes on?”. Greer herself was never backward in coming forward, as often naked as clad, when young. In a career fuelled by the volatile mix of intellect and notoriety, in equal parts, her readiness to bare all didn’t hurt. Nor did the defiant gorgeousness of what was exposed (for many people Greer’s was their first published vagina). But her question remains valid; why do so many contemporary women artists insist on rendering themselves nude?
Look around. How many men do you see painting or parading their own nakedness? Men’s art may dwell – sometimes, as it were, at length – on male sexuality. This is especially (but not exclusively) evident in homoerotic works, from Caravaggio to Hockney to Mapplethorpe. But you don’t often see male artists doing what is positively de rigueur these days for women; painting, photographing or performing in their own, fully revealed (but often perfected) nakedness.
Of course there is a long tradition of the female nude, but it’s one that is by and large repudiated by feminist painters and theorists; the reviled “male gaze”, all that. Why, then, do women artists so readily volunteer for this same gaze? Why, where men’s art typically says “look at this”, does women’s art now typically say “look at me”?
Pity, you might think, the female artist with the bad body. But in fact, although some women, like the British painter Jenny Saville, ruthlessly expose their own flaws, a noticeable characteristic of women’s self-portraiture is the degree to which the subject-self is a perfected one; the sheer, shameless soft-focus, air-brush, photoshop and blow-dry treatment that suggests there’s as much narcissism here as art. Is this entire genre, then, a kind of avatar-creation, a rarefied form of cosmetic surgery whose purpose is not art at all, but me-perfected: self-portrait not as revelation but as armour?
(Male self-portraits, by contrast, seldom play the glamour game. Often they do the opposite, undermining what glamour fame might otherwise endow. Think, for example, of famous self-portraits by Rembrandt, Goya, van Gogh, Hockney, Bacon, Freud and Munoz. All very warts-and-all, striving not for beauty but for depth, and some kind of – dare one say it? – honesty.)
In Sydney, Julie Rrap (nee Parr) has spent almost 30 years presenting and re-presenting her own leggy nakedness, provocatively in cast, in print and in person. Tracey Moffatt usually keeps her clothes on but is careful always to present herself looking lovely. Even the proto-feminist Frida Kahlo, notes Greer, “could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self”.
And it works for them. This year’s $100,000 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize went to Fiona Lowry’s naked portrait of self looking soulful in Belanglo State Forest (the judges being attracted by Lowry’s “unusual aerosol technique”). The $50,000 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize went to Belinda Mason’s photoshopped nakedness, with her equally naked (but less perfected) mother, grandmother and son. And the $50,000 Archibald went to Del Kathryn Barton’s self-portrait with children, all clothed but arranged defiantly womb-front, as a clear expression of sexual presence and product.
Internationally, women’s art tends to be gutsier. Ballsier. Not just Saville’s ruthlessly rendered fat, but Cindy Sherman’s Cinderella, Tracey Emin’s I’ve Got It All, Sam Taylor-Wood’s 1993 F…, Suck, Spank, Wank T-shirt portrait – said to parody Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus – and Sarah Lucas’s Self-Portrait With Fried Eggs. But there’s still this obsession with own flesh.
Most contemporary women’s art claims a political, often feminist, purpose. Admittedly, this is partly a question of definition, since art by women that does not do this, like the wonderful Louise Bourgeois, is not usually regarded as “women’s art” but just as “art”. (This is probably a compliment.) But it’s inescapably ironic that most women’s art of the overtly sexual variety, far from conceding any frivolity or eroticism as, say, Andy Warhol might have, sees itself as intellectual. The body may be naked and the pose provocative but God help anyone who pins it on the garage wall.
As the Sydney academic Tracey Clement says of Rrap, it’s all about exploring “relationships between the artist and the viewer, the corporeal and performative nature of subjectivity, feminine identity, gender, and a desire to blur the boundaries of genre”.
So the question is not just why such female artists repeatedly choose their own bodies as subjects when, as Greer says, any of their “art school chums” would have done as well. It’s not even the unaskable question, which draws Greer to the work of the US academic Linda Nochlin, of “why most women’s art is no good”, though both issues are related. It’s whether such repetitive, narcissistic, self-glamorising is substantially different from the three-year-old blonde in pearls and stilettos kissing her own mirror-image? Or for that matter, from your common or garden stripper?
Feminism has often wanted it both ways. Wanted to keep women’s sexuality veiled, out of the question, leaving women unburdened by the gaze. And wanted to celebrate that sexuality, as evidence of difference, especially when this celebration was a female choice. (Feminism has often tacitly implied that women should be denied nothing.) In other words: for women to paint female nudes, especially self-nudes, is entirely different from men painting female nudes. So much for the death of the author.
In art, as Linda Nochlin notes, this desire to have it both ways has led feminist scholars to argue both that there are “large numbers of ‘hidden’ great women artists”; artists that “his-tory” has simply overlooked. And that women’s art should be judged by different standards from men’s.
In politics, a similar contradiction emerged from the recent fuss about Kevin Rudd’s 2020 steering committee, where women insisted that half the committee should be female, and that women’s contribution to it would be no different in kind from men’s (in which case, why have special representation?).
This returns us to the handshake question, which became controversial a while back when Jason Bedrick, a non-female-hand-shaker, was elected, with female support, to the New Hampshire legislature. He was 23 at the time. Barbara Elliot, co-president of the Salem Women’s Club that helped elect him, explained that although the no-handshake was at first off-putting, when they “understood it was not because [Bedrick] did not like women [but] because of his religion, they changed their minds and voted for him”.
That’s weird. Had Bedrick’s distaste for the double-X handshake been purely personal, a question of taste, the women would have felt justified in taking offence. But since the ban was institutionalised and impersonal – a principle from on high – they were fine with it. This seems back-to-front. If the refusal to shake implies disdain, it should be least offensive when purely personal and most offensive when systematised into a collective belief system.
Of course, some argue that no disdain is implied. That the refusal of touch actually signifies respect for women. In Bedrick’s words, “if every man in the world were to keep his hands to himself, would it be a better world for women, or a worse world for women?”
Well, worse, actually. But both the question and the practice reveal that the ban is as much sexual as religious. As Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the Jerusalem Post: “A ban on touching acknowledges the natural physical attraction between men and women and serves as a warning … [so that] the erotic element is excluded.”
This exposes the underbelly of the notorious catmeat argument. Namely the presumption that female sexuality is so potent and dangerous – so powerful – that it must at all times be hidden from view. It is a view in which we are all complicit. As John Berger wrote in his famous 1972 Ways Of Seeing, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”
This is the fundamental male-female asymmetry, and it is rooted – if you’ll pardon the pun – in sex. It makes the psychology of female sexuality as occult and involuted as female anatomy; as mysterious as men’s is “out there” and extroverted. This should surprise no one. Men desire, and women desire desire; they want to be wanted. In Mills & Boon-land, they want to be wanted so much that neither the rampant male nor the unwilling female can keep the passion in check. The romance is there, but it is there to eroticise the sex. As the writer Julie Bindel notes, there is “in every book … a scene where the heroine is ‘broken in’, both emotionally and physically, by the hero”.
This is the origin of the rape fantasy, the urge to be cavemanned, which most women feel now and then. Traditional feminists, like Bindel, deplore it as misogynistic propaganda while “pro-sex” post-feminists like Daisy Cummins (herself an M&B author) find it intensely enjoyable. Two hundred million readers, mostly female, think she’s right.
Both are wrong – denial on the one hand, subjugation on the other. And both are right. There are evolutionary “reasons” for the rape fantasy – for the female to be overpowered inclines her to the strongest sperm, and the strongest offspring. So Cummins versus Bindel might be seen less as a problem requiring resolution than the age-old clash between our propelling primate brain and our civilising neo-cortex, to be seen, understood and even enjoyed.
Yet another demonstration, then, that most things, thank God – power and sex included – are more complicated than they seem. To give is also to receive, to oppress is also to be oppressed. Steven Shainberg’s comedy, Secretary, played with this paradox, showing a timid woman empowered by a “submissive” relationship.
It’s the kind of paradox that absolutely characterises woman, which is why male orthodoxy has always found her so threatening. Hence the burqa, the witch-hunt, the ducking stool. But my question, for all those oppressors out there, is this. If we’re the catmeat, who’s the pussy?