The painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, "Lunch on the grass" or the "Picnic," by Édouard Manet, is one of the classic paintings of the 19th century. It is principally noteworthy for what it is and what it means than for the aesthetic contribution it may have made to the history of art. Even now, its message may be considered challenging and politically incorrect in certain circles. How this is so makes it of continuing interest.
We see two couples, perhaps, at a picnic. There is some food in a basket, but it doesn't look like a particularly organized meal. The men converse. In the background, with a curiously foreshortened perspective, a women in a light, diaphanous gown stands in the water and is either rinsing her hand or examining something. In the foreground, a completely nude woman, sitting on some of her clothes, looks directly at the viewer. Her pose is relatively modest, as far as the viewer goes; but little would be left to the imagination of the men in the painting. The picnic basket sits on the rest of her clothes, which are randomly thrown on the ground. Émile Zola suggested that she had just been swimming and was now drying off. If so, it looks like she must have quickly and carelessly shed her clothes on arrival at the site and gone in the water immediately.
In 1863, if Manet wanted to épater les bourgeois, shock the middle class, he got his wish. The painting could only be shown in the Salon des Refusés, and may have helped lead to the Salon being shut down. And it was more than the bourgeois who were shocked. The Emperor Napoleon III saw the painting and said it was "an offence against decency." The Empress Eugenie (the first person, as it happens, whose name was assigned to an asteroid, 45 Eugenia, discovered in 1857) seems to have avoided even looking at the picture.
European art at the time, of course, was full of nudes, as it had been since the Renaissance. Manet's painting is actually not unlike the Fiesta campestre, or "Pastoral Concert" of 1510, by Giorgione (1477/78-1510) -- although now Giorgione's student Titian (1488/90–1576) is thought to have finished or done the painting himself. The sexuality of traditional nudes, however, was usually somewhat denatured by Classical themes and settings. The Fiesta campestre may be somewhat contrary to this approach, since the clothed male figures are in contemporary dress and engaged in a purely secular pastime. Nevertheless, the female nudes could be interpreted allegorically, and it also was not unusal for Classical scenes to use contemporary costume. The Fiesta campestre does not seem to have generated any controversy.
Manet's scene seems stark, blunt, and provocative by comparison. People even wondered if the woodland in the painting was the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, a contemporary haunt for prostitutes that even today retains a steamy association of trysts and sex. Be that as it may, the strongest feature of the painting, what impressed and disturbed 19th century Paris, for all its sophistication, and that still is the most salient point, undimmed by any hint of Classicism, is the juxataposition of clothed men and naked women. A sense of realism is what proved disturbing, as though Manet, whose studio, of course, was always full of nude models, was accustomed to the company of naked women in the course of more ordinary activities. What may even have been worse was the suggestion that there were women willing to shed their clothes in what otherwise would be public places and quotidian activities. To Napoleon and Eugenie, only a prostitute could be that kind of woman.
Modern Feminism is also likely to find the image offensive, since the whole weight of any overt sexuality in the scene is upon the women. The women are displaying themselves as sex objects, with the one even looking directly and brazenly towards the viewer, while the men are chatting away at some other preoccupation. It is almost as though the foreground woman is challenging the viewer, either to supply the attention that perhaps the men are not, or just to respond to the affront of the whole scene. The challenge and the affront, indeed, would be as much to the Feminist as to the Emperor and Empress. Since it is actually the artist, a male, who is making the real challenge, the Feminist will have no sympathy that this is represented in a woman's form.
At the same time, this scene looks like an illustration of Laura Schlessinger's description of how a woman can impress a man: "Show up naked. Bring beer." Manet and his friends, of course, being French, will bring wine, not beer, for their picnic -- although neither is in evidence. But Schlessinger's principle would be even worse for Feminists. A male artist is expressing a male sexual fantasy. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe may as well be a tableau illustrated in Playboy. But that is the enduring interest of the scene.
Are there women who would arrive at a picnic, in mixed company, eager to shed their clothes? Certainly there are a few, but it is unusual. The gender asymmetry that Feminists ascribe to an arbitrary and oppressive patriarchal social conditioning endures in very obvious ways. The man who exposes his genitals in public is a disgusting "flasher" whose behavior is disconcerting, frightening, or nauseating to most women -- with the police soon in hot pursuit. But the woman who exposes her breasts or even posterior in public is rewarded with whoops of enthusiasm from men, and is tossed strings of beads at Mardi Gras -- a custom that has actually only developed within recent memory. The New Orleans police announced that they would not cite women for public exposure unless some disorder resulted. People new to boating may be puzzled to see vessels with flags that simply say "SUYT" -- which means "show us your tits." It is hard to imagine a corresponding "show us your [male organ]" flag, except in a purely gay population. The popularity of "Girls Gone Wild" seems to correspond to nothing going in the opposite direction, of women admiring some kind of male displays -- unless it would be the "Jackass" stunts, which nevertheless also seem to draw mainly male viewers. Young men do like to show off for women, and sometimes even to do things that are risky or gross them out; but women also have difficulty understanding why going so far as trying to get yourself hurt makes any sense.
This image, of a naked young woman at, apparently, a Thanksgiving dinner is from a favorite punching bag of the Left: advertising. It will also offend the Feminist principle that the female body should not be used to sell things, since, as an attractive substitute for the commodity being sold, it suggests that the woman herself is being sold. Here, this is an advertising campaign for a clothing company, where we get the slogan, "Nothing to wear" followed by reference to different situations. Unlike most clothing ads, it is the company and its website that are being promoted, not specific items of clothing -- hence their literal absence. The juxtaposition of a scene suggestive of Norman Rockwell with the naked woman is bizarre and surrealistic. Are there circumstances where this might happen? I can imagine the eccentric niece or granddaughter who is a principled and resolute nudist or Naturist and who absolutely refuses to wear clothes except in cirumstances that might lead to arrest -- unless that is to be courted in a political demonstration for Naturism.
But I don't think that is very common. I have never heard of it (except very briefly, for nude beaches, in the 1970's in California), although there is indeed a "top free" movement, which has had its continuing demonstrations, against laws that criminalize exposing the female, but not the male, chest. Also, there has recently been some controversy about naked men sitting down in San Francisco restaurants, but this seems to involve gay men with few or any women involved.
Instead, the advertising image strikes me, in its own provocative way, not unlike Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. The pose is so modest that the ad can be included in respectable national publications, yet it also shows enough to leave no serious doubt that the woman is quite naked. And it certainly evokes the fantasy of what an interesting family, let alone a niece or granddaughter, this would be, where young and beautiful members, but perhaps not the old and wrinkled, are likely to show up in the nude. The guest would wonder how to behave, and whether it would be polite to go naked also. Many males, indeed, might be reluctant to expose themselves where the rest of the company is clothed. Yet it would be hard to imagine that the young woman is not sending some kind of signal, and that her condition cannot simply be overlooked and ignored. Even if her explanations for it were only political, most males might be happy just to listen to them (however tedious or even anhedonic), in her company, all day.
If Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, or the advertising image, is a male fantasy, it does raise the question what men would really want women to be like. We know what women want men to be like. From the Victorian gentleman to the sensitive, metrosexual, non-harassing Alan Alda feminist, there is no lack of literature on the subject. Making a habit of telling a woman at work that she looks good will soon amount to a "hostile envirnoment," in violation of federal law -- well not exactly any statute, since the doctrine was invented out of whole cloth by the Courts. On the other hand, the woman who flashes, drinks, strips, and is sexually voracious is more a subject of pornography than of respectable literature. Women who are actually like this raise alarms about their self-destructiveness. But, as Dian Hanson has said, "...men yearn to be objects of female lust. Everything women detest in male lust, men crave from women" [Leg Show, November 1999, p.5]. More recently, from a more proper Feminist, we get Laura Kipnis:
Pornography's critics take porn very literally, as if it purports to be social realism, but a better comparison would be sci-fi, another genre that takes the "what if things were different?" approach to bodies and societies. Besides, what's so great about reality anyway, and if realism can't compare with pornography, why is it porn that's supposed to do the apologizing? [The Female Thing, Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, Pantheon, 2006, p.66]
We might think that Exhibit A of male blockheadedness is the ancient question, "What do women want?" But women may seem equally perplexed about men, yet in turn rarely ask, "What do men want?" A man may not actually appreciate a girlfriend who exposes herself in public or passes out drunk, but women often have no sense of the effect they can have from even modest exhibitions in private. In Jennifer's Body , writer Diablo Cody has Megan Fox advise Amanda Seyfried that her breasts are "guided missiles." All she needs to do is point them at men. Yet many women may not think of their assets as anything special. One woman on the old Blind Date TV series [1999-2006], told her date, who was in the act of fondling her breasts, "They're just boobs. Everybody has boobs." Well, no. Only women do; and it is an excellent question why the human female stores fat in breasts, making them permanently swollen, while no other Primates, indeed no other mammals, do. It may be that American males, or Hugh Hefner, pay too much attention to breasts; but the things wouldn't be there if Darwin had not been paying attention to them also. It is called "sexual selection," and all sorts of strange things in nature, from the bowers of Bowerbirds to Peacock tails, are the result. Nor are breasts the only sexual signals from the female body. Skin, bones, muscles, flesh, hands, hair, feet, legs, hips, lips, eyes, buttocks, neck, shoulders... It goes on and on. Each has distinctive female forms. When only one feature of a woman's body seems erotically charged, it becomes a "fetish"; and at the extremes it does seem unusual or pathological that this should happen. But it is not at all unusual that various features may be more attractive to particular men than others. The package is complex, but then its multiple elements are precisely what gives it a spectrum of power. Women, indeed, are often aware, or at least have their own opinion, whether correct or not, about their best features.
So what do men want? The woman who immediately strips at the picnic is going to make an impression, but that is really more than is necessary. What a lot of men would like from women is simply to know what to them feels good. Dian Hanson, again, says, "men are basically thrilled to give women orgasms" [ibid.]. But women vary greatly in their sensitivities and their sexual response. Breasts, or toes, may be powerful erotic sites to some women, but erotically numb to others. Yet a woman may also think that, if he loves them, he should just know. In turn, if she doesn't tell him, he may simply think that he does know, which is that she will like whatever he likes, which may be of the "wham, bam" variety.
The "hookup" culture of contemporary sexual mores seems particularly ill suited to the requirements of responsive and satisfying love-making. It may take lovers days or weeks, if not months, to learn enough about each other and about each other's bodies before they know enough and are comfortable enough to be able to consistently satisfy each other. On the other hand, the story of Kerry Cohen [Loose Girl, a Memoir of Promiscuity, Hyperion, New York, 2008] testifies to shocking levels of callousness from the young men she got involved with. They were taking the "zipless fuck" [cf. Fear of Flying, Erica Jong, 1973] all too seriously and apparently never considered that the woman they were using might actually have different ideas. Of course, Cohen might have regarded it as too needy, controlling, bitchy, or smothering to express those different ideas. While we don't hear much in public discourse about how satisfying or bleak this culture may be for young women, it may be revealing that the Obama Administration is pushing regulations on colleges and universites that would absolish the right of men accused of harassment or sexual assault to confront or cross-examine their accusers, while lowering the threshold of evidence for guilt to such a low level that accusations alone may be sufficient for academic sanctions or explusion. If this is not just a Feminist ideology pushing consistently towards its logically totalitarian goal, one wonders if it reflects dissatisfaction on the ground on the part of women who feel used and discarded but who do not know how otherwise to articulate the evils of their experiences. An unhappy experience must have been date-rape, the only politically correct category available for its classification. On the other hand, with sufficient levels of alcohol, and a false conception of how great casual sex is, those callous young men may indeed have been callous enough that it actually was date-rape.
In the bad old days, a constant of popular culture is what used to be called the "battle of the sexes." Somehow, "sexual liberation" and Feminism have erased the idea from the culture, under the fiction that male and female sexuality ought to be the same. But the battlefield in no way has disappeared. It has simply moved, away from the careful negotiation of individual relationships, explored by the humor and drama of popular entertainment, to the retribution of politics, law, and ideology, where the fantasy of male and female identity is provoked into furious vengeance when reality does not go along. The result is that no one is any happier, unless they ignore political correctness and make their own private and realistic accommodations.
In the Broadway musical My Fair Lady [Lerner and Loewe, 1956], Henry Higgins sings a song, "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" This is, of course, the last thing a man really wants, although the question expresses a frustration at dealing with the mismatch of male and female desires and expectations. We might as easily ask whether Higgins, let alone Eliza Doolittle, knows what a man wants. Does the naked woman of Le déjeuner sur l'herbe represent the genuine world of male imagining, or a fantasy pornotopia? There just may not be a simple answer to this. There may actually be out there the occasional woman eager to shed her clothes and go naked, whatever the men are doing; but in the battle of the sexes the confrontation at scrimage is usually going to be a lot more complicated. Even worse, it is not just a man and a woman learning and adjusting to each other, but each of them is a being of individual idiosyncrasies that likely will have nothing to do with their sexuality. Indeed, some couples match up fine sexually but can't stand each other in terms of other issues, or the opposite. So the question of Le déjeuner sur l'herbe does not resolve in a simple way; and, truth be told, we should not want it to. For all the difficulties that are created by the variables of love, sexuality, and relationships, they are the basis of the aesthetic variety that we otherwise enjoy in memory, story, entertainment, and history. It is not just that we know how different every story is, but we know how different our own story is.
Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes
Anaesthesia and Anhedonia
The Erotic as an Aesthetic Category
The Girl in a Dress