Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Woman on the Bathroom Wall

I suppose I would have been about eight years old. That would make this around 1961 more or less, because Kennedy was still alive and no one had heard of the Beatles. My friend Andy and I had been riding our bikes cruising the drainage ditches around the cornfields outside of Gilbert Iowa and had collected enough pop bottles to get either a comic book or an ice cream cone over at Ruthie’s Drug Store and Billiards Emporium on what would be main street since you could hardly call it downtown. There was this Texaco station, with gas pumps with a picture of an Indian Chief advertising hi test “Fire Chief” with these bubbles in a glass tank full of gas that would tumble and spin like Christmas tree globes when the attendant in overalls ran the gas into Dad’s little Rambler, wiped the windshield with a rag, checked our oil and inquired about the fishing at the gravel pit.

On this day what I knew for sure was that I had to pee “real bad”. While Andy waited, I dashed inside, holding my little dick through my jeans with both hands and yelled out for the bathroom. A disembodied arm and grease blackened hand poked out from under a chassis and pointed towards the back by the tire racks. I ran like hell, sure I’d never make it, went skidding in through the door and froze in my sneakers.

On the wall tacked up just over the toilet, strategically placed it now seems to me, was a nude woman.

In 1961 it was possible for a young boy to go eight years without ever a notion of a naked woman. This was my first experience, and I was stunned into silence. Still holding my crotch, I forgot all about having to pee, while I felt mysterious stirrings down there whose purpose had not yet been revealed to me but which I knew had something somehow to do with that picture. It was akin to religious awe, perhaps my first contact with the genuinely sacred.

Full breasted she was, with wide dark nipples like toll-house cookies. A dark soul patch of hair tucked between the tops of her thighs. But her face. The way she looked out at me, not smiling and almost not quite angry. Daring me as if with a very serious challenge. As if I had been caught doing something shameful. What do you think you’re doing there, little man? Go back out the way you came.

For days every woman looked different to me. I had stepped through a door without knowing. I understood now why their chest stood out like that. In school, young Mrs. Sanders with her neatly starched lace blouse that swayed bulkily when she moved the chalk on the blackboard or bent over my desk to pass out the wet, sweet smelling purple mimeographs. Did she also have that hairy vacancy between her thighs, so different from me? Incredibly, Mom, she must look like that too. In the bathroom at home after my tub bath, all alone, I stood in front of the mirror, trying to tuck it inside my legs to see if I could make myself look like the woman on the wall.

That wasn't when I first noticed girls, but I’d turned a corner of dark knowledge. I don’t think young boys experience this wonder anymore in the age of cable when its all so quickly laid out for them. It takes all the wonder out. It would be like scientists discovering empirical evidence for the existence of God, disposing of the question for all time. Who would care after that?

I’ve been reading Playboy again, ever since it went digital, which was a real boon for me. Now self conscious family guys like me can read these magazines with discretion as well as romance novels on ereaders without having to explain ourselves. I’m not fudging when I say I read playboy for the articles, because the pictorials have profoundly changed over time. I don’t really look at them anymore. They haven’t been interesting for a long time. They’re variations of the same woman. Almost always white. Usually blonde. Minimal 20s. Well waxed of all body hair and groomed. Sometimes a boob job, not always. Sweet. If sexbots are ever invented, and I firmly believe they will be, they will be manufactured to look like these girls.

The woman on the bathroom wall, she was anything but sweet. She was clearly unforgettable.

Playboy’s original stated philosophy regarding the monthly pinups was to depict “the girl next door”. And they were too, up until the late ‘90s. That was the erotic power of the playmate, they were women, not girls. They looked like women you might meet. There is a world of erotic difference between a mature woman and a girl. Commercially there is a world of difference also.

In writing there is a distinction made between erotic writing and romance writing, even though they are closely related. Trying to define them is dangerous, as there is no easier way to offend the writers of both genres. What I know about romantic writing is I can’t seem to do it. The areas it explores, the rules it requires, though I understand them, I can’t seem to make them fit. Erotic writing has more latitude, and an element of exploration. It has the freedom to be offensive or transgressive provided you don’t care about being published. But it also has the ability to set aside the entire issue of beauty, and offers latitude to explore ugliness. Physical and emotional ugliness, even ugliness of the soul. Ugly can be beautiful.

The last ten years of so have seen in Playboy the homogenization of beauty, of stripping away the intimidating erotic power mature women can exude and replacing it with a kind of vapidly sweet mimicry. I see this as a larger result of cultural change, even a kind of strange evolutionary relationship between predator and prey. Consumerism as predator, has learned how to stalk and catch the consumer prey by playing to the insecurities as well as the increasing sexual cynicism of boys who have seen it all by the time they leave high school. The ancient threatening eroticism and growing independence of modern women, which in the past had been tamed by religion and patriarchy, is being co-opted by pure marketing to the lowest sexual denominator. The achievement of feminists, including especially feminist erotica pioneers, has been trumped by Girls Gone Wild DVDs. The advantage of this for the market is the increasing sheer disposability of women, as necessary to fast marketing as recyclable paper cups. Take Tina Turner, one of my generation’s enduring sex symbols.

Strictly speaking Tina Turner, even in her halcyon days, was never beautiful. She wasn't even pretty by Playboy standards. She was in fact, lets say the word – ugly. Ugly the way that Mick Jagger or James Brown are ugly. But in her ferocity of form, audacity and presence she made men growl. Men, both black and white, they wanted her. Tina Turner is erotic. She has presence. You can imitate beauty but you can’t imitate that goddess quality. Men wanted her, and at the same time we were challenged by her, by her untamable rawness. You felt if you were chosen by the goddess, if you could be that insanely lucky, she could still put you out of business forever just by laughing at your dick.

And how at last will we males defend ourselves against the power of liberated women to define our sexuality to us in the 21st century? Same as always Рwith money. Transforming and pre empting the raw power of the female form in terms of the market place and flooding that market with homogenized, even pasteurized sex, safe as milk. It may be that the final answer of men to the modern woman will be the transformation of her eroticism into a commodity, like pork bellies, groomed for the least intimidating denominator. Then at last sex itself will become a clich̩.


  1. Hi, Garce,

    Been awhile since I popped in here, but am glad I did today. Loved your article. What stood out, for me, were your comments on Tina Turner. What Tina Turner has, and what many women have is what used to be called "it." My husband still remarks when he sees a woman who, in his opinion, has "it."

    What's interesting is that, although as far as I know, I'm pretty much het, I can see "it" too, in other women. That "it" has absolutely nothing to do with what is considered "beautiful" by the arbitrary standards set by... who? Playboy, porn sites, whoever? While it's true that a woman *might* be beautiful by those standards, she might or might not possess that almost indefinable "it."

    Of course, "it" varies in the eye of the beholder, but some women seem to have a much more universal appeal and Tina Turner is one of those. She about 70 now and her "it" gives no signs of diminishing, so I'm thinking it has more to do with a type of energy generated by some women than any actual physical characteristics. Perhaps it is just a powerful spirit...a survivor spirit, an indomitable spirit. Perhaps that look of self-confidence and defiance in that photo on the bathroom wall is part of what "it" is and what some men (and women, too) find so damned attractive.

    Part of it, in my opinion, is the difference between the insecure arrogance of superficial physical beauty and the secure self-confidence of inner strength and spiritual/emotional beauty. That strength simply cannot be hidden from the observant eye and mind.


  2. Great blog. You are spot on. Most of these Playboy models are just plastic (literally and figuratively) speaking clones of each other. Where are the sultry good looks, the allure and mystery of a truly sexy woman - Greer Garson, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Elle McPherson, just to name a few.



  3. I remember an episode of Twilight Zone (Not the more famous Eye of the Beholder episode) where a young girl resisted a complete physical makeover because her late father had been against them. In the end, she did it, and seemed happy with the results. Everyone around her was relieved. I guess the question posed was "Did the process remove her soul?" or something along those lines. Mostly, I remember how uncomfortable everyone was with her imperfections, which weren't terrible, and her insistence that originality was worth something (because you came out looking like one of their ten models if you underwent the process).

  4. Hi Rose!

    Thanks for coming by, we don;t see you enough. I know what you mean by it. Its a mystery to me where the it comes from. I've had the experience of sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, maybe writing and a woman will come by who just makes me look up and follow her and wonder over her, and often she's not young or pretty, but something, and I see other men look at her too, and I just wonder what it is. Maybe pheromones or something?

    There is something about Tina Turner, that tough sexuality, that indomitable spirit as you say. Not only her but some special people. I don;t know where it comes from. Wish I had it.


  5. Hi Margaret!

    Well, this is my argument. I'm not sure what Playboy playmates would look like to a woman, I suspect it would be different for a man. But the playmates of the 50 through the early 90s were natural and mature women for the most part. THere was nothing artificial about them. Some of them were powerfully erotic in their images. When you think about it, its amazing, because these are only photos, just compositions of light, and yet they manage to convey this character which is part male fantasy and part something more. At some point I think this was lost. I think they went for formula and some kind of magic electricity went out of the whole premise. This is what makes me think that sex is being turned into a homogenized commodity rather than letting the individual "it" quality as Rose says, come through naturally.


  6. hi Kathleen

    I know that episode! It was called "number twelve Looks Just Like you".

    The apprentice writer must know his Twilight Zone episodes by heart. Its a commandment.

    I would imagine that particular story would have been very meaningful to a young woman in the 60s seeing it when it was new. Like that Leslie Gore song "You Don't Own Me".


  7. Rose and Margaret, it's great to see you here. And Garce, this is an articulate and incisive description of the way the media have defanged and declawed sex, working to make it "safe" - as well as a lament for what has been lost.

    I didn't watch much TV so I'm not familiar with that Twilight Zone episode, but I find it rather amazing that a popular show would be dealing openly with the issue of conformity robbing you of your identity. However, I see upon consulting the Wikipedia article that the episode was based on a short story...(authors do it again...)

    Wonderful post, and equally fabulous comments!

  8. Hi Lisabet!

    Rod Serling, who pioneered the Twilight Zone, was referred to as "TV's ;ast angry man". He came out of TV theater in the 50's when serious drama was being performed on network television and he had this faith that TV would become a powerful medium for great story telling and fought for that all his career until he was exahausted.

    What made Twilight Zone an enduring classic were these very bold thought provoking episodes like "Number Twelve etc" and "The Big Wish", which had an all black cast in 1962 and dealt with the idea of faith. And what was amazing was they presented such complex ideas in 30 minutes, which is very hard.


  9. Hi Garce,

    I loved the idea that Playboy is pre-figuring the fembot ideal. I guess the clue is in the boy in Playboy; it never was meant to be something for adults.

    I find most American porn either too neutered or too nasty to watch.

    I hope one of the things we get to do in erotica is to remind people what sex between real people can be like.

    As far as porn goes,I'm a fan of the movies of Mario Salieri who showed real woman doing taboo-breaking things. I also like Japanese movies that focus on the housewives having torrid sex while their husbands are away. This involves real, scarcely edited, sex and a level of emotional exchange between the actors that US porn seems afraid of.

    Thanks for reminding me of what it felt like before images of naked women were so common it seems genuinely puzzling that I get through my days without meeting any.

  10. Hi Mike

    Don;t underestimate playboy too much. Hefner and Playboy did a great deal, mostly in the 50s and 60s to pioneer free speech and in fact women's liberation in this country. People like us owe a lot to Hefner as a pioneer of what we do here. This is fresh in my mind because i got into a big discussion over this at lunch over some people I'm traveling with. Hefner defended Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and helped promote their careers. He also gave wide exposure to several writers like Bradbury and Updike and helped them hit the big time. Hefner's got substance.

    Sex between real people is the signature of your story style, which is one of the reasons I keep an eye out for your stuff. In fact I just picked up one of your stories "Sex With Owen" off of Clean Sheets and its riding around in my ereader to read on the plane.

    I'm going to look up Salieri. I don;t watch porn all that much, but I suspect the popularity of amatuer porn has a lot to do with looking for those moments of authenticity audiences don;t see much from the pros. We long for the real.




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