Feminism, subjecthood and the right to desire

As an undergraduate in history of art at Cambridge, I remember struggling with the ‘feminist theory’ class. I found it hard to stomach what was being taught, which (it seemed) was concretely the rejection of all art which treated the female body as desirable. ‘Feminist’ art as it was presented to us seemed to embody anger and hate.

Now, I understand the politics of objectification and the gaze much more deeply. But it has always seemed to me that in some fundamental way, in the way history of art was being taught, the right to desire had been removed; the right to find the human body beautiful, aesthetic, embodied, and sexually desirable. I felt a strong need to define a feminism which could allow a positive appreciation of human beauty and sexual desire both as viewer and viewed: while permitting equality, presence, respect and subjecthood in the desired. My own desire, as an academic, since that day has been to look for ways that art can and does embody sexual and bodily pleasure and desire without an imbalance of power through gender.

I spent my PhD arguing that depictions of women’s pleasure in apparent absence or passivity (embodied compellingly and ambiguously by Baroque depictions of saints in ecstasy) could in fact be anything but absent and passive: that it was possible to depict paradoxical bodily subjectivity within depictions of absence, and that this possibility ran throughout the history of depictions of the female body and its extreme or borderline experiences, through pleasure, pain, sleep, pregnancy and death. I was interested in reclaiming women’s pleasure and resituating subjectivity within the objectified body; allowing women to be the subject of their own pleasure, paradoxically at the very moment of the abandon of the self; rather than merely becoming the empty, void object of someone else’s pleasure.

After the PhD, questions of objectivity and desire continued to fascinate me, and my postdoctoral research (which remains a ‘live’ project, albeit in temporary abeyance) was about Michelangelo, gender, desire and the body.

Michelangelo is neglected by feminist scholarship, largely because he focused so much on the male body. In all likelihood, he was very much ‘gay’ in our modern understanding of the term, and his portrayals of the male physique are stunning; beautiful; desired; idealised. They are also passive and objectified.

What made me return to these ideas in August 2012 was a debate on Twitter which reminded me strongly of that feminism which so turned me off fourteen years ago as an undergraduate, and which still frustrates me today: a feminism which, defensively, can not allow masculinity to be an object of preference.

A column by Des Lynam had stated that he prefers male sports commentators, as he found the voices of female commentators unattractive and ‘grating’ in the context. Picked up by feminists on Twitter, the comment was taken to be symptomatic of a wider patriarchal and misogynist culture; a culture where women ‘nag’ and ‘shriek’ and where the dominance of maleness in male socio-cultural domains is upheld by bastions of the cultural hegemony and of the patriarchal media establishment, of which Lynam represents an archetypal example.

In essence, the ensuing debate centred around the way in which feminism can or can not permit preference, in terms of gender; whether a preference for ‘maleness’ in certain contexts can be permitted in terms of the struggle against patriarchal dominance in culture. Unfortunately, it then turned into a fight between different forms of politicised feminism. I dislike cat fighting amongst feminists, and I thought the topic certainly deserved more than 140 characters.

Preference and desire are tricky topics within culture. On Twitter I had started to argue that it was a matter of taste, and not a feminist issue; that newsreaders are hired for their low voices because of aesthetic concerns to do with pitch and tone; that certain contexts require certain voices (choirboys versus female sopranos, for instance) rendering gender politics irrelevant. However, a few respondents felt that preference itself can not exist independently of societal conditioning, and that Lynam’s comment only perpetuates dominant culture while excluding women.

Of course, I understand these concerns, but I don’t think it comes down to anything like a debate between, of all things, neo-liberal versus radical feminism. If anything, it touches on questions of desire that all feminists need to address, regardless of political persuasion.

Personally, I’m not at all sure I could listen to a long spell of sports commentary from a higher-pitched female voice, although perhaps if the BBC had hired Moira Stewart, I might change my mind (as might Lynam). I find Fiona Bruce’s strikingly low, mellow voice particularly attractive. As far as men’s voices go, I’d hire Kenneth Branagh or Sean Bean to read the phone book. And I would like the freedom to be a feminist and still be allowed to express those tastes and desires. It would never occur to me to be worried that I was excluding women and perpetuating patriarchy if I did such a thing.

Anyway, there’s no sense in which this is meaningfully a generalisation. Different contexts value different things – female altos are definitely second class citizens (to sopranos) in choral music, for instance, just as violas are to violins in orchestras (I speak from experience on both counts). Lynam’s comment was a purely aesthetic judgment, worlds away from the wider politics of the silencing of women’s voices and the harmful, disgusting stereotype of the shrieking fishwife.

Taste, preference and the specifics and exquisite idiosyncrasy of human desire are complex things. But dismissing them as cultural constructs is a can of worms; a nature versus nurture argument that I’m not sure any theorist is really equipped to solve once and for all. Take the debate about the gender stereotyping of children’s toys, which is one of my particular passions in life. I feel very strongly about the way in which girls’ toys, and their obsession with pinkness, shallow beauty and damsel-in-distress values are juxtaposed with the cartoony violence and macho posturing of the boys’ toys section. Moreover, what makes me truly anxious are the limits placed on little girls’ aspirations by a marketing culture that seems to close off certain values, activities and professions to girls through the toys, products and dressing-up clothes that are marketed to them, while boys have access to a whole world and future adulthood full of nature, science, invention and intellectual stimulation.

One of the most common criticisms of such concerns from parents, however, is about free choice. Surely children must be allowed to express a preference for a pink fairy tutu and a fashion doll if that is what they like; and parents report girls choosing such things spontaneously. This is where I feel it is vital to educate people about the insidious nature of patriarchal culture, and the outdated vision of the genders which is sadly still perpetuated by powerful forces in toy marketing (as in the recent controversy about Lego Friends). As a feminist with an awareness of and distrust of the way traditional patriarchal values still structure society, I am attempting to raise a little girl and boy who feel that they can be interested in fairies, or dinosaurs, or trucks, or ponies, as the mood takes them, and to be free to say that their favourite colour is blue, orange, pink or ultramarine. However, I would not attempt to deny that each human being has the right to choose, and living completely isolated outside culture, while an alternative lifestyle choice for some, is not for me. So I will try to live, and raise my children, in a mindset both of critical awareness of those negative currents at work behind advertising and peer pressure; and of desire to try to change the world for the better. In the meantime, I will continue to strongly support  campaigns such as Pinkstinks and The Achilles Effect.

I would bring small children’s right to desire certain toys – in a context that, we hope, can start to be informed by critical thinking – into parallel with adults’ right to tastes and preferences in every area of life, as well as in sexual, bodily desire. Has feminism really reached the stage where sexual women have to defend their right to enjoy going down on a man?

These are big debates, and the Olympics has brought many of them to the foreground. In this light, Des Lynam and his distaste for female commentators is small fry against the tide of debate about bodily objectification. A great many articles have been published discussing the public’s right to ogle, and openly, visually, sexually appreciate the beautifully sculpted bodies of the athletes. In the Guardian, Chloe George made an interesting attempt to place women’s and men’s desire into the cultural context of patriarchal visuality while differentiating between ogling that is acceptable in those terms and that which is not. Zoe Williams, in the same paper, felt that athletes’ bodies can not simply be objectified and emptied of their selfhood in the same way as other bodies in visuality, arguing that the athletic “body is indivisible from [their] life’s work”. Williams took pleasure in the fact that the Games have been the great equaliser in terms of male and female visual desire, finding in the reactions from both genders – from “Hotlympics; the hunks of London 2012” to Boris Johnson and the wet otters – reason to celebrate its diversity.

To quote Williams’ sense of liberation at these expressions of desire, “we all like different things”. Demystifying pleasure and preference is an essential task for feminism. We must be allowed to own our desire, and feminism must be an enabler towards this goal. I claim for myself and my children the right to choose; the right to prefer; the right to have personal taste; the right to desire; and the right to express what I like, what I prefer and what I desire. The aim of feminism, then, should be to arrive at a cultural terrain where each human being’s preferences and desires are respected and respectful: respected by each other, and respectful of each other.

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