20 November 2007

Commentary on "A Gentleman's Pornography" - real men don't exfoliate

This is an interesting account of pornography in its softest form. You can find the article in its entirety here, at GWS - Feminist Knowledge.

Playboy (it was originally going to be called Stag Night), was similar to other pornography in that it objectified women for the purposes of male masturbation
It is best to prevent getting caught up indefinitely in definitions, but the Merriam-Webster definition of pornography makes it clear that pornography is material intended to cause sexual excitement. In the style of Wikipedia, the assumption that pornography is meant exclusively for a male audience as a jerk-off aid requires at least a [citation needed]. Pornography in the broad sense enjoys a rough 50/50 at worst and 60/40 demographic division between male and female consumers at best. In many categories, such as adult dating, free sex and "teen sex"(?!?), there are more female consumers than male ones. It is also interesting to note that most consumers of porn are between 35 and 49 years of age, which is outside the target market of GQ. Considering the time this article was published (roughly 2000) as well as the topic, it may be irrelevant to base the argument on 2006 pornography statistics. However, it should be clear that traditional pornography is not intended to objectify women exclusively for male dominion. It simply can not be, with at least a 40% female consumer demographic. Making pornography for the sole purpose of objectifying women would be bad business, and this is the true purpose of any kind of pornography - to make money.

While pornography, as the term is currently understood, has its origin in the invention of the camera - a process marked by industry, innovation and egalitarian ideals (in the Rousseauean sense) - gentleman's pornography is intimately connected to the nineteenth century's creation of a new recondite social space, which Walter Kendrick (1987) calls "The Secret Museum". The former led to mass-production and mass-consumption of the obscene, and the latter to its concealment in a cloak of acceptability. Where conventional pornography "pours out … into the city streets", in the words of Linda Nead (1992:487), gentleman's pornography confines the obscene to the sanctified passages of high culture.
Judging by this 2006 and 2005 Pornography United States Industry Revenue Statistics, pornography as the term is currently understood should rather have its origin in the advent of the Internet. With regards to the topic of the article, it is rather gentleman's pornography in the forms of GQ, FHM and Playboy which pours out into the city streets. Conventional pornography like Hustler still occupies the "recondite" territories: the plastic covers on the top shelf at the book shop; the sleazy sex shops but mostly the hidden domains of the Internet. Granted, gentleman's pornography does a good job at cloaking itself in acceptability, but it is not hidden away in "the secret museum" like conventional pornography.

Subtle references to the genteel customs of old (hunting and hand-tailored suits) are employed to remind the reader that "gentlemen" are their demographic, thus encouraging aspirational branding and shrouding sexualised objectification in the exalted aestheticism associated with elitist class and artistic ideals. Within the confines of the "artistic", the so-called "obscene" and "acceptable" thus become likely bedfellows.
Speaking of "subtle references to the genteel customs of old", consider this objectification of women from those times:
The Venus de Willendorf
Note the distinct lack of the classical reclining nude pose, or even the seated nude pose. Also note the distinct lack of gaze. Was this image a portrayal of an objectified woman, ready for conquest by the elite conditioned male? Perhaps in light of the conventions of that time, this statue graced the womb of a "secret cave". The purpose of this cave was to condition males to conquer rather the more muscular females capable of giving birth while being threatened by lions, tigers and bears. As the conventions of femininity change, their portrayal in pornography change to reflect these demands. Analogous to modern times, it is not far fetched to speculate that in their day the women in those hunting-gathering times who did not meet the requirements of femininity kicked up a storm and questioned the challenges posed by femininity of their times. One imagines a faction manufacturing slim, reclining statues with direct, fetishist gazes as a reaction to the plump, full-bodied, blind conventional portrayals.

I propose that the parallels between the genteel customs of old and the gentleman's pornography portrayal of hunting objectives are one and the same. One should note that the audience is male and adolescent. It is merely the conventions that change, not the methods of conditioning full-blooded males necessary for survival of the species.

It is thus not the purpose of gentleman's pornography to make pornography socially acceptable. In fact, it is the purpose of gentleman's pornography to distance itself from the obscene pornography in order for it to be poured into the city streets along with glossy female actuality magazines. The mere medium of gentleman's pornography - namely glossy magazine in plastic cover - puts it on the same level as female actuality magazines.

In order to strip the body of its obscene history, these Purist photographers refused the sexual charge of the mythic gaze and fetishised accessories and, instead, abstracted the body. It could be argued that the further one ventures from the obscene history of explicit portrayals of the human body, the more one ventures into fetish territory.
For a fetish to be effective, the viewer needs a real or imagined presence of an object or body part which provides psychological sexual gratification.

My understanding is that the Purist photographers explored the limits of their media with little or no regard to previous artistic conventions. They avoided nude bodies in the same way they avoided the still life or landscapes. Their purpose was not to de-sexualise portrayals of the body, but to let the viewer of their work appreciate the new explorations offered by a new medium at the time.

The model touches herself in a teasing manner, reminiscent of Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538). Her ecstatic pose denotes her willing participation in the viewer's voyeurism. The emphasis on her abstracted torso ostensibly elevates the image to the status of art.
GQ certainly does attempt to imitate accepted standards of Art, but it does not try to be either Art nor pornography. It is, for lack of a better term, softcore pornography - indeed the gentleman's pornography. While anyone would object to carnal deeds being portrayed in magazines in public distribution, nobody can really object to a conventionally beautiful female in an ecstatic pose - even if her hands and feet are not always in full view. One must bear in mind that many photographers are frustrated artists, trained in the fine arts, and they are certainly familiar with more artistic conventions than what their commercially driven jobs call for. Furthermore, by easy definition of a voyeur, the object of desire has to be unaware of being observed in the first place. Accordingly, it is incorrect to claim "willing participation in the viewer's voyeurism", because that would not be voyeurism. It is rather the portrayal of the willing participation of an individual the viewer would never have in similar participation in reality - not in a voyeuristic sense, but in a plain everyday sexual encounter. Just like the desire evoked for the Mercedes on the following or previous page, the male hunter-gatherer is conditioned to aspire to objects which are not within his reach. He thus adapts to conventions which enable him to attain those objects. Does this make the Mercedes less of a work of art? No, it certainly does not. The same applies to the objectified girl. It is correct to presume that the sexuality of the viewer is more important than the sexuality of the object, since this is the purpose of the publication. It is a manual on how to be the man's man, the man who has it all. It shows you the forbidden fruit, and then proposes supposed tried and tested methods of purveying those same forbidden fruit.

Umberto Eco (1986:57) explains the medieval understanding of beauty as ethereal rather than material.13 The most obvious and most pervasive symbolic representation of the kinship between godliness and beauty was thus light.
It should be noted that the medieval understanding of beauty was moralised by the church. It is thus unfair to take the portrayal of beauty in medieval times as the portrayal accepted by the layman at the time. The portrayal of beauty in medieval times is merely the one accepted by the church and not an accurate representation of the understanding of beauty in medieval times.

Another interesting fact about the understanding of beauty in medieval times is that it is purely patriarchal, instilled by the church. Despite the lack of reclining figures, elongated spines and lustful gazes (despite a lack of sexuality all together), the medieval portrayals of beauty were instilled purely by the patriarchy of the church. This brings the argument that pornography is the purposeful exploitation of feminine forms by male viewers in disrepute.This particular view is not an accurate definition of pornography, and relies too heavily on biased views of the feminists in the 1970s.Julian Cope notes that Western society relies on women who are empowered by revealing their breastsI know, I know, [citation needed]. It should be noted that both feminist and accomplice in exploitation (or slut, for lack of better term) are both empowered by setting their bosoms free. The assumption is that neither feminist nor slut are above what mother nature gave them, or above the social conventions. Whether you succeed in meeting the expectations of your genes or your memes, you can question them but you can not transcend them.

The perception that gentleman's pornography, whether the canonised art of the gallery or the commercialised "art" of GQ, is harmless because it is more subtle than conventional pornography, is a flawed one. It is a perception that resulted from the notion that the extent to which sexualised material is harmful, should be measured in terms of how much it "shows", instead of the message it communicates.
Agreed. Sexualised material is not harmful because it is sexaulised. In the same vein, violent material is not harmful because it contains violence. It is the context of violent material which matters. Despite many researcher claims, there is still no conclusive evidence that violent computer games or films cause people to be more violent. There is more correlation between heat waves and reported violent crimes (based on my own research)I know, I know, [citation needed]. There is more direct correlation between difficult upbringing and violent behaviourI know, I know, [citation needed], but the psychologist can't tell his clients that they are wrong. A psychologist can't tell someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens that it didn't happen, the psychologist treats the symptoms and not the cause. The psychologist treats his abducted as if he were abducted, aliens or no. Similarly, human beings are sexual beings and it is healthy to learn about the conventions of sexual expression. Know the rules of the game, learn to play the game, thereafter criticise the game.

It is sometimes difficult for me to follow the argument of this paper, because it has in my mind an aggressive stance towards the traditional male way of looking at the world. I feel it is written from a feminist viewpoint, and this brings the objectivity of the paper in jeopardy. However, I can not agree more with the conclusion. I am not versed well enough in the jargon of visual communication to follow the arguments, even though I am familiar with the references and their theories at least in outline. In short, I agree with the conclusion but the argument does not have a clear enough trail of breadcrumbs to persuade those like me who are conditioned to be gung ho males lurking in the garage in case the female of the species needs a bulb changed, oil checked or a roll in the hay. Gentleman's pornography is about spreading ideology more than making pornography itself acceptable. It is this that could be problematic, if taken out of context. The same danger in assuming that all men objectify women is the danger of assuming women portrayed in GQ are exploited. These girls exploit the male in their target audience more than what he objectifies the portrayed women. After all, he has to pay for the magazine before he can open the plastic cover to enter the "secret museum" and this in itself is not enough - he has to buy into the whole ideology too. This same ideology gives the male a sense of power when in reality it empowers the female who allows herself to be objectified. Yes, real men do NOT exfoliate but allow themselves to be sucked into a web of intrigue spun by a femme fatale.

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