A couple of years ago, photographs of men in stereotypical ‘pin-up’ poses circulated the Internet. The photographs, featuring men accessorized with ‘masculine’ items but contorted in ‘feminine’ poses, are by artist Rion Sabean, and I encountered them rather early on in the feminist blogosphere. The general consensus by feminist commentators was that they were exceptional–an exhibition, it was declared after examination, of gender and sexuality as a performance.
I did not find them quite so brilliant.
The artist is a man, I believe, but in this instance I am unconcerned with his sex or his intentions. I don’t believe they were malicious, and I don’t believe it matters in this case. What I am critical of, however, is the reception of these photographs. In many articles, including the one linked above, the project is described as ‘humorous.’ And indeed, the reaction of most people, when first seeing a picture like this, is to sneer uncomfortably.
This I can say with the certainty of observation, because roughly a year, or maybe even just a few months, after I came across these photographs, my women’s studies professor at the time (I was an undergrad then and, for those of you who don’t know, minored in women’s studies–a decision I came to regret) introduced them to our class. I remember this clearly because I might have been the only one to groan. She had believed they were exceptionally clever. And it did not disturb her the least that every single student, with the exception of yours truly, reacted to them by laughing.
Instead, she interpreted the laughter as indicative of an awareness that the performance of feminine sexuality is just that–a performance–and therefore looks out-of-place anywhere where one is not used to seeing it. Because, you know, performing femininity is ridiculous and such. And this project just draws focus to it, employing the displacement as magnification.
Expecting women to confine themselves to restrictive expressions of sexuality is ridiculous. But what’s not ridiculous are those expressions of sexuality themselves, especially when they are something that have come to define femininity, to temper it, to make it recognizable as gentle, expressive, playful or alert, invitingly sly. In front of a camera and a photographer, it can be argued that this is laughably disingenuous. But in life, in every day, in the flickering glance of a woman walking by or the fluttering motion or suggestive smile, it is not a “performance”–it is a mannerism. It is something she has become, that I’ve become, that we have become, have adopted as fluid to our gender and sexual identities. And that is what the photographs relocate onto these men. And that is what is supposed to be ‘humorous.’
The disparagement of feminine gestures or behaviors, even when embedded in the critique that they are constructed, is violent toward the feminine psyche. And the ridiculing of men who adopt them, who are ‘feminized,’ is a continuation of that violence. The photographs themselves don’t do this; as art, they simply ‘displace’ indicators of femininity onto male subjects for our interpretation, but our quick reaction to laugh—not in surprise, but in contempt—certainly does. And I would say this is a case where the reaction of the audience, and our involvement in the perpetuation the hatred of femininity, is to be critiqued as part of the artwork itself.
Unfortunately the idea that feminine behaviors are worthy of ridicule, even when those particular behaviors are demonstrable of intelligence, is something to which our culture is all too well-accustomed. On another “humor” site with a complete list of things women “need to understand” about men (as if) is the following:
ALL men see in only 16 colors, like Windows default settings. Peach, for example, is a fruit, not a color. Pumpkin is also a fruit. We have no idea what mauve is.
Dude, if you can’t tell the difference between peach and pumpkin you’re an asinine blockhead. Here, let me help you out:
Being so dense you can’t see that? That’s not a thing to brag about.
There’s an article… somewhere on the Internet… (let me know if you’re able to locate to what I’m referring) written by a woman describing how men actually benefit from the blonde stereotype. That is, when women lack any common knowledge in an area, they are ridiculed (and are the subject of an entire series of well-known jokes) whereas when men are unable to figure out how to use detergent or cook a meal, their ignorance is not only forgiven but indulged. The writer explains that her partner was quite active before they lived together, but as soon as they moved in he began to whine about how to do things and to feign not understanding, which resulted of course, in her doing them for him while he sat back and watched T.V.