SEX AND CRIME FOREVER
A discussion of photographs from the 2011 Vanity Fair Oscar Party featuring Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez
Prompt: How Does A Feminist Read These Pictures?
Harry: Why don’t we start with what we see in the pictures? Looking at the one on the left, I am struck by Selena Gomez making eye contact with the camera. It’s actually part of her thing, and theirs together:
At least, that seems to be her trend in the past couple of decades, which makes her Ono/Lennon Rolling Stone cover so striking:
I want to compare that image with the Bieber/Gomez image, but I think you want to start a little earlier in history, Dan?
Dan: Male domination of women in Western culture (in turn, the utterly dominant culture of the world, after five centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization) is so complete and foundational that we have to go a long way back to uncover and discuss its roots and implementation. The girth of this history is what still even now makes images like that of Gomez cradling Bieber to her chest hold such immediate, subtle, challenging power. I believe to fully explore the meaning of this picture, we are going to have to go back before recorded history.
The beginning of western art history is actually archaeological. European excavators have found a family of anatomically exaggerated statues of mother goddesses:
Feminists, anarchists, and many historians agree that such sculptures likely represent a matriarchal period in human history, before the codified rules, roles and religious texts brought on by agriculture and society.
Where spirituality and pre-religious, pre-scientific explanations for natural phenomena may well have been matriarchal (women’s ability to produce and nurture life facilitates worship and social power), new religious doctrine sought to codify divinely supported positions of men in charge, leading to male deities with texts and rules that bound women to what has been their place ever since.
Harry: And I’m guessing the art that we dig up reflects this cultural shift.
Dan: Yes. Moving feverishly through art and time we come to the massively influential record of Christian art.
Such art is the foundational text for the bulk of our images today. The familiar virgin/whore dichotomy that feminists are still struggling to dismantle is structurally supported by 1500-year-old art tropes. Women are portrayed as either Mary or Eve, virgin or whore.
Eve is a negative symbol of the dangers of the pre-Christian, prehistorically time of gender equality. Christian interpretation of Eve’s responsibility for humanity’s expulsion from Eden is one of the foundational justifications for religious patriarchy. By backwards reasoning, the serpent itself becomes a woman, the root of all evil:
Women’s bodies then become the Garden, transgressive places of disastrous temptation that must be restricted at all costs. Only Mary is exempt—she remains a virgin even after bearing Jesus. Hers is the impossible standard of virginity that Western women have been told to live up to. Anything less than an immaculate conception is a tainted dirty sin. Emphasizing the difference between Mary’s holy act and women’s sinful lives, in art the Immaculate Conception was traditionally portrayed with a standing Mary surrounded by glowing light or angels:
Only a shameless strumpet would look directly at the viewer, her client.
Harry: Are the women’s bodies bodies, or are they gardens? Are you saying that they are simultaneously human and feminine AND more elaborate symbols?
Dan: I’d actually go so far as to posit that Mary’s unique virginal status was invented to solve the problem of valuing a female religious figure in a religious social culture intentionally set up to demonize women and justify their continued subjugation.
Harry: So Mary’s body, in western art, is an Argument.
The mother and child strengthen and deify motherhood, one of the only traditionally acceptable roles for women in Western society. Even though they ostensibly only celebrate motherhood, these images are profoundly interesting for their gendered content. The male Christ, who is often shown with an adult face, is infantilized, and for just this part of his divine, powerful life he is at the mercy and in the literal hands of a momentarily powerful and holy women. A cursory list of other modern-day pieces influenced by this transgression would include Giorgione’s The Tempest:
and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother:
In the case of the Pieta, this symbol of death, regret, powerlessness, and human sorrow is stereotypically feminine. It is the image of the aftermath of all patriarchal wars. It is the long reality at the end of momentary excitement, a surprisingly subversive image of wasted youth, potential, and helpless maternal sorrow. It sees women’s place as reactive, passive, succor, like Sandburg’s grass: healing, reflecting, and mourning.
This is the literal iconography behind Leibovitz’s Ono/Lennon portrait. There’s no chance that two prominent 20th century visual artists like Leibovitz and Ono would not know the same basic art history that I learned from Wikipedia. The position of Lennon and Ono details the couple’s rejection of traditional gender roles, reflected in their early-70s bed- ins and Lennon’s late-70s self-description as a “house-husband.” The single image captures their dynamic with the immediacy of art in the way their theoretical pronouncements never could. It is an image of helpless need.
Harry: I definitely read the same vulnerability you’re talking about into the Gomez/Bieber picture, too. In the picture on the left, she is looking at the camera and he isn’t; he’s showing his affection for her, and she is aware of the camera. He’s also younger than her. When this picture was taken, he was 17 and she was 19. She was an adult, and he wasn’t. Both built careers as children that they are trying to shed as they evolve into adult performers. This past year, he was accused of paternity; the common joke was that everyone knew the child couldn’t be his: he’s a child himself.
This dynamic makes the picture on the right so striking, for me. He has dived, face-first, into her breasts and has his hand cupping her rear. His hand on her body is reminiscent of all of the worst guys I went to high school with, whose Facebook pages are filled with photos of them grabbing their girlfriend’s breasts, when they can be bothered to not give the camera the finger. In this light, Bieber’s face in Gomez’s breasts seems less a willingness to be nurtured and more an act of possessiveness. Their points of contact radiate some kind of sexual charge.
Dan: I think that’s too strong; the image is extremely maternal, to a nonsexual extent, to me. I wouldn’t insist on the sexual charge. Like in the Ono-Lennon portrait, the pose is intended to invoke and have the same iconographic effect as a religious painting. Additionally, Lennon’s nudity, in contrast to clothed Ono, calls back to (and deconstructs) another historical trope of Western art, which I mentioned earlier: the nameless prostitute. Harry: I’m not sure we can suggest these images deconstruct an icon of a sex worker but are also nonsexual. But I do see the power dynamic at play that I think you’re referring to. Selena has her hand on the back of Justin’s head. Usually, this is a move we see during oral sex – the hand on the back of the head means the Classic Bottom in oral sex (the person having their genitals stimulated by their partner’s mouth) is in some kind of control, or at the very least participating in power play.
Selena Gomez, putting her hand on the back of Justin’s head, is controlling the situation – she is pushing his head into her breast. But she is not looking at the camera here, and she is not looking at Justin. And this, I think, is the central question posed by the picture. Where is she looking? What is happening in her head? What is Gomez thinking?
Dan: Yoko Ono is also not looking at the camera or at Lennon.
Harry: Yeah, exactly, but I think at this point the two pictures can’t be compared too strongly. Remember that the Ono-Lennon portrait is a photograph by Annie Leibovitz; the Gomez-Bieber one was posed in a photobooth at a Vanity Fair party. For all intents and purposes, Gomez and Bieber are the authors of their own photograph. So what did Gomez want us to see when we look at her looking away?
Dan: Indifference is maybe the first interpretation of both Ono’s and Gomez’s off-screen looks. This is a distinctly masculine gaze – we’ve all seen movies about hardmen, resigned to their fates, prisoners of their pasts, staring through and beyond the women who want to hold them down and change them, who want to cling to their side and save them from their terrible duty.
Ono’s and Gomez’s looks are extremely cinematic: resigned, mind-made-up, thoughts elsewhere. The Leibovitz image also connotes post-coital indifference, with Lennon curled up and helpless, begging for nurture and affection, and Ono cold, lifeless, and uncaring. She was rejected immediately and continuously by the media and public for her nontraditionalness.
Harry: In the Gomez/Bieber case, there’s actually more symbiosis than in Ono/Lennon. They almost seem to be cooperating. Bieber’s hand on Gomez’s ass stakes it out as property: I own this ass. But Gomez’s hand on Bieber’s head, pushing him closer into her breast: I own this activity.
Dan: Whereas Ono and Lennon are enacting the assumed and still-prevalent popular understanding of their relationship as the subjugation of a beloved man-child to a primally terrifying Other. Our culture is still deeply afraid of returning to the matriarchal domination of childhood and the prehistoric past. So are these photos revolutionary feminist acts?
Harry: I think so, in different ways. I think that Ono and Lennon are engaging with the culture, and replicating and deconstructing artistic and historical tropes; they are the classroom. Gomez and Bieber are still just young people being young people, allowing themselves the detached irony that is their privilege and right and exposing comfortable vulnerability in him and arch subjectivity in her; they are the practice.
Dan Pasternack studied World War I and Art History at Wikipedia University, but did not graduate.
Harry Waksberg holds a BA in Projecting Cunnilingus-Descriptive Rap Verses Onto Photographs of Disney Stars