Eros and Gender

Portrait caricature

I have a friend who writes what he likes to refer to as “gay romance novels.” I was surprised to learn that many of his readers were women. He met them, he explained, at book signings. It seems women like guy on guy action. They like men’s bodies and enjoy explicit and appreciative descriptions of them in various states of sexual arousal even if those descriptions are done from the perspective of another man.

I hadn’t given this issue much thought until I began reading Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport by Mary Louise Adams (University of Toronto Press, 2011).  Figure skating is generally considered an effete sport. It wasn’t always so, though; it was originally practiced almost exclusively by men, so the question of how it came to be considered a sport for women is interesting. More importantly, it’s a pressing question for people who love skating and are concerned that its reputation as a sport for women discourages young men from taking it up. Unfortunately, few people within the skating community have made any effort to answer this question, but have attempted, instead, to constrain male skaters to perform in ways they consider to be acceptably masculine. This is done formally through the imposition of different technical requirements for “men’s” and “ladies” programs and informally through different approaches to the training of male and female skaters.

Dance, like figure skating, is also widely considered to be an activity best suited to women, but like figure skating, this was not always the case. So Adams looks, in her book, at the history of gendering dance movements, or at what is referred to in the dance community as “the problem of the male dancer.”

Ted Shawn, she observes, one of the pioneers of modern dance in the U.S., believed, there were fundamental differences in male and female movement. “If we can get these specific qualities of masculine and feminine movement separated,” he wrote,

it will be like breaking up white light into the colours of the spectrum … We shall then be able to split up our orchestra of dancers – the percussion and brass for the men and the woodwind and strings for the women, each sex contributing a different but complementary quality of movement to the enrichment of the art of the dance as a whole. (Adams, 226).

According to Shawn, men make big movements while women make smaller movements. Men’s arm movements “are a continuation of the body movement, as for example, the movement of a man using a scythe.” Women’s movements, he continues, are smaller. “[T]he little, fluttery movements of the wrist and hands” he asserts, “are legitimately a woman’s movement.” Shawn, writes Adams, “described men’s movements as ‘positive, aggressive, forceful, definite, explicit.’ Women’s movements, by contrast, were described as ‘tender, protective, conservative, conciliatory, delicate and tentative” (Adams, 226).

But are these differences innate, or something that boys and girls must be taught? Nikolai Tarasov, a renowned teacher from the Moscow Choreographic School and author of Ballet Technique for the Male Dancer, seems, according to Adams, to suggest that they are both innate and learned. Tarasov thus recommended that boys not be taught by women. Shawn, Adams observes, “made similar arguments, claiming, on the one hand, that gender differences in styles of movement are natural and, on the other, that men and women should follow separate training regimes to make sure that men do not develop an effeminate style, full of soft, pretty movements instead of vital and dynamic ones” (Adams, 227).

Dance critic Tobi Tobias suggested in a 1977 article in the New York Times that male dancers should focus on jumps … while women and girls should focus on “fluidity and finesse of line” (Adams, 227). The same gendered conceptions of movement have been imposed on figure skating to the detriment of the sport.

Christine Brennan, the author of Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating’s Olympic Gold Medals (Scribner, 1998), quotes Olympic champion Ilia Kulik as lamenting the excessive emphasis on jumping in men’s skating. “For me,” he explains, “it’s more interesting when I’m doing something between the jumps. … This is figure skating. It’s not jumping. It’s not just going into the jump and out of the jump and waiting for the next jump. I want to show the program. I want to show the step sequences. … That’s what figure skating is” (Brennan, 222).

Restricting emphasis on “fluidity and finesse of line” to women’s skating was done on the assumption that a flowing style and a fine body line were not masculine. Yet women are drawn to these qualities in men. Brennan writes that Kulik’s practices, when he was preparing for the 1998 Olympic Games, used to draw small crowds of young female admirers. Male skaters often cause female skaters to pause and watch with an admiration that is not limited to an appreciation of the male skater’s technical skill.

Adams argues that the gendering of movement has hampered the development of dance, and by extension, figure skating, which seems to have followed the lead of the dance community in its conception of what constitutes masculine and feminine movement. The notion, she observes, for example,  “that physical flexibility is a feminine characteristic has contributed to many men not seeing value in working on their own flexibility” (Adams, 222). Bruce Marks, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre in the 1950s, explains that at that time,

[f]or a man to lift his leg higher than hip level in extension just wasn’t done. A man’s leg was to be kept at a forty-five degree angle. And men were not to stretch … There was no one who could do a split on the wall like Misha [Baryshnikov] does, when I started studying ballet – no men. None of them wanted to. The first year I danced, I remember Pierre Lacotte came from the Paris Opera and stretched constantly. I had never seen a man so stretched; it was considered taboo. We made fun of French male dancers for that. They were considered effete because they were looking for a kind of line that was forbidden to us as men. (Adams, 222).

Yeah, French men are effete, everyone knows that, right? Except that, for many women in Western culture, French men also seem to embody an ideal of sexual attractiveness. I actually know a guy who pretends to be able to speak French just to get women into bed. He says it works too, so long as the woman in question does not herself know French.

There is a bizarre schism in Anglo-American culture between officially sanctioned ideals of masculinity and femininity and what men and women actually find sexually attractive. Men are told they ought to like women who are so slender their shape is effectively androgynous and men whose self esteem is so low that they feel the need to impress others with their choice of a spouse will often marry such women. I wonder, however, if there are any statistics on how many of these men have curvaceous mistresses, because the fact is, most men are naturally drawn to women who look like women.

Something similar is the case with women in that despite the fact men are not supposed to care what they look like, women are attracted to men who do care. That’s part of the appeal of Frenchmen, and even more of Italians. Those guys care about their appearance because they know women care about it. And despite the fact that the ideal of masculinity perpetuated by Anglo-American culture is one of lumbering, awkward, brutish inarticulacy, women the world over have always been drawn to poets and dancers.

Grace is a powerful aphrodisiac. If anyone thought about it, they would see that this makes sense. Okay, I don’t know what grace is in a chicken, or more correctly, a rooster. I do know though that male birds dance for females as part of their seduction ritual. Indeed, throughout the animal kingdom males perform in order to win, to put it delicately, the affections of a female and one presumes that the winners are the ones deemed, in some sense, the most graceful.

There is, in fact, no species that I know of, apart from human beings, where the female performs in order to attract the attentions of the male. Mostly they spend their time trying to avoid those attentions, so the males have to be really good at their little dances. My suspicion is that what actually sets human beings apart from other species is the level of sophistication involved in the refinement of those dances, that and the fact that while other animals, no matter what their level of skill, are invariably on the right track in terms of their assumption of what they need to do to get a mate, a large portion of masculine humanity has become derailed.

Many Anglo-American men laugh at male dancers and figure skaters. Not so many women laugh, though. Women love to watch a graceful man. That’s why ballroom dancing classes are so popular. Few women who take these classes harbor any hope of ever getting their mates on the dance floor. They go for themselves. They go to watch–and to be with–graceful men. That’s a large part of why women like ballet, and, of course, why they like figure skating. Yes, they like to imagine themselves as sylph-like ballerinas, but part of that is because the sylph-like ballerina ends up in the arms of a powerful, and graceful, male, a man such as Mikail Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov was a famous womanizer and reputed effectively to have played himself, in his role as “Yuri Kopeikine,” the Casanova-like dancer who was gradually working his way through all the up-and-coming female dancers in his company in the film The Turning Point. This aspect of Baryshnikov’s private life came as something of a surprise to people who knew nothing about ballet. It was no surprise, however, to insiders. Male dancers are not all gay, and the ones who are not are like human catnip to women with any sort of aesthetic sense.

Watch Baryshnikov on YouTube. Now there is a dancer with what is referred to as “beautiful line.” Baryshnikov is arguably the greatest male dancer of all time. When he’s dancing, there is no part of his body of which he is unconscious. Even the movements of his fingers are beautiful. There is a man who is completely absorbed in his craft. He is a master–and the effect is overwhelmingly erotic.

I’m not trying to suggest that Baryshnikov’s appeal is primarily to women, or that the appeal of male dancers more generally is primarily to women. My point is that grace in anyone is inherently erotic; both men and women are drawn to it. My point is that what is sexually attractive is more or less universal. Grace attracts sexual attention–period.

Grace is, of course, only one of many things human beings find sexually attractive. Vulnerability, intelligence, humor, and host of other qualities also have more or less universal sexual appeal. What sets grace apart is that while most of us appreciate, that a good sense of humor, for example, is appealing in both men and women, many people, or at least many men, fail to appreciate that grace is no different.

Just as grace confers an important reproductive advantage to many male animals, so does a striking appearance. Most male animals are more gaudily arrayed than are their female counterparts–again, precisely in order to attract amorous attentions. Yet male skaters are encouraged to wear more conservative costumes than their female counterparts and are forbidden from wearing tights, presumably on the assumption that this garment is inherently feminizing. Spanish men, however, arguably the most relentlessly macho on the face of the earth, have no problem climbing into a pair of tights. Why? They know that a well-muscled masculine physique tightly wrapped in silk and sprinkled with beads and sequins is as enticing a sight to a mature woman as is a pony with a bow on it to a little girl. There are already a significant number of women who follow figure skating primarily to watch the men, but imagine how the popularity of the sport would soar if male skaters took to the ice with the bravado of matadors on parade?

One of the problems, I would argue, with male figure skaters is not that their performances are effeminate, but that they tend toward asexuality. Only in ice dancing, it seems, is any overt reference to sexuality officially sanctioned. The problem is not merely with figure skating. It’s with the whole of Anglo-American culture. We’re a bunch of prudes. Perhaps that’s part of the explanation for our taste for violence. We’re angry and frustrated because an essential aspect of our humanity is systematically rejected and condemned.

Kierkegaard, and the romantics more generally, used to speak of “the erotic” in a general sense rather than in a specifically masculine or feminine sense. Eros has to do with a beauty that transcends limited cultural definitions of gender. Fortunately, the dance world appears to have caught on. When will figure skating catch up? Adams is right. It would help the development of the sport if it would give up its limiting conceptions of gender. And maybe if figure skating did that, it would help the rest of the culture as well.

(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch Aug. 27, 2012.)

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