Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Choice, feminism

Cynthia "Miranda" Nixon chose to be gay. Good for her? Not so simple!

The principle controversy here is that if homosexuality is or can be a choice, that's ammunition for homophobes. Why all the fuss about same-sex marriage, opponents will say, if the gay-identified could simply choose to fall in love with members of the opposite sex? But! In the interest of letting consenting-adults figure things out for themselves, why not fight for the right to be gay and not oppressed, however one arrived at that self-identification? And so on.

The Nixon quote has launched a discussion about sexual orientation (that you can readily find using the search engine of your choice), but it might be just as well-suited to one of female sexuality (which is what you'll find here).

It's difficult, I think we can agree, to picture terribly many men claiming they chose to be gay. This is in part because homophobia is arguably more virulent as directed against gay men and boys than lesbians. (And how perceived-homosexuality is dealt with. A girl who likes softball versus a guy who likes musical theater, regardless of their orientations.) This relates, of course, to the alleged female ambiguity in this area - to the popularly-held and utterly absurd belief that all women are bisexual.

The idea that all women could go either way can't be separated from the idea that men, but not women, are visual creatures. If Woman can find herself sexually attracted to a man once she learns that he's rich/powerful/Newt Gingrich, it's not a great leap to suggest that Woman could, with enough feminist notions, enough had-it-with-men, enough we-could-totally-go-shoe-shopping-together, who knows, become the romantic partner of another woman. And this is perhaps what it means for Cynthia Nixon to consider herself not a bisexual woman currently involved with a woman, but a person with this magical capacity to find a person of either sex attractive, because it's the person, not the gender, that counts.

These traits that seem to make women the darlings of progressive values - straight-identified women aren't limiting themselves to only "hot" partners! Women aren't limiting themselves by sexual orientation! - add up to something else entirely. It's about denying the basic fact of female sexuality, which is that it's a subset of human sexuality. Humans tend to find some other humans, but not all others, sexually desirable. This is true of the experience of women who are straight, gay, or bisexual. It's not that other factors - kindness, sense of humor, status - don't matter. It's not that clever pick-up techniques never persuade. It's that women, like men, divide the world into the potentially-sexually-appealing, and the not-ever-gonna-happen. It's that women, like men, will notice "hot" in its more salient manifestations. It's not that female sexuality is male sexuality, it's not "I'm a Samantha!" (SATC reference acceptable given news item inspiring post) or that women are, on average, as interested as men are in images of context-free nudity. It's that the two are not as different as all that.

OK, the counterargument: Sure, it's liberating, in a sense, that women feel less constrained than men do to find "hot" that which society deems "hot." Of course it's a good thing for women with same-sex attraction that they're not victims of a societal force quite as pernicious as the one aimed at men attracted to men. But it's not terribly liberating that female desire - homosexual or heterosexual - is popularly understood to basically not exist. It sounds all of it so lefty and pomo, yet we're as good as back with Caitlin Flanagan, learning that adolescent girls desire boyfriends, husbands, and merely put up with "hook-ups" as a (misguided! poor dears) route to that end.

So, my three readers, pardon the repetition, but this is exactly why you get so many straight women making the seemingly insensitive/clueless assertion that they are gay men trapped inside female bodies. A claim that would seem to make light of the oppression faced by gay men and boys, but that's at once offensive and about a couple legitimate things. One, there's no way to describe lust-for-man except in terms of that which gay men experience, because women are presumed incapable of fantasies that don't end in bourgeois homemaking, and two, straight women, much like gay men, are stigmatized for this attraction. Men, in our society, are not to be denigrated in that way, to be treated as objects.

I suppose that, by now, if this were a Feministe thread and not a WWPD post, I'd be accused of hijacking the discourse, stealing the virtual microphone from someone doubly marginalized (female and gay) and making it about, if not precisely myself because I'm ancient, married, etc., but about myself insofar as I'm a straight woman who was once a girl who got through many a boring high school class by "choosing" to have crushes on boys in my line of vision. So be it, but I'm confident enough in WWPD's relative powerlessness when it comes to discourse-shifting that this is a risk I'll take.

10 comments:

PG said...

What I find especially puzzling about the ongoing cultural belief that only the male gaze prizes physical attractiveness is that the one really widespread, profit-making form of entertainment that's produced by and sold to almost exclusively women -- romance novels (50% of the mass-market paperback sales) -- ALWAYS have a good looking hero, of whose looks our heroine is very much aware. I have read books with heroines who were fat, in wheelchairs, who'd had double mastectomies, who are pregnant with another man's baby, are certified Little People, etc. -- but I've never read a romance with a hero who wasn't of average or above height or who was even overweight. Romance novels are women's fantasies, and thus even a chubby woman with bad hair is going to be loved and desired by someone tall, broad shouldered and handsome. (I HAVE read a romance, I think it had the endearing title "Simple Jess," about a hero who was crazy-hot but mentally retarded.)

Of course, romance novels have even less cultural respectability than actual pornography, but I doubt they'd all be constructed in this same way unless there's something about a physically-attractive hero, just as much as the mandatory Happily Ever After ending, that appeals to the overwhelming majority of women.

So, yeah, whatever's going on with Cynthia Nixon is not going to disturb the consumption habits of 50 million housewives.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Romance novels might be a big market, but they're also invisible. They don't seep into visual culture or pop culture generally in the way that porn does. Appreciation of male beauty is assumed to be the exclusive right of gay men. (Although, I saw an episode of Hart of Dixie, and it really was once shirtless chiseled dude after the next, all for the pleasure of a fully-clothed Rachel Bilson.) When it comes down to it, the content of romance novels is only slightly more visible than the content of women's brains, the barely-perceptible head-turns of straight women when attractive men go by.

As for the 50 million housewives, if they're merely reading about male beauty, but insisting it doesn't matter in their own lives, that's a concern, and one that the Nixon quote can get us thinking about.

PG said...

When it comes down to it, the content of romance novels is only slightly more visible than the content of women's brains, the barely-perceptible head-turns of straight women when attractive men go by.

The covers are highly visible, though, and it's what romance novels tend to be most mocked for. All those shirtless chiseled guys, whether Fabior or his successors. The major concession the romance industry has made to women who feel shy about bringing those onto the subway is that for the books they're willing to put a little more money into, there's a "step-back" cover, i.e. something with flowers or high heels on the front-front, and then you open it and hello Fabio!

Phoebe said...

But the covers are seen as cheesy, like Chippendale dancers, not as sincere expressions of female sexuality. I don't believe (and, honestly? don't believe you believe) that because of romance novels, it's generally understood that women care about male appearance. Perhaps this ought to send a message, but I'm not aware of it having any broader applications than, if one is selling romance novels, one can expect a market.

PG said...

I didn't claim to believe it, hence my first clause: "What I find especially puzzling about the ongoing cultural belief that only the male gaze prizes physical attractiveness is..." I agree that this IS an ongoing cultural belief, but I find it strange because of the existence of something that contradicts it and that is very well known, not relatively obscure like Chippendale dancers. Romance novels aren't an "every now and then for a laugh with the girls" experience (like a male stripper at your bachelorette party) for most of their consumers; they are purchased in volume. I think Chippendale dancers are questionable as expressions of typical female sexuality because they seem like just an obvious parallel to strip clubs oriented to straight men.

Phoebe said...

PG,

We were talking past each other. I had one impression from your opening bit, and another from your responses to my point about these novels being less visible/discussed than, say, pornography.

So...

"I agree that this IS an ongoing cultural belief, but I find it strange because of the existence of something that contradicts it and that is very well known, not relatively obscure like Chippendale dancers"

In that case, I think we have to accept that romance novels sell well, and thus are well-known to those who buy/sell them, but are not well-known in the sense that we might prefer. Or, it's popularly assumed that what their popularity tells us is, women are content with a non-visual medium, and with having their interest in hot guys limited to the purely theoretical.

PG said...

Or, it's popularly assumed that what their popularity tells us is, women are content with a non-visual medium, and with having their interest in hot guys limited to the purely theoretical.

This is the explanation that strikes me as more plausible than that the literate and/or profit-oriented people who shape our culture aren't aware of romance novels as objects and particularly of their covers. (I have yet to see a mainstream media piece about the genre that doesn't refer to Fabio, bare chests, etc.)

However, I don't think that a non-visual medium means that women's interest in hot guys is purely theoretical. Chick lit that dwells at length on designer clothing isn't thought to be describing a purely theoretical female interest, but rather to be talking about something that is of real life interest and objects of consumer-lust by readers.

The dominant theory of reader identification in the romance genre is that the heroine is "placeholder" for the reader, i.e. someone she can imagine herself into being (hence, perhaps, the popularity of not-conventionally-attractive heroines). I don't think a preference for imagining oneself having sex with a person who is described, rather than imagining oneself having sex with a person who is pictured/videotaped, indicates a purely theoretical interest in male attractiveness, but rather a determination that one play a more active role in fantasizing that attractiveness.

Phoebe said...

"I don't think a preference for imagining oneself having sex with a person who is described, rather than imagining oneself having sex with a person who is pictured/videotaped, indicates a purely theoretical interest in male attractiveness, but rather a determination that one play a more active role in fantasizing that attractiveness."

Perhaps it ought not to, and as I think we've established we agree, this is a part of female sexuality that society does by and large ignore, despite evidence to the contrary.

As for why the existence and popularity of romance novels doesn't convince the broader public that women care about men's looks, I think it's a few things. The genre is viewed by non-participants as cheesy and sentimental, not porn-for-women. As in, that it's about a woman wanting "romance," and a guy who'll sweep her off her feet, not simply to jump the bones of a good-looking dude. Not unrelated, the romance novel's popularity feeds the whole notion about how women, unlike men, need a "story" to be turned on - that is, if people are even aware that that's the purpose of these novels. Even if (and I don't read them, so you'll have to enlighten) the "story" is all just a graphic depiction of sex without much in the way of plot. It still gets interpreted as, women like a story, so the way to get a woman is to go to a bar and offer up a good one.

But I wouldn't discount the importance of a medium being visual or not. Aside from the basically-a-joke Fabio, this is not a medium with much of a visual presence in the broader culture. Because there are so many images of "hot" women who perhaps not all men would find attractive, but who serve as stand-ins for that-which-men-lust-after, we implicitly understand male lust for women. There's no equivalent, really, with women lusting after men.

PG said...

A very good series of posts on the Nixongate.

Phoebe said...

Thanks for that link. My immediate sense of this issue is that male sexuality's more fluid than we think, but that female "fluidity" (certainly when it comes to having the amount of same-sex desire necessary to actually have same-sex relationships) has been vastly overestimated.