Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Never could I tell him it was him."

Rufus being Rufus. By atp tyreseus [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rufus Wainwright’s song, “The Art Teacher,” which I had the great joy of hearing live last week, contains one of the most interesting depictions of female heterosexuality around. The song is told from the perspective of a woman reflecting back on her youth. She remembers going to a museum with her art class. “He asked us what our favorite work of art was. And never could I tell him it was him. Oh I wish I could tell him, oh I wish I could have told him.” But she can’t, she couldn't. “He was not that much older than I was,” but she was “in uniform,” meaning he was probably too old all the same.

When we meet her again, we learn that she is now married to “an executive company head,” and owns a piece of the art by this teacher's preferred artist. “And here I am, in this uniform-ish pants-suit sort of thing, thinking of the art teacher. I was just a girl then. And never have I loved since then. No, never have I loved any other man.”

It is something of a cliché that gay men – when they’ve finished telling straight men how to dress – offer up advice, or a shoulder to cry on, to straight women. A potentially offensive cliché, if the implication is that gay men exist only relative to women, as accessories, with no life of their own. And so we might be reluctant to read “The Art Teacher” as having anything to do with heterosexuals. (The 'this is not about you' argument.) There is also a long tradition of gay men creating or acting in love stories between straight couples, channeling their own relationships into ones acceptable for mainstream audiences.

But I don’t think we’re compelled to use that interpretation here – Wainwright has been out since the days when I was just a girl, in uniform, and has written plenty of songs about men who love men. If he’d wanted to write about a man reflecting on a boyhood crush on a dude, he’d have done so. I take “The Art Teacher” as a song that really is about the woes of straight women, ones gay men would be less likely to experience, and the apparent backstory to the song would support the hypothesis I came to before Googling it.

"The Art Teacher" is a song about male beauty as experienced by a woman, young and then not so young. And it points to a really basic but rarely-discussed truth about female sexuality: Girls are allowed to care what men look like, to appreciate beauty in a man, whereas women are not. To be a woman is to care about a man’s status, and to play along with the script that says that men, and men alone, are visual creatures. A script that requires a woman to say of the man she’s marrying that she was not attracted to him initially (but oh, how he was to her), but he pursued, and eventually her sensible desire to start a family caused her to consent. The message the song conveys is that women do appreciate male beauty. That this is not something women conveniently grow out of. But that women somehow can't demand this in a partner as an adult.

I identify as a feminist for all the usual reasons – women should be able to succeed professionally, to control their own fertility, etc. – but also for this somewhat obscure one: women should (and can!) feel entitled to selecting a partner they find physically attractive. "Entitled," though, what a word, so let me explain.

While we chastise straight men who insist they'd only be satisfied with swimsuit models, we tend to accept that a man will not enter into a romantic relationship with a woman he's not attracted to physically. This is in part because of our understanding that it is physically impossible for a man to consummate a relationship with a woman who doesn't to it for him. (One need only point to the children born of marriages in which it later turns out the husband/father is gay to realize why this is ridiculous, but anyway.)

But it's also entitlement. A straight man, if he's going to be with someone at all, deserves to be with a woman he enjoys looking at. As for women? It's not phrased as, women don't deserve men they find good-looking. It's more phrased as, female sexuality doesn't work like that. It's about getting to know a guy, and struggling to overcome whichever natural revulsion to intimacy. (See the "Seinfeld" where Elaine, a woman who sleeps with a healthy number of men, states that the male body is repulsive, and that the woman who appreciate it are perverse.)

But the thing is, women care. This doesn't mean demanding abs, nor becoming repulsed when the aging process does its usual number on one's partner of however many decades. It just means that initially, women, like men, want there to be some physical connection, some reason that this person, of all the people on the planet, is to be more than just a friend. Women should feel entitled to this bare minimum, and yet don't. And yet kind of do. But feel guilty. Leading some to write letters to advice-columnists, such as:

To Emily Yoffe:
I am married to a kind, generous, attractive, wonderful man. The problem? I am not attracted to him. Actually, I am sometimes turned-off by him. I have battled these feelings since before we even got married. I think I married him because he is such a wonderful person, and I thought I would be blowing it if I passed on the opportunity to spend my life with someone who treats me so well. [....]
To Dan Savage:
I am a 25-year-old bi woman in a monogamous relationship with a straight man. We have been living together for about a year, and I suspect he is ready to pop the question any day now. I couldn't be more excited about spending the rest of my life with him. We are emotionally and financially compatible. We want the same things out of life, and he treats me better than anyone I've been with before.
The problem is that I am not physically attracted to him. He is physically a bear—overweight, hairy, and masculine. My physical preference is for twinks—skinny, tall, and hairless boys. When I crawl into bed with him, Dan, I don't really want to jump his bones. I want to snuggle up under a blanket and snooze.
Both of these letters go on, with further explanation as to why this particular case is incredibly unique, as they all are. But the essential in both is that the letter-writer does not believe herself entitled to anything more than being treated well. Note that in both cases, the woman is not upset that the man has changed physically - there had been a lack of physical attraction from the get-go. Note, too, that the second letter-writer articulates very clearly what it is she prefers, and it sounds kind of... attainable.

If these letters had come from men, one angle that might have come up, either in the letters or the responses, is that it's unfair to your partner to be with them if you don't find them attractive. We assume that a woman's vanity would be just crushed if she learned that a man was with her despite her appearance. But are men so different? "Seinfeld" - the Proust of my generation - says no: when Elaine tells George that a woman he's dating doesn't care about looks, as if this is a good thing for him, George takes this as a negative comment about his looks (which, well, it is) and is less than pleased. So I suppose if women truly cannot demand partners they are attracted to for selfish reasons, they could consider doing so for the sake of the dudes they're with.


  1. I've been a lurker here for a while, and this piece compelled me to comment.

    I was an ugly girl who grew into an ugly woman, and by the time I was in my early teens, this sentiment -- of looking past appearances to see a man's "inner beauty" -- was shoved on me because, being ugly, I couldn't have standards. I came to learn my preferences didn't matter, and men would never reciprocate with the same perspective: no matter his appearance, he had a right to demand beauty, and for me, I had to adjust expectations and tell myself that, underneath his nasty attitude was a good person.

    I think, along the way into adulthood, another message came along. I'm not sure if this is just told to ugly girls or all women, but the message was, if a guy pays attention to you, you have to be happy, give your all to him, lavish him because he's actually paying acknowledging you. I think this combined with looking past appearances enforces that women have to be passive, that we have no power in relationships, and the older we get, the little say we have in life.

    I apologize for this being long and for really having no point. I wish girls and women, no matter what they look like, could be told that their expectations matter, and that they shouldn't have to supress themselves and accept whatever scraps the world tells them they deserve.

    1. I (Phoebe) am just here this week and next - you should un-lurk (de-lurk?) when Autumn's back as well!

      But your comment is very timely - there's been a bit of a debate raging on the response to the most recent episode of "Girls" (which I haven't yet seen). Lena Dunham's character is apparently involved with a conventionally attractive man, and various male journalists have apparently deemed this unacceptable. There's definitely a sense that an unattractive man, even one without money or power, may well land a good-looking woman, but not vice versa. If anything, a man who isn't big on self-presentation will be assumed to have some other qualities (he's a genius who doesn't have time to comb his hair or notice the stains on his pants!) that make up for this. Genuinely low-maintenance women do not catch such a break.

      But I'm also not sure any women are told they're entitled to men they find attractive. It really is considered juvenile and almost perverse for a woman to be drawn to men physically, in the way that we readily agree gay men are. Also, the issue isn't "attractive" vs "unattractive," but subjective attraction. A woman who looks like a supermodel (not that I have experience of this!) might just kind of move in circles where a man she dates would be of a similar "league," but she still may not feel entitled to choose a partner on the basis of which man does it for her.

    2. I agree with Phoebe - the idea that women aren't entitled to men they find attractive is pretty universal. You have to be more or less Miranda Kerr before it's accepted that you "earned" a husband like Orlando Bloom.

  2. I didn’t think grown women actually did this regularly & intentionally in real life. I honestly thought it was a movie cliche. I felt the same way when I found out real people (as opposed to celebrities, which I think of as fictional, apparently) do marry for money.

    If I’m not attracted to a guy, then to me, it’s a friendship, not a romantic relationship. I tried dating chemistry-free guys when I was young (high school) & knew no better, & it always made me feel awkward & trapped & phony. They deserve better, and I Totally deserve better! Sexual attraction is critical to romantic love for me. I'd rather be alone than trapped like that.

    I do find that chemistry can be Somewhat independent of looks; I’ve had chemistry with guys I would not have rated as conventionally attractive. I dated a few of those guys (the ones I was also otherwise compatible with), and didn't feel awkward. I just assumed that’s what other women were doing. Eye of the beholder & all.

    1. Unfortunately grown women do this quite a lot. If you take a look at some of the Nice Guy of OKC memage that went around a little while ago, you'll see just how many men are happy to tell women this is how they HAVE to date, otherwise they're shallow selfish bitches. I find the whole thing enormously frustrating, and even more so when I recognise it in myself.

  3. I wonder if maybe women should start being more honest with men about their attractiveness - perhaps if enough of us did it, they couldn't dismiss us ALL as bitches, right?

  4. I'm another lurker, only one of a nature I assume is much less likely to exist here; I'm a straight male.

    As long as I can remember I've been told I'm some form of attractive. As a young boy I was always told how handsome I was, then in those awkward years of puberty I was downgraded to cute (I assume cute<handsome), and then when high school hit and I started to finally look a little older (not to mention my athletic career took off and I put a little muscle on) I gained back the term handsome. Finally now that I can drink legally (U.S. post here, so 21) I've received those terms that I always wanted to hear; hot, sexy, you know, all those sexual terms. Which I'm sure is not what I'm "supposed" to wish for as I'm pretty sure that men aren't "supposed" to want to be pretty (societally). Not straight ones anyway. Nonetheless I want to be pretty, even though I'm not quite sure of what that is for a man. The point of this post is not to blab about how attractive people tell me I am. Ironically enough, I actually don't see an attractive man in the mirror but maybe a few times a year. I don't have body image issues or anything, I just don't see myself the way women do. You can imagine my shock in high school when the pretty and popular girls started asking to hang out. I honestly thought I was being pranked.

    The point of this post is to tell you that I do the same thing many of the women you've written about do; I date women that I have very little physical attraction to. Of all the women I've slept with, only two were I genuinely attracted to physically. I have the bad habit of building emotional connections with women, and then expecting physical connections to grow from there. Problem is they don't. So I end up with women that I have to jump through mental hoops with in order to get intimate, but I do it anyway. Thing is, emotionally and intellectually, I’m an odd ball. Thus, my “standards” (what I look for in women) are very specific. Not high, just specific. So specific I don’t even know what they are, I only know when I meet someone who fills them. Which happens, so far, about twice in a lifetime. In the meantime I try to fulfill my needs for intimacy with friendships that I somehow pervert into masquerades of relationships.

    I didn't write all of this to tell you all about my life or complain. I just wanted you to know there is power in your words here. In attempting to approach a topic of some specificity you have spoken with a kind of universality that has resonated with me, and I assume many others. Which I suppose means thank you.