Now, looking back on my dramatic play, I wonder how it was possible that a nine year old had figured out the role without ever having read the script. It's too simple to say that I was imitating the behavior of my peers or family, since I don't recall tha t any of them were into the Neanderthal style of courtship. Chances are by that age I'd seen something like it on television, but I cannot accept that this influence solely could have turned me into a nine year old version of John Wayne or Rambo. Raging b iological impulses? Perhaps -- but how can a gene or a chromosome instruct me which piece of plastic should beat up or snatch the other? There was entirely too much ritual and nuance involved in my act of aggression followed by my act of rough romance t o be simply a result of biological programming. Let's face it, at the age of nine, before I even knew what sex was, I knew that Joe was supposed to take Barbie, and do something with her to make her his -- er, that is, mine.
In trying to understand (my) gender, I have returned often to the "GI Joe Puzzle," as I call it. The nexus between aggression, competition, and the sexual ritual known as romance has been extensively written and sung about, glorified and celebrated in m ovies, novels and song. But it is still, from my observations, greatly misunderstood, particularly the central role that our highly competitive and individualistic economic system plays in the development of our sexuality. Simply stated, men and women are set up, like Barbie, Ken and GI Joe dolls, as one of the many prizes and rewards for each other that we can "win" if we best the competition. Ideals for a beauty image are established for females, and ideals for a success image are established for males that, both genders are told by our culture in a multitude of ways from the earliest of ages, we must become if we are to win acceptance and approval from our peers, family and society.
To understand certain qualities of modern gender, it's necessary to combine a feminist analysis of patriarchy with an analysis of the competitive and individualistic nature of our economic system. Such a hybrid analysis has the additional benefit of pro viding a theoretical framework for women and men to work together to end the dual exploitation of patriarchy and competitive hierarchical economic systems, which co-exist like two sides of the same coin.
"Winners and Losers"
As much as most boys and men may imagine ourselves like GI Joe, our actual lives are more like that of Ken. Paradoxically, despite the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, the common, every-day experience of many men is hardly one of mastery or fe eling dominant. It's not surprising that feminist theory, the most cogent modern analysis of sexuality and gender, has not dwelled very much on this point. The point of reference of feminism, quite rightfully, is women's experience, which has been subordi nate to the patriarchal male. But when the point of reference is the common male experience, the story can be quite different. Despite men's patriarchal privileges, as wage laborers most men -- even patriarchal men -- spend our time getting squashed in th e competitive free marketplace by bosses, supervisors, owners and landlords. This prevents most men from recognizing our male privilege which sustains us daily even while we're being economically exploited. Men's undirected feelings of economic powerlessn ess have bleak repercussions when our very masculinity and self-esteem are intricately linked to our role as breadwinner. For some men, after a day, a month, a year or lifetime of getting kicked around in the free marketplace, how tempting it must be to c ome home and act out a smoldering anger that wants to kick around something or somebody else.
The first thing that strikes me about my GI Joe play is that Joe beat up Ken to win Barbie. The key words here are "beat up" and "win." Aggression, competition, win -- win what? Why, the prize of course. What else does a winner win, but the prize? And what is the prize? It's Barbie -- feminine, thin, shapely, busty and smiling.
In the carnival game of sexual economic relations, women are one of the prizes offered to we heterosexual men for achieving our success. But she must not be just any woman-- she must be a certain type of woman. She must be a woman that is highly-desira ble, one worth striving and competing for. She must be a carrot dangled at the end of the stick, she must be a worthy prize. She must be -- a Barbie doll.
But as a prize, she must be practically unattainable, perpetually out-of-reach and elusive, so that the man will never stop competing, never stop climbing the ladder, never stop following orders, whether on the battlefield of the military or on the corpo rate battlefield. GI Joe is primed to fight in either arena, as long as he's offered his prize for winning.
So GI Joe fights Ken for his prize Barbie -- she's beautiful, she's cosmopolitan, she's desirable. She's a twelve inch replica of a Playmate with its clothes on. That is, until Joe -- I mean the nine year old, me -- took Barbie's clothes off.
That nine year old had learned the role somewhere. But where?
Just think of it: what must be done in order to turn a bouncing, bright-eyed baby boy into a soldier who kills on command, a paid killer who is willing to pull the trigger or push the button from 10,000 feet to drop bombs of terror on civilian populatio ns? Or to turn the young boy into an obedient worker, routinely following his boss' orders for nearly one half of his waking life? An observation of modern society produces the answer: you must offer that boy-growing-into-a-man a series of rewards and punishments, of triumphs, fears and insecurities, to motivate him. No wonder that, prior to bombing raids during the Persian Gulf War, U.S. pilots were shown films of scantily-clad disrobing women. These films were called "motivational" films; "now I know why I'm fighting" grinned one enthusiastic pilot.
In such a sexuality, power/control issues are entangled with something as basic, vital, sensual and infantile as human touch. This makes this sexuality a very potent force in our society; themes of competition, conquest and domination are eroticized. Vi a a socialization process that is both blatant and subtle, females and males are assigned roles, not only as genders, but also in the sexual drama, popularly known as "romance." This sexuality is widely advertised, and is very conducive to producing a "w arrior" gender -- men -- in whose hands are posited the mechanisms of political, social, economic and military power; supported by a subordinate gender -- women -- in a world that is still viewed as hostile, competitive and conquerable.
"Let them eat images"
Inevitably, not all the boys growing into men, nor the girls growing into women, will be able to live up to the demands of a competitive society. In a competitive society there are winners and losers: a few end up at the top, some end up at the bottom, and most end up in between, desperately clawing for the top to keep themselves from sinking to the bottom. They feel the constant nip at their heels, sneaking up on them, ready to devour them if they ever stop climbing to the top. This dynamic drives the economy: men and women trying to win, producing and consuming the goods and products that make the elite owners of the economy rich. The media ads selling those products whisper sexy messages, hinting to us how to soothe the gap between our ambitions and our actual status.
For boys and men, one of the ways we learn to soothe ourselves is by imagining ourselves "winning" one of our prizes -- the so-called "beautiful" woman. The male search for "the beautiful woman" has acquired legendary dimensions, part of folklore, fairy tales, Hollywood cinema and song. We men long for a beautiful woman who is a sign of our success, who will stroke our egos and allure us with sexual reveries that make us forget about our hard day in the workplace.
Through this gap slithers the seduction of pornography, and also mainstream media images, and generally any sexualized beauty image, including any real-life woman who attempts to conform physically to these images. With these images dancing in his head, a man can fantasize that he possesses the beautiful women. In the privacy of our fantasies, we men can temporarily reconcile our socialized craving to win and feel dominant with our actual experience of powerlessness. These sex-beauty images, which are co mmonly accepted as "normal" heterosexual physical attractions, or as an appreciation of women's "beauty" and "sex appeal," are the fabricated images that satisfy a man's socialized demand and need to win against the competition. Possession of the sex-beau ty image -- of the Barbie doll -- is a sign, a measure, of the male's success, achievement, and dominance. Contrary to claims of a cathartic effect resulting from the use of pornography, this vicarious process of relating to the sexualized image acts as t he practice sessions for real-life behaviors and relationships with women.
Some will argue that female beauty is intrinsic, just like the beauty of a mountain, a flower, or a bright red cardinal. But the ideals for female beauty have fluctuated wildly with time, from the Twiggy waif-like appearance of the late 1960's, to the s lightly muscular Madonna look, to the soft voluptuous Marilyn Monroe look, to the rounded 19th century Renoir woman, to the scrawny flappers of the 1920's and the corseted curvy Victorian figure, to the fat, sagging-breasted Venus figurines, and now back to the recycled Twiggy look hanging on the bare bones of model Kate Moss. While the beauty of a flower, a mountain or a bird is never forced or manipulated, female beauty has usually required elaborate and often bizarre techniques for achieving it, includ ing foot binding, corsets, removal of ribs nearest the waist, consumption of arsenic to blanch the skin white, and most recently dieting, self-starvation, bulimic vomiting, liposuction, weight loss surgery like stomach stapling and intestinal removal, and surgically enhanced body parts. Unlike the mountain, flower or bird, female beauty is substantially artificially produced, requiring elaborate ritual, a dose of pain and turmoil, and thousands of dollars for various props. Beauty is a state of mind that has as much to do with the viewer as the viewed. Even a beautiful flower, bird, or mountain view may be hardly noticed when one is in a hurry, in pain, or in sorrow. Likewise, the state of mind that values female beauty cannot be divorced from the economi c, political and social milieu in which it has been raised.
These sex-beauty images, whether they are produced by Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, Christy Hefner's Playboy, well-manicured, long-maned Third Wave feminists like Naomi Wolf, or so-called 'sex-positive' wanna-bes in leotards and Doc Martens, are th e historical legacy of gender relations under the patriarchy, with a modern-day twist as the result of capitalist relations where "beauty" has become a commodity to be traded, bought and sold to consumers. Such gender relations reinforce women's historica l reliance on their physical appearance to win Mr. Right. A male viewer can fantasize that he possesses the sex-beauty image, and because it is a photograph, or a written image, or even a memory of a Barbie-like blonde that sashayed by on the street, he literally may control and dominate the image in his mind. He can take up and put down the image as he pleases. He can experience sexual pleasure, but at his own discretion, protected inside his fantasy against the vulnerability and feeling associated with bodily pleasure.
This is also true for famous media beauty images, like the Hollywood starlets in People magazine, or a naked Madonna or Sharon Stone, spread across the pages of Sex or Vogue or the movie screen. In this case a man can fantasize about possessing not only a sex-beauty image, but also a rich and famous, i.e. "very successful," sex-beauty image. These are the starlets he has lusted after, turned on to, masturbated over, imagining what they would look like and how they would respond to him. And now, suddenly, for only a few dollars, he can peek at the object of his longings, and have his way with her, unwrapping her like a brand new Christmas toy -- like GI Joe vanquishing Ken and making off with Barbie. Truly, if he possesses her, he really must be successfu l.
And most significantly, this dynamic is true of real-life sex-beauty images as well. A man can see a flash of Cindy Crawford-like mane out of the corner of his eye, the painted red lips and mascaraed eyes from afar, a smooth leg or a bit of cleavage pu shing out of a low-cut blouse, the female "shape" crammed into tight jeans walking down the street, and all in an instant miracle of his brain imagine that he owns the favor of that woman, imagine that he possesses that sex-beauty image, and that therefor e he must be a virile, successful man. It makes little difference that upon seeing that woman up close he realizes that the sex-beauty image is not as perfect as the first glance and he is no longer attracted to her, since she has too much upper lip hair, or a crooked nose, or an unsmooth complexion, or a thousand other features common to human beings but not common to sex-beauty images. For that brief moment he was able to fantasize that he possessed that image, that he must therefore be successful and a pproved of. And after all, he can fantasize that somewhere out there is the perfect blonde or brunette, just waiting for him, right?
In a single day, this sort of experience can happen a hundred times: a flash of breast here, a profile there, a magazine cover in a grocery checkout line, prime time television, a women's butt, the way the hair falls, all of this in an instant conveys t o his cranial synapses the crude message: "Sex-beauty image, I have her, I am a successful man." Relating to sex-beauty images for one's self-approval and psychological bolstering is a subtle process, and an addictive one as well. Like all addictions, t hese "attractions" feel instantly pleasurable, and have a "high" associated with them. The high includes a momentary fix of approval and acceptance, and eroticized feelings of power and conquest, that are invested with the authority and approval of the cu lture. Considered as "normal" sexual attractions, this "high" is a common experience, the cornerstone of nearly every heterosexual male's sexuality, and consequently arduously difficult to give up.
Tragically, the magical powers of fantasy, which ideally should serve to open us up to new and more possibilities, instead becomes a brain-washing exercise in service to an ideology, acting to reduce our world and limit our possibilities. Like a woman's craving to be thin, sexy and "beautiful" -- to be a Barbie -- the man's "physical attractions" and his attempts to become the man -- the GI Joe -- that wins this beauty is an exercise in an ideology that instructs both men and women, boys and girls, how to act, how to talk, how to relieve frustration and tension, how to succeed in the free marketplace, at school, in the rough posturings of the streets. It instructs him how to approach his own physical body, indeed how to channel his sexual desire. It is a kind of propaganda that taught the boy as he got older -- after his sexual energy had been successfully blocked and then re-channelled -- under what conditions and with what images in his head he may masturbate and release his sexual energy. Indeed, thi s is the key to how that nine year old had already learned his role so well because, like Achilles dipped by his mother Thetis in the River Styx, that nine year old had been totally immersed in the womb of his culture, informing him as to his sexual ident ity.
Underneath the skin of a man's civility is a human wish for fulfillment, acceptance, affection and a sense of immediacy, no less when he is an adult as when he was a child or adolescent. Except that as he grows older, it is society itself that acts as "p arent," withholding the reward of sexual fulfillment, i.e. bodily feeling, sensuality, affection and vulnerability, until certain criteria are met. From the earliest of ages, the boy growing into a man learns that he must wait for fulfillment until he has performed adequately, until he has proven himself against the competition. As an adult, he must prove himself as a successful man of capitalism in the competition of the free marketplace. Yet at the same time he is told that without this fulfillment he i s nothing. No wonder then, that this desire may become aggressive, even violent when denied. It is a classic double-bind, acting as the carrot and stick to motivate men who live under the strictures of a hierarchical and competitive culture.
This then, is the fundamental heterosexual male desire that walks the streets, the corporate board rooms, the workplace, and the bedroom, and has been channeled and conditioned in a certain direction like a Pavlovian dog. No wonder we men are so confused -- most of us occupy the twice-cursed position of being the low-totem members of a patriarchal oppressor class at the same time that we are also economically-oppressed. Our male sexual desire is a deadly attribute for loving human beings, but a perfect a ttribute for cogs in the competitive wheel, and for soldiers who must occasionally march off to economic or military war to annihilate other male soldiers and to rape the enemy nation's women.
With his sexual fulfillment and approval withheld from him, the male's orgasm to these sexualized beauty images functions as a tremendous release for him, in which all these anxieties in his life are temporarily soothed. But this orgasmic release comes i n the service of an ideology, at the climactic end of a complex ritual in which he has made his conquest and captured the sex target, the beauty image of his desire. The tensions in his life are for a short time resolved, much like water bursting through a dam -- until the waters behind the dam back themselves up again. GI Joe has his Barbie -- but Ken is plotting to win her back again. And GI Joe will have to defend his turf.
It is important to recognize that we men acquire a relationship with these sex-beauty images. The images talk to us, they whisper to us and soothe us, they make us feel good, they get us high and help us to escape. The relationship with these images is c ompounded by the masturbatory nature of the relationship. Men masturbate to the sex-beauty images found in magazines, movies and to the memories of the "beautiful" women they know -- in fact, porn is referred to as "stroke" magazines. What this means is t hat the message and lifestyle of these images are being positively reinforced with the physical, pleasurable sensation of masturbation and orgasm. The physical pleasure of orgasm combines with the images and messages found in the magazines and movies to a ct as a cycle of reinforcement between the stimulus of the images and the masturbation. The narrative accompanying the images often whispers seductively to the masturbating male that "he really is something," that the photo image wants "only him," that he has "made it." The male viewer imagines that he has won his prize, the sex-beauty image, and so he really must be a successful man, even as the physical pleasure of masturbation gives physical, pleasurable reinforcement to the acceptance of these images and their ideological messages. What's more, the pattern of his heavy breathing associated with masturbation and orgasm creates an 'alpha' trance state that makes the masturbating consumer of pornography and other sexualized images even more open to the h ypnotic suggestion of those images' ideology. As he strokes he breathes heavy, deeper; as he breathes, he opens up to the powerful message of the image; as he opens up to the image, he receives the physical and emotional reinforcement that he has wanted s ince he was a little boy, told not to cry, scolded for being a sissy, slapped on the hand and humiliated for giving himself physical, masturbatory pleasure.
Masturbation and fantasy are indeed powerful pleasures, for in the act of orgasming to these images the male consumer momentarily bolsters his ego at the same time that he gives himself physical gratification. In fact, he has been informed from the young est of ages that he may not have such physical gratification unless certain conditions are present. And these conditions are nothing less than being a winner -- either in actual fact or imagined. GI Joe gets his pleasure while Ken skulks off shamefully, s ettling for his porn and rental videos.
What would masturbation and fantasy be like without these contrived, ideological images in our heads? Can we imagine it?
The Image Continuum
Thus, there exists in our patriarchal capitalist society today a continuum of sexualized beauty images. At one end of the continuum we see beauty images found in the mainstream media and advertisements, presenting women as air-brushed sex objects, artifi cially created and made-up, with coifed manes and manicures. Even though women have entered the work force in unprecedented numbers the past twenty five years, these sexualized beauty images still perpetuate women's historical reliance on physical appeara nce and beauty. At the same time, fierce competitive pressures and a daily barrage of these sex-beauty images manufacture a 'hierarchy of beauty' against which every women and girl must measure herself and compete. Women and girls are locked inside an op pressive gender role that narrows her human potential and informs her how she may walk, talk, act, smile, indeed even how much space her body may take up, to the point where the females of capitalism are obsessed with slenderness, starving themselves, bul imically throwing up their food in epidemic proportions, undergoing weight-loss surgery, with surgically-enhanced breasts and other body parts. These mainstream beauty images graduate into soft-core pornography via the beauty image that is now strippe d naked and posed in various positions of sexual display and servility, poised for entry and available for sexual penetration, whispering encouragement and come-ons to the (mostly male) consumers; which then graduate to hard-core pornography, where the im ages from the other parts of the continuum are now literally tied up, raped, beaten, splayed open and otherwise boldly, nakedly, displayed.
The standard message of these sex-beauty images is that of sexual objectification of women; sold as a commodity at the neighborhood drugstore, through the mail, on the movie screen, in the grocery check-out line, and over the television; to men who are r eceiving a daily dose of humiliation and frustration, courtesy of the free marketplace. This is what makes the attempt by some so-called "sex-positive" proponents like Madonna, Suzie Bright and Camille Paglia to reclaim this genre of images so surprising and, ultimately, self-defeating. For these images are irredeemable -- not by a lofty banner of free choice, not by well-meaning feminists, not by lesbian or gay libertines, not by women pornographers -- as long as they operate inside a competitive economi c milieu. The hierarchical gender relations of such a society will ever be distorted, dividing its people into winners and losers who console themselves with various images, where the relationship between the viewer and the viewed is exploitative, voyeuri stic and vicarious. It is a trick of mirrors, a subterfuge that is manipulated by the wealthy elites that own and manage this competitive economic system to sell the products that make them rich. Because women like Madonna, Sharon Stone and Cindy Crawford have found success in such a system does not mean they represent liberation. In fact the opposite is true -- they represent just another facet of patriarchal capitalist gender relations.
The antidote to this state of affairs is for both women and men to bravely stop producing, dressing as, and turning on to these images, and to compassionately stop asking each other to masquerade as the same. Rather than narrowing our choice and constric ting our fantasies, this antidote will allow the multi-faceted nature of our true human beauty to shine through, opening up a plethora of possibilities about how women and men may dress, cross-dress, attract, and adorn ourselves.
Is the Noose Getting Tighter?
The more we crowd out the natural world, and the more we become boxed in by our industrialized, automobilized, televisionized world, the more it seems we rely on symbols and images through which we experience life vicariously. Searching for neatly packag ed varieties of thrills, beauty, autonomy and sexual emancipation in an increasingly ugly disheveled world, billions are spent by movie-goers hungrily consuming celluloid images as if these images are manna for the soul. Social critic Susan Sontag has wri tten:
"A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex."
The consequences of our "pursuit of happiness" has become an extremely narrow and disciplined work day. Perhaps the extent to which we rely on Hollywood and MTV images to excite, thrill and liberate us is the extent to which we have become less free. Demi Moore, Kathleen Turner, Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, the list is endless of the models and actors who are elevated to the status of cultural heroes, well-paid for titillating us. The grandiose imag es they fabricate with the backing of an entire industry constantly re-invent the convoluted reality behind the popular passionate hoopla we call "physical attraction" and "romance." This analysis suggests that these attractions aren't "physical" at all, but instead are mental mirages that are a product of a historical socialization process in a highly competitive economic and patriarchal system. At the end of the movie the images stop, the credits come up, the house lights turn on, and the movie-goers w alk back up the aisle, no more free or liberated than when they walked in. But you can be sure that they'll be back for more. In a world of frustrated consumers, boxed in by the vagaries of modern life, providing our fantasies for us is a growth industry.
In my nine-year old fantasy, GI Joe gets his Barbie. But at some point the nine-year old must encounter the real world, and this encounter is potentially devastating. For he will discover that he is more like Ken, yet still wanting to be like GI Joe. And he will have to figure out a way to somehow bridge the gap between his fantasy and his experience. The degree to which he succeeds will depend on the degree to which he comes to an understanding that our notions of physical attractiveness, sexuality, and beauty are the product of a complex intertwined relationship between our competitive economic system, the images in our heads, and our patriarchal gender relations. Though patriarchal men are dominant over women and benefit unfairly from our relative privilege, part of our need to dominate results from our sense of having failed to "win" in a competitive and exploitative economic system. Our sense of inadequacy contributes to a self-esteem that is easily channeled toward competitive, exploitative, ev en militaristic values.
This type of analysis, if we have the courage to examine it both outside and within ourselves, combined with a feminist analysis of patriarchy, has the potential to enlist men and women as allies in each other's struggles. Women and men can work as al lies to overthrow an exploitative order, contructing a safe just world, while not giving short shrift to women's pressing issues resulting from male privilege and patriarchy.
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