The Heterosexual Scene
Scene 1: Exclusion.
Melbourne tram. Early evening.
A woman is travelling to meet her lover. She is dressed in a polka dot dress, lipstick, a string of pearls, and sling-back pumps. Seeing her alone and reading from her appearance that she has gone to some effort, a group of young men take it upon themselves to pass judgement. ‘You Fucken’ Leso’, they remark as she stands to disembark. The woman turns to the group and asks with mock amazement, ‘How on earth did you guess?’
‘Outing’ women on public transport is not, in my extensive experience, the most preferred strategy adopted by aggressive men to threaten women. Unable to see past the ironic appropriations of Lesbian Chic these young men were remarking upon this woman’s heterosexuality, a heterosexuality that goes without saying – as everyone’s does. By calling her a lesbian they meant to mark her as a visual anomaly in the heterosexual scene. They stated uncategorically two things: firstly, that she was undesirable to them by their standards and therefore she should be excluded, (an inverse ‘outing’) from this scene and secondly, that this heterosexual scene is the dominant and only legitimate scene and one must appear in it within its visual conventions.
This ‘outing’ would not be so dire a banishment except that it is not generally felt that we move through diverse visual scenes in which we take on and emphasise different aspects of our identities – office worker, family member, clubbing fiend and so on. It is generally felt that we inhabit one perceptual horizon, and that if you fail to appear within the normative requirements of that scene, if you are aboriginal, homeless, lesbian, disabled, fat or hairy, you will be cast as a visual derelict within it. You will become located within the twin, contradictory sites of invisibility, only to gain visibility insofar as it describes your status as ‘normally’ outside the dominant scene. Ernie Dingo’s visibility is constantly qualified by the fact of his aboriginality, that is, by his usual status as unseen. He is always already visible as aboriginal. Heterosexual white men on the other hand are never visible principally as these things. They can assume a variety of mantles and guises, usually in terms of what they do, rather than who they are.
There are in fact two common streams in the verbal public harassment of women, both of which are about making explicit their heterosexuality. Firstly, there is threatening to enact a right of access to that sexual status, ie, ‘sit on face, suck my cock, you whore, you slut, you mole’, etc ad nauseam. Secondly, there is the passing of judgement that a woman has failed to successfully appear as heterosexual, that is, as visually appealing to the abusers, ie, ‘you dog, you leso’, and in one recently spotted bumper sticker, ‘Fat Girls: Shoot ‘em, Don’t Root ‘em’.
In both scenarios the cultural contours of heterosexuality are delineated. It is assumed and invisible, yet it is almost obsessively remarked upon, particularly by men about women. It cannot be let be, it must be brought up, remembered, and reinstated at every turn. It invests men and women with variable power. It is a means of cultural inclusion and exclusion. And most importantly to this piece, it is enacted at the level of the eye.
Heterosexuality is predominantly a visual practice. In terms of how it is invested with power and how it has cultural meaning and presence, it has far less to do with fucking than it does with looking. Arguably, fucking is such a pleasure because it’s a relief to hand heterosexuality over, so to speak, to other senses. It seems to loom closer and larger in the eyes of lovers until their eyes water and go out of focus from an excess of looking and they reach for each other, finally, with mouths and skin. Except in the instances of sexual harassment, and maybe ‘talking dirty’, heterosexuality is rarely spoken either. In fact in the process of writing this piece, as subject matter, it kept evading and slipping from my grasp, like an over lubricated dick, as though part of the very definition or operation of heterosexuality is that it is unmentionable. Like power itself, it loses its effectiveness when unmasked, exposed or named.
But it is at the level of the eye, and the modern prosthesis of the eye, namely the reproduced image, that heterosexuality is granted its status as everywhere to be seen and as thus ‘going without saying’. It is by its constant visual presence that is has become and remains the dominant scene. If modernity has been ocularcentric and its premise: “I am seen therefore I am”, then the dominance of a cultural practice such as heterosexuality or whiteness is expressed through their visual prevalence. But this omnipresence of heterosexuality is gendered.
The Girl-object acts as the visible manifestation of heterosexuality. She prevents it shrinking into the background and cultural obsolescence. As John Berger said, in one of the centuries most cogent theory-bites: men act, women appear. What he didn’t add was that this formula also perfectly describes the enactment of heterosexuality at the level of the eye. Women’s principle means of expressing their heterosexuality is to appear, men’s is to look.
Scene 2: Straightened Pictures
Nicole Kidman appearing as Edwardian Beauty in the supermarket checkout. Nicole Kidman appearing as Rock and Roll Nymphette outside the newsagency. Nicole Kidman appearing as Hollywood Glamour Wife at the doctor’s waiting Room.
Before Eyes Wide Shut was due to be released Nicole Kidman, its commodity star, was omnipresent. While she sometimes appeared with Cruise she mostly appeared alone and in spite of being solitary in the frame she represented heterosexuality through her placement as appearing before its exchange of looks. Her luminosity as star was a mass effect of the reproduced image of heterosexuality.
Kidman’s blitz exposure around the release of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut described something beyond national pride that she’d hit the big time – she did that years ago. The diversity and sheer volume of images primed our expectation that Kidman could appear in a variety of guises. Off screen her assumption of so many roles locked in our perception that as an image she could not be pinned down. Her image exerted the fascination of unpredictability, and ultimately, in spite of all we know about her, unknowability.
But what remains unstated is that all of these roles were bound by the visual conventions of heterosexuality and that Kidman herself is representative of the heterosexual scene. In scene 2 there is the society debutante as she was reproduced in upperclass women’s magazines such as The Home early this century. These photo portraits were themselves borrowed from oil portraiture that made the mistresses of landowning gentlemen their subject. There is the cheesecake shot taken from risque calendars in Girly Culture from the 1950s. The cheesecake was part of the consolidation of a fraternity of the male gaze through an elaborate system of stag and bunny clubs and the emergence and popularisation of the men’s magazine. And there is the celebrity couple, a more recent emanation with an ever ready cult following thanks to paparazzi and the spread of celebrity intrigue from women’s magazines to general media, including established broadsheets.
The Kidman blitz was formulaic of the use of the commodity star in the marketing of films. It was the careful manufacturing of a consensus of desire and visual enthrallment, such as is requisite to the status of the commodity star, that primed a mass audience with the desire to see more. But it also describes how the contemporary gaze is both gendered and commodified.
In modernity, through the use of the mass reproduced image, consumption has shifted from the exchange of money to the exchange of looks. Possession can be enacted at eye level. If seeing used to be believing, under the conditions of the reproduced commodity spectacle seeing is now consuming. The reaches of consumption have extended even further than this sensory take-over. Since the advent of advertising we have not been purchasing commodity objects but commodifying our very identities. Through the injunctions and suggestions of advertising commodity objects have been invested with transformative power. The ‘make-over’ is the blueprint of the capacity for identity reformation in the commodity object. What is made and forged in the commodity exchange is our remade selves. It has also become a cultural trope in films from My Fair Lady to Grease to The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Until recently it was predominantly women who were invited into experiencing themselves as image as an enticement into the pleasurable potential of the commodity object. Everything from Linoleum to baking flour, not to mention a cosmetic industry of truly cosmic proportions, was sold around the promise of making women appear to advantage. More often they appeared to men, who, with their purchases, were inversely promised the pleasure of looking at women, perhaps more closely, or even more intimately.
The Girl-Object has encapsulated the premise of the commodity spectacle as heterosexual visual appeal – the appeal to appear for women and the appeal to look for men. When women buy they look better, when men buy women either look better to them, or make them look better. The Girl-Object either embellishes the commodity object with sexual meaning or stands in for the object as its promise of consumption as coupling.
The commodity star, as mass produced spectacle, has something quite particular on offer. Kidman’s wares were feminine heterosexual identity in terms of how such an entity is described by appearing desirably.
This was handy to Kubrick since it was not far removed from what the film sold. Eyes Wide Shut was about heterosexuality in that it was about a marriage, but more particularly in that it was about men looking at women and women appearing to men. In this particular marriage the wife opens a Pandora’s box of perverse and illicit desire in her husband by telling him about overwhelming desire she felt for a Naval officer. For the rest of the film, she remains at home being a dutiful wife and mother. Though they were her fantasies it is her husband’s frustrating and increasingly dangerous forays into heterosex that are the central trajectory of the narrative.
That Kidman and Cruise are in fact married set the mise-en-scene of the film and this Freudian primal scene probably in itself excited a great deal cinema attendance. What is it about heterosexuality that makes us such compulsive witnesses? Why do we need to see it, almost everywhere we look? When Australia’s most revered current affairs anchorman, Kerry O’Brien, blushed beetroot during an interview with Kidman over banter concerning whether you do or don’t wear clothes when having sex, it wasn’t just his embarrassment that became obvious. He’d let slip the unstated – that heterosexuality was the subject of the film, but not so much as an activity of fucking, but as an activity of looking.
Like us spectators, Cruise’s character looked without touching. Not unlike a flaneur he wanders through a panorama of anonymous women appearing to him as image, most of them as the embodiment of the commodification of women’s visibility – namely the whore. Curiously, Kidman appeared to us, while the women who were prostitutes appeared to Cruise. If heterosexuality is predominantly a visual practice then it will be pictorially fashioned under the iconic conventions of any time and place. The iconography of Eyes Wide Shut seems peculiarly dated . The chateaux, the masks, even the body types of the women seemed to step out of The Story of O. They seemed nostalgic of 1970s art house porn.
If Kubrick considered women as spectators as well as spectacles, and I doubt he bothered, he knew he could wing their omission as heterosexual spectators by capitalising on the cultural habit of women looking at each other. Who needs to state and restate unequivocally, as one must for men, that women’s gaze is strictly and exclusively heterosexual? While appearing as image is the heterosexual act for women it is compromised in that it requires women to look at themselves, and at other women as exemplars of the pleasures of appearing as image. The self-reflective curve of this bent gaze has been iconic in advertising directed at women since the middle of the last century. It has by now resulted in a cultural habit that is only just beginning to be encouraged in men, in the ways they are being invited into looking at themselves and at other men. The fluidity of the female gaze often claimed in film theory, correctly, has us all identifying with multiple gendered and sexual positions as spectators, but is nevertheless historically circumscribed by such entrenched visual habits.
Happily for marketing, the beauty of the woman commodity star is a compelling fascination that crosses the gender divide – in a way that male commodity stars still cannot. They stall before the desiring gaze of women and become obsolete objects to the male market. Once women desire to see men as objects, this desire acts like a prohibitive veil over the heterosexual male gaze. The desiring gaze of women identifies the male commodity star as visually pleasurable and threatens to ‘contaminate’ the heterosexual man’s look with homosexual pleasure. And yet, of course, this is in fact part of the male cinema goer’s covert pleasure, just as much as looking at sexualised women is part of heterosexual women’s covert pleasure.
Heterosexuals get to look without being obliged to touch, or alter their self-conception as straight. Which is arguably why, in the face of such a proliferation of sexual vantages, heterosexuality is played out at the level of the eye and played down in words – it leaves unstated what is by now overt and very evidently exposed same sex visual pleasure. This disavowal is so much part of the heterosexual scene that once it is exposed it shows how that scene totters on this irreconcilable dishonesty. Like any kind of fetishism, the compulsion to witness heterosexuality at every turn is simply about disavowing the polymorphous perversity of sexuality as an activity of looking.
Scene 3: Girls, Girls, Girls.
“I mean, it just seems to be a more accepted view that women do it more than men, I mean not many people think of men being in pornography, like magazines and stuff. Someone says “pornos” and you instantly see these blonde bimbos, well, bottle blonde bimbos with red lipstick”. From ‘Vicki’, A ‘Home Girl of the Week’ appearing in Picture Magazine, 1991.
The heterosexual scene is replete with visual conventions for women. It depends on women to appear within it, and to represent it to political advantage. Appearing, as I call it, is the relation between feminine identity and visibility . It is a technique or practice, conscious and unconscious, in the performance of the feminine. It is historically contingent and insofar as it is exclusionary of some women who are vilified as unable to appear within the conventions of the heterosexual scene, such as aboriginal, aged or overweight women, it is invested with power. That many of the techniques of appearing as heterosexual are commodified is evident in the contradiction that while women are discouraged from breast feeding in public, topless bars and table top dancing are secured by location for an exclusively male, paying gaze.
While there has been a diverse, and sometimes at odds discussion of representations of women, it has never been asked how women experience themselves as image, and whether the cultural injunctions on women to appear within the conventions of the heterosexual scene are productive of our very identities as women or as heterosexual.
This is not to say women have not been self-conscious of appearing as a indelible practice of feminine identity. The visual configuration of the self around the expectation of being looked at is embedded in conscious and unconscious ways in the small rituals of our daily lives. And women have used appearing to refuse, disrupt, appropriate and subvert the visual conventions of heterosexuality, from Hippy to Lesbian Chic. Madonna has been a master technician of appearing, making it increasingly less viable with every new incarnation for us to claim that we simply express who are we with visual style. She asserts that what happens on the surface produces, not merely manifests, our identities. Its not to much that Madonna plays dress ups, when she appears she reincarnates. She is not so much a performer of gendered and sexual identity, as a technician.
Appearing is really a way to think about how the performance of identity has predominantly become a visual practice. If we perform our identities in specific historical times and cultural locations, and if modernity has elevated the eye as the dominant sense, appearing is simply a way to situate the performance of identity within this visually replete modern scene. It is also a way to think about the nature of the scenes we appear within, as constitutive of our identities through their visual conventions.
The visual conventions of the heterosexual scene are such that same sex identities are subsumed and rendered unstated and invisible within it. This is the coercion of ‘inning’ though enforced practices of appearing. The heterosexual scene, full of disavowals, likes to pretend that it has achieved a homogeneity of identity through two platitudes – that if you can’t see them they’re not there, and we are so everywhere you don’t even notice us.
I’m not advocating that gays and lesbian should make themselves known, or Show Themselves!, through visual style. I’m advocating we use appearing as way to understand, analyse and ultimately ‘out’ the heterosexual scene as coercive and exclusionary. Visibility achieved within that scene should be thought about in terms of how the imperative of heterosexual identity is being bolstered. The same goes for the White Scene.
The immanent release of Sex in the City is a good sample on which to initiate the kinds of questions I believe we must begin to ask. Is this program about ‘sex’ or about heterosex? Why should heterosex represent all sex? What is this cultural compulsion to witness heterosex about? Why is heterosex being played out here as an exchange of looks or an activity of the eye for its audience, if not also for its cast? Why are its four central protagonists women? Why does feminine spectacle in the form of these four visually appealing women represent heterosex? And finally, how might these women appear within this scene in ways which disrupt its unstated heterosexuality and their status as representative of that heterosexuality?