growth in the number of women photographers. and in the number of openly gay men taking photographs; in society at large. women hayc acquired. and haye begun to exercise. a kind of economic power and financial independence that would haye been unthinkable eighty years ago. We liye in the age of the male stripper and of semi-pornographic noyels for women. of ‘power dressing'. of popular-culture heroines like Alexis (‘arrington and Sue-lillen ljwing with their huge shoulder-pads. ostentatioust expensiye jewellery. and pretty. well-muscled. youthful toy-boys. frequently seen stepping in and out of showers wearing little but a well-placed hand-tow cl.
Fully exposed body
Some of this is iust crude mimicry of male power attitudes. ofcoursc‘. but if women’s economic dependence and powerlessness underpinned the old attitude to woman-as-sex-obiect. then there‘s no oyerstating the symbolic importance of this reyersal of roles. What's happening — in real life as well as in fantasy — is that women are less willing to accept the yiew of male and female attractiyeness imposed on them by men: they are beginning to be able to afford to reject the idea that whereas men may choose their
partners for youth. beauty and sex-appeal. women should choose for age. status. dignity and wealth. Increasingly — became of changes in employment patterns in working-class families. as w ell as the career-woman phenomenon projected by the media some women have enough economic power to assert their right to a partner whom they find physically pleasing as well as socially compatible; and their influence is causing a shift in the kind of male imagery presented in ‘women’s media.’ in magazines. soap operas. teen magazines. 'l‘oday's man is still tallish and strongish. but he wears a soft cotton shirt and a youthful dcmeanour. is often seen holding a baby. and looks as if — like some female sex obiects ofold he combines mysterious emotional strength with a dab hand for pastry.
.lust how deep this change will go. and how far it will penetrate into traditionally ‘male‘ areas of culture. depends on a whole range of unpredictable factors. 'l'here's no doubt that a combination of regressiye social attitudes and economic slump could driye the whole phenomenon of female sexual choice and erotic self-expression back underground for decades; no doubt that if this kind of role-reyersal remains the prcse rye of yery wealthy women. it could
From ‘A Pin Down Calendar' by LiIl-Ann CheDSlOW'l-USW-
‘Athen' by Herbert List
become no more than an ugly parody
of male attitudes. \Vomen also haye
their own learning to do: bombarded from birth with sell—referring images of how their ow n bodies should look. young women and some olderones
Hand for pastry
too —- often react with the same reyulsion as men to too much ey idence of physical and hormonal malcncss. It‘s no accident that teenage girls' pin-ups down the years the Paul .\lc( ‘artncys‘ and l)ayid (‘assidys and Michael .lacksons— haye often been soft. cute. baby-faced or androgynous types. not too threatenineg male: many women. without exactly being gay. don‘t really like male bodies at all. and a culture that discourages realistic. strong sexual imagery inyolying mature men. and the female eroticism that responds to such images. has a lot to answer for ‘in encouraging that kind of frigidity. But it seems to me —- looking at some of the oning. humorous images of nude men photographed by women in this exhibition — that the point ot yiew of the affectionate. independent. heterosexual woman w ill ney er be entirely submerged; and that her tender and realistic View of the male body -- strong and yet fragile. muscular and Vulnerable. at its best not standing alone and
‘Form and Contenf': Self Portrait as Michelangelo's David by Lea Andrews
burnished on some pedestal. but moying and liying next to hers r is bound to triumph. in the end. oy er all the lonely. laughable myth-makingof male supremacy. For the comforting truth about sexual politics is that no matter w hat ideologically-motiyated distortions our culture seryes up in its atl\cl'ls and girlie magazines. the touchstone of reality is always there. betw een the sheets. in the moment when two imperfect bodies face each other. and have to confront the complex. reciprocal reality of sex. comic and unglamorous as it often is. I would guess that in this post-feminist. post-Freudian age. with a lot of sexual experience under the bridge and all our progressiye ideas once more open to debate. we are in as good a position as eycr we w c re to discard sortie of the faded sexual imagery of the past. and to bring a sense of the reality ofour physical lives out of the bedroom and into the public arena. If this Stills exhibition encourages people to do that. and to think twice about the idealised. oppressiyc. junk imagery of human flesh that socluttersouryisual I culture. then it will haye done us all a great. maybe exert a life-enhancing. service.
Behold the Man is running at the Stills Gallery. Edinburgh. See/fr! Listings.
The List 13 — 26 May 1988 7