When and how did the concept of masculinity turn its back on art, design, and beauty?
A while back, I was playing around with one of those joke internet quizzes, this one supposed to diagnose whether the taker is a gay man. One of the questions was “Which do you prefer, art nouveau or art deco?” and was followed by “Trick question: if you picked either of those, you’re gay.”
Now, okay, that’s kinda funny, but why is it funny? Why do we so strongly associate the idea of having a strong interest in aesthetics or in art, to being unmanly? (“Unmanly” gets translated as “homosexual” because of fucking course it does.) Whence comes this stereotype?
(And just for the record, I gotta go with art deco, but it’s a tough call.)
Historically, of course, most artists and designers have been men. We won’t get into the sexism behind that right now, but it is the case. In terms of sheer gender representation, art and aesthetics are manly as hell. For centuries in European culture, it was taken for granted that a proper, classy, accomplished gentleman could compose poetry at the drop of a hat as easily as he could fight a duel or run a business. At some point, that switched over into limp-wristed “Oh, a poet” jokes. Does that seem like a weird transition to anyone else?
The answer, I think, lies in how masculinity has come to be defined. Masculinity, as it became codified into what we today think of as machismo, became increasingly about exclusion, rather than inclusion. As women became more a visible part of public life across the 19th century, femmephobia arose as an ugly defensive reaction, and men’s roles were increasingly seen as the rough, tough, plug-ugly, foul-smelling caveman stereotypes we still see in advertisements and cheap sitcom jokes to this day.
For example, let’s look at the Victorian era in English history, from which American culture continues to draw a lot of its imagery and assumptions. It was an era of rapid modernization and rampant imperialism, with the military fetishism one generally finds in imperial states. That helped lay the groundwork for a century that began with Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley to end with Kipling and W.S. Gilbert making fun of Oscar Wilde for being an insufficiently macho poet, as in Gilbert’s (admittedly, hilarious) song “Am I Alone and Unobserved?” from Patience:
If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them everywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And every one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
“If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!”
This was such a central joke to Patience that, before the play’s American tour opened, the producers paid for Oscar Wilde to go on a speaking and lecture tour in all the cities where Patience would play, just to make sure people would get the gag. (Incidentally, it was on that tour that Wilde almost definitely hooked up with Walt Whitman. And now your life is richer for knowing that.)
For much of the twentieth century, the wink-wink-nudge-nudge code for a gay man was “interior decorator”; a job whose main qualification is aesthetic sense. Interior decorating isn’t about creating new fabrics, new textures, new colors or lights or arrangements, it’s about finding the way to combine those elements into a harmonious and beautiful composition. And that was all it took, for decades, to mark a guy as homosexual, here understood as shorthand for “insufficiently performing masculinity.”
Masculinity has been, literally, defined as not having or being able to have any decent taste.
One of the things this ties in with, obviously, is the idea that women are physically attractive and men are not. Our culture has so closely linked attractiveness with femininity that “Prettiness is a rent you pay for occupying a space marked female” is a concept that needs to be refuted. In accordance with the iron rule of Ozy’s Law, this means that if women are attractive, aesthetically appealing, men cannot be.
You need only google the godawful word “metrosexual” to find ample contemporary reinforcement of the idea that a man who takes time or care over his appearance is something less than a heterosexual man, something that needs its own set of nightmarish portmanteaus (guyliner, manscaping, etc.) to describe it. To dress too neatly, to groom oneself too well, is understood to be a girl thing, and thus something that calls into question the gender identity of any man who dares do more than hastily shave and comb his hair.
Masculinity has, in the past couple centuries, lost the ability to define itself on its own terms, instead defining itself as “not femininity”. This is a pathetic and limiting definition, and as the feminine presence in our society has, belatedly, become more prominent and powerful, so too has masculinity painted itself into a narrower and narrower corner. Now we find ourselves in a position where we must deny our own taste, our own sense of beauty and art and aesthetic pleasure, in order to cling to the tiny scrap of territory we’re still marking as manly.
This is absurd. This is unnecessary. Let’s stop doing it.