“What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
Against Interpretation, 1966
Have you ever seen a movie called ‘Twenty-One’? I would be surprised, even astonished if you had. It was made sometime in the 90s and starred Patsy Kensit at a rather low point in her career. Straight-to-video, it was an English film that aspired to be Alfie told from a woman’s point of view. The only moments I remember are Patsy having a wee whilst delivering a monologue to camera and the sheer presence of a young male actor called Rufus Sewell. He played a lowlife smackhead, and the screenplay gave him very little in the way of memorable dialogue.
But his face! Round, enormous eyes that could seem blue, green, even black depending on the force of his expression. One eyelid was slightly lazy, half-closed, which suggested…louche disdain, or perhaps a dark inwardness, cruelty, restraint. But it’s an imperfection that makes the face crackle with life. Without it, he’d simply be a vapid pretty boy. With it, the deliciously feminine eyes acquire depth, wit, mystery.
You see the photo above and you see someone who appears a little rugged. Back then, however, his face was heart-shaped, his neck slender. He looked willowy and slight. Yet as is only too clear in recent TV outings, he’s actually tall and physically imposing. Strange then that he appeared to be quite delicate and Keatsian when young. It’s as if that feminine masculinity that Sontag talks about has been eroded or concealed over time. Hollywood doesn’t like it, men’s magazines don’t like it. It’s still subversive even now for a man to look so tantalizingly like a woman.
One of the things I do is to teach at secondary school, and I remember, after a fight broke out in a lesson, a conversation I had with one of the miscreants. He was a smooth-skinned, dark haired boy who had large, amost Jayne Mansfieldian lips, who swore ‘I’m straight, I’ve got a girlfriend, but I’ve been bullied for five years because of the way I look.’ In other words, for being pretty. The other boys found him incredibly threatening. It both surprises me and does not surprise me that this kind of male beauty (real male beauty, as Sontag would have it) is perceived in this way.
Teaching is one way to understand how prevalent and difficult to root out are gender inequality, homophobia and racism. Prejudice is the big sea you’re battling against when you step into the classroom. So of course, the boys’ reaction to my Byronic student wasn’t really surprising. But on a personal note, I can’t quite understand how everyone can’t see how erotic Sewell’s kind of male beauty is. Or perhaps people do see, and then look away again. Such beauty disturbs their sense of what gender is: such beauty is not fixed or stable. It’s volatile, inflammatory, disturbing, and ultimately a melancholy thing. You can only know it like you know the air: by its movement, its fluidity.
Teachinty-One’at is most beautiful in virile men is something