Blog

Women – and men – in love

  "The Sleepers," an 1866 oil on canvas in the Petit Palais in Paris, was created by Gustave Courbet for Khalil Bey. It's a great work of art. But is it also an example of male prurience?

"The Sleepers," an 1866 oil on canvas in the Petit Palais in Paris, was created by Gustave Courbet for Khalil Bey. It's a great work of art. But is it also an example of male prurience?

I had to laugh when I read about the controversy over Abdellatif Kechiche’s depiction of hot lesbian sex in Cannes Film Festival darling “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Some feminists and lesbians protested, asking in effect, What does he know about female, particularly lesbian, sexuality? Isn’t his interest prurient?

I laughed, because I’ve often thought the same about men purporting to penetrate the workings of the female, uh, mind. Yet, couldn’t readers of my “Water Music” accuse me of the same thing? After all, what do I know about male sexuality and gay sex? Isn’t this just like Kechiche’s film?

 Courtesy IFC Films

Courtesy IFC Films

Well, yes – and no. Of course, he and I are voyeurs and vampires. All creative types are, plundering other people’s lives for narrative. What is it Nora Ephron said, “Everything is copy”?

And copy would be very dull indeed if we stuck only to “our own kind.” The arts, after all, are about engaging the imagination empathetically. Now to quote Gustave Flaubert: “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”

But in engaging the imagination, we have a responsibility to be psychologically true, which is different from being real. There’s an element of sexual fantasy to my work as I’m sure there is to Kechiche’s. But that doesn’t mean I’m uninterested in what it actually means for male sports rivals to be lovers, any more than I assume Kechiche is uninterested in what it’s like for two women to be in love.

There is a difference, however, and it lies only partly in the threat of rape, which is almost exclusively a male act. In a New York Times’ article on “Blue,” writer Tim Teeman quotes Mark Kernes – senior editor at AVN, a trade magazine for the adult-film industry – as saying, “Most lesbian porn is made by men for male consumers who like to imagine themselves part of a threesome.” But when I interviewed Ogi Ogas, co-author with Sai Gaddam of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” (Dutton), he told me that women like to read and write stories about men having sex as a way to work out complex issues that might otherwise be threatening to them if they weren’t observing from a safe distance.

In other words, men engage here and women detach – perhaps because in real life it’s often the other way around: Women are the ones who are emotionally engaged, while men appear emotionally detached. And that may underscore the greater element of aggression we perceive generally in the male voyeur. Put it this way: If Kechiche’s first name were Mary and “Blue” were about two men having sex, would there be all this fuss? Did anyone take Annie Proulx to task for writing “Brokeback Mountain” or the women who made up 80 percent of the film’s audience? Or were they all hailed for their commitment to exploring complex relationships?

It comes down to power. Men have always had it. And that makes them dangerous. Women traditionally haven’t. And ironically, that has in some ways made it easier for them to fly under the radar and do what they want.