Male Sexuality and the Female Gaze, by Philip Webb-Gregg
It’s an interesting thing, to be looked at. An experience more complicated than it first appears. This is no great secret, most of us are at least marginally aware (and many of us are very aware) of the slimy and often ambiguous web of power dynamics which ensnares us whenever we step out of the house. And yet, the experience is almost impossible to articulate, because it’s become so ingrained in our understanding of the world. Everywhere from the catwalks of New York City, to the vegetable aisles of Waitrose, we are subject to this thing; this unspoken contract between the observer and the observed.
It’s a subject that fascinates me, both as a life model and as a writer. So when asked to pose for a class on Male Sexuality and the Female Gaze, ran by the good people over at London Drawing Group, I leapt at the chance.
The class was hosted by the Beard Society and held in the prestigious vaults of Porterhouse College in Cambridge. An interesting venue in itself, as it was the penultimate college to accept women (first admitted in 1985), but now boasts a vibrant female and LGBT friendly community, many of whom seemed to be attending the class. In fact the balance of women to men was about twenty to one. Slightly daunting, I admit, but the professionality and experience of the teacher helped to alleviate any possible embarrassments.
The idea of the class was to pose me in some of the best-known female roles throughout the history of art; running all the way from The Rokeby Venus to modern-day depictions of women in the fashion industry. And it was, in a word, interesting.
During the course of the evening it became apparent that the experience of being looked at was starkly different for a man compared to a woman. An obvious statement, I know, but not always a considered one.
For instance, some the most fascinating differences were in the subtle movements of the least-obvious body parts. It’s easy and common to focus on the genitals when viewing a naked form, but what about the knees? What about that slight, inward rotation of the thighs that screams coyness? We never see it in men. Of course we don’t. In historical art just as in the modern media, men’s bodies are all open chests and solid stances. Women’s bodies, on the other hand, are bent, hidden, and shameful.
For me, the most enjoyable postures were the last ones of the evening. The ones where we replicated Vogue, and Elle. They had me contorted and uncomfortable, yet pouting like a goddess. These absurd and painful shapes were intended to portray feminine beauty, but having experienced the discomfort that such images demand, it was obvious to myself and everyone in the class that all they really had to offer was degradation and simplification of the human form.
By the end of the night, I was thinking very deeply about the root of all of this. When I say This I mean the experience of looking and being looked at, and the complex power dynamics that go with it.
I was thinking as well, of the pressures that men feel, when faced with the endless bombardment of superhero physiques and Tom Hardy-style masculinity. The assumption that men must always be strong. The non-stop pretence of cold, hard, self-control. Take it from me, it’s a lot to live up.
Of course, I’m not trying to insinuate that men have it just as bad- we don’t. Anyone with a pair of eyes and half a brain can see that, in almost all aspects, society demands much more of women while giving far less.
However, there is certainly a case to be made that the modern emasculation of men causes much unhappiness and a collective lack of self-respect among the male population, who then vent out their frustrated inferiorities on the opposite sex. This is no great secret. Robert Webb’s book ‘How Not to be a Boy’ explores the idea in great depth.
This emasculation doesn’t need to be over-analysed, in fact it’s pretty simple. It’s a symptom of the same sickness that causes the pressures and inadequacies felt by most women. The name of this sickness is, in a word, media. Media meaning communication. Communication meaning stories. We are poisoned by the stories we tell each other, tell ourselves, and, more importantly, the stories we get told.
From Action Man to Mad Max. From Disney to Sex in the City. The message is loud and clear: this is how to live. This is what society demands of its citizens. And it’s a message that screams from every billboard and whispers incessantly from every screen. We are given stereotypes and pressurised into to becoming them.
The question is: how do we stop or reverse this process?
Well, I think an art class is a pretty good start.
Philip Webb Gregg
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