A Boy’s Own Perve? Greer on Boys
At first glance Germaine Greer’s illustrated book of ‘unbearded’ male beauty might seem anathema to the feminist tradition to which she belongs. It hardly fits with the catch cries of ‘sex object’ and ‘the male gaze’. What is the meaning of singling out beautiful young men for voyeuristic contemplation?
As a libertarian, Greer has a history of bringing sex into the public realm; she has been a champion of the expression and realisation of women’s desires and pleasures. Some of this exposure has backfired, most notably the (rather disingenuously acquired) ‘spread’ published in Oz magazine, with her knees behind her ears. But if some feminists have been accused of being inflexible about explicit imagery, Greer could not be one of them.
Her book does not simply advocate that we look at young men within the same sexualised conventions that we look at young women – for its own sake. Rather it confronts unexamined assumptions about beauty as feminine, and it charts the importance of visual relations to gender relations.
Greer told a circumspect faced Jana Wendt on Sunday that women’s patronage of Chippendale shows proves they’ve ‘got eyes’. Now it’s time women used them. In this interview she seemed to suggest that women should redirect this voracious gaze away from the crass commercialism of mass-culture, to the more reserved museums of high art which house the images collected in her book. If the tradition of the male nude is openly acknowledged as being about beauty Greer is effectively inviting women into new habits of looking.
Concentrating on looking, rather than being looked at might seem a superficial change for women, and even a questionable advancement. But Greer’s book is part of the intensifying importance of ‘looks’ that began with industrialised image production at the turn of the last century. As women entered into public space they had to negotiate the perception that women on the street were prostitutes. And they were surrounded by imagery themselves, such as the newly realistic department store mannequin, that invited them into striking poses for an anonymous but scrutinising public. It was assumed by advertising, newspapers and then films, that if women looked it was for guidance on how to be looked at, and not for their own pleasure.
The male nude then, was hardly about appraising the sexual merits of a particular male subject. If women didn’t look at them for pleasure, it could hardly be admitted that men did. Instead the nude bore the meanings of legend and religion, of history and nation, of youth, athleticism and industry and more aesthetically of form, proportion and artistic technique. Under this cloak of significance, Michelangelo’s David had no cause for a fig leaf. Decency was about the way you looked at an image regardless of its explicitness.
Advertising, always a great innovator in ‘looks’, has always been concentrated on how women look, since it has traditionally been women that consume. It has found John Berger’s axiom that ‘men act and women appear’, to be a lucrative formula. Women’s concern about how they look to others, and particularly their desirability to men (it has been assumed), has traditionally characterised women as superficial and narcissistic by nature. But it didn’t take much for women to figure out that they could be marginalised by the modern scene on the basis of their looks, as were aged, obese or Aboriginal women. As the meticulously turned out suffragists knew, the way women look is crucial to their participation in public life.
We can scoff at Greer’s brazen enjoyment of male beauty, or admire her reappraisal of beauty as male, but her book does ask us to look differently and looking is more determining of the various scenes we inhabit than we care to admit. And, perhaps reluctantly, we do have to ask, how do men feel about being looked at, as potentially desirable cultural artefacts? My guess is that like women, they’ll find that being the object of a sexualising gaze, is a qualified kind of liberation full of ambivalent pleasures.