Saturday, February 25, 2006

Men are sublime.

UPDATE: Lots of discussion in the comments section on this post.

Timothy Sandefur asks, in re the Vanity Fair cover hubbub:
Is the preference of female over male nudity due to some objective aesthetic superiority of women over men, or is this determined simply by a person’s sexual preference? Do women’s magazines not feature male nudity because women don’t find that as compelling as straight men find female nudity? Or is it, as I think, because naked women are prettier than naked men?
As a heterosexual woman, I'd like to agree with Phoebe: women like to see naked men, and if it were not for the impact of gendered expectations about female sexuality, female consumption of images of unclad males would be much higher. (Phoebe also aptly demonstrates the absurdity of the familiar line about women being interested in character rather than physicality by taking it to its utmost extreme.) (Update: this post makes me think that transmen illustrate Phoebe's point even more keenly. How many women are willing to date a man with a vagina? It's not just gay men for whom a penis must be "the prelude to a kiss.")

The predominance of female nudes in art can easily be explained by the centuries of overwhelming dominance of the fine arts by men. Access to art training was a major factor, as unchaperoned women were unlikely to be left alone with art teachers, for obvious reasons. Similarly, until relatively recently it was viewed as unseemly for women to hire male models at all, much less nude models. Female models were easier for male artists to come by and might offer the bonus of being an easy sexual conquest for the painter or sculptor. Male artists, the majority being heterosexual, had both motive and opportunity to produce female nudes.

Setting aside the issue of whether centuries of male dominance explains the preference for female nudity, is Mr. Sandefur's correct to assert that naked women are prettier than naked men? My first reaction to this assertion was to draw the parallel between the beautiful and the sublime.

Intrinsic in this view is our historical perspective of women as the weaker, lesser sex. Beauty is a property of the balanced, the pleasing, the graceful. The smooth contours and tidier genitalia of the female body meet this standard. But like many beautiful things, a female nude is not threatening. She lacks power to affect the viewer beyond the stimulation of the gaze. She exists to please: a beautiful decoration. The male nude is messier, woolier, more angular. Muscles, like the rolling thunderheads in a Turner seascape, threaten and awe us. With power comes danger, but with danger, desire. If the female nude is a lush landscape of rolling English hills, the male nude is the jagged mountain range. The women here, in their pale languor, may be beautiful, but they are not dangerous. Here, the male body retains a sense of dynamism and coiled power even while sprawled and still. One need not find the male body sexually attractive to appreciate its sublimity, but by definition a sublime image is less comfortable and more challenging than a beautiful one. Between the confrontational subject matter and the preexisting biases toward production of beautiful female nudes which aesthetically and (for the majority of creators and viewers) sexually gratify, is it any wonder that we have a dearth of naked males in media?

(Interestingly, the modern push for women to be both curvy and fit contrasts with the older, softer, more forgiving model of the female nude. Note Ms. Knightley's pronounced abdominal muscles; they seem odd in such a retrograde image. The male model's physique has probably changed only slightly, with more muscular definition becoming de rigueur. However, these shifts might make more female images sublime and increase the sublimity of male images, but do not alter the basic theory.)
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