Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth,
Simone de Beauvoir
The relation of women to culture has been indirect. We have discussed how the present psychical organization of the two sexes dictates that most women spend their emotional energy on men, whereas men “sublimate” theirs into work. In this way women’s love becomes raw fuel for the cultural machine. (Not to mention the Great Ideas born rather more directly from early-morning boudoir discussions.)
In addition to providing its emotional support, women had another important indirect relation to culture: they inspired it. The Muse was female. Men of culture were emotionally warped by the sublimation process; they converted life to art, thus could not live it. But women, and those men who were excluded from culture, remained in direct contact with their experience—fit subject matter.
That women were intrinsic to the very content of culture is borne out by an example from the history of art: Men are erotically stimulated by the opposite sex; painting was male; the nude became a female nude. Where the art of the male nude reached high levels, either in the work of an individual artist, e. g., Michelangelo, or in a whole artistic period, such as that of classical Greece, men were homosexual.
The subject matter of art, when there is any, is today even more largely inspired by women. Imagine the elimination of women characters from popular films and novels, even from the work of “highbrow” directors—Antonioni, Bergman, or Godard; there wouldn’t be much left. For in the last few centuries, particularly in popular culture— perhaps related to the problematic position of women in society—women have been the main subject of art. In fact, in scanning blurbs of even one month’s cultural production, one might believe that women were all anyone ever thought about.
But what about the women who have contributed directly to culture? There aren’t many. And in those cases where individual women have participated in male culture, they have had to do so on male terms. And it shows. Because they have had to compete as men, in а male game—while still being pressured to prove themselves in their old female roles, a role at odds with their self-appointed ambitions—it is not surprising that they are seldom as skilled as men at the game of culture.
And it is not just a question of being as competent, it is also a question of being authentic. We have seen in the context of love how modern women have imitated male psychology, confusing it with health, and have thereby ended up even worse off than men themselves: they were not even being true to homegrown sicknesses. And there are even more complex layers to this question of authenticity: women have no means of coming to an understanding of what their experience is, or even that it is different from male experience. The tool for representing, for objectifying one’s experience in order to deal with it, culture, is so saturated with male bias that women almost never have a chance to see themselves culturally through their own eyes. So that finally, signals from their direct experience that conflict with the prevailing (male) culture are denied and repressed.
Thus because cultural dicta are set by men, presenting only the male view—and now in a super-barrage—women are kept from achieving an authentic picture of their reality. Why do women, for example, get aroused by a pornography of female bodies? In their ordinary experience of female nudity, say in a gym locker room, the sight of other nude females might be interesting (though probably only insofar as they rate by male sexual standards), but not directly erotic. Cultural distortion of sexuality explains also how female sexuality gets twisted into narcissism: women make love to themselves vicariously through the man, rather than directly making love to him. At times this cultural barrage of man/subject, woman/ob – ject desensitizes women to male forms to such a degree that they are even orgasmically affected.
There are other examples of the distorting effects on female vision of an exclusively male culture. Let us go back to the history of figurative painting once again: we have seen how in the tradition of the nude, male heterosexual inclinations came to emphasize the female rather than the male as the more aesthetic and pleasing form. Such a predilection for either one over the other, of course, is based on a sexuality which is in itself artificial, culturally created. But at least one might then expect the opposite bias to prevail in the view of women painters still involved in the tradition of the nude. This is not the case. In any art school in the country one sees classrooms full of girls working diligently from the female model, accepting that the male model is somehow less aesthetic,, at best perhaps novel, and certainly never questioning why
the male model wears a jock strap when the female model wouldn’t dream of appearing in so much as a G-string.
1 Again, looking at the work of well-known women paint – [ ers associated with the Impressionist School of the nine – I teenth century, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, one wonders at their obsessive preoccupation with traditional – j ly female subject matter: women, children, female nudes,
I interiors, etc. This is partially explained by political con – j ditions of that period: women painters were lucky to be f allowed to paint anything at all, let alone male models. I And yet it is more than that. These women, for all their I superb draftsmanship and compositional skill, remained
minor painters because they had “lifted” a set of traditions and a. view of the world that was inauthentic for them. They worked within the limits’of what had been defined as female by a male tradition: they saw women through male eyes, painted a male’s idea of female. And they carried it to an extreme, for they were attempting to outdo men at their own game; they had fallen for a (lovely) line. And thus the falseness that corrupts their work, making it “feminine,” i. e., sentimental, light It would take a denial of all cultural tradition for women to produce even a true “female” art. For a woman who participates in (male) culture must achieve and be rated by standards of a tradition she had no part in making—and certainly there is no room in tha£ tradition for a female view, even if she could discover what it was. In those cases where a woman, tired of losing at a male game, has attempted to participate in culture in a female I way, she has been put down and misunderstood, named I by the (male) cultural establishment “Lady Artist,” i. e.,
trivial, inferior. And even where it must be (grudgingly) admitted she is “good,” it is fashionable—a cheap way to indicate one’s own “seriousness” and refinement of taste —to insinuate that she is good but irrelevant.
Perhaps it is true that a presentation of only the female side of things—which tends to be one long protest and complaint rather than the portrayal of a full and substantive existence—is limited. But an equally rele
vant question, one much less frequently asked, is: Is it any more limited than the prevailing male view of things, which—when not taken as absolute truth—is at least seen as “serious,” relevant, and important? Is Mary McCarthy in The Group really so much worse a writer than Norman Mailer in The American Dream? Or is she perhaps describing a reality that men, the controllers and critics of the Cultural Establishment, can’t tune in on?
That men and women are tuned to a different cultural wavelength, that in fact there exists a wholly different reality for men and women, is apparent in our crudest cultural form—comic books. From my own experience: When I was little my brother had literally a room-size collection of comic books. But though I was a greedy reader, this vast comic book library interested me not in the least. My literary taste was completely different from his. He preferred “heavies” like War Comics (Aak-Aak – Aak!) and Superman; and for relief, “funnies” like Bugs Bunny, Tweetie and Sylvester, Tom and Jerry, and all the stuttering pigs who took forever to get a rather obvious message out. Though these “funnies” grated on my more aesthetic sensibilities, I would read them in a pinch. But had I had an allowance as big, and as little parental supervision, I might have indulged in a “heavy” library of Love Comics (large tear. Oh Tod, don’t tell Sue about us, she’d die), an occasional True Confessions, and for “light” relief, Archie and Veronica. Or the occasional more imaginative variations of boys’ comics, like Plastic- man (Superman with a rubber arm that could reach around blocks) or Uncle Scrooge McDuck editions of Donald Duck; I loved the selfish extravagance of his bathing in money. ((Many women—deprived of Self—have confessed the same girlhood passion). Even more likely, I would not have invested in comic books at all. Fairy tales, much less realistic, were a better trip.
My brother thought girls’ taste was “drippy,” and I thought he was a crude slob. Who was right? We both were; but he won (he owned the library).
This division continues to operate at higher cultural
levels, I had to force myself to read Mailer, Heller, Don – Ieavy, and others for the same reasons that I couldn’t stand my brother’s library: to me they seemed only complex versions of (respectively) Superman, Aak-Aak-Aak, and the Adventures of Bugs Bunny. But though the “male-” library continued to repel me, in the process of developing “good taste” (male taste), I also lost my love for the “female” library, indeed I developed an abhorrence; and I would—I’m ashamed to admit it—far sooner have been caught dead with Hemingway than with Virginia Woolf in my hands.
In order to illustrate this cultural dichotomy in more objective terms, we don’t need to attack the more obvious paper tigers (all senses implied) who consciously present a “male” reality—viz. Hemingway, Jones, Mailer, Farrell, Algren and the rest. The new Virility School in twentieth – century literature is in itself a direct response, indeed a male cultural backlash, to the growing threat to male supremacy—Virility, Inc., a bunch of culturally deprived “tough guys,” punching away to save their manhood. And though they get more credit, these artists write about the “male” experience no more perceptively than Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Anai’s Nin have written – about the female experience. In fact they are guilty of a mystification of their experience that makes their writing phony.
Instead, we wifi examine a bias more insidious (because less obvious) in male writers who honestly attempt to describe the whole spectrum of male/female experience —Bellow, Malamud, Updike, Roth, etc.—but who fail because, often without realizing it, they have described this whole from a limited (male) angle.
Let’s look briefly at a story by Herbert Gold, not a “male” writer in either style or subject matter. He writes about what concerns women, that is, relationships, preferably male/female; marriages; divorces; affairs. In this story, “What’s Become of Your Creature?” he describes the affair of a harassed young college professor with his blonde, Bohemianish student.
The picture we get of Lenka Kuwaila from the male
character’s view is only sensual, if sensitive on those terms. The story begins:
A girl. A gay, pretty and sullen girl, with full marks for both sweetness and cruelty. When he looked in her desk for cigarettes, there was a silken pile of panties folded like flowers, dizzying him with the joy of springtime. When she put on a pair of them, suddenly filling out the tiny pair of petals of cloth in two paired buds, it was as if the sun had forced a flower into delicate Easter bloom. Oh, he needed her, loved her, and so for honor to them both, let us tell the truth, as straight as truth comes.
But the truth that we get “straight as truth comes” is only his view of the truth:
There is a time in the life of every man when he can do anything. It was this time in the life of Frank Curtiss. Despair with his wife had given up to deep gratification with a beautiful girl; he even did better at home; matters cooled and calmed; his work went well; he hardly needed sleep and did not suffer his usual rose fever during the spring he knew Lenka. No sniffles, no pink eyes. Expanded breathing, sharp sight. Of the occasional headache of fatigue and excess he was cured by the touch of her hand, her welcome when he came smiling, showing teeth, through her window.
But her truth must have been an altogether different one, a truth of which there is no trace in the story until one day (out of the blue) Lenka writes his wife a long letter. The failing marriage that had been improving steadily since Frank began his affair with Lenka is destroyed for good:
Lenka left New York without seeing him after his anguished phone call to her: “Why? Why? Why did you have to do it that way, Lenka? Can’t you see how it destroys everything between us, even the past?”
“I don’t care about memories. What’s over means nothing. Over. You didn’t want to do more than crawl through my window a couple of times a week—”
“But to write to her like that—what meant—how—”
“You cared more about a cold bitch than you cared for me. Just because you had a child.”
She hung up on him.
He stood shrugging at the telephone. Women were hanging up on him all over the world. He was disconnected.
Feeling betrayed and tricked, Frank bewilderedly nurses his wounds; throughout the rest of the story one feels his puzzlement: he does not understand what led her to do it, he does not “understand women.” Finallyjie. lets it rest by granting her “full marks for cruelty” as well as sweetness.
But Lenka’s “cruelty” is the direct result of his inability to see her as more than “a girl” (gay, pretty, or sullen), as, instead, perhaps, a complex human being with a self – interest not identical with his. However, due to Gold’s authentic recounting of incident and dialogue, a sensitive (probably female) reader might read between the lines: Lenka was the one betrayed. Here is Frank a few years later in Manhattan:
He found a girl to join him in biting into an apple, sucking the sweet juice of it at dawn, finally kissing in good friendship and turning on their sides to sleep. … He felt free. … He threw away his bottle of aspirins. His married vision of himself as a heavy, shaggy, weary buffalo, head low and muzzle hurt, gave way to another image—he was, lean, his posture was good, he was an agile bucko. When his former wife remarried, his last vestige of guilt disappeared. Free, free. He played badminton twice a week with a French girl who pronounced it ‘ ‘B add-min g-torm. ’ ’
A gay bachelor now, Frank impulsively calls Lenka up one day:
But after he told her how long he had been in New York, she said that she was not interested in seeing him.
“I held a grudge, you can understand that,” he said. “I still think you were very wrong, but I’m grateful anyway. It worked out for the best.”
“And it’s over,” she said.
Later he runs into her to find her wasted on junk, whoring for a black musician:
She may have invented a foolish lie [in order to invite him up to her room], but she recognized the glare of contempt on his face, and in her life of now a quarter of a century, she had learned only one way to answer the judgment of men. She slid against him, on her face a mixture of coyness and dread, a flirtatious half-smile, a slinking catlike practiced leaning against him, and her eyes filled with tears as she shut them, tears balanced on her wetted lashes, slipping down her cheeks. “Frank,” she said haltingly. “I stopped remembering for a long time, I don’t know, things were difficult, I thought you were too angry. . . But I’ve been remembering. . . That’s why. . . Forgive. .
He put his arms around her, held her to him, but with more confusion than either amorousness or tenderness. . . .
Then he thought of the letters she had just now lied about, and suddenly, as she turned her head up wanting to be kissed, his most vivid fantasy was this one: She was unclean. His uncurbed dread ran towards a muddle—deceit, illness, secret pity, slime, and retribution. Not knowing what he feared, he thought only: filth, cunning, running filth, blotches, sores. Because he could not bear her sorrows, he thought: Deceit and cunning and disease!
He pulled away before their mouths touched; her nails clawed along his arm, shredding skin; he fled, hearing her sobs at the open door as he careened down the infected stairs and into the free air of the street
Curtain: Frank caresses his newly pregnant wife, wondering whatever-happened-to-Lenka.
This is not a male story in subject, and it is not a “male” story in style—there І6 enough description of emotion in it to shame any male writer. But it is still a “male” story by virtue of its peculiar limitation of vision: it does not understand women. Lenka’s sensuality and loveliness is as much of her as Frank is able to comprehend. Her motives for writing to his wife, her refusal to see him, her attempted seduction, described with such guilty loathing—these Frank can’t deal with, just as in real life men can’t deal with them ("Became he could not bear her sorrows, he thought: Deceit and cunning and disease!”). To know a woman beyond the level of her delightfulness is too much for him. Women are judged only in terms of himself, and what they can bring to him, whether beauty and joy or pain and sorrow. Whichever it is, he does not question it, not understanding that his own. behavior had been or could be a determining influence.
One can imagine an entirely different story of the same affair, even using the same information and dialogue, only this time written by Lenka. Her behavior then might appear not irrational, but entirely understandable; instead, the male character would come out shallow. Perhaps, indeed, we might end up with more than just an opposite sexual bias. We might get as much as three-quarters of the picture (i. e., Frank shallow because he is unable to live up to his emotions), since women in general, through long oppression, have learned to be hipper to male psychology than vice versa. But this has seldom happened in literature, for most Lenkas are sufficiently destroyed by their use and abuse never to write their own stories coherently.
Thus the difference between the “male” approach to art and the “female,” is not, as some like to think, simply a difference of “style” in treating the same subject matter (personal, subjective, emotional, descriptive vs. vigorous, spare, hardhitting, cool, objective) but the very subject matter itself. The sex role system divides human experience; men and women live in these different halves of reality; and culture reflects this.
Only a few artists have overcome this division in their work. And one wonders whether homosexuals are correct in their claim. But if not through physical expression, then in some other way the greatest artists became mentally androgynous. In the twentieth century, for example, writers of the stature of Proust, Joyce, Kafka did it either by physically identifying with the female (Proust), by imaginarily crossing the line at will (Joyce), or by retreating to an imaginary world rarely affected by the dichotomy (Kafka). But not only do most artists not overcome, they are not even aware of the existence of a cultural limitation based on sex—so much is the male reality accepted by both male and female as Reality.
And what about women artists? We have seen that it has only been in the last several centuries that women have been permitted to participate—and then only on an individual basis, and on male terms—in the making of culture. And even so their vision had become inauthentic: they were denied the use of the cultural mirror.
And there are many negative reasons that women have entered art: Affluence always creates female dilettantism, e. g., the Victorian “young lady” with her accomplishments, or the arts of the Japanese geisha—for, in addition to serving as a symbol of male luxury, women’s increasing idleness under advancing industrialism presents a practical problem: female discontent has to be eased to keep it from igniting. Or women may be entering art as a refuge. Women today are still excluded from the vital power centers of human activity; and art is one of the last self – determining occupations left—often done in solitude. But in this sense women are like a Petty Bourgeoisie trying to open up shop in the age of Corporate Capitalism.
For the higher percentages of women in art lately may tell us more about the state of art than about the state of women. Are we to feel cheered that women have taken over in a capacity soon to be automated. out? (Like 95 Percent Black at the Post Office, this is no sign of integration; on the contrary, undesirables are being shoved into the least desirable positions—Here, now get in and keep your mouth shut!) That art is no longer a vital center that attracts the best men of our generation may also be a product of the male/female division, as I shall attempt to show in the next chapter. But the animation of women and homosexuals in the arts today may signify only the scurrying of rats near a dying body.
But if it has not yet created great women artists, women’s new literacy has certainly created a female audience. Just as male audiences have always demanded, and received, male art to reinforce their particular view of reality, so a female audience demands a “female” art to reinforce the female reality. Thus the birth of the crude feminine novel in the nineteenth century, leading to the love story of our own day, so ever-present in popular culture (“soap opera”); the women’s magazine trade; Valley of the Dolls. These may be crude beginnings. Most of this art is as yet primitive, clumsy, poor. But occasionally the female reality is documented as clearly as the male reality has always been, as, for example, in the work of Anne Sexton.
Eventually, out of this ferment—perhaps very soon— we may see the emergence of an authentic female art. But the development of “female” art is not to be viewed as reactionary, like its counterpart, the male School of Virility. Rather it is progressive: an exploration of the strictly female reality is a necessary step to correct the warp in a sexually biased culture. It is only after we have integrated the dark side of the moon into our world view that we can begin to talk seriously of universal culture.
* * *
Thus, all of culture has been to different degrees corrupted by sexual polarization. We can summarize the various forms this corruption takes in the following way:
1) Male Protest Art. Art that self-consciously glorifies the male reality (as opposed to taking for granted that it constitutes reality itself) is only a recent development. I see it as a direct response to the threat to male supremacy contained in the first blurring of rigid sex roles. Such an art is reactionary by definition. To those men who feel that this art best expresses what they are living and feeling, I recommend a major overhaul of personality.
2) The Male Angle. This art fails to achieve a comprehensive world view because it does not recognize that male reality is not Reality, but only one half of reality. Thus its portrayal of the opposite sex and its behavior (half of humanity) is false: the artist himself does not understand female motives. Sometimes, as in the Herbert Gold story quoted, the women characters can still come through if the author has been faithful to at least the how—if not the why—of their behavior.
A better-known example: The character of Catherine in Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim is drawn from real life. There are many such vamps and femmes fatales around, in reality nothing more than women who refuse to accept their powerlessness. To keep an illusion of equality and to gain an indirect power over men, Catherine must use “mystery” (Sphinx), unpredictability (jumping in the Seine), and wiles (sleeping around with Mystery Men to keep Him dangling). When, in the end, as all women must, she loses even this illegitimate power, her pride will not admit defeat: She kills the man who had dared escape her, along with herself. But even here, in an accurately drawn art, the male bias comes out. The director goes along with the Mystery Woman mystique, does not probe to find out what’s beneath it. Moreover, he doesn’t want to know: he is using it as a source of eroticism. The picture we get of Catherine comes only through a veil.
3) (Individually Cultivated) Androgynous Mentality. Even when the sex limitations have been overcome by the individual artist, his art must reveal a reality made ugly by its cleavage. A brief example, again from film: Though the Swedish directors have been notably free from personal sex prejudice—the women they portray are human first and female second—Liv Ullman’s portrayal of Noble Wife faithfully accompanying her husband into his growing madness (Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf) or loving him through his moral degeneration (Bergman’s Shame) or Lena Nyman’s confused sensitivity in Sjoman’s / Am Curious (Yellow) are descriptions not of a liberated sexuality but of a stiff-unresolved conflict between the sexual and the human identity.
4) Female Art. This is a new development, not to be confused with “male” art, even if, so far, it has been guilty of the same bias in reverse. For this may signify the beginnings of a new consciousness, rather than an ossification of the old. Within the next decade we may see its growth into a powerful new art—perhaps arising in conjunction with the feminist political movement or at its inspiration—that will, for the first time, authentically grapple with the reality that women live in.
We may also see a feminist Criticism, emphasizing, in order to correct, the various forms of sex bias now corrupting art. However, in our third category, that art which .is guilty only of reflecting the human price of a sex – divided reality, great care would have to be taken that criticism be directed, not at the artists for their (accurate) portrayal of the imperfect reality, but at the grotesqueness of that reality itself as revealed by the art.
Only a feminist revolution can eliminate entirely the sex schism causing these cultural distortions. Until then “pure art” is a delusion—a delusion responsible both for the inauthentic art women have produced until now, as well as for the corruption of (male) culture at large. The incorporation of the neglected half of human experience —the female experience—into the body of culture, to create an all-encompassing culture, is only the first step, a precondition; but the schism of reality itself must be overthrown before, there can be a true cultural revolution.