Portrait of Ms. Ruby May, Standing, by Leena McCall. Medium: Oil on canvas.
Can you see what’s wrong with this picture? I can’t.
I hear that it was deemed “pornographic and disgusting”, which I’m sure would come as a laugh to anyone who’s actually seen disgusting pornography (and I have). I have to wonder at the delicate sensibilities of the fuddy-duddies who thought this was too much, while allowing another portrait — fully nude, but more conventionally posed — to pass. (And by “conventionally posed”, I mean with the woman model as passive object of the male gaze.)
Perhaps the problem with this is that Ms. Ruby May has what appear to be henna tattoos, draped like tendrils over her shoulders and collarbones. Perhaps it’s the fact that she’s half-dressed in turn-of-the-last-century drag. Heavens to Betsy, a woman in a vest and knickers! (And no, British readers, that’s not an undershirt and panties, that’s vest as in gentleman’s waistcoat, and knickers as in bockers.) Perhaps it’s the fact that she’s wearing a watch-chain, another masculine touch underscoring the drag sensibility of the whole. Or maybe it’s that pipe (an obvious prop, since there’s no perfumed smoke curling daintily from its bowl.)
No, no, that can’t be it. What is it, then?
Oh my gawd, her pants are undone. And what is that I see peeking out? Why, the lady has pubes! Oh noes!
As everybody knows by now, female pubes are a terrible scourge and a menace to society. They must be scraped away, torn out at the roots, and the roots killed with fire, lest they ever sprout again. As everybody knows, lady-pubes allowed to run rampant will molest little boys. And kill babies!
The only thing worse than the scourge of lady-pubes is the terrible curse of the Elderly Vagina. And if we allow women to proudly possess pubes, even if we don’t all go around showing them off as Ms. Ruby does here — why, what’s next? Will we also be proud of our nether hairs when they turn silver — or, in the case of us natural redheads, purest snowy white?
Oh, the horror. Female self-esteem! The HORROR.
No, no, we can’t have a woman proudly showing her pubes. Not even if she’s painted by Gustav Klimt himself.
Oh wait, that’s allowed. Klimt was a man! It’s quite all right for men to paint women in a sexual context. Those who did so a century ago to public outrage and opprobrium are now revered as Great Artists. But for another woman to do so, as Leena McCall has done? Dangerous! Why, just look at that thing. The woman isn’t passively subjecting herself (and her unshorn crotch) to the male gaze, but actively looking back out at us! And worse yet, she’s doing so with a challenging glint in her eye. A glint that is equal parts “hey, sailor” and “fuck you”. Or, if you want to get all stuffy about it, a look that says both come-hither and go-thither.
No, we can’t have a woman undressing us with her eyes, and perhaps contemptuously withering us with that same sexy gaze. It’s too much like she’s looking right through us, and finding us lacking. Lacking in courage for not being able to handle the sight of a set of female genitalia not artificially made to resemble those of a harmless, helpless newborn baby girl. Lacking in the wit to understand what we are seeing. Lacking in the visionary guts to realize that women can, and MUST, have sexual agency, the right to say yea or nay, I-want-you or I-want-you-not, as we will. Lacking, in short, the understanding that a woman is more than a body, and that she is not just some consumable object, but a person in her own right, and as much so as any man. She has will. She has desires. And why should she not have the explicit right to express all that?
Why doesn’t she, already?
Well, here’s why: We live in gormless times. We have never seen the virgin/whore dichotomy quite so polarized as it is today. Even the Victorian era has nothing on the present. On the one hand, we have every kind of porn, depicting every depraved thing people can do unto one another, with literally no holds barred (including the death-grip on the throat, usually of a woman). On the other, we have something ickier, creepier, more spiritually deadening, and more depraved still: purity balls, where fathers take on the role of surrogate husband to virginal girls, and pledge to “cover” them until they can pass them off, presumably while still virginal, to a suitable real husband. We have Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming Sandra Fluke because that shameless hussy dared to put in a good word for birth-control pills, between fistfuls of OxyContin and Viagra — and nary a word about himself jetting off to sex tours in the Dominican Republic, where These guys are all running around with total impunity, ordering women to do as they say, not as they do. And, under protest, we let them. Be it in porn or in purity culture, women are both infantilized and objectified, passed around like bongs at a party, and above all, NEVER allowed to be sexual on their own terms. It is always at the whim of a man, whether a creepy photographer like Terry Richardson (and a creepy businessman like Dov Charney), or a porn director…or the “priesthood holder” of the house, dear ol’ dad himself.
That may be why Ms. Ruby is dressed in old-fashioned men’s clothing, but only halfway. And why the sight of her standing there with undone trousers and no perceptible shame is so “pornographic” and horrifying in this supposedly so much more open day and age — when all of us, if we are honest, will readily admit that we’ve seen a whole lot worse.