Madeleine Holden is a lawyer and writer, and the curator behind the wildly popular shaft-selfie rating site, Critique My Dick Pick [definitely NSFW]. When she's not being bombarded by submissions, she's active in the fights for feminism and against capitalism and the patriarchy. The Creators Project asked her to weigh in on the female gaze and the representation of the nude male figure in contemporary art. She even took the time to grade a few classic artworks in the vein of CMDP. Settle down, and listen up.
The male nude is having a cultural renaissance. Once popular in Ancient Greece and Rome, naked men have been largely ignored in the mainstream media for the last few centuries or so, thanks mostly to a frenzied occupation with the female form instead. Recently, though, the male nude has made a comeback. The modern woman is decreasingly reluctant to express her sexual desires, and if male bodies tickle her fancy, the rise of the internet and apps like Snapchat have meant that she can access what she wants to see instantly. The popularity of Magic Mike XXL is testament to the changing tides—a film which was greeted in its opening week by a 96% female audience, and which has already generated an enormous amount of commentary and cult fandom. It's a film that caters to the (presumed) sexual desires of women; a plotless blur of dancing, muscled men stripping their clothes off entirely for our benefit. In other words, a complete flip of the dominant cultural script.
Patriarchal norms die hard, though, and we're still up against ancient attitudes that dictate that women should be desirable, but keep our own desires quiet for fear of being the kind of slutty, uncouth woman who speaks openly about what turns her on. A heterosexual male gaze still dominates our advertising and media, and a narrowly prescribed ideal of female beauty is what we're force-fed: women who are no fatter than Kim Kardashian, no darker than Beyoncé, no older than Nicki Minaj, and with fewer human imperfections than a retouched ad for anti-acne cream. We're bombarded with images of this thin, young, light-skinned version of the female form at every turn, and the presumed beneficiary is a heterosexual man, with exacting (and yawn-inducing) taste. This is what's known as the male gaze, and it's been the dominant presentation of erotic material for centuries. Women, however, are starting to push back.
Some combination of living in the ongoing wake of the Feminist Movement and the age of the internet has meant that the long-ignored state of female horniness is finally flourishing. The digital world has provided a democratic platform for women to speak up about our sexual desires, and it's made room for more varied and female-focused internet porn and erotica; with websites like Tumblr and apps like Snapchat and Tinder facilitating our ability to seek out and look at the people we find attractive. Female performers are increasingly vocal about women's needs and wants in the bedroom—consider, for example, Rihanna's suggestive refrain, "I love it, I love it, I love it when you eat it" ringing out on Top 40 radio with her innuendo-laden hit “Cockiness,” as well as the rise of shows like Broad City which portray women’s sex lives realistically (and hilariously).
So-called "porn for women" has long consisted of recycled porn for gay men and has tended to be produced by men with a stereotypical idea of what women want (think Fabio with a nine-inch cock), but women are finally starting to bring our own critical standards and input to the erotic material supposedly aimed at us. It has gradually occurred to producers and advertisers that there is money to be made from centering the female gaze, so films like Magic Mike XXL are being made and will continue to proliferate. We can expect to see more and more women taking the driver's seat by producing and directing our own movies, art, and erotica.
Men are now getting a tiny taste of what it feels like to be put under the microscope; being gazed at rather than occupying the default position of gazer. The responses from online Regular Joes have been hyperbolic and devoid of irony: "Impossible standards!" some of them are crying, "Imagine the response if we switched the genders!" (Just imagine.) Some are even making the premature claim that men are now more objectified than women; vowing that they won’t start whining to the online Everyday Sexism Project about the sexism they face (because it’s non-existent). Bless these men and their obliviousness to all of recorded history, but perhaps now that the tables have turned we can have a serious conversation about objectification. It’s dehumanizing to reduce any person to an object, and no man or woman should be treated like a mere collection of aesthetically-appealing body parts. Men need to get real about the power dynamics and historical realities here: the heterosexual male gaze has dominated our art and popular culture for centuries, and women have always faced—and continue to face—a relentless and demonstrably more damaging level of objectification.
The rise of the female gaze is largely a positive, equalising force. Movies like Magic Mike XXL remind us that there is a vast, untapped wellspring of female pleasure and desire to explore. Producers, directors and creatives should continue to push the margins until queer, POC, and other marginalized groups have their desires heard and normalized too. One day all of us will be able to grab our popcorn and take to the big screen to see a plurality of diverse, smoking-hot bodies.
For more from Madeleine Holden, visit Critique My Dick Pic.