Noah Brand tells of his greatest professional failure, explaining his theory of The Success Myth, and introducing the idea of the female gaze.
The masculine equivalent to what Naomi Wolf called The Beauty Myth is The Success Myth. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe said, “A man being rich is like a girl being pretty” and everyone nodded their head, recognizing and endorsing the sentiment. When a rich guy marries a slim young “trophy wife” we all nod our heads again, recognizing that, like it or not, this is a match of two high-value people, a conventionally-successful man and a conventionally-beautiful woman. It would take way too long to get into all the horrible things that arise out of these paired myths, from “gold-digger” stereotypes to men who kill themselves for being “failures”; for now let’s just talk about the idea that men can’t be considered attractive.
See, part of the poisonous idea that men are only valuable or attractive because of our worldly and material success is the implication that we cannot be attractive or sexy just for being… y’know… attractive and sexy. This is tied in with the equally-popular societal myth that women aren’t really into sex. Straight men are left to numbly accept that we’re never going to feel sexy or attractive, and deal with that with the poker-faced stoicism that is our permitted range of emotional expression.
A little while back, I found out what a lie that is, and it led to my own collision with the Success Myth. I’m a geek, and I run with a geek crowd. If anyone I know can’t quote The Princess Bride from memory, they have the good taste to keep that to themselves. This means that the women I get involved with tend to be fangirls, which means they tend to write and read slash fiction. That was how I first began to learn about the female gaze.
Slash fiction, or erotic fan fiction involving male characters from popular media, is one of the largest gift economies on earth. Yaoi manga, Japanese comics featuring tales of beautiful and sexy men, written by and for girls, is one of the most dominant genres of manga in the world. Romance novels, pornographic tales of gorgeous, sexy men humping the hell out of either women or each other, account for fifty percent of all paperback sales in the U.S., and were the first major success story in the ebook market. The female desire to look at, read about, obsess over, and lust after men is absolutely massive, and kept discreetly off the cultural radar. It’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing all over again: how to suppress women’s porn. Yaoi is dismissed as being for teenage girls and therefore irrelevant, romance imprints are excluded from bestseller lists, and slash fandom hides in Googleproofed communities online, entrance gained only by introductions and shibboleths, many of its fans afraid their husbands or boyfriends might find out that they…
That they what? That they’re really into men? That they find the male body, male sexuality, male emotions to be intensely, obsessively erotic? How exactly did our entire culture agree to keep it a secret that straight and bi women are turned on by guys? Shouldn’t that be less of a taboo and more of a tautology?
Plenty of the movie and TV shows out there spend lots of time on the male gaze, the camera drooling over one woman or another in the same old predictable ways. Much rarer is the female gaze, which is not just the male gaze pointed at guys. The female gaze has its own subtle vocabulary, its own tropes and in-jokes, and it is almost never seen in mainstream movies or television, because the few women who are allowed to direct films know that their job depends on not shaking things up too much. I don’t blame them, I blame the cultural pressures that delete female desire, thus leaving straight men feeling perpetually undesirable. To find the female gaze, you have to find the images of men that women create or share with each other when they don’t think men are looking: the fan art, the carefully-selected stills, the doujinshi, the endless underground economy of female desire.
I was stunned when I discovered this world. I’d grown up on a million jokes where the sight of a naked man is greeted with “Ewwww!” I’d seen umpteen hundred TV shows where women occasionally agree to have sex with a guy as a favor or in exchange for something else. I’d absorbed the misandrist, misogynist idea of men as slavering, horny beasts and women as purer, more spiritual (meaning sexless) beings. Having found my way into slash and fan art circles, I was eyeball-deep in unchecked female libido, men seen through a lens of sexual desire that I was unfamiliar with, but instantly fascinated by.
A lot of men didn’t believe me when I told them about this. I was, after all, arguing against a mountain of cultural conditioning, armed with nothing but reams of smut. At the very least, I was assured, women are not aroused by men visually. There have been Studies. Using Science. All I could say was no offense to science, but I was forced to demolish this beautiful, brilliant theory with a few ugly little facts. If women aren’t visually aroused by men, I asked, why is Orlando Bloom famous? Because he’s the finest thespian of his generation? What do you see when you look in a teenage girl’s bedroom? A bunch of vivid textual descriptions of her favorite actors and pop stars? The personal written correspondence of Robert Pattinson or Gerard Way? Hell no! You see endless, endless photographs, pin-ups, posters, visual images of gorgeous dudes. The female gaze is real, and it is hungry.
To some of you reading this, this isn’t news at all. Others will find this in direct contradiction to what they think they know to be true, and should take this paragraph to draw a deep breath and try not to get the bends.
What is the female gaze, you might ask? What are its characteristics? If the male gaze, as seen in… well, every shot of any woman in every Michael Bay film, is about lots of skin on display, emphasis on T&A, and a general visual sense of being posed for display and sexual availability rather than actually doing anything, then what does the female gaze look like? Well, I wasn’t the only person asking that question, and a lot of research turned up some interesting info.
First and most importantly, there is no one, singular female gaze any more than there’s one singular male gaze. What we refer to as the male gaze is a rough average of some tendencies that show up over large numbers. Every guy has his own variation on it, and some of us find the “normal” male gaze rather tediously predictable and dull. Indeed, it’s assumed to always be directed at women because, as usual, gay and bi men get erased as an irrelevant minority. Just as much variance exists with the way women ogle men, but again, one can find some interesting patterns and tendencies over large samples. So as I talk about the female gaze, bear in mind that I’m referring to general rules of thumb that seem popular, not This Is What All Women Want. There are enough assholes selling that latter line, and I’m not one.
One of the first things that jumps out is how different the guys look from eroticized images of men done by and for other men. Gay porn for guys tends to veer toward the hypermasculine: big muscles, square jaws, and a lot of emphasis on the cock. Tom of Finland remains one archetypal example. Images of sexy men done by and for women tend much more toward slimmer, less beefy guys, with more androgynous facial features. Hands and wrists are frequently focused on and overtly eroticized, as are lips and eyelashes. As to penises, it’s not that they’re left out, but they’re not the main event. They become part of the overall package, no pun intended. To put it another way, I have never read a piece of gay erotica by a man that didn’t include a specific measurement in inches, and I’ve never read one by a woman that did include it.
The key, I think, is vulnerability. Guys seen through the female gaze appear vulnerable, not covered in bluster and emotional armor. Very often traditional forms of male emotional or symbolic armor are present, but opened, damaged, or in some way cracked. A man wearing a good suit, but with his tie loosened and his top buttons undone, is one popular example. The armor of male privilege and protection is there, but opened enough that the viewer can glimpse the vulnerable man inside. He’s not just showing us what he wants us to see, we’re seeing what he might not choose to show.
As this gradually became clear to me, I became fascinated with the possibilities. I formed a partnership with my best friend, and she and I set out to try to produce a porn magazine that would feed the female gaze. In the process we worked with some wonderfully talented writers, and some utterly charming and fun models. Nice, nice guys, and all gorgeous. We provided a greater range of hot guys than the boring shirtless dudes one sees in Cosmopolitan, the standard-bearer of bland. Skinny little pretty boys, muscular ladykiller types, tough ex-military dudes, soft-eyed teen-idol faces… it was an all-you-can-eat buffet of beefcake.
Anyway, long story short, it failed. Not because the material wasn’t popular, though some Monday-morning quarterbacks have assured me that this just proves that they were right all along about women not finding men hot. No, everyone who bought the magazine loved the smut, loved our sexy guys and hot fiction. It’s just that it turns out I’m really crap at running a business. I’m vague about paperwork, I subcontract the wrong jobs and handle the wrong ones myself, I’m actively horrible at marketing and I kind of hate social media… I take full responsibility for the whole thing going bust.
Which, I don’t mind saying, put me in a pretty bad emotional position. I’d been fond of joking that I was too ugly to appear in my own magazine, a reflection of the fact that I do feel insecure about my looks, my own damage from the Beauty Myth. But the nature of the socialized male ego is such that while one can take plenty of splash damage from the Beauty Myth, the Success Myth is usually a direct hit. And here I was, thirty-three years old and a failure in business.
“Failure” as a noun is one of those incredibly potent and damaging concepts, especially for men. American culture in particular has a real habit of equating business success with personal virtue, our “anyone can make it if they really try” mythology. Therefore, the failure of the magazine meant that I, personally, was unworthy as a human being. Sure, I knew that it was gender-socialized bullshit, but knowing something and feeling it are two really different things. Hell, look two paragraphs up and see how much I felt compelled to insult myself, because the manly thing to do is accept responsibility for what a big fat failure you are. The despair, the feeling of profound and personal worthlessness, is hard to overstate. For a little while there, I was pretty seriously not okay. And I’m still gender-socialized enough that that’s a difficult sentence to type, because it feels like admitting weakness, which is impermissible.
Luckily, it was around that same time that I started blogging at No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz, and was startled to see it take off spectacularly well. It served as an antidote to the sense of failure. Suddenly I had an outlet for all the thoughts about gender issues I’d been mulling over for years, and my words were finding an audience. It turns out that one thing that really helps with feeling worthless is having a lot of people tell you that your writing has changed their perspective or made them feel understood. I’m aware that I’m spectacularly lucky to be able to say that from experience. And now, I’ve been invited to write for the Good Men Project, where I will be contributing more of my generalized sociological noodling, along with republishing some of my “greatest hits” from NSWATM. That, too, feels pretty damn validating; to be invited to join a community of this size and caliber helps me think that maybe, just maybe, I’m not a worthless bum after all.
Still think I’m ugly, though. Even though I know better.
photo laverrue / flickr