In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan’s character, Sally, sits in a diner with her friend, Harry. Harry says that he has always been able to give a woman an orgasm, and Sally questions the veracity of this claim. She tells Harry that women “fake it.” Harry admits to knowing that women fake it, but not with him. He can tell the difference, he says. Sally looks at him for a second, then goes into her now-notorious performance. She grips the table, runs her fingers through her hair, and lets out soft cries of “Yes!” until everyone is staring at the two of them. Harry is astonished, but Sally concludes her performance with aplomb. When she finishes, she immediately resumes eating her sandwich as calmly as if an extraordinary event had not just occurred, as if the audience has not just witnessed the way in which women are concerned with the perception of their performance in bed. The scene is illustrative of a larger truth: the fact that women are often thinking about how they look and with the authenticity of their performance, even at the most intimate of moments. Women “lie” in bed – excuse the pun – and the lie is attributed to the deceptive nature of women, not with the internalized idea that we should prioritize the pleasure of the man. Women, in that moment, are acting, and the act is construed as a lie.
The idea of Woman as performance piece, Woman as dramatic, Woman as drama itself, is nothing new under the sun. It began with men, who were cast as players- in both the modern and ancient senses of the word. Man as seducer is a trope that perhaps belies the fact that it is the authenticity of the woman that is always in question. Perhaps men in Victorian novels deceive women -”men were deceivers ever”, says Shakespeare, but it is women today who are inexorably associated with artifice, always seen as performers in the male gaze, always seen as performing for the male gaze.
Real men do – fill in the blank? “Real men don’t hurt women,” asserted Barack Obama in January. Real men respect women. Real men, real men, real men. Real men do not catcall. Real men do not hit women. Real men do not rape. They do not abuse.
The assertion is eminently unsatisfactory, because we who are real – not fictional- women, understand that they do. We read it every day in the papers ; our lived experiences show that they do. The men who hurt women are real flesh, real bones and real blood. “If he hurt you, he wasn’t a real man,” is no consolation to the wounded.
Real women do – fill in the blank? Real women are conceived of in quite different ways than real men. Men are characterized as real if they possess X set of attributes [that, taken together, reflect notions of traditional masculinity more than anything.] But the realness of women is questioned much more extensively. The site of the woman’s body is mined for realness, and so often found lacking. What is the masculine equivalent of Real Women Have Curves? Is there one?
The masculine beauty ideal exists, but men who do not meet it are not classified as not being “real.” In sharp contrast, women with skinny body types and narrow hips are banished to the realm of the “unreal.” The Dove Real Beauty Campaign discusses unrealistic beauty standards in the media, but continues to propagate a strange narrative of what real women look like, and what real beauty is. Realness, as a concept, is still central to the Dove Woman. And so we circle back to the question of artificial beauty, of artifice.
Take the artifice of makeup. Makeup is an instrument, a daily ritual for most women. Makeup is a construction of a face, say men, that women do not in reality possess. There is an eternal fascination – mirrored in the tabloids, in men’s forums on Reddit – with un-made-up women. There is one all-consuming question- what do women look like without makeup? What do famous women look like without makeup? Which women are ugly without makeup, and which women are not? Which women wear too much makeup? Makeup is part of the performative identity, and is often construed by men as being especially for their benefit. Men often tell me they find me more attractive with less makeup. The [heteronormative] assumption is implicit: women wear makeup for men.
Makeup is often marketed as a “masque.” When women take off their makeup, they are perceived as vulnerable because the “mask” is off. In the Natasha Bedingfield music video, “I Bruise Easily”, the singer takes off her elaborate regalia and makeup – she is dressed and made up to look like a geisha – to reveal her bare face, which accords with the theme of the video: vulnerability. It’s a clever little sleight of hand on the part of the music video director that conceals the lie: Natasha is heavily made up in the scene in which she lets down her hair and sings in jeans and a tank top.
Men do not understand what “the no-makeup-look” means, and how it differs from a face that is truly bare. They talk about feeling deceived when they see a woman without her makeup, as if the simple act of blackening your eyelashes constitutes some deep and terrible betrayal of self. Popular Twitter comedian Kelly Oxford tweeted: “Women are more self-conscious than men about how we look because we walk around all day with makeup on our faces like a bunch of liars.” Makeup, they say, is a lie, and thus a woman who wears makeup is a liar. Men become very angry at the artifice they imagine we propagate. I am not qualified to discuss the struggles of a transwoman to be perceived as a real woman in a society that sees chromosomes as determining the composition of a “real woman,” but I can imagine that it adds several more complex layers to ideas of women as “performative.”
What is the difference between a liar and an actress? (This sounds like the beginning of a bad riddle.) Both wear makeup, after all. However, the art of an actress lies in her performance: she is praised for “lying.” If women are liars without being professional actresses, we are doing something undesirable. We are undesirable, we are manipulative. Real men are expected to not do X, true. But real women are expected to not do X, as well as not to look Y. Real women are expected to “not be hoes.” Real women are expected to not be skinny, not to have undergone plastic surgery, not to wear too much makeup. We are not “real.” We are a figment, a fever-dream, a reflection in the eye of a man.
What do women want? asked Freud, and this is something men echo through the decades, as if women were a monolith and not separate individuals with distinct desires and dreams. The idea, of course, is that we do not know what we want. But there is a more ominous reading of this question, and that is “Men can never know what we want.” If we are not real women, if we are shrouded in illusion, how can men expect to understand us?
There is this scene in The Matrix, a movie that is often quoted by men’s rights activists as being instrumental in their understanding of the world. Neo, the protagonist, stands before his mentor Morpheus, in a dystopic universe that he has only just become aware of. Morpheus, deep-voiced, tells him to question his surroundings, tells him to interrogate the very concept of reality. This is nothing new under the sun for women, whose “realness” is interrogated by those around us. We are constantly locked in a struggle to define ourselves as “real”, to have to prove that reality in a world in which we are all already seen as Eve’s daughters and therefore already artificers. Welcome to the desert of the real.