Art vs. Porn

In the November issue of Yoga Journal, there are two really beautiful naked chicks in ads, selling Yoga stuff. And of course, wherever there are hot naked chicks, there are slightly less hot, clothed chicks getting upset about it.

Yoga-blogger extraordinaire Brooks Hall covered the controversy in an article for Elephant Journal in a post called, “Yoga Porn? Or Boundless Expression.” It raises the question of whether certain voyeuristic depictions of bodies might just be a natural extension of an intense passion — like our passion for yoga. Or is it obscene? Is it why women spend their lives hating their thighs?

Anyway, as I noted somewhat flippantly in the first paragraph, somehow, these nudity issues always seem to revolve around women. I know that men have body image issues too, but I can’t say whether they’re on par. You never hear men getting outraged about unrealistic depictions of male bodies–but then again, there are far less men in media than there are women.

However, in the media of my life, there are now officially a boat-load of men. As part of a new career shift that has me veering towards the role of producer/creative coordinator, I have been hiring gun experts, skateboarders, BMX bikers and rock-climbers for video projects. Yesterday, I went to a pro-wrestling training center in Hayward and photographed a “pro” wrestling match. (Think WWF, The Wrestler).

Now, part of the reason that my company assigned this new gig is that I took some photographs for one of our titles on Bikes that people really liked. They were “artistic shots” that mostly involved taking shot of parts of things. Parts of wheels. Parts of gears. Weird angles.

It’s what I do. When I went to Paris and Italy, I took pictures of parts of buildings. It started as an absent-minded thing and it became my shtick. Since my assignment for these projects is to take “artistic shots like the ones you took for bikes” I assumed that I would just continue taking pictures of parts of things.

So, at the wrestling match, I found myself without hesitation taking pictures of parts of bodies. It wasn’t until the next day on Facebook when I saw the inevitable comment “nice crotch shot,” that I started to feel kind of weird about the pictures. I had the privilege of being ringside for the match — my elbows were resting on it for some the shots. And while I realize that the person who made the Facebook comment is my most inappropriate and obnoxious friend and that the shots were candid and everything was happening fast– I had the sense that the photos exposed me in some way. They showed the entire world where my eyes were roaming–and where my gaze was landing.

“The male gaze” has been a topic analyzed and over-analyzed in literary theory, social theory and on Sex and the City for years. There’s plenty of anger, interest and uncertainty about the way men chop us up, lift us up or put us down with their eyes. But what about the female gaze? Do we have that ability to create rules, unions and universes based on what we see? Could the Trojan War have been started by two women in a tiff over the prettiest man on earth?

Personally, I’ve never thought about myself as someone capable of exerting that kind of power. I’ve always believed it’s my job to stand there and let men accept or reject me. I’ve cared deeply about what all men think –regardless of whether I would deign to touch them with a 60ft poll. As I discovered while simultaneously chatting with my friend and looking in a mirror, I’m still inclined to turn bright red when people talk about sex. In short, I’m not the sort of person who’s going to try run the world according to my own passions.

But suddenly, there I was, backstage at a wrestling match while the video guy shot the “promos”, trying to go about my allegedly artistic business and realizing that I was going to have start asking men permission to photograph their biceps.

I couldn’t quite get the words out. My co-worker, “creative director,” stood back and called out instructions to the men while I scooted myself into the light. “Get the tattoo,” she told me, then, “sorry for bossing you around.”

“No…I wanted to the tattoo, too!” I paused, camera poised. “I want it to..um..”

“Can you flex your back?” She called out.

“Yeah–that’s what I need!”

And suddenly, a great feeling of bald, visceral superiority came over me. These poor people were dressed up, half-naked, posturing for a video camera and about to get their asses kicked for the sake of applause. I, on the other hand, was fully clothed, looking at everything with a highly critical eye, asking for exactly what I wanted–and getting it. Why? Because I was the person who had an idea about how to turn their bodies into a cash source.

I was g-chatting later with the same friend who had mad the Facebook comment. “Well,” he concluded. “At least you probably got turned on.” Now this guy will gchat me during the workday to ask me who I’m making out with (answer: my iPad, always my iPad) so he was probably completely kidding or trying to get a rise out of me.

But it got me thinking anyway about whether the whole thing had been a turn-on or not. We certainly acknowledged the obvious — that was a lot of testosterone in the room.

But beyond that, neither of us was particularly interested in any of the wrestlers. If I’m being truthful, the only way I thought about the male bodies was in terms of chopping them up, lifting them up or putting them down. I could have been thinking any number of things from “He could lose some pounds off the waist” to “that man in the front row wearing the chicken costume only has three teeth.” They had no idea what I was thinking, but had no choice but to cooperate with my camera. Bottom line was: I was the one making the images so I was the one who had the control. My thoughts, shared or not, were the only ones that mattered.

I had minimal interest in the men, and every bit of interest in my own power.

***

So is the point here to prove that I’m a total barracuda and that if you’re a man and you’re reading this you should run (but that’s ok because at least I have Twitter)?

Definitely not–Au contraire, I will always put your needs before mine, wear my hair the way you like it and want nothing more than to cook breakfast for you while you’re still sleeping so it can be ready when you wake up! (You should really try the Cinnamon French Toast.)

Because, the thing is — I’m not a man. I just got to play one for a day. But my little foray did get me thinking about the objectification of female bodies–like naked female bodies in Yoga Journal. My experience photographing the wrestling match was similar to my experience photographing bikes in many ways — and a lot of the excitement came simply from taking pictures — which I love to do. The endeavor was largely about art.

But the extent to which it was also about having control over someone else’s body is where it gets fishy. I think it stops being art when the artist twists the image to meet his/her own highly specific expectation. And for years, we’ve lived in a society where men get to determine how women look, how they can be useful and how they are portrayed.

Having played this part for a little while, I say that when you are constructing a person to meet a utilitarian aesthetic, you don’t really think of them as a human being. In my opinion, that willful de-humanization is what makes something pornographic. If you’re taking a picture to capture beauty, fine. If you’re taking pictures to control beauty, we have a problem.

But we live in a consumer-based economy and we need hot bodies to sell sh*t. So the question is– can we have these images in our society without that attitude permeating our society?

I’m not sure. I probably need a few more days of photographing wrestlers to figure it out.

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8 thoughts on “Art vs. Porn

  1. I don't think there is any such thing as the female gaze. Men aren't socialized, like women are, to care what the opposite sex sees when looking at them.

    I think the male gaze affects men more than the female gaze ever would.

    Reply
  2. I loved your musings:)but thought I should add that men are very sensitive about the female gaze. In Australia a couple of years ago, the most complained about ad in the 'sexist' category was the photo on the front of men's underwear packaging (inside the stores). And the people doing the most complaining were MEN!!!
    Women deal with this type of photo in their faces all the time – up on billboards, on magazine covers, etc. etc. however, they're just expected to lump it. It's actually men who do the most offical complaining…

    Reply
  3. As your inappropriate friend I approve of this blog post. Also, the comment by Jessie about “packaging” was a great double ententre.

    Reply
  4. Fascinating to think about – especially the power you kind of put on when you were the one behind the camera, and how it felt.

    Reply
  5. I haven't been that misled by a media header since I finished 'Naked Lunch'…

    I'd like to gaze at more pictures(preferably on the latter subject in the title) in order to truly formulate my opinion concerning 'objectification'…

    Wait…Do I smell a new Vook on the roadmap?!

    Reply
  6. chopping them up, lifting them up or putting them down…..what a great phrase. This post really got me thinking about the whole power play vs longing thing. Maybe we'll see the dynamic change in years to come. Right now, however, I must say that I'm disappointed to read about the ad in Yoga Journal. I haven't bought an issue for a long time-which might be a reason why my yoga has slacked off-but I wouldn't be, (and here is a phrase compliments of my ex-husband the Texan), I wouldn't be ape-ass crazy to see naked chicks in YJ.

    Reply

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