Susan Bordo – Reading the Male Body – summary
part 1 - 2
According to Susan Bordo in "Reading the Male Body" certain aspects of the male body that have been culturally represses have recently resurfaced to challenge the stability of masculinity. She brings as an example to film "The Crying Game" in which knowledge of Dill's penis does not preclude him/her from being regarded as a women, thus undermining the perception that ties genitals with gender. Another example by Bordo is that of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the US army. This policy according to Bordo defends the illusion of heterosexuality that cannot bear to be the object of a man's sexual gaze, which places it in a seemingly feminine position. According to Bordo the homosexual gaze is paradoxical in its relation to masculinity. For the gay man, the penis and phallus is a site of identification with the object of desire and not of difference in relation to it. Homoeroticism is paradoxical because it embraces masculinity and at the same time disrupts it.
Bordo hold that the impact on masculinity sensed by the heterosexual man who is the subject of another man's gaze has three aspects. The first aspect Bordo lists is a deconstruction of masculinity as an active and constituting consciousness, for men are usually the ones doing the gazing. Secondly, when the gaze if of sexual nature it becomes all the more threatening, since it makes the demand to prove one's masculinity in the sexual field present. Thirdly, the specific effect of the homosexual gaze is that of feminization. This holds a paradox since culture as feminized gay men, but now their erotic gaze has the capacity of threatening men's masculinity.
For Bordo, the conceptual and sexual system which preserves these perceptions is that which distinguishes active men from passive women. Bordo relates these notions to the topic of penetrateability and none- penetrateability, not just in the sexual context but also in the emotional, intellectual and social contexts. Bordo holds that the present day body ideal is one of impenetrateability, of stiffness and sternness. This ideal was manifested in developed muscles, but now muscles are something which needs to be obtained, and this is open to both men and women while being soft is something that a man cannot afford if he wants to sustain his masculinity.
The axis of soft/hard impose the perception of the penis in the same terms, with the erect penis idolized as the phallus and the limp penis scorned and concealed. As a substitute Bordo offers to look at the penis in terms of sexual arousal and visible attraction which acknowledges the source of this attraction.
Bordo relates physical impenetrability to emotional impenetrability and argues that this has sadly turned into the current construction of the successful self, while marginalizing feelings, softness, openness and self exposure. In concluding "Reading the Male Body" Susan Bordo offers an alternative model in which the other's subjectivity is not experienced as vital for self validation or threat, but as a change to know the other and offer the possibility of true intimacy.