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.
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 – with 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 cliché.