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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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“Never could I tell him it was him.”

 

 

Rufus being Rufus. By atp tyreseus [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Rufus Wainwright’s song, “The Art Teacher,” which I had the great joy of hearing live last week, contains one of the most interesting depictions of female heterosexuality around. The song is told from the perspective of a woman reflecting back on her youth. She remembers going to a museum with her art class. “He asked us what our favorite work of art was. And never could I tell him it was him. Oh I wish I could tell him, oh I wish I could have told him.” But she can’t, she couldn’t. “He was not that much older than I was,” but she was “in uniform,” meaning he was probably too old all the same.


When we meet her again, we learn that she is now married to “an executive company head,” and owns a piece of the art by this teacher’s preferred artist. “And here I am, in this uniform-ish pants-suit sort of thing, thinking of the art teacher. I was just a girl then. And never have I loved since then. No, never have I loved any other man.”


It is something of a cliché that gay men – when they’ve finished telling straight men how to dress – offer up advice, or a shoulder to cry on, to straight women. A potentially offensive cliché, if the implication is that gay men exist only relative to women, as accessories, with no life of their own. And so we might be reluctant to read “The Art Teacher” as having anything to do with heterosexuals. (The ‘this is not about you’ argument.) There is also a long tradition of gay men creating or acting in love stories between straight couples, channeling their own relationships into ones acceptable for mainstream audiences.


But I don’t think we’re compelled to use that interpretation here – Wainwright has been out since the days when I was just a girl, in uniform, and has written plenty of songs about men who love men. If he’d wanted to write about a man reflecting on a boyhood crush on a dude, he’d have done so. I take “The Art Teacher” as a song that really is about the woes of straight women, ones gay men would be less likely to experience, and the apparent backstory to the song would support the hypothesis I came to before Googling it.


“The Art Teacher” is a song about male beauty as experienced by a woman, young and then not so young. And it points to a really basic but rarely-discussed truth about female sexuality: Girls are allowed to care what men look like, to appreciate beauty in a man, whereas women are not. To be a woman is to care about a man’s status, and to play along with the script that says that men, and men alone, are visual creatures. A script that requires a woman to say of the man she’s marrying that she was not attracted to him initially (but oh, how he was to her), but he pursued, and eventually her sensible desire to start a family caused her to consent. The message the song conveys is that women do appreciate male beauty. That this is not something women conveniently grow out of. But that women somehow can’t demand this in a partner as an adult.


I identify as a feminist for all the usual reasons – women should be able to succeed professionally, to control their own fertility, etc. – but also for this somewhat obscure one: women should (and can!) feel entitled to selecting a partner they find physically attractive. “Entitled,” though, what a word, so let me explain.



While we chastise straight men who insist they’d only be satisfied with swimsuit models, we tend to accept that a man will not enter into a romantic relationship with a woman he’s not attracted to physically. This is in part because of our understanding that it is physically impossible for a man to consummate a relationship with a woman who doesn’t to it for him. (One need only point to the children born of marriages in which it later turns out the husband/father is gay to realize why this is ridiculous, but anyway.)

But it’s also entitlement. A straight man, if he’s going to be with someone at all, deserves to be with a woman he enjoys looking at. As for women? It’s not phrased as, women don’t deserve men they find good-looking. It’s more phrased as, female sexuality doesn’t work like that. It’s about getting to know a guy, and struggling to overcome whichever natural revulsion to intimacy. (See the “Seinfeld” where Elaine, a woman who sleeps with a healthy number of men, states that the male body is repulsive, and that the woman who appreciate it are perverse.)

But the thing is, women care. This doesn’t mean demanding abs, nor becoming repulsed when the aging process does its usual number on one’s partner of however many decades. It just means that initially, women, like men, want there to be some physical connection, some reason that this person, of all the people on the planet, is to be more than just a friend. Women should feel entitled to this bare minimum, and yet don’t. And yet kind of do. But feel guilty. Leading some to write letters to advice-columnists, such as:

To Emily Yoffe:

I am married to a kind, generous, attractive, wonderful man. The problem? I am not attracted to him. Actually, I am sometimes turned-off by him. I have battled these feelings since before we even got married. I think I married him because he is such a wonderful person, and I thought I would be blowing it if I passed on the opportunity to spend my life with someone who treats me so well. [....]

To Dan Savage:

I am a 25-year-old bi woman in a monogamous relationship with a straight man. We have been living together for about a year, and I suspect he is ready to pop the question any day now. I couldn’t be more excited about spending the rest of my life with him. We are emotionally and financially compatible. We want the same things out of life, and he treats me better than anyone I’ve been with before.

The problem is that I am not physically attracted to him. He is physically a bear—overweight, hairy, and masculine. My physical preference is for twinks—skinny, tall, and hairless boys. When I crawl into bed with him, Dan, I don’t really want to jump his bones. I want to snuggle up under a blanket and snooze.

Both of these letters go on, with further explanation as to why this particular case is incredibly unique, as they all are. But the essential in both is that the letter-writer does not believe herself entitled to anything more than being treated well.

Note that in both cases, the woman is not upset that the man has changed physically – there had been a lack of physical attraction from the get-go. Note, too, that the second letter-writer articulates very clearly what it is she prefers, and it sounds kind of… attainable.

If these letters had come from men, one angle that might have come up, either in the letters or the responses, is that it’s unfair to your partner to be with them if you don’t find them attractive. We assume that a woman’s vanity would be just crushed if she learned that a man was with her despite her appearance. But are men so different? “Seinfeld” – the Proust of my generation - says no: when Elaine tells George that a woman he’s dating doesn’t care about looks, as if this is a good thing for him, George takes this as a negative comment about his looks (which, well, it is) and is less than pleased. So I suppose if women truly cannot demand partners they are attracted to for selfish reasons, they could consider doing so for the sake of the dudes they’re with.

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