In the deliciously provocative “Male Trouble,” art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau takes us back to a time when men were the primary sex symbols in visual culture – heroic, revolutionary turn-of-the-19th century Paris.
Since Solomon-Godeau’s book was published 15 years ago, it has been fashionable in certain art historical circles to suggest that men had always been the sex stars in art until the rise of bourgeois domesticity in the mid-19th century, when they were eclipsed by women, who’ve played the roles ever since.
Tantalizing, but perhaps not. Certainly, anyone who’s ever visited a major museum can make a case for the celebration of both the male and female nude in every period. But revisiting Solomon-Godeau’s work does raise an intriguing question for our time: What if men were the primary sex symbols in our culture? Would it make a difference?
Nature surely intended it thus. Consider Asian Indian peacocks. When they display, either to attract females or ward off male rivals, they reveal a fanning plumage of such blue-green iridescence that it has inspired everything from representations of St. Michael to erotic Indian literature. And what of peahens, the female counterparts? Well, they’re kind of brown and/or gray. They do display to serve notice to other females or protect their young. Still, we’re not talking Technicolor here.
So it is with species after species. Lassie, the beloved Rough Collie of the big and small screens, was always played by a male, beginning with Pal in the 1943 tearjerker “Lassie Come-Home,” because males have thicker, shinier coats that are more photogenic than those of females, who are nonetheless reportedly easier to train. (See Wagging in this issue.)
Yep, the guys are just prettier in every species – except one. But that’s because we have evolved beyond what nature intended. Or have we? Testosterone may have given men remote control-itis but it has also endowed them with long, curling eyelashes, beautiful legs and muscles that beg for chiaroscuro. I remember once asking Greg Wyatt – the Grand View-on-Hudson-born sculptor-in-residence at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan – which was more interesting to sculpt, the male or the female body. Without hesitation, he said the male body. “More points of entry,” he added, by which he meant a skeletal and muscular structure that allowed for greater contours, contrasts and challenges as opposed to the female body’s pleasing but simpler curves.
Even rendered in two dimensions, men tend to be more dramatic-looking, thanks to hirsuteness and large, lush features. From an art historical viewpoint, men just make better objects.
But there’s the rub: When you objectify something or someone, you rob the object of its power and take it for yourself. Men long ago learned to play that game. Whether they put women on pedestals or in Playboy, it’s still the same game, one in which men derive the social benefits of beauty and sex appeal without necessarily having to put in the hard work and risk the vulnerability that would come with being beautiful and sexy themselves – male stripper-turned movie star-turned male movie stripper Channing Tatum notwithstanding. (See the countless society photos of short, unattractive power-brokers with their tall, beautiful or sexy wives/girlfriends.)
So the question remains: Would society be better off if men were the primary sex symbols? It would certainly take some of the pressure off women and put it squarely on men. There would be less anti-aging this and dieting that. And fashion would probably become less detail-oriented, because, let’s face it, men are just not as into fine-tuning as we women are. None of this would matter, of course, unless women also achieved – at long last – financial, legal and political parity with men.
But even if there were true equality between the sexes, it’s doubtful that women will ever cede their roles as objects of desire, for just as men turned objectification into a power game, women have learned to play the game to their advantage.
Not many years ago, I was ordering lunch in a cafeteria where one of the workers handed me free chocolate-chip cookies for no other reason than he found me physically appealing. I’m a proud feminist who came of age in the 1970s at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers where I took part in one of the first women’s studies programs in this country.
I took the cookies.
And so we’ll remain locked in our beauty-power game.
Because we all want the cookies.