I woke up on the wrong side of the bed last Wednesday. This has not happened in a long, long time now. I was perplexed at first — disorientated. And for the rest of the day I was dominated by this unnerving feeling that something was going seriously wrong.
Turns out I was right. Many things happened that day, to which I do not intend to comment or dwell upon any further. But, the main attraction was how my brain, preoccupied by the nuisances of my everyday routine, failed to comprehend this subtle string of events that stirred and whirled my thoughts in order for me to end up in a crowded subway wagon, on my way home thinking about, well — sex.
Suddenly, everything and everyone around me had this aura, this air of overflowing sexuality. And don’t get me wrong, I was not turned on by it; I was fascinated. I was observing people my age, holding hands or subtly touching each other without even knowing it, pursuing this connection with one another, again, most of the times probably subconsciously. Then, older people, women and men at their 70’s and 80’s, emanating this perishing, fleeting idea of sexuality and love, though one could almost still feel the floating mental traces — once body traces, of a lustful touch or a gentle bite. And then I started looking at girls around me; specifically those around the age of 13 to 15. What I noticed, once more, is the way girls nowadays chose to present themselves in a manner that is way more feminine and mature than their own current state of sexuality. Or what our society, collectively, agrees upon to be a ripe age for someone to explore and, more importantly, comprehend his/her own sexual drives and needs. I felt a bit guilty to be completely honest with you for observing them from that perspective, they were just kids, I don’t know if they were retaining much of their innocence but still, they were kids in my mind.
I went home and sat on my bed (’cause yes, I have no desk, that’s how well-structured my life is right now). I opened my books once more, this time I knew exactly which ones, and revisited the idea of
The Sexuality of Innocence
or is it
The Innocence of Sexuality? I can never tell.
Let us begin with the basics (oh dear, it won’t be concluded in one go will it?). Let’s talk about “the male gaze” a term favoured by the film theorist Laura Mulvey and greatly analysed by John Berger in his tv-series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’. According to Mulvey the woman of the normal narrative film is treated as an image, an icon to be styled and presented according to the man’s fantasies. The man seems in control of the film’s visions as he is the bearer of the gaze influencing the story even behind the scenes as he is the one who can usually identify with the main powerful, male hero. Women, in and outside art, seem to be constantly observed and they in turn seem to be observing themselves through that interaction turning themselves into a sight. How a woman chooses to present herself is in fact a reflection of how she wishes to be treated leading her into a constant watch of her own image. As successfully put by John Berger, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.’ .
How does all this gazing and being gazed back influences girls nowadays? Do they use film actors and popular singers as their role models? Thin, cute, pearl-like teeth, long lashes, full rose lips, big blue eyes; perfect in their eyes. The entertainment industry is with no doubt evolving and ever-changing. Beauty standards shift and are greatly different throughout the world. Girls have to adapt into what these standards dictate if they want to be gazed by men. Because they know men gaze at these perfect role models of theirs moving oh so gracefully behind the thin luminous glass. I’ve been there. Done the comparison. It doesn’t work out well for you. You always lose. Until you decide not to.
Back to the main issue; sexuality in an infantilized society. The need for women to look younger and, on a second level, girls to look sexier.
A child is considered to lose its innocence by the time he or she reaches adolescence and subsequently start exploring his/her sexuality and body. Though the previous statement is considered a common truth, sexuality theories such as Freud’s (never thought I would actually refer to Freud at any time in my life really) seem to blur the distinct lines between sexuality and innocence and raise doubts. If a girl has developed sexual urges from a very young age that could lead to the thought that an adult woman acting cute and childlike could be linked with and trigger sexual feelings and thoughts.
The question often rising from discussing such theories, which link sexuality and childhood so tightly, is—how has, apart from the sexual context, this particular need for reliving childhood and re-enacting childlike behaviours occurred especially nowadays, for the modern woman? Within our infantilizing society women assume a most significant role and are the ones mostly targeted by this situation. Women nowadays are frequently expected to provide an image that is both sexy and cute at the same time. In numerous occasions, when a woman does not bear these characteristics is often viewed as intimidating or non desirable by the male audience – the male gaze.
At the same time as this phenomenon occurs for women, the image of men within the realm of visual arts manifests in a completely different way as the image of maturity and authority. This particular dynamic of the sexes is mainly a theme noticed in Western art and imagery; Japan’s image of sexuality has developed similarly but emphasizing even more in the image of the cute, virgin girl; innocence in chorus with sexuality.
Japan, as we all know, has a long tradition in the art of erotic imagery. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault has mentioned, Japan is one of the most prominent societies that has greatly dealt with the art of sex. He argues that ‘in the erotic art [of Japan] truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience’ – in other words, the act of sex is not represented as something shameful or dirty. Japan, compared to the West, has begun to exonerate the idea of the sexual act considerably early in time with the massive production of the erotic images (shunga). Sex, prostitution and even infidelity were not considered taboos and this way of treating sexuality as a whole has led to its frequent representation and great consumption in Japanese art.
Through the Japanese attitude towards sexuality and simultaneously their stance towards innocence with the shoujo image and the cult of kawaii , Japan is a prominent example of an infantilizing society were the borders between innocence and maturity are becoming somewhat more vague than they are in the West.
Well, now that we have established the facts we can securely look at specific terms and agents of sexuality in contemporary Japanese visual culture. But I think enough for today. We’ll pick up where we left off; when I’ll be ready to face this thing once more with a freshly delirious mind.