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The Female Gaze and the Male Body

by Julien Beyle in Theatre, Art & Expo , 11 juli 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Earlier this year, René Smith showed drawings, paintings and collages under the title “Manorama” at the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division in New York. On the occasion of this exhibition, Abi wrote on “When I saw this body of work for the first time, I got the impression that it was created by a gay man

René Smith’s presentation of male images has the same homoerotic qualities as many gay artists working today dealing with the male physique. The difference is, as René states, ‘the project is about men’s bodies seen through a woman’s eyes — the woman’s gaze — the man’s body — the body as landscape with hills and valleys to roam.’”

Appreciating Glances

Abi’s remark raises several questions, the most important one being: Why is it that erotic depictions of the male body are usually associated with gay men? If we assume the generally accepted percentage of people that prefer their own sex, the logical conclusion is that about ninety percent of women are attracted to men. That they do not solely center these desires on their (future) husband should also be seen as a general truth after the feminist revolution of the 1960s. But even before this time, there were women who would not close their eyes at the sight of a male body.

When women started to explore the world in the nineteenth century, they would report back about scantily dressed men they found in, for example, Egypt, and “often with an unselfconscious appreciation lacking in their male counterparts’ more dismayed reactions,” as Joseph Allen Boone put it in his recently published masterpiece “The Homoerotics of Orientalism.” In her “Cities of the Past” (1864), the Irish feminist Frances Power Cobbe cheerfully mentioned the “broad chests and bronze limbs nearly bare” of the men in Cairo. Her contemporary, Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon also praised the “divine” limbs of Egyptian men in her very successful “Letters from Egypt,” published one year after Cobbe’s book, “from her steersmen to swimmers nakedly cavorting near her boat to the flesh of brown bodies in the green corn fields: ‘the men [are] half naked and the boys wholly so,” in Boone’s summary.

These nineteenth century female travelers could somewhat bend the rules of their time because of their social position. In our Christian society, women were told for centuries that their only role is taking care of husband and family, and that she is not supposed to have a career. Yet there have always been women who have openly wanted to develop their (artistic) talents. Judith Leyster (1609-1660) was probably one of the first women in the western world who received the title “master painter.” She was one of the few female painters in the Dutch Golden Century, and the only female member of Haarlem’s painter’s guild. Her body of work contains several portraits of men and boys that certainly cannot be labeled explicitly erotic, but in the end, “erotic” is a qualification that lies in the eye of the beholder. It is not inconceivable that some art lovers may find something titillating in the elated young men of the “Merry Trio” (1629-1631). But her paintings never show nudity in the way her male colleagues were able to show.

Sebastian in Canada

Most likely, Judith Leyster was an acquaintance of the internationally renowned Caravaggist Gerard van Honthorst from Utrecht. Around 1623, Van Honthorst painted the holy Sebastian with only a loincloth. He may have become familiar with the subject during his stay in Italy, where he befriended Guido Reni who made seven very successful versions of this saint as an attractive young man. Partly because of Reni’s evocations, Saint Sebastian has become a true gay icon over the centuries and is still a source of inspiration. And not just for male artists.

Some years ago Corno, who in 2009 was put on the list of Forty Influential Canadian Women by “More Magazine,” made a series of four paintings on the Sebastian legend. Sebastian is the patron of archers (a lot of rifle associations carry his name), but he is also one on the plague saints. In a booklet that appeared in 2013 through, “The San Sebastian Series by Corno,” Linda Corriveau writes: “New killers replace old ones. AIDS has killed 25 million people worldwide since it was first identified in 1981.  "

"It could therefore be considered the plague of our times. [...] those most afflicted by AIDS have been members of the gay community who were decimated by it.  So AIDS could also be called the ‘gay plague.’  What saint to turn to if not San Sebastian who has long become an icon of the gay community?” Corno was inspired to create the series, because she was, in Corriveau’s word, “deeply moved by an acquaintance’s experience of having lost many friends, including his best friend, to AIDS. She connected with the conflicting emotions of grief, relief and even guilt that come with survivorship.”

As Sebastian was leader of the Praetorian Guard under emperor Diocletian, he is usually depicted as a partly naked, virile man, pierced with arrows. Especially that first aspect of the centuries long Sebastian iconography is the reason why he appeals to the imagination of gays. But also women are not insensitive to this. As Sebastian hardly plays an important part in the various pictures generated by the AIDS crisis, someone could speculate that Corno was attracted to the Sebastian myth for being a homoerotic icon.

Feminine Straight Boys

It is common knowledge that straight men get very aroused when thinking of lesbian sex. The fact that many women get just as aroused from gay porn, is not so accepted. Regina Lynn, columnist for “Wired,” once wrote: “For me, gay porn has always been arousing because of its masculinity. The strength and power, plus the double dose of raw male drive and sexuality, add up to more than the sum of their counterparts.” In Western society, many women are afraid to admit to this preference, but, as Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam write in “A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire” (New York 2011), “it is widely understood in Japanese society that women enjoy gay romances, which are often called yaoi (or ‘boy-love’) [...]. The most popular comic books [...] among Japanese girls feature handsome, slightly feminine heterosexual boys who have sex with one another.”

Even though the explosion of women’s interest in male-to-male erotica, especially via the Internet, is remarkable, this female interest in gay erotica is not new. Men growing up before gay literature for and by gays was on the up and up from the second half of the 1970s, they had to entertain themselves (not unwillingly) with, for example, the titillating eroticism of the novels about Alexander the Great by Mary Renault. But also when so-called “gay literature” had firmly established itself, women could still successfully throw themselves on male-male relations. A still very popular “gay novel” for example is “The Front Runner” (1974) by Patricia Nell Warren, about the growing love of the openly homosexual athletics coach for his protégé.

Even though women’s interest for the male body and male erotica has been extensively documented, it is still not generally accepted that sometimes women consider men as sex objects. Not so long ago, “Sex and the City” was characterized as “the show about four women acting like gay guys” because Carrie Bradshaw’s and her girlfriends’ obsession for men would regularly result in loveless or even like-less sexual encounters, which apparently is gay behavior. Of course, emancipated women ignore these prejudices. The collages René Smith showed in “Manorama” were “made from vintage magazines from the 60s and 70s” and Abi described them as “beautifully rendered using images of hot men that take over the landscape in the best possible way. This show is a confirmation that 70s pornography is still super hot.”

The Female Eye

Those who want to judge for themselves whether women look differently at men than men look at men, can visit the MooiMan gallery in Groningen for the “My Female Eye” exhibit. Here, “nine self-willed women give their vision on the man, from young to old, in art from various disciplines.” For centuries in the history of a man’s desire for another man, the ephebe, a youth in this teens or early twenties, played a central part. That the partners in gay relationships have to be “equal” has only become a rigorous requirement over the last decades. Gay artists who deal with the beauty of youth, are even put in a bad light, sometimes retroactive.

The politically correct resistance against depicting young men does not seem to play that big a part for the women of “My Female Eye.” With her background of the Florence Academy in Art, the Swedish painter Christina van Lingen gives a classical view on man and youth, and the British sculptress Eve Shephers shows today’s street culture: “Boys, raw, challenging, but very sophisticated as street culture is,” the gallery states. Remarkable is also the work by photographer Fritsie Willems, who records vulnerable moments in periods of adolescence: the transition from boy to teenager, and from teenager to man. One of her portraits of the fourteen-year-old Shali from the series “Hairdo: A Ritual Every Morning” is on the front of the invitation. By contrast, Marianne Hofstee shows an opposite, but also vulnerable side of men in subtle pencil lines: the ageing process. Other artists focus on the virile man. The sculptress Anna Richter presents men as studs in bronze or soft rock. Wilma van de Hel looks for the masculinity in men, and shows part of a very new and sometimes very intimate photo series, “Man.”

The photographer Lilith Love, who recently won AVRO Opium’s public award, takes the viewer to her own obstinate universe in which she is the ever changing central figure, this time showing her tough, masculine side. In Diana Blok’s work, the transition from male to female is a recurring element. The photo in the exhibition shows the late Dutch “swish” actor Albert Mol as Queen Elizabeth and is from the series “Adventures in Cross-Casting,” at the time made for the Theater Institute Netherlands.


At the beginning of the movie “The Witches of Eastwick,” a woman remarks: “I hope his dick is bigger than his IQ,” after which a discussion about cock size starts, in which Susan Sarandon talks about her preference for “small”, while Michelle Pfeiffer likes them “huge,” and Cher states she is in the middle on this issue. These three ladies would have a field day with the series “Groin-gazin” by the very young Canadian fashion photographer Claire Milbrath, who immortalized men with an erection in (sometimes) designer clothes.

On the gallery’s website, the photo captions even indicate which brand the aroused man is wearing. The portrayal of the well-endowed hunter in Browning top and A.P.C. jeans could have been a close-up from a gay porn movie, but from a gay point of view, the depiction of the crotch of a policeman is also remarkable in this series. Ever since Tom of Finland, rugged police officers have become a symbol of domineering masculinity with the possibility of double penetration with their night sticks. Milbrath’s photo effortlessly seems to fall in line with this gay erotic tradition. Consciously or unconsciously?

“My Female Eye” at least shows that the gaze of female artists on men show a variety that is just as large as the gaze of their male colleagues.

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In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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