The Empress Has No Clothes: On Writing Lustfully
“You’ve got an awfully kissable mouth.”
— Warren to Bernice in The Great Gatsby
A woman’s body is a poem,
Composed by God, and proven
In Nature’s mighty registry,
Because the spirit moved Him…
A woman’s body is indeed
The Song of Songs in splendor;
The lovely, wondrous strophes are
Her limbs, so white and slender.
O what a heavenly idea
Must this bare neck be, surely,
Upon which sways the little head,
The keystone, pert and curly!
The rosebuds of her breasts, they are
Unspeakably charming, the ceasura
That parts them, so dramatic.
And the creator makes the hips
In parallel formation;
With fig-leaf, the parenthesis
Is also a nice location.
It’s no abstract conceptual poem!
The song has flesh, combining
Both hand and foot; to laugh, to kiss
With lovely lips a-rhyming.
— Song of Songs, Heinrich Heine
We all think it. We all feel it. We all express it. And yet, lust has a bad rep. After all, lust is one of the seven deadly sins. A conduit for all those other filthy vices: avarice, gluttony, profit hunting, power, covetousness, the pleasures of the eye, the pleasures of the flesh and ‘soulless’ hedonism.
Lust is the trashy ‘other’ of the respectable Love. Love is angelic, stable and restrained by reason. Lust is Luciferean, volatile and insatiable. It doesn’t give respect to continence. It is immune to reason. It can trespass into moments where rational stoicism is required. Lust is also propulsive and brimming with vitality, a life affirming force of energy and excess. Humanity literally wouldn’t exist without it.
We almost never use the phrase ‘falling in lust’ or ‘lust at first sight’. Even though this happens all the time. So it may seem quixotic, even a bit improper, to be an advocate of lust. Yet, someone has to stand up to the task surely?
Relatively recently, Thomas Chatterton Williams was the subject of a Twitter storm in a teacup because a 2018 profile of Emily Ratajkowski he wrote for Marie Claire France (partially in collaboration with his wife) ‘resurfaced’ (why do these things always resurface as if it went into hiding only for them to come back into existence to haunt its creator of their past transgressions?), where he ‘objectified’ her by describing her as having the “best breasts of her generation” and brazenly talking about her “extraordinarily deep neckline without a bra” and was sexist for being gobsmacked that a model who does photoshoots in her birthday suit for a living isn’t an airheaded bimbo, but likes to read books, especially of recherché Chilean authors such as Roberto Bolaño.
In fairness, I would be pleasantly surprised, even a little nonplussed, if I was in the same situation, even if it was a male celebrity. She wasn’t exactly reading The Great Gatsby or Crime and Punishment, the standard classics bookish people are meant to be familiar with. No, this was Bolaño, who, let’s be real, not that many people have heard of. This is nerd level stuff. In any case, it would’ve been interesting to explore Ratajkowski’s literary tastes in more detail.
Chatterton Williams’ ‘objectifying’ comments did read rather ham-fisted and awkward. It doesn’t look good when you describe an attractive woman as a “creature”. I don’t think he committed a ‘sin’ for writing about Ratajkowski’s body and her looks. Neither do I think its haram in general for a man (yes a man!) to express his ‘thirst’ for a woman in this kind of context. It’s just it can be done in a more debonair manner without cloddish references to animalism. But that is a personal aesthetic judgement, and I’m not going to beat proverbially beat Chatterton Williams up over it.
Significantly, Chatterton Williams isn’t the first male cultural critic to have been ‘called out’ for his ‘inappropriate’ comments on female celebrities (nor will he be the last). Every so often you will be informed of the ‘epidemic’ of male cultural critics being horny, and ipso facto revealing the endemic sexism that still stubbornly lingers in our culture.
Art Tavana lost his column for L.A Weekly shortly after he wrote an article titled “Sky Ferreira’s Sex Appeal is What Pop Music Need Right Now” ignited an outrage hurricane because in passing he praised her “killer tits” and compared them to Madonna’s “atomic boobs”. Even though he mentioned her non-sexual qualities such as her charisma and noted that her “sex appeal shouldn’t be objectified or rejected” but “should be analyzed, studied, photographed in the same way we’ve spent decades writing essays about Elvis’ hips and Madonna’s breasts.”
David Edelstein of Vulture got put under the coals for describing Gal Gadot as a “superbabe in the woods” in a review of Wonder Woman and in particular for getting a stiffy when Wonder Woman stripped down to her vintage corset and noted the potential disappointment of fans since Patty Jenkins didn’t flesh out the S&M origins of the original comic book myth. He later issued an apology walking back some of his comments.
In 2018, Anthony Lane also a veteran critic at The New Yorker penned a ‘gross’ review of Incredibles 2 that went viral because of its ‘salacious overtones’ unbefitting for a professional critic reviewing a family friendly animated movie. He had the hots for the thicc mum, Elastigirl, admiring her “her black mask, her long tall boots, and her empowering outfit, as tight as a second skin.” As is often the case, his previous misdemeanours ‘resurfaced’. Par example, a 2014 profile he did on Scarlett Johansson ‘resurfaced’ where he ruminated on her sex appeal, declaring her to be “radiant in the flesh”. This was supposedly supplementary evidence of his creepiness.
These slobbering gentlemen were skewered for their offence against feminine dignity and exhibiting “inappropriate uncle creepiness”. Perhaps a more elegant job could’ve been done to camouflage their phallic rush of blood. But that doesn’t mean the libido has no place in writing and criticism. Writing, as Daniel Coffeen has perceptively argued, is an erotic act.
One doesn’t need to be coarse about this. When watching anything, a film, a television show, an advert, a music video, a video game; desire, sensuality, eroticism and aesthetics are all an intrinsic part of our viewing experience. Actors and models are, among other things their bodies and faces. Their good looks isn’t simply bequeathed to them by natural selection. They have to work and enhance upon it, as their bodies are a crucial part of their craft. Beauty and sex appeal is virtually a requirement for showbiz. Moreover, so much of acting is linked to physicality and how actors are able to manipulate their bodies that eroticism and sensuality will be inevitable. And it’s no good deluding ourselves that this isn’t the case (or indeed that it shouldn’t).
As cinephiles, we trust our physical and emotional responses — tears, anger, fright — are trying to tell us something about what we are seeing on screen. Why not lust? If not then the Erotic thriller genre from Body Double to The Handmaiden, films that use the erotic and even the (soft) pornographic as a spectacle, partially designed to ravish your senses, would be diminished.
When we try to comprehend and articulate our instinctive responses to a film, we’re not exactly always going to so bluntly say “Lily James’ plush derrière!” (which you can see in its natural glory in The Exception or in tightly formed denim bell bottoms in Mamma Mia 2). But, hey, I just did. And sometimes it can even be actionable in a recommendation to a friend via text. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake you can say.
Visual gratification is one of the reasons why we enjoy watching films. The bliss of seeing beautifully composed humans on screen acting out a story, creating art and entertainment for our collective enjoyment is one of the foundational pleasures of film.
Our squeamishness about recognising ‘eye candy’ as a legitimate form of entertainment, especially in an art form as visual as cinema, is rooted in an idea that goes very deep in our culture and its philosophical infrastructure, so much so that we rarely name and directly interrogate it: the mind/body duality.
In ‘official’ Western culture, the human being has been conceived as divided into two distinct sections: the mind and the body. The mind is where the Apollonian building blocks of civilisation reside: reason, rationality, logic, morality, religion, discipline, order and industriousness. While the body inhabits our base, dirty animalistic ‘appetites’: lust, passion, sex, gluttony, ecstasy, intoxication, sensuality, dancing, fun. Not only are the mind and body viewed as distinct and different: they are fundamentally antagonistic to each other. The body is inferior to the mind — the idealised intellectual and spiritual essence in which all hope of human accomplishment, dignity and amour propre lay in. So the mind — or the soul as Christians would put it — has to discipline the body so that it doesn’t become degraded by its vices. “I discipline my body and make it my slave” declared Saul of Tarsus in the book Corinthians in the New Testament. In Christianity, particularly in the Pauline canon, the soul, or the conscious mind, is the only ‘real’ self. It’s the sinful flesh that is the false self.
All of the neurosis about sexuality that exist in our culture, the bedrock of the objections to prostitution, pornography, casual sex, homosexuality, nudity etc are fundamentally rooted in the ‘mind/body’ duality — which as Heinrich Heine once argued originates from humanity’s alienation from nature. It’s why traditional Western morality has viewed sex for for pleasure and fun as fundamentally immoral, and why the ‘ideal’ always posited has been an acorporeal union of souls within the context of a monogamous marriage.
The ‘mind/body’ duality is the reason why so called ‘people of the body’ (models, actors, porn stars and athletes) are stereotyped as airheads and somehow not seen as capable of intellectual pursuits. They supposedly think with their bodies, not their minds! Only a seconds thought is enough to see how garbage this kind of thinking is.
It’s also the reason why deriving pleasure from looking at other people’s bodies and giving your opinion on them is a faux pas in respectable society, as you are assessing a human by their body, their looks, their phenotype, all on the superficial, placing them on the level of animal, a ‘creature’, something totally defined by instinct and biology, as opposed to focusing on their mind and intellect, where their real humanity resides.
Because traditional patriarchal ideology has long associated women with ‘the body’ and all its ‘sins’ and ‘degrading’ features. And because this has historically been the basis to oppress and ‘discipline’ women, to demonise them as inferior to men, to defame their bodies as dirty and foul, many feminists have come to a position that problematises sexuality and sexual expression as a whole, as something that is defined by male desires and male standards, therefore inherently degrading to women.
If respect for women as equals with their male brothers is to be found in the ‘mind’, because that is where all the noble civilising human virtues are to be found that men have claimed for themselves and denied to women, then ‘the body’ has to be jettisoned as an enemy of women’s liberation. Hence the campaigns against prostitution, pornography and the polemics cranked out against the ‘male gaze’ and other ‘sexualised’ images of women.
The critiques of the ‘male gaze’ originate with Laura Mulvey in her influential essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Drawing upon Freud and Lacan, and loosely inspired by Sartre’s concept of ‘le regard’, the gaze, in Being and Nothingness, the argument states that in a patriarchal society where men not only have economic, but cultural power over women through control over the means of cultural production, sexual inequality manifests itself in cinematic representation. These representations of women are invented to tap into the unconscious desires of the male viewer and reflect them on screen to satisfy their deep seated scopophilic desires. So the male gaze is not neutral and objective but has a surreptitious agenda of its own. It is inherently objectifying, leery and narcissistic. It turns the woman into an object to looked at by the male subject, butchering her body into an assortment of parts, honed in on for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the ‘male’ spectator.
It is certainly true that historically because a certain demographic — white, heterosexual, male, bourgeois — have monopolised cultural power they feel at liberty to express their desires at the expense of female desires, which are negated, and gay and lesbian desires, slandered as ‘sick’ and ‘perverse’. Women especially have been seen asexual beings, until ‘sexualised’ by men. They’re not meant to have sexual agency and subjectivity. They’re not meant to be lustful. The ‘female gaze’ isn’t meant to be a thing. Oh! A woman couldn’t possibly think about sex. Such a thing could only coarsen the gentle sex.
However, the folk use of the male gaze is rather similar to how ‘orientalism’ is often blurted out as a swear word, a signal for how big and clever you are because you read this suave sounding theory and are able to do an exposition on it. Because humans are pattern seeking mammals people will search endlessly for examples that seem to fit their paradigm — some valid, some bullshit. Soon enough you get to the position where any instance where a woman is nude on screen in a way that could potentially be stimulating for men (as in almost always) is the ‘male gaze’ in action, therefore bad by definition and taken as evidence of how insidious and pervasive the male gaze is in our culture. Effectively, a theory becomes raised to the level of an orthodoxy you’re not meant to challenge.
One positive development in recent times because of sexual liberalisation has been female critics, writers and artists, being able to express their sexual agency and their desire for male flesh in their work independent of what men think, or whether the ‘male gaze’ is taking a peek or not. You could say the ‘female gaze’ is being cultivated. Though it is a bit amusing when a self-proclaimed ‘sex positive’ feminist writer excoriates the male gaze in one moment and in another mutates into a randy kitten, unable to contain her thirst for whichever piece of manmeat she is lusting over — or shall I say ‘objectifying’. It could be Adrian Turner of Poldark, Jamie Fraser of Outlander, or Michael B. Jordan all of which have the locuses of the ‘female gaze’ in right on publications such as Buzzfeed.
The corollary to all this is a lot of nonsense cooked up about the ‘nature’ of the female gaze vis a vis the male gaze. Unsurprisingly, the female gaze is portrayed as reflecting the edenic, innocently wholesome and spiritually dignified ‘nature’ of female sexuality in contrast to the perverted and depraved nature of male sexuality transmuted into the male gaze. “If male thirst simplifies women to bits of flesh, then female thirst tends to be all about fleshing out the person inside as one critic put it. ” Essentialist bollocks I say! Trust me, from encountering the thirst tweets of women, the so called ‘female’ and ‘male’ aren’t as different ‘in nature’ as we think they are.
Moreover, a lot of the idle talk around ‘sexual objectification’ and the male gaze has become a truncheon to police sexual desire and expression. Perhaps it may not have been its original intention, but frequently ‘sexual objectification’ becomes a secular way of denouncing the ‘sin’ of lust. That you are immoral to be attracted a woman’s body and derive pleasure from looking at it on a screen. Male (hetero-)sexuality, male desire, the male for women almost becomes synonymous with exploitation, dehumanisation and pathological misogyny. God and Jesus may be absent but the same Christian inflected, hatred of the body moral structure is still there. Much of this discourse is also a sad inheritance from Immanuel Kant who held that sexual desire in toto was degrading and thus immoral because it is a ‘savage’ impulse and you are viewing someone as an ‘object’ of appetite and desire, a means for your own egotistical gratification, rather than seeing them as a whole person in that moment. Hence why Kant thought sexual desire could only be tolerated if it was contained in a monogamous marriage.
Besides, isn’t ‘objectification’ inherent to sexual expression? Sexual desire is transitive; it requires an ‘object’ to locate itself. The human body is that object. But it is no mere ‘object’. It is not a machine. It is a sensuous object — a sensuous being! The most extraordinary ‘being-object’ created by nature. It’s made of flesh and bones, nerves and veins, skin and hair. You can touch it, feel it, squeeze it, pinch it, caress it. You can look and contemplate on it. But, it is also a subject with a personality and individuality you engage with. A subjectivity that enhances its ‘objective’ beauty, not negate it.
The notion you can have a form of sexual desire or even love that doesn’t ‘objectify’ its beloved and seek to use the body as a means of receiving (as well as dishing out) pleasure and enjoyment is an absurd delusion. In the words of Marx and Engels in The Holy Family, a polemic against the Young Hegelians and their prudish morality, you not only attack “love, but everything living, everything which is immediate, every sensuous experience, any and every real experience. What matters is not ‘sexual objectification’ per se, but what type of ‘objectification’ is at play, and in what context.
I must confess something: I am very prone to ‘falling in lust’ when watching something. Of course, I’m a dude who is attracted to the female form (and the male form too — the human form!). And I have no shame in that. Why should I? As you could probably detect earlier, Lily James is on the list. There is also Hannah New from Black Sails, Christina Hendricks in her voluptuous splendour as Joan Holloway in Mad Men, and the luminescent Kerry Washington among many others.
However, one of my favourites and a big actress crush is a winsome looking Spanish belle named Adriana Ugarte, whom I first laid eyes upon when she was then the latest muse of Pedro Almodóvar in Julieta where she played the younger version of the blond haired femme fatale protagonist. But she really was ravishing in the Spanish civil war drama, El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time In Between), playing Sira Quiroga, a smart, ballsy and soignée seamstress turned gun smuggler and spy against the forces of fascism. Of course, the fact she’s a hottie isn’t the only reason I like her as an actress, but I would be fibbing you if I claimed it wasn’t a reason. It’s part of the whole package. Aesthetic pleasure is as important as all the other pleasures of cinema. Eroticism is style; style is part of the substance.
The audience isn’t divided into sexist troglodytes who watch films for the sole objective of objectifying gorgeous women in the most demeaning ways imaginable, and the enlightened commentariat who know how to privilege the serious cerebral aspects of film. The irony is many progressive critics have become very awkward in writing about bodies, physicality and the sexuality and pleasures of the body itself. Where is the fun and mirth, the bawdy merriment, the humanism of the body — of male bodies, of female bodies? They feel more comfortable mentioning it when it is framed as an injustice in the embarrassing vogue discourse of ‘black bodies’ or as a sexist structure — the alienated starlet who has to get cosmetic surgery to survive in the Hollywood machine, the traumatised #MeToo survivor — as opposed to when its just pleasurable.
You would think progressives critics would be least likely to be this neutered since sexual liberation has historically been a progressive cause, and progressives imagine themselves to be ‘liberated’ from the antique sexual taboos of religion and tradition. But progressives are adept at replacing old taboos with new ones. Progressive critics are hesitant to write about sensuality and pleasure. They are very good at analysing directing, writing, mise-en-scène, themes etc. But easily forget physicality is inherent to acting, hence beauty and sexuality cannot be ignored. Physicality isn’t always erotic, but it doesn’t mean it never is erotic.
Maybe one day we will evolve past the mind/body duality and categorising human beings as disembodied ‘pure’ minds and mindless bodies. Intelligence and sexiness are not mutually exclusive. Reason and the libido are not enemies. Mind and body are equally important aspects of the human personality that aid, not degrade each other. In the mean time, we need more writers and critics (yes male ones included) unashamed to channel their sexuality into their work.
Fuck the horny police! Here’s to men and women of all orientations letting our libidos write freely.