What We Mean When We Talk About Responsibility: Romance, Pleasure, and Politics

The question I want to ask, then, is this: what does it mean for pleasure to be politically correct or not? Romance as a genre has historically been the subject of a lot of angst over this very question. Its investment in normative gender and sexual politics is right on the surface. Its sub-genre ghettoization of stories about POC and simultaneous exoticization of white women—heroines with exotic raven hair and milky skin are common staples—is well documented. And its fetishistic fascination with class performance and historical moments that were less than kind to non-white, non-rich people is nothing to dismiss. And, unlike Tarantino, romance doesn’t get the cover of an avant-garde aesthetic that can justify the pleasure romance readers get from the genre…Romance is smut, and the women who read romance read it specifically because it scratches a particular itch. They are self-conscious consumers of the fantasies in these books even if the fantasies they consume are shaped by cultural forces that are less than politically correct. Just hit up the romance lists section of Goodreads, and you’ll find women and men who know exactly what their fantasies and desires are and discuss the mechanics of the smut they read in savvy and precise terms.

 Today I want to talk about romance, that much-maligned literary genre that conjures up images of Fabio’s pecs and housewives with a password-protected kindle. As a genre explicitly dedicated to pleasure, women’s pleasure in particular, romance occupies a vexed position. It is both wildly popular and easily sneered at, impugned publicly, often, by the same people who consume it in private. Romance reading is thought to signal a certain lack of imagination and intellectual laziness which is rarely associated with the kinds of smut thought to be consumed by men. This probably has to do with the fact that romance is a literary genre and is therefore held to standards that don’t apply in the world of Brazzers, but it also has to do, I think, with the standards that women’s genres and pleasures are held to more generally.

Frequenters of Acro Collective know that we believe that political work and vital thinking cannot be sustained without a corrective measure of self-care and a diligent investment in our own pleasure. That, in fact, a fervent yet critical celebration of pleasure in many forms—both our own and that of others—is central to the type of intellectual space we’re interested in creating. We not only believe that the kinds of communities that form around a shared pleasure can be deeply affirming and potentially transformative, but we’re also aware that pleasure itself can get lost in the work of critique. We sometimes forget that ideology does not meet people on an intellectual level but is embedded in layers of aesthetic and affective experience which cannot be discarded indiscriminately simply because of their proximity to political content.

But precisely because so many of our most crucial pleasures are intersected by politics, we also know that we cannot responsibly affirm those pleasures without an equal measure of critical engagement with them. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy difficult or ideologically impure things, but simply that it’s important not to split the cultural landscape into the politically correct and the politically compromised because nothing would ever land on the correct side.

Yet the angst over this problem is real, especially in young politically-conscious circles. A quick Google search for “liking problematic things” returns almost half a million results, most aimed at social justice types, reassuring them that it is, indeed, possible to enjoy all sorts of representations which we would not be so complacent about in real life.

It’s depressingly common in social justice and academic discourse to accuse a piece of culture of being “problematic” with a fantasy ideal in our minds of a cultural artifact that is pure, purely responsible. But purely responsible culture does not exist, and if it did, it would feel hollow, sanitized, and deeply unsatisfying. Think of those midcentury anti-communist propaganda films. Their attempts to hit all the appropriate political talking-points make them feel farcical in a cult-film kind of way, but render them pretty uncompelling otherwise. I am not saying that we should not bring political critiques to our culture, but rather that it feels massively unproductive, not to mention exhausting and joyless, to speak in terms of enough—is Lena Dunham feminist enough? Is GOOP vegan enough?

Because culture is an aesthetic project as much as an ideological one it can never be purely responsible. The waters are muddied from the beginning by pleasure. Our experience of a painting as beautiful or ugly or a film as dazzling or dull bears on, indeed produces, our experience of its ideological content. I find myself deeply uncomfortable with artists like Quentin Tarantino for this very reason. I recognize the stunning, sensational, ravishing allure of his aesthetic project and I recognize the pleasure I feel at its hands, and I see how the brilliance of his experiments can obscure the ickiness of his politics while standing in for something more progressive.

Once more, I am not suggesting that aesthetics exist beyond or without the political, but just the opposite. I want to point to the ways in which the political is overlaid and infused by aesthetic experience—the ways that pleasure complicates and challenges our ideological commitments. Why do so many ostensibly politically responsible people feel the need to ask Google if they can like problematic things? It’s because, I think, they can recognize the dissonance between how they envision their politics and how they experience their pleasures.

The question I want to ask, then, is this: what does it mean for pleasure to be politically correct or not? Romance as a genre has historically been the subject of a lot of angst over this very question. Its investment in normative gender and sexual politics is right on the surface. Its sub-genre ghettoization of stories about POC and simultaneous exoticization of white women—heroines with exotic raven hair and milky skin are common staples—is well documented. And its fetishistic fascination with class performance and historical moments that were less than kind to non-white, non-rich people is nothing to dismiss. And, unlike Tarantino, romance doesn’t get the cover of an avant-garde aesthetic that can justify the pleasure romance readers get from the genre.

There is apparently nothing to redeem the romance reader. They are condemned from both sides as both politically naive and tasteless. The pleasure they take in the romance genre is bad pleasure not only because it is incited by ideologically compromised representations, but also because the generic aesthetic does not justify or forgive that pleasure like it might for something like prestige TV (which is definitely not immune from squicky politics).

It doesn’t help that romance readers are exclusively thought of as women. Women’s genres have always, since the high/low culture split at the end of the 19th century, been accused of bad aesthetics and facile thinking. Meanwhile Jonathan Franzen, noted curmudgeon, can write any number of hacky neoliberal novels and his readers can still be contributors for the New Yorker.

It’s much easier to disavow a pleasure in which one does not partake. I, for example, cannot affirm the kinds of pleasures that many people experience in patriotism. In fact, I find those pleasures altogether unsavory as simply an affective mask for the kinds of violence perpetrated in the name of (white, masculinist) nationalism. So, then, why do I insist that the pleasures offered by romance are different than those offered by patriotism when they can undoubtedly be symptomatic of racism and rape culture? Partly, it’s because women’s pleasures have historically been dismissed as unintellectual, backward and perverse. Partly because people tend to be able to recognize and compartmentalize sexual fantasy as fantasy in a way that they cannot for fantasies of nationalism.

This combination of taste and politics makes the romance reader an easy mark. She is simply too stupid to know what she’s doing. And this is why I am an unrepentant apologist for books like 50 Shades of Grey. The women who read books like that one aren’t idiots—or, at least, there are no more idiotic romance readers than there are Franzen fans. They didn’t accidentally stumble upon 50 Shades and decide to swallow the gender politics uncritically.

Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)
Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)

Romance is smut, and the women who read romance read it specifically because it scratches a particular itch. They are self-conscious consumers of the fantasies in these books even if the fantasies they consume are shaped by cultural forces that are less than politically correct. Just hit up the romance lists section of Goodreads, and you’ll find women and men who know exactly what their fantasies and desires are and discuss the mechanics of the smut they read in savvy and precise terms.

I’m willing to believe that the overwhelming majority of people who read 50 Shades of Grey are well aware that the kind of consent represented in those books is imperfect and acceptable only within the world of fantasy. And I propose that instead of talking about romance and other politically incorrect culture as a zero-sum game in which representations are either “good” or “bad,” feminist enough or not, we spend more time talking about how our pleasures are solicited and elicited, and how to mobilize our politically incorrect pleasures towards a more progressive cultural landscape.

This might mean making room in our politics for self-conscious experiences of pleasure as well as using our pleasure as a critical tool to examine our political commitments.

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In Search of the Female Gaze: Pleasure and Cinema

There was a sense that this was for us, that we could claim ownership over these moments in ways that were impossible for images oriented toward male desire. That, moreover, the appropriate reaction to a film such as The Boy Next Door is to whistle and jeer. These movies don’t posit themselves as Oscar bait. They are distinctly, self-consciously lowbrow in flavor and ambition. They don’t aim at high art, but sprawl in the cultural muck.

Men are visual creatures. Women need feelings to get off, we are told, but men just need a pair of boobs to look at. This is one of the first truths I learned about gender that didn’t rely on anatomical difference. It’s not just that boys are naturally bigger, stronger and more sexually aggressive (testosterone is a potent brew, apparently), but that the special sensitivity of their sexual response is based on the special sensitivity of their visual equipment.

Women don’t need to look with such vigor — our eroticism, such as it is, consists of a sensuous experience of our own emotions on one hand, and a corporeal sensitivity on the other. We need love and lots of physical stimulation, but we don’t need much by way of scenery. At least, that is the traditional narrative.

This is why most of Judd Apatow’s oeuvre isn’t seen as an absurd joke, and why the funny guy/bombshell trope is plausible and even commonplace for us in a way that the homely girl/sexy gent pairing is not. This is also why there are no “tits or ass” for hetero women — no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic — an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.

What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.

The argument goes that women’s bodies are looked at with such fascination because they are so easy to look at. The sensuous curve, the rounded softness is an essentially feminine aesthetic that is simply more beautiful than anything the male body can offer. We won’t mention how the masculine youth’s body figured prominently as an aesthetic ideal in Greek art, or that the sensuous curve is by no means exclusive to the female form. What’s important here is the way the female body gets narrated as an essential object of visual pleasure.

 

Film theorist Laura Mulvey describes this capacity of the female form to act as a lure for the eyes as a kind of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Classic Hollywood cinema, Mulvey says, relies on technical conventions and a formal aesthetic that center the female figure within the frame, trapping her within a voyeuristic gaze. The “male gaze” — a phrase endemic to Gender Studies courses and earnest dorm-room conversations — is, for Mulvey, a very specific phenomenon. It describes the ways in which classical cinema solicits the viewer’s eyes and trains them on the female form.

Jimmy Stewart's gaze through the camera serves as plot device, main theme, and weapon in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
Jimmy Stewart’s gaze through the camera serves as plot device, main theme, and weapon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Classic film conventions such as shot-reverse-shot function to align the viewer with the male hero whose gaze gives us access to the pleasurable image of the beautiful woman.  While we identify with the male hero, we simply look at his love interest. “Her visual presence,” Mulvey explains, “tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” In other words, she exists purely as an object of desire for the hero — and for the audience through their identification with him — whose presence on screen stops the action even as she provides the excuse for it. The hero must do something to win the girl, but first cinematic logic dictates that our desire to look at her justify the trials undergone by the hero to win her. In John Berger’s famous formulation, “men act—women appear.”

This is the male gaze as it is traditionally conceived. The sticky thing about Mulvey’s model is that it implicates everyone equally. It may be defined by assumptions about hetero male desire, but it is not the exclusive possession of men. Because the conventions of narrative cinema condition and solicit a gaze that seeks the female form as an object of voyeuristic pleasure, the only position available to the viewer is one of male hetero desire. In the dark of the theater, in other words, we’re all the same kind of pervert.

But if the male gaze is the only possible vantage from which to view the cinematic image, what room is there to imagine a method that centers female pleasure and desire? How can we account for the pleasure women take in the cinematic experience that does not simply rely on a perverse identification with an oppressive patriarchal gaze? As I sit here listening to the 50 Shades Soundtrack, I’m not convinced that the male gaze is the only attitude of visual pleasure, nor for that matter that the kinds of pleasure afforded women through the male gaze are by necessity bad. With the proliferation of recent popular films that capitalize on what Hollywood imagines women find sexy, there is, I think, a widening space in popular entertainment to talk about what a female pleasure-driven aesthetic might look like.

Where might we locate the female gaze, and what might it look like*?

50  Shades of Grey, The Boy Next Door and the Magic Mike franchise all market themselves to a presumed female audience at least partly on the promise that they offer a pleasant view. This is a fundamentally different gambit than that other — perhaps only other — popular woman’s genre: the romantic comedy. Where rom-coms focus on plot (the trials that lead to the happily-every-after), these movies are interested in bodies. The narrative of romantic strife overcome that structures the rom-com relies on the premise that women are emotional rather than visual creatures — that we would rather watch the hero chase his beloved than see him naked. What these new movies offer, however, are moments in which the narrative conflict is briefly suspended and replaced with spectacular displays of the male physique.

Channing Tatum | Photo @magicmikemovie/Twitter
Channing Tatum | Photo @magicmikemovie/Twitter

This isn’t to suggest that movies that offer goodies for the female gaze don’t also conform to traditional narrative codes. In fact, all three film mentioned above actually follow pretty conventional and generically recognizable plots: 50 Shades is a steamy romantic drama, The Boy Next Door is an erotic thriller, and Magic Mike is a hero’s journey of entrepreneurial success. But each of them are marked by the way they joyfully solicit the gaze, not toward the silent, suspended female form, but toward the bodacious male body. If cinema of the male gaze is conditioned by moments of frozen action surrounding the figure of the beautiful woman, these films open a space for beholding the resplendent male form.

The Magic Mike XXL trailer concentrates on the buff, tan, pulsating male body in the throes of decidedly non-narrative moments of greased-up gyration. Women, when they appear at all, emerge as the titillated crowd of the male strip show or, finally, as the beneficiary of Magic Mike’s advances, but they aren’t the object of the cinematic gaze so much as its presumed subject. The first half of the trailer reads like the opening of a burlesque act — unsafe practices with power tools, y’all! — that centers Channing Tatum in the frame not as the agent of his own plot, but as a body to be looked at in all his writhing, sleeveless glory.

Similarly, The Boy Next Door concentrates as much on Ryan Guzman’s body as it does on J.Lo’s. The camera slides lovingly over his form in a neat reversal of the traditional male gaze formula, offering us views of his body through a gaze identified with J.Lo’s desire. One of the first shots of his body appears in a shot reverse shot sequence in which J.Lo stares out the window at him working on a car, her gaze settling on his forearms while his face remains hidden behind the open hood. This scene is rehearsed again and again in the history of film with women’s bodies on display, but when the camera settled on Guzman’s forearms in The Boy Next Door, the theater I was in exploded in feminine giggles. This kind of unapologetic focus on the male form as a purely erotic — rather than, say, aggressively masculine — object is so rare in popular entertainment that it’s almost shocking when it does appear.

universal pictures boy next door
Looking at the boy next door with Jennifer Lopez (Claire) | Photo from Universal Pictures

Even 50 Shades of Grey, which adheres most closely to the narrative and visual signposts of a male gaze movie — images of women suspended in moments of erotic contemplation, voyeuristic concentration on the female form, a plot that relies on a series of trials for the hero that culminate in winning the girl, etc. — is not made to satisfy hetero male desire. It represents a woman’s fantasy produced for the consumption of other women. The female gaze, here, relies less on Jamie Dornan’s rippling torso than on the way the narrative unfolds as an extended erotic fantasy from a woman’s point of view. Even if the male gaze organizes the visual field, the movie is oriented toward the sexual gratification of Ana and, through her, the audience. If classic cinema foists the male gaze on all viewers regardless of gender or sexuality, 50 Shades of Grey insists that its pleasures must be accessed through an identification with the looked-at and done-to female body rather than with the active, gazing male hero.

I don’t mean to suggest that these films are some sort of radical political production, but just the opposite. They represent spaces within popular entertainment for the expression and experience of specifically female forms of visual pleasure. These movies still abound with classic male-gaze moments, and still contain plots that conform to traditional — even misogynistic — stories, but the pleasures to be wrung from many of their images is focused and refracted through an erotic engagement with the male form and identification with a desiring female protagonist.

I believe that the natural habitat of something like the female gaze is in the low and the popular. Throughout my viewing of The Boy Next Door, the predominantly female audience hooted at the screen like women at Magic Mike’s strip show. There was a sense that this was for us, that we could claim ownership over these moments in ways that were impossible for images oriented toward male desire. That, moreover, the appropriate reaction to a film such as The Boy Next Door is to whistle and jeer. These movies don’t posit themselves as Oscar bait. They are distinctly, self-consciously lowbrow in flavor and ambition. They don’t aim at high art, but sprawl in the cultural muck.

The Boy Next Door's Ryan Guzman (Noah)
The Boy Next Door’s Ryan Guzman (Noah)

While High Culture is often claimed by the male gaze as an exclusive domain, the low, the common, and the popular offer spaces that might be conducive to something like a female way of looking. “Important” art concerns itself with the epic efforts and afflictions of the masculine hero or artist, but popular culture has always been a place for women’s expression (though, of course, it can be and often is a deeply masculinist space). Pop culture has always inhabited a more or less debased position within the cultural canon at least partly because of its association with the consuming habits of women. Yet precisely because of this relationship women bear to the production and consumption of popular media, their pleasures and desires tend to be represented in popular forms.

It is no accident that 50 Shades began as fan fiction, or that Magic Mike is about a skeevy subculture for which women are (imagined to be) the prime audience. I don’t mean to suggest that pop culture represents some sort of feminist utopian space or that high culture is completely devoid of women’s artistic expressions, but rather that the popular is uniquely situated to anchor cultural productions oriented toward female pleasure.

*My discussion here fails to imagine the female gaze as anything other than heterosexual. This is because I am concerned here with recent popular examples that seem to work against the male gaze, and while indie theaters do carry queer cinema, it’s pretty difficult to find a mainstream example of the queer female gaze that doesn’t simply mask the male gaze titillated by lesbian sex.

Written by E.L.
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