by Jill Di Donato
In 1974, artist Lynda Benglis appeared in Artforum posing nude with a gigantic dildo shooting out of her crotch. Her taut, tan oiled up body— with rhinestone-studded sunglasses that cleverly obscured her eyes— (viewers’ land on the plastic veiny member: a trophy, a fetish, an objectification of male virulence at a time when postmodernism and women’s lib was in full swing) offended hundreds of subscribers and art critics alike. Art historian Rosalind Krauss publically denounced the ad for Benglis’ upcoming show at the Paula Cooper Gallery, as “vulgar,” and accused the artist, known for her latex pour technique, of mocking the aims of women’s liberation.
Forty years later, Benglis’ photograph would hardly cause a stir (though it might be censored on Instagram). The notion of gender fluidity has entered the homes of millions of Americans—if not through art, through the narrative and visual delights of pop-culture. There is nary an American who hasn’t heard of how Caitlyn Jenner was born in the wrong body, however glazed over by Hollywood magic that story has been delivered. Still, the mass media attention over the former athletic demi-god and Kardashian patriarch forced people to turn on their TVs and let the narrative of gender transformation into their homes. The response? The conversation Jenner honed in on about gender appropriation and/or transformation is not, as Rosalind Krauss argued forty years ago, an assault against liberation—women’s or otherwise, but rather an endorsement of it.
But then again, we’re not talking about phallic aspirations. We’re talking about the inverted dildo. The sociologist in me will point out that the majority of sex reassignment surgeries are predominantly male to female. This more current data holds up to previous findings as reported in the 1994 DSM (IV) reporting that male to female sex reassignment surgeries are three times as common as female to male surgeries. Respectively, there is also a more documented historical background of male to female sex reassignment. These statistics interest me for many reasons, and though I posit socio-economic conditions play key factors, I’d like to imagine it’s the body electric of the female nude that draws men to want to become women.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the anxiety (a human condition often misread and incorrectly construed) women feel over their bodies is not forbidding jitters to conform to a hegemonic Aphrodite, but rather the reverberations of misunderstood pleasure. What a thought!
When it comes to cultural zeitgeist, transformation, specifically in the language of gender fluidity, will define the year 2015. Of course, the Greeks and Gloria Steinem were way ahead of us, but never has the ability to caterpillar from male to female (in a physiological as well as sociocultural sense) been as topical in the collective conscious as right now. In the halls of academia, I debate a sophomore in my writing class about whether or not “they” can be used as a singular pronoun (for people who identify as gender-fluid, the answer is yes she tells me). A trip to Gunnison Beach (it’s nude) shows me what post-op breasts look like on a recently transitioned female (waifish mosquito bites) and to be honest, I’ve seen dicks on the subway and dicks on Gansevoort Street; I’ve seen tits in strip clubs and in mainstream media, but never have I seen public nudity of the post-op trans community, in a state of such unencumbered nature, devoid of fetish. The crisp Atlantic waves crashed at the shore and the aura that unfolded as we sipped Modelo Especial Cheledas from 24 OZ cans was filled with joy.
About five years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Gloria Steinem after a talk she gave at Baruch College. My Jewish godmother, Judi, a Second Waver who collaborated with Black Panthers and was part of a secret-op that uncovered data that showed male CUNY adjunct professors were paid more than their female counterparts—this resulted in a lawsuit spanning 20 years, but that ended with equal pay in the CUNY system—anyway, Judi, who’d been a part of this secret-op, brought me as her guest to a post-talk champagne lunch to meet Gloria. Well-coiffed, wearing false eyelashes and formfitting black, the Ms. who’s made millions off the syntax of feminism allowed me to ask her one question before she dug into her tuna tartar. As a young journalist—not nearly as well groomed as the legend who stood before me—I could only think of something that sounded like it came from a sociology class. But alas, it was my one question and I can’t ask for a do- over, so I’ll mine it because, wtf, it’s what I’ve got. I asked what she saw as the future of Fourth Wave Feminism. Considering my question for a moment, she ran her nails, almost talon-like, manicured with stiletto French white tips through her hair, and reminded me about Tiresias.
There's a Greek myth that goes like this: On a mountaintop in the Peloponnesus peninsula of Greece, a man, Tiresias happened upon a pair of copulating snakes. Fascinated by what he saw, he stayed on the mountaintop for hours, watching them. After a while, the snakes sensed his presence and attacked him. Tiresias killed the female snake with a powerful blow. For this act, the gods changed him into a woman. Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, living as a woman for seven years. During this time, she married and bore children. When one day she went walking on the mountaintop, she discovered another pair of copulating snakes. This time Tiresias killed the male, and the gods changed him back to a man.
Because Tiresias had lived both as a man and a woman, he could offer the gods unique insight. For this reason, he was called in by Zeus and Hera to settle an argument: who enjoys sex more, men or women? Tiresias replied that women receive the greater pleasure. "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only."
Though it might behoove me to go on about the tenfold pleasure of the female sex, I’m going to move away from this discovery. Ms. Steinem brought up the story of Tiresias as emblematic of the final frontier in the fight for equal rights between men and women. Feminisms—as the Third Wave taught us—allows (note my use of feminisms [plural] as a collective and thus singular noun) for intersectional points of view when it comes to dismantling the myriad deleterious effects of patriarchy. The one phenomenon millennials face that has eluded generations past, is the en masse fluidity in gender—both in representational forms, through such signifiers as art and language, but also through biology, as understood with sex reassignment surgeries.
Not one to pit substance against style—for me, such merging is an alchemy that keeps me sated in the bleakest emotional recessions—I’d like to start speculating just what about the female form is so aesthetically appealing. The form, and as such, I mean the female body—as spectacular and problematic it may be in modern culture—is an undeniable locus of power. So why then, does she remain the second sex?
In thinking about all this, the three to one male to female sex reassignment ratio really stuck with me. All this time I thought I’d been living as the second sex. Her power (the second sex has been established as female) is elusive, ephemeral, static, and oh so reliant on an X factor—that final ingredient that can, once-in-a-relished-while, turn superstructures on their heads.
That X factor a woman can possess that can make her Wonder Woman is what all ambitious women and sexually fluid men want, isn’t it?
It’s late August in Brooklyn. There’s a profusion of water bugs on the sidewalks. I don’t know why I’m calling them water bugs. They’re cockroaches—except they’re the gigantic kind, and they roam the avenues amongst Park Slope pedestrians getting gelato. It’s humid as fuck and I’m not going to lie, looking at the vile cockroaches scuttling along while I contemplate beauty gives me morbid curiosity. Yes, I’m musing from a point of privilege, and somehow, it’s necessary to disclose that when talking about issues like beauty and aesthetic experience, because people fighting for their lives don’t have the luxury to be so shallow. I pull out my phone and check Instagram. An advert for an art show opening tonight at Max Fish (the new Max Fish as 186 Ludlow became 120 Orchard) called Girls, Girls, Girls appears in my feed. Richard Kern, Alessandro Simonetti, Kareem Black, Ricky Powell and other photographers known for shooting hot chicks gets me to leave Brooklyn for the night, to go and interview dudes who shoot nudes and other stunning women in various states of power. I do want to figure this out: what’s so alluring about the female body?
“Is that a trick question?” Richard Kern says to me when I ask him that question. I make it to the city, to the new Max Fish, and it’s a crowded affair: skaters and the models who love them; artists and the models who love them; and wannabe models and the models who love them. Ooh, and people like me: oddballs who end up at places like these because we get high off second-hand adoration.
He’s serious, Kern is, and I’m nervous. Instagram, we agree early on in our chat, has “let loose a tidal wave of exhibitionism.” Still, there is a difference, we acknowledge, behind the 45 selfies it takes to get a decent booty-shot and the female nude shot by a professional photographer. “People don’t envy the female nude,” Kern tells me explicitly. “They envy the photographer taking her picture.” To clarify what at first seemed to me an amateur observation from an auteur who blurs the line between art and porn, Kern adds, “There’s a difference between a female nude and the female nude.” Oh, semantics, I think, sipping on a watered-down tequila. What’s that you say?
“There’s a difference between a [female] nude. She looks great sticking on your wall. But the [female] nude, she’s an actual person.”
“I take pictures of everybody. Men, women, dogs, fat chicks. I’m a sapiosexual,” Ricky Powell tells me, his hands, finding their way around my waist.
I don’t doubt it for a second. What’s kept Powell relevant all these years from the days when he shot Basquiat, Haring, supermodels and the Beastie Boys is his ability to jive with his environment. “The most important thing about a woman is her ability to project herself into the world.” And here, Powell picks up Kern’s comment about the female nude being a person as opposed to being an object.
Oh, but Third Wavers and my own anecdotal research as an “exotic dancer” taught me that a woman has the power within her to be both subject and object at once. False bifurcations like subject/object; Madonna/whore; sexy/smart have impacted gender discourse over the past 20 years leading us to a space where fluidity seems the natural progression. Is the dismantling of female/male next? One has got to wonder.
“I’m looking to have a conversation with my subjects,” photographer Kareem Black tells me. “There’s that dude photographer who all he wants to do is fuck [his model]. That’s not me. But the thing is within portraiture, the art of it, requires some flirtation.”
Ah, yes, of course there’s flirtation. To deny the sexual chemistry that helps get “I’s” dotted and “T’s” crossed within the art world and beyond is naïve. The coquettish smile of a woman holds within its toothy confines remarkable power. And the male photographer smiling back: is that with delight, curiosity, envy or a mash-up of all three not necessarily conflicting emotions?
The curator of the Girls, Girls Girls, photographer Brian Boulos says, “The female nude has been studied time and time again, and I don't think there's an answer to why people are fascinated by it; it's just human nature, to love the curves and the forms that women possess. I don't think I can think any deeper than that about it. I think part of the allure is that it's always so hidden, especially in America and many, many other countries.”
I’ve heard this before, the “hidden” power of the female sex. "On the female nude," Zach Hyman, a photographer who made a splash several years ago shooting nudes in public places, like the NYC subway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains, "the [female] genitalia is tucked away, but on the male nude, even if everything is else tight and taut, there's still that one part that's hanging out and is very exposed." What a wonderful metaphor for the way our culture views sexuality! Though we live in a super-sex-saturated society, when it comes down to it, sex is a very tender territory, and in many ways, we are still taught to tuck it away.
Which brings me back to transformation, a move to tuck inwards. The “tucked in” anatomy possessed by the female nude, whose power is subverted, exploited, and desired by a culture that institutionally promotes men over women and makes panty models angels with the power to fly remains a hot topic in the art world. While it’s no revelation that power is not static—this new very public discussion about male-to- female gender transitioning is an exciting progression in dismantling hegemonic ideas about gender and beauty (and because this is America, power). Aesthetics are crucial, and, as Susan Sontag would say, a cultural evaluation. The international proliferation of transgender art (programs like Rock Around Asia, a Bangkok based art gallery-museum and online showroom has an extensive collection of paintings of and by transgender artists) speaks to a new conversation about the body politic: one that is more fluid. This malleability translates into a larger discussion about beauty: namely that one can slip in and out of states of beauty at will. Once you see that beauty can be a choice, ugliness too becomes a choice. The agency here helps chip away at hegemonic beauty standards, so that eventually they will become less oppressive.
When I was a kid, my dad bought me a Transformer, one of the action figures from the comic about lonely yet adventurous shape-shifting robots. I used it (him?) to fuck my Barbie. It was more like fisting even though Barbie doesn’t have a vagina. The Transformer had a steel-like arm that extended up and down. At the tip was a claw. A basement flood drowned my Barbies. Before the flood, when I was a teenager, my dad moved out and took the Transformer with him. He’s gay, and came out to my mom—thus the new apartment a bus ride away where he kept immaculate parquet floors and the Transformer on his mantle, like a talisman.
“As a man,” begins photographer Alessandro Simonetti on the power of the female nude, “I believe it’s the form itself. The simplicity of shape is what makes it appealing.” When it comes to shooting women, Simonetti, who describes the majority of his work as very male-oriented (Jamaican horseracing, motorcycles, international basketball) shoots his “other half” jeweler, Jules Kim. He explains the process: “There’s no plan. She’s not a subject I picked. She picked me. It’s natural. I shoot Jules because I spend most of my time with her.”
One dilemma in the infinite—digital media has made it so— aggregation of female nudes in the art world is that the work of male artists is still valued over the work of female artists. One could say this is just another symptom of patriarchal capitalism and the gendered wage gap that our country stands behind. There’s also this disturbing discrepancy between the male artist who takes a picture of a beautiful woman and a beautiful female artist who uses her body as canvas. The latter is dismissed, the former an auteur. Says artist Leah Schrager who, with Jennifer Chan curated the online exhibit Body Anxiety, “My personal frustration is that the art world seems more likely to value women who are ‘made art’ over women who ‘make art.’” In Schrager’s essay, “The Female Painter,” which accompanies Body Anxiety, the artist talks about this notion of “Man Hands” as part of a larger social apparatus.
“If Man Hands touch a woman (i.e. place her in his art), she can become a valuable piece of art. But if Man Hands haven’t touched her (i.e. she places herself in her art), she can certainly be considered art, but her value is likely to be substantially less, and in the world of value (the world of art?), less and more are all.”
The mission of female-identified curated shows like Body Anxiety (which went live in January of 2015 but will remain online indefinitely) is to collect “female-empowering artworks in one single location” to push back against appropriation of the female nude by male artists. Artists included in this exhibition, like Ann Hirsch, Kate Durbin, Mary Bond and RaFia Santana explore performance and self-representation on the internet. Subject matter varies from to screen shots of professional amateur pornography (Ann Hirsch and Mary Bond) to an embodiment of Lana Del Rey by performance artist Georges Jacotey,, a male artist known for a mash-up of Vladimir Putin and gay porn. I guess I still come back to Schrager’s notion of “Man Hands,” which begs the question, at what point does representation become appropriation?
There’s so much at stake economically for the capitalization of femininity. The revenue for the cosmetic industry has steadily increased over the past decade and is estimated at over 64 billion dollars. Of that fortune, beauty manufacturers spent 2.2 billion dollars on advertising, primarily to millenials with smartphones.
What’s worse than these statistics is the self-loathing that accompanies failure to meet the standards of beauty endorsed by “Man Hands” and the corporate fashion-beauty industry that we all know exists, but still can make a woman feel ugly. That $64 billion is spent on pills and potions, creams and lotions, on cover-up and flaw-fixers to give the illusion that maybe she’s born with it. But what about those women who are not born with it? What about transgender women who rely on cosmetics—products and procedures—to build their identity? Is the spike in male-to-female sex reassignment the ultimate form of gender appropriation? And if it is, is this phenomenon something that thwarts female power or endorses it?
A friend of a friend is currently transitioning to become female. This person didn’t want to be identified and didn’t want to talk about the experience of transitioning but did offer one anecdote. She says that one of the most powerful memories is being a five-year-old at her mother’s beauty salon. Accompanying her mother to the salon was always a pleasurable experience—the very pills and potions creams and lotions that sometimes make me livid about the bodily manipulations I have to undergo in order to look up to par actually entranced this little girl trapped in a boy’s body. Then one day, she was told to sit in the stylist’s chair. She had long hair, you see, too long to start school with, for just as hegemonic beauty standards exist for women, so to do they exist for men. Snip, snip, snip. The loss of hair was a Biblical trauma for this little girl in a boy’s body.
I started out this essay with the idea that body anxiety women experience (the dread of a my thigh gap—is it widening? self-loathing at a wrinkle creeping from beneath my eye—couldn’t I have taken better precautions to prevent these burps of humanity?) might be a smokescreen for pleasure—a pleasure in our physical femininity social institutions would rather us not feel. Fear, you see is a more profitable motivator than pleasure—especially when it comes to women. But what about men who want to be women?
I’ve had a hard time standing in my own accomplishments. And like many of my lady friends, I see my flaws more so than my beauty. But there are days when I can appreciate my body because it’s mine and because it does things. Because it can look pretty, because it can struggle as opposed to suffer, because it can run a 5K and have multiple orgasms. I subscribe to fashion rags, teach at a college with the word fashion in its moniker, and have been known to enjoy a New York Fashion Week fete or two. If you scroll down my Instagram feed, you’ll find those sexy selfies I couldn’t help but indulge in when the app was new. Perhaps I don’t post such images anymore because I don’t want that sort of attention. “I watch so many girls doing all these sexy selfies as a way of self- promotion; I don’t know what they’re trying to do. They’re imitating [the male gaze] the style of someone like Richard Kern, who’s a good friend. He’s inundated with requests from women to take their clothes of for him and be shot by him,” this from one of the most respected, downtown chic fashion stylists (The Face, Armani Exchange, Vogue Japan) Heathermary Jackson. “I prefer selfies that are a little ugly when a woman is not scared to show herself looking rough.”
Jackson, who’s always had one foot in the fashion world, one foot in the art world, curated her first New York art show in 2013, and has turned that venture into an online showroom filled with art, music, and clothing called Brownstone Cowboys. So here is a woman curator and stylist, one who works in the fashion and art industries. I ask her what draws her to the female form. “I’m definitely drawn to an unusual face [favorites include models Lindsey Wixson, known for her front tooth gap and full pout and Stella Lucia whose angular face is defined by a strong jawline]. Because I like my styling to have a masculine edge— that’s my aesthetic—girls in men’s clothing, like big boot or something a little off, I prefer to work with models who are not stick-figures. I like the juxtaposition of making them look boyish with womanly curves.”
She reminds me of one thing that I’ve lost sight of in this inquiry, which is the easy subjectivity of it all. “Within the fashion-beauty industry there are two camps of people—those who like the BS girls and those who mix in transgender models,” says Jackson. “Thank goodness people like different things.”
I recently met up with an ex of mine. We hadn’t spoken in years. As we drank beer in a neighborhood dive, the vibe was filled with sexual tension, anger, and regret—much like the relationship itself. He’s an artist now and, unbeknownst to me, I appeared in one of his “video installations.” Apparently, he recorded footage over one of our sex tapes. At the opening of his art show, he tells me, there was a mix up and the tape continued to play. Let’s just say the crowd was treated to a double feature that night. I don’t know how much of me these strangers saw, if they thought our fucking was supposed to be art or a joke. I told a girlfriend about this. She was horrified. I have to admit, not only am I unashamed by this incident, I’m a bit turned on.
Jill Di Donato is the author of the novel Beautiful Garbage, about prostitution and the NYC 1980s art scene (She Writes Press, 2013). She writes about gender, culture, art, and style and had a sex column at the Huffington Post for five years. These days, she teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and lives in Brooklyn with her two pet snakes.