Saturday, May 12, 2012

The male gays

Hilton Als, in a recent New Yorker, wrote of a well-known mid-century writer, that he "found a number of ways to talk about his sexuality. One was by endowing his female characters with a male gaze and having them fall for the kind of men he was attracted to." I'm leaving out which writer for the moment, because the question at hand is a broader one: what does it mean to attribute a "male gaze" to a heterosexual woman?

The second part of Als's description - the tendency to crush on guys a gay man would crush on - hardly seems definitive. Not only do gay men sometimes fall for men whose sexual orientations make true reciprocation impossible, but who among us, ladies, does not have a high school boyfriend, crush, or prom date who turned out to be gay?

Is the "male gaze" simply a matter of being wired to immediately know who's the best-looking person of your preferred sex in the subway car? Because if so, women are most certainly endowed with it, to borrow Als's loaded terminology. People with the capacity for sight are visual creatures. Men as well as women.

It would seem that what Als is implying is that a woman who notices a man for his looks is not so much a woman as a figment of the gay male literary imagination, a motif whose purpose was to make gay love stories palatable to pre-"Will and Grace" audiences. (Although "Sex and the City," the most often mentioned example of women-as-stand-ins-for-gay-men, suggests this might live on.) Als's first example is of a female character who "talks about the beauty of a long-ago crush with the avidity of someone cruising in a bar." Why would a woman not do this? Does Als imagine that women reminisce what great personalities our youthful crushes possessed? Their senses of humor?

I mean, it's not that a gay writer, especially in that long-ago era before Obama had finished his evolution, wouldn't rewrite his own loves as heterosexual. (OK, Als is discussing Tennessee Williams. See also: Proust.) That I don't dispute. But unless what's being depicted is a woman engaged in the kind of anonymous outdoor sex that Dan Savage recently condemned on behalf of wholesomeish gay men everywhere, and that really doesn't seem to be a thing among women, it would seem that a woman depicted as lusting after men is a woman depicted as heterosexual, or, if also women, bisexual, and not a gay man trapped in a woman's body.

A silver lining here might be that due to the (waning) unacceptability of depicting gay male romance, the culture ended up with a handful of accurate examples of the female heterosexual experience. Of women as beings with the capacity to be infatuated, as opposed to either inspiring lust or nagging a dude. Ideally, in our new, more tolerant age, openly gay characters might coexist with enthusiastically straight female ones. "Modern Family," at least, doesn't provide much hope in that regard, but the night is young.

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