Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

The Myth of the Macho Christ

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Last week, I talked about the masculine qualities of protecting the weak, and exercising self-control, sexual and otherwise.  One reader responded:

If an affinity for babies and not having sex is manliness or courage or masculinity then some anemic nerd virgin gamer who babysits his cousins on the weekend is literally more manly and masculine than Achilles or Alexander the Great or Gengis Khan, since they fornicated. It’s absurd, but it’s truly the best approach to manliness people can come up with today. Actual manliness is unacceptable, so it has to be redefined as babysitting and not having sex. But described with real strong words. People want to throw men a bone because they care about their sons. But they can’t. They fail because actual manliness and masculinity imposes on women, and that’s officially out of bounds.

In charity, we’ll overlook the facts that Alexander the Great almost certainly had sex with men, and is best known for sitting down and crying, and we’ll  address the point that the commenter meant to make: that “actual manliness” means having sex whenever you want it; that “actual men” get women (and other weak people) to do what the men want, because that’s what’s best for everyone; and “actual men” don’t have time for little, feminine things, like children, or other people, or inaction. His point is that men have, until the last few decades, been admired mainly for their muscle and their ability to dominate.

So I asked:

What’s your opinion of Jesus? I’m sincerely curious. He didn’t fight back like a real man would. He just let them hang him there. And He was one of them virgins, too. Thoughts? Still holding out for a more masculine savior?

He responded:

No, I’m not saying virginity or holding babies precludes masculinity, but that it doesn’t define it at all. Not having sex didn’t make Jesus masculine. Sacrificing himself to crush the enemy and prevent group extinction is masculine, though, like Thermopoly. Maybe Alexander the Great was a bad example, but what about Achilles and Gengis Khan? The point is that virginity and taking care of babies isn’t manliness or masculinity. It’s the exact opposite—both virginity and holding babies are archetypal feminine things.

There’s a lot of confusion here.

First, there’s the statement that virginity is an “archetypal feminine thing.” I’m having a hard time  picturing a world where the women are all real women by being virgins, but the men are all men by being not-virgins. Even if we’re getting sheep involved, it just don’t add up. 

He also, possibly willfully, misunderstood me. No, there’s nothing especially masculine about taking care of babies or being a virgin. I never said there was. My point was that there’s nothing especially masculine about despising babies, and nothing especially masculine about despising virginity. That there is something very masculine about having the power to kill and rape, and deciding to use your strength for something else, instead.

The confusion here is a very old one. I mean very old, as in pre-War In Heaven-old. It’s the classic mistake of falling for a parody — of confusing a distortion for the real thing. We’re too smart to do the opposite of what we should do, but we’re dumb enough to fall for a disastrously bad imitation.

I remember hearing a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Don Giovanni, where some gabbling announcer said, “You know, despite everything, you really have to admire the Don. I mean, look how he stood up to that statue! He really held his ground and didn’t let it push him around!”

Yarr, this is true. And then the demons with torches dragged him down to Hell, and the opera ends with a cheerful chorus of survivors, singing, essentially, “Boy, did he deserve it.”  The opera opens with the servant Leporello complaining about what a terrible boss he has, and at the end, he creeps off, presumably to find an employer who uses his noble birth justly and wisely, rather than as a license to murder and rape.

One of the main services that Christianity provided to the world (besides, you know,salvation) was to correct our model for femininity and masculinity, which got distorted almost as soon as the first man and woman were made. What needed correcting? Well, before Christ, the rest of the world was still laboring under the pagan delusion, the lapsarian distortion, that women are weak and that men are basically penises with swords. That’s what we revert to, when we listen to the distortions of sin.

And what was the correction that Christ give us?  He gave us woman clothed with the sun, queen of the angels, crusher of serpents. And a savior who poured out His life, not as a symbol, but for real. Who made Himself powerless, immobile, transfixed on the cross, open to shame, to spitting, to insults and humiliation. When Jesus died on the cross, no one said, “Look at this display of strength!” They saw Him fall; they saw Him overpowered. They saw Him dead. Ecce homo.

What do we know about this model of masculinity? He chose to let it happen. He had strength, and He chose to put away His strength, His manhood (never mind His Godhood). He chose to reserve it until it could be used the right way. He didn’t come to make unmistakable display of His power and might. There are still millions who don’t see it! He came, instead, to strengthen us, to protect us, to empty Himself out so that we might have life.

This is the new model of manhood. This is the kind of strength we’re talking about when we hold up Christ as a model for men. We glory in the risen Christ, but it’s the crucifix that we hang in our homes and above the altar.

If I were a man, I wouldn’t like it, either.

So I don’t blame the commenter for trying to go back to the old pagan ways, where men are expected to be walking, fighting, self-serving penises. That’s a hell of a lot easier to understand than the crucified Christ. Even my dog can understand that model of masculinity.

Even a doglike man, or a doglike woman, or a doglike angel can fall for a distortion, a grossly simplified counterfeit. This is what Eve did when she was offered wisdom, and instead chose information. She chose the clever counterfeit. This is what Adam did when he had Eve to advise him, and instead used her as someone to blame. He chose a clever counterfeit.

This is what Satan did when he refused to serve. The angels were created to glorify God, but Satan mistook his free will a sign that He was too good to serve God. He thought his freedom meant he was made to be independent of God.

God knows, he’s on his own now.

Hey, men. It’s really easy to go raging around, hitting stuff, yelling at people, and stuffing your penis into anything that doesn’t fight back.  It’s really easy to impose on people, especially if you are bigger than the people you’re imposing on.

But that’s not what Jesus did. That’s not what Jesus did.

As long as we were talking about opera, let’s remember the Marriage of Figaro, where the faithless count uses his wealth, his power, and his charm to seduce his way through the first four acts. He only repents of his philandering ways when the masks are removed, and he discovers that the woman he was trying to seduce was his own betrayed wife in disguise.

The moral of this story, for those who have ears to hear is: look out for those disguises. Watch out for those counterfeits you think you want so badly. Maybe you’ll be lucky, and it will be your long-suffering spouse under the mask. Maybe she’ll forigve you, and maybe you’ll repent, and maybe all will be well.

Or maybe you’re not in an opera, and when the mask is pulled away, you’ll see who you’ve really fallen for. And then the demons come to take you away to your chosen home.

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