Sunday, 17 October 2010

Male Gaze

You don't have to say anything, you just have to look. It's the way you look. Or rather how it may be possible to interpret the way you look. Offence is defined by the offended and people like being offended. It puts them on top.

Is there such a thing as a female gaze? If there is I expect it is good and loving and everything that is right with the world, unlike its male counterpart. Do women look at men or each other appraisingly? Do they consider attractiveness? Surely not!

As Suzanne Moore comments on Valerie Solanas (over at Norm's)

Scum's terrorism will be a kind of withdrawal from the money system and workforce. Women will 'unwork' until they get fired, in which case they will get another job to unwork at. Eventually the system will collapse, there will be electronic voting on every issue, and no more males will be born, because artificial insemination will take care of reproduction. In the end, however, no more females will be born, either. Solanas makes us uneasy because she understood that one of the major problems for feminism was, and still is, not just 'men', but women's relationship to their own oppression, their willing collaboration in it.

But guys, don't despair. It's really not all bad news. Scum will conduct versions of 12-step meetings to which men can go to recite phrases such as 'I am a turd, a lowly abject turd'. Men who are rational (that includes New Statesman readers, surely?) won't struggle against Scum; they will 'just sit back, relax, enjoy the show and ride the waves to their own demise'. Now whoever said there were no more happy endings?

I am a little lost as to the level of irony here ('guys, don't despair') but I suppose it's all right because it isn't a man saying it.

Just a few weeks ago I was in the company of a number of very talented and very nice young-to-middle aged female poets who were discussing which male poets were shaggable. It was charming. (I suggested Byron if they were into necrophilia.) Two or three males sat on sofas knowing full well this was not a conversation to which they would be invited to produce a public equivalent. Perish the thought! Their thought that is.

Female strippers for men? Disgusting, shameful exploitation! Male strippers for women? Note the celebratory atmosphere in the famous scene from The Full Monty. See how much altogether nicer this is? Liberation.

Meanwhile there is always conversation.


Poet in Residence said...

Byron swam from the Lido through the lagoon and up the Canal Grande (you must imagine the stink of that open sewer in those days) to a point well beyond the Rialto, probably near to where the Railway Station is now, for a bet and also bedded two women in the same day. He probably wrote a poem too. Pow! What a man.

Ros Barber said...

The problem is, until there is genuine equality - that is, until poets are poets (and not divided into women poets and poets) - the need to redress the balance will still be felt.

This, I suspect, is what drives a bunch of (female) poets to discuss the shaggability of (male) poets in front of other male poets. The behaviour is inappropriate in either sex (though I shan't claim I haven't indulged in similar during my murky past) but women are still trying to out-lad the lads on a number of levels. Perhaps, when the poetry prize lists feature men and women equally as a matter of routine (not through some enforced rule, but because the unconscious devaluing of women's creativity no longer occurs) this kind of thing will become as rare as women chaining themselves to railings.

At some point in our evolution - and I do believe we'll get there - an appreciation of the human spirit, in whatever gender of container it has arrived in physical form, will lead to the end of such difficulties.

George S said...

How does 'unconscious' devaluing work with anonymous poems, Ros? Who does the devaluing when the judges are women? I ask because, not for the first time, I am the one man among two women - in the National Poetry Competition this year? I have taught a lot of Arvon Courses, always with women, and the guest reader in the last fifteen years, has invariably beenm a woman. Do you think Emily Dickinson is undervalued compared to Walt Whitman? Sylvia Plath compared to Ted Hughes? Elizabeth Bishop compared to Robert Lowell? How do we tell women's poetry when it is anonymous? Are there specific qualities, as in a form of essentialism? Or, if the values are culturally conditioned, what cultural values are being undervalued?

I ask because I have been made to feel guilty for simply existing for some forty years now. Not personally, not entirely, of course, but no one is purely personal. Is unconscious guilt, guilt the same way that conscious guilt is? Am I in fact a turd? (viz. Solanas). If that is what I am I'd like to be told directly to my face.

dana said...

The institutionalization of misandry: I'm absolutely against it. But isn't the fact that it's become institutionalized means women's hatred of men isn't taken seriously? Are there categories of hatred that should and should not be taken seriously?

Women still have the fear, the root of the hatred. Of violence, of not being taken seriously, of being discarded if they don't appear 22. Are these fears legitimate? Are they warranted discussion or consideration?

You're a bit scary too, George. Although I don't think that's a gender based fear for me. If I comment, and my logic isn't well formed enough, and my language isn't precise enough, I know I can be subject to the take-down and tongue lashing.

This piece
is a retelling of a good conversation that's about this discussion. The intro isn't relevant, except to know that it refers to a discussion on a feminist blog. The end is terrific.

Solanas was nuts. There's a hatred that perhaps should've been taken seriously while she was alive, and not so much now that she isn't.

All I can ever come up with is kindness is key. This is either buddhist leanings or having to boil everything down so my kids will get it. Is saying who'd you shag kind or not? I certainly don't think it's unkind to learn someone else's opinion of this hypothetical, especially when you've shared yours, regardless of gender. The setting of course needs to be considered. I think that's the unkindness in the conversation you described.

My preference is for manners of the kind that make everyone feel comfortable and valued. So maybe we're just dealing with the usual breakdown of civility.

charles said...

George, you are not a turd, and you know it and so do the women, even if they’re sitting at another table. I - we? - grew up in the shadow of a macho generaton, catalogued in, among others, Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth and Musa Meyer’s Night Studio. Berryman’s wife and Philip Guston’s daughter, if I need to spell them out. We grew up with a need to apologise. We’ve done that. We may even have found the rarity of a male saying sorry something to our advantage. But we’re through that. Female poets discussing shagability while males sit uptight on a separate sofa is daft. Move the chairs. The male gaze is a natural and lovely thing, as is the female gaze.

Poet in Residence said...

George, I'd like to counterbalance my macho opening, the Byron Gambit, with Henry Miller's 'Black Spring'. A defensive sideways move perhaps.
"I told him [the baron] to wash his face in cold water. My wife followed us in and watched in murderous silence as he performed his ablutions. When he had wiped his face she snatched the towel from his hands and, flinging the bathroom window open, flung it out. That made me furious. I told her to get the hell out of the bathroom and mind her own business. But the baron stepped between us and flung himself at my wife supplicatingly. 'You'll see my good woman, and you, Henry, you won't have to worry about a thing. I'll bring all my syringes and ointments and I'll put them in a little valiise - there under the sink. You mustn't turn me away. I have nowhere to go. I am a desparate man. I'm alone in the world [...] is it my fault I have the syph? Anybody can get the syph. It's human. You'll see, I'll pay you back [...] I'll make the beds ... I'll wash the dishes ... I'll cook for you ... [...] And after he had begged her forgiveness a hundred times, after he had knelt down and tried to kiss her hand which she drew away abruptly, he sat down on the toilet seat, in his cutaway and spats, and he began to sob, to sob like a child [...] this wreck of a baron, in his cutaway and spats, his spine filled with mercury, his sobs coming like the short puffs of a locomotive...

Two male gazes to imagine. The gaze of the poet Byron climbing out of the Canal Grande, strutting his machismo, looking at the crowd of female admirers for the next 'victim'. One of his good days.

And then the baron, it could well be another Byron a century later, down on his knees and pleading before the merciless gaze of the wife of his friend.

I gaze around. Are we individuals?

George S said...

From Stansted. I am not quite the hawk in Ted Hughes, Dana, though on this subject I occasionally get a bit hawkish, as you know. I am all in favour of kindness, courtesy, manners. They are my three middle names. But, again, on this subject I have reached a kind of ne plus ultra. I have heard nothing but male apologies for forty years, and I can see that is a good strategic position to put your perceived opponent in.

If it comes to apologies I imagine both sexes have things to apologise for on specific occasions. I don't actually recall any female apologies but then I have never asked for them.

I suspect the relative position between the sexes - which seems fairly universal, and rather better in this society than in some others - was determined by a great many factors other than male lust for power, which no doubt exists, much like female lust for power. On another occasion I might feel like going through some of these but now I'm waiting for a flight. An intelligent honest woman will probably not need me to list the factors anyway - stuff like survival, for example, in conditions less favourable than ours currently.

My personal relations with women have always been good, and of course I know, Charles, that they don't consider me a turd. However, as I have written before, I have had the nicest female students telling me very sweetly, how much better the world would be if men had never been invented. All except me, of course, and every other man they personally know probably. My presence in the world never struck them as particularly problematic.

Men and women have behaved well and badly. I am fed up of general accusation of misogyny from misandrists (viz Greer and others), and the institutionalisation of misandry doesn't seem to me a great improvement. Solanas is dead, but Suzanne Moore is going strong, thank you. Nothing I say is going to damage her, nor do I have any desire to damage.

All I suggest is that one should change the genders round in the discourse occasionally to feel how it works.

The female poets discussing shaggability were not of laddish kind. I didn't mind them at all. I think it is perfectly natural for nmen and women to consider each other's attractiveness, for they most certainly do so in private. It was just that I noticed the men silent.

Nor, as a matter of fact, have I been in any nmale literary company where female poets were discuyssed from the point of battraction. Sheltered life, I suppose

dana said...

And what's the average age of your students? This seems to be one occasion where age is absolutley relevant to the discussion. These are subtelties that young women can't grasp. They're just in the flush of feeling their first sexist treatment, sexy power, and just beginning to learn how to walk with the boys as they talk their talk. Again, the only word I can find to translate back to that time is kindness, kindness, kindness -- can you imagine how the other must feel? AT that age, when you are so very close to the great division into male and female that happens sometime in grammar school, I believe it's very difficult. And then add in the fear.

I do hope Byron bathed.

George S said...

I must check my copy of Byron's letters to see what he says on the subject of bathing, Dana.