PRINT April 1994

Lines of Flight

WHAT LINES ARE ETCHED in the face of masculinity? I find nothing. They are lines of flight.

Masculinity has always seemed to function through invisibility. To what else can you attribute that unique sense of naturalness, the standard against which the world of differences is compulsively measured? Unable to see itself, masculinity is most often described by others—most extensively by feminists. But what about differences among men, men whose male attributes have conventionally been drawn as deficient, or else as excessive? Masculinity turns gay men, black men, inside out. Given its inclusions and exclusions, its elaborate preoccupation with images of us alongside the threat that we pose to its omnipotence—I’m speechless.

When I was a child, most of the pictures I drew were of women—Mary Poppinses, Cinderellas, Lucille Balls, Sister Bertrilles. Drawing became a form of communication based on the mastery of certain skills, a series of lines and shapes that constituted a kind of spectral language. Becoming what kids would call a good artist basically meant you were good at reiteration: boys are this and girls are that. (“Mastery” in the true sense of the word.) Which is why artwork by kids is remarkable not for its “freedom” but for its crudeness. In its crooked lines and awkward shapes, its tribute to the world of prescribed images is made poignantly clear. As any kid will tell you, there’s nothing they could make that would come out as good as something you could buy in a store.

Once my friend Tracy Richman asked kind of snottily, “Why do you only draw pictures of ladies? Are you bad at men?” She agreed to let me do a picture of her as long as she could draw on the lipstick and fingernails. And I remember feeling instantly possessive and sullen about it, and kind of embarrassed, because I realized how much pleasure I gained from “making up” all the ladies I drew. As I look at them now, they’re all heels and tits and eyelashes. They look like whores. But no matter how pornographically they’re drawn, it’s clear they’re the subjects of the drawings and not the objects. There are fashion sketches and makeup charts, and accompanying stories about fairies and witches and movie stars. And the few pictures of men, the Prince Charmings and Darrin Stephenses and a portrait of my father, all basically look like women in drag. How could my parents have thought I was anything but a flaming queen?

Masculinity may always be slightly feminized by representation. Looking at it too hard, we find we destroy its “innate” sense of meaning, drain it of spontaneity, as when a word is repeated over and over. Jean Genet expresses a kind of jouissance at instances in which the male body interfaces with commerce—in tender phrases repeated from popular songs, say, or the sound of an American hoodlum saying the word “dollar.” For Genet, exchange feminizes, adorning the busked male body “like a locomotive being inaugurated.” Some say that the objectification of masculinity is itself a gesture toward its dismantling. This, of course, would render such pornographic specters as Marky Mark, and the media’s pectoral fetish, a cause for celebration. But just how optimistically we can regard this particular trend, or the paranoid defensiveness with which male authority is (feebly) reinstated in films like Basic Instinct, remains to be seen.

It’s only fitting that in discussing masculinity we invariably call up the roster of images, the cultural inscriptions, the pieces of representation, that mark us as a culture. Like femininity, masculinity’s a thing we characterize through fictions—movies, TV, advertising. It might be described the same way Oscar Wilde described a mirror, as something we use to reflect the masks we wear. Which might also explain why it was never considered very masculine to look at yourself too often—not, at least, until recently. Phallocratic power has not plummeted as a result, but the question remains: if masculinity is suddenly looking at itself in the mirror, what exactly is it seeing?