Two millennia ago in the Metamorphoses Ovid recounted the myth of Pygmalion, a hater of women. Disgusted with the Propoetides, who become the first women to prostitute themselves, he sculpts a flawless ivory maiden:
Offended by the faults nature gave in full
to the female mind, he lived as a wifeless bachelor….
Meanwhile with wondrous art he sculpted snow-white
ivory and gave it beauty no born woman can
possess, and he fell in love with his own work.
She looked like a true virgin, who you’d believe was alive….
So utterly does art hide art.
Pygmalion extends the moral faults he sees in the Propoetides to women at large—the female mind is simply defective. His umbrage extends to the aesthetic imperfections of the female body. The Latin word vitium, “fault,” is either an ethical shortcoming or a physical defect that spoils a lovely surface. Pygmalion’s artistic victory lies in his ability both to mimic and surpass nature in the manufacture of a chaste, beautiful woman.
The statue of course has no interior world, no notion of autonomous identity. She is not given a name (though in later versions she’s called Galatea, “milky-white”). She has no mind, so of course she cannot speak it. The perfect woman has no body, no soul, no voice. She is a thing.
Pygmalion eagerly kisses and fondles her ivory flesh, and our eye travels over her body as he adorns her:
He ornaments her limbs with clothing,
puts gems on her fingers, wraps long necklaces around her neck.
Smooth pearls hang from her ear, chaplets from her breast,
Everything flatters her, nor does she seem less beautiful in the nude.
The statue is an assemblage of beautiful body parts subjected to Pygmalion’s visual and artistic control. This fragmentation of woman into limbs, fingers, neck, ears, and breasts dehumanizes the female body, rendering it the superlative object of the male gaze.
There is something horrifyingly narcissistic about Pygmalion, who loves only what he himself has created. Like Narcissus, whose tale appears earlier in Ovid’s epic, Pygmalion is mesmerized by his own reflection. Yet since Pygmalion cannot sexually penetrate his statue, he beseeches Venus to bring her to life. The story abruptly ends the moment she wakes up.
The story must end where it does, or it would cease to be a tale of artistic triumph. The living wife would have every seeming imperfection that compelled Pygmalion to sculpt her in the first place. She’d no longer be a virgin. Pregnancy would transform her once taut belly. Nursing would alter her breasts. She would age, her surface lined with defects. The ivory would become flesh, a real body. She would eat and excrete. Most notably, she would have a mind. She would speak it, perhaps even nag. There is no doubt she disappoints Pygmalion, no doubt he considers picking up the chisel once more.
This story teaches damaging lessons to and about women that remain in full force: our worth is measured by the aesthetic pleasure we give men and only perfection passes muster. The ideal woman is a man’s creation. The 2016 presidential election offers the best gauge of how much we still endorse such misogyny. After all, Pygmalion won.
Donald Trump venerates beauty as his highest ideal:
My style is based on trying to make whatever I do breathtakingly beautiful. People react emotionally to my style; they appreciate, get pleasure from, and want more of it. My style excites me and inspires me to do bigger, better, and more magnificent projects. It’s no accident that I’m so involved with beauty; it’s my signature, my brand. (Trump 101)
Politics has not dimmed this enthusiasm. During his presidential campaign he attempted to alleviate criticism of his proposed southern border wall by promising it would be a “beautiful wall” with a “big, beautiful door.”
And Trump surrounds himself with beautiful women, at least those that fit a certain homogeneous aesthetic type—white, tall, thin. Trump admires such women in the same way he admires buildings—as parodied brilliantly on Saturday Night Live by Alec Baldwin’s Trump, who calms his nerves by repeating the mantra “big beautiful boobs and buildings.” Trump has explicitly made this connection: “Beauty and elegance, whether in a woman, a building, or a work of art, is not just superficial or something pretty to see. Beauty and elegance are products of personal style that come from deep within” (Trump 101).
It is no accident that the two main prongs of Trump’s “empire” prior to his foray into reality television and politics were real estate and beauty pageants: “What I do is successful because of the aesthetics,” he told The New York Times in 1999, “People love my buildings and my pageants.” He seems to believe the beauty of the women around him signifies not their own but his triumph—they too are part of the Trump brand. Such beauty, like that of Pygmalion’s statue, is merely a reflection of a narcissistic artist.
Like the statue, Trump’s ideal beauty queen has been excavated of interior value—her mind is best regarded as an absence. While promoting Miss USA on The Howard Stern Show in 2005, he quipped, “If you’re looking for a rocket scientist, don’t tune in tonight. But if you’re looking for a really beautiful woman, you should watch.” Earlier in 1998 he explained what set apart his Miss Universe pageant from the rest: “This is a real beauty contest. Others, such as Miss America, are not really beauty contests because they judge a great deal on talent. Miss Universe is all about beauty.” The merits of a woman’s intellect simply do not factor into the measure of her beauty. When he does draw attention to women’s minds, it is usually to dismiss them as intrinsically faulty. Last year in a series of polemical tweets, he labeled Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski “neurotic,” “not very bright,” “crazy,” “very dumb,” “low IQ,” and suggested that she was suffering from a “mental breakdown.”
Trump, like Pygmalion, wants women to behave—to dress and act—like ladies, an idea that echoes the fleshless statue’s ability somehow to look like a “true virgin.” This desire has fueled his reality television endeavors. In 2009 he executive-produced a show called The Girls of Hedsor Hall, in which young women deemed “party girls” attended a British finishing school. A similar 2007 effort entitled Lady or a Tramp never aired, but Variety quotes Trump’s description of its concept:
We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women, so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it. I am creating a real-life version of ‘My Fair Lady’ with my company Trump Productions. This show is all about getting a second chance and transforming for the better.
My Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw’s successful play Pygmalion, an updating of Ovid’s myth, with Henry Higgins playing the sculptor to Eliza Doolittle’s ivory statue. Trump’s proposed show in fact has closer affinities with the original myth insofar as he, like Pygmalion, is fixated on the sharp dichotomy between virgin (“lady”) and whore (“tramp”).
Trump’s attempts to manufacture idealized female beauty extend to the women in his family. As he bragged to Howard Stern in 2003, “You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6-feet tall, she’s got the best body.” In 1994 Trump gave an interview to ABC News with then-wife Marla Maples in which he clearly casts himself as the Pygmalion-like creator of his wives: “I’m a great star-maker, which I’ve done with Ivana and Marla. I liked that. But once they are a star, the fun is over for me. It’s the creation process, like creating a building. It’s sad.” There can be no happy ending for Pygmalion. The work of art, having become “real,” quickly disappoints.
Trump’s gaze, like that of Pygmalion, views women’s bodies as an assemblage of discrete, dehumanized parts. As he told Esquire in 1991, “It doesn’t really matter what [the media] write[s] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” The most chilling example of this comes in his infamous Access Hollywood recording, where he disassembles women into beautiful legs and grabbable pussies. He likewise diminishes women who do not fit his aesthetic standard by accusing them of having ugly or substandard parts. “A woman who is very flat-chested,” he told Howard Stern in 2005, “is very hard to be a 10.”
To Trump, the natural functions of the female body are a source of marked anxiety. His perfect woman, like Pygmalion’s statue, does not undergo biological processes. He claimed to Howard Stern in 2004, for instance, that he had never known his wife Melania to defecate or pass gas. In 2011 he called a female attorney “disgusting” for having to pause a deposition to pump milk for her infant daughter, and perhaps most notoriously he suggested in 2015 that debate moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The most beautiful bodies aren’t even bodies.
Trump frequently mocks women as having had recourse to plastic surgery, itself an art form employed to overcome nature’s seeming imperfections. He does this especially to women who have somehow challenged him, retaliating against them by ridiculing their visual bodies. So Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift,” while Cher has had “massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.” In his Access Hollywood recording he strikes back against a woman he once unsuccessfully tried to “fuck” by reducing her to “big, phony tits.” Trump attacks these women as though they themselves are unsuccessful artisans—they have not lived up to Pygmalion’s victory whereby “art hides art.” As manufacturers of their physical selves, he deems women inferior.
Just as Pygmalion’s statue never speaks, Trump’s ideal woman pleases only when her voice is held firmly in check: “Often, I will tell friends whose wives are constantly nagging them about this or that that they’re better off leaving…. For a man to be successful he needs support at home…not someone who is always griping and bitching” (The Art of the Comeback). Trump’s current wife, Melania, has made it the acme of her wifely virtues to restrain her voice. As she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I’m not that kind of wife who would say, ‘Learn this’ or ‘Learn that.’ I’m not a nagging wife.” The chief sin of a nagging wife, it seems, would be to attempt a Pygmalion-like makeover of her husband.
As president, Trump remains every bit the Pygmalion he’s always been. From praising the “nice smile” of a female member of the “beautiful Irish press” to declaring the first lady of France “in good shape” and “beautiful” (a compliment delivered chiefly to her husband), he seems incapable of treating the world’s women as more than objects to be admired or censured on aesthetic grounds. He even recently reassured a group of young, mostly female trick-or-treaters that he could justifiably give them Halloween candy because they have “no weight problems.”
Trump’s idealizing of standardized, “perfect” female beauty has enabled him to eulogize himself as a lover of women when in reality he dehumanizes them. The reduction of woman to sculptable body, to a thing created by and for men, all too readily opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Numerous women have accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault, allegations he has simply dismissed as the lies of mendacious women.
Pygmalion lurks in far too many of today’s powerful men. Harvey Weinstein has become famous both for the creation of female stars and for his sexual assault of them. Woody Allen, who himself has faced serious allegations of sexual misconduct, centers film after film around the Pygmalion theme and has even spoken of his marriage with the much younger Soon-Yi in terms that evoke this story. The late Hugh Hefner built a magazine empire off the commodification of women’s bodies for the male gaze. For each of these men, woman is a kind of artistic project that measures his own masculine triumph.
Donald Trump is just one recent manifestation of a type of misogyny that has been entrenched for millennia. He says bluntly what many men think about women, what too many women think of ourselves. Pygmalion’s eyes have become our own collective gaze.
The president is a stark reminder of how far we have to go. Yet so many women have found in this moment a catalyst for raising defiant voices that demand to be heard. Something truly beautiful emanates from living, flesh-and-blood women when we refuse ever to become silenced statues.
Image Credit: Flickr/Michael Vadon.
Comrade is a loaded word. Tongzhi, literally “same aspiration,” was the appropriate term of address for an entire generation of Chinese, from influential Party officials and generals to ordinary mothers, street-sweepers, and butchers. Its usage signified membership in a shared, Communist dream of equality and progress. Sometime in the late-’80s, tongzhi took on a secondary meaning for a less public community. It began to mean “gay.”
Unlike many linguistic changes, this shift was deliberate. The new connotation was proposed by Edward Lam, one of the artist-activists who organized the first Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1989. In borrowing and reshaping tongzhi, with its suggestion of unity and shared purpose, they hoped to bring gay Chinese people out of the shadows and into the broader community. That same year, the Tiananmen protests began. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed. Tongzhi took off, but the broader community it once symbolized had fallen apart. You have to wonder if activists had begun to feel uneasy about the term by 1990, and the promises it seemed to make.
Among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels, Beijing Comrades (originally called Beijing Story) is also China’s first known e-novel. Its pseudonymous author (here called Bei Tong, nothing more than a contraction of the book’s title, Beijing Tongzhi) published the narrative in segments incorporating the suggestions of online readers; the first installment went live in November of 1998, nearly a decade after Tiananmen. The result was a classic of queer consciousness-raising erotica.
It was also the beginning of a vogue. As the ’90s drew to a close, Internet literature — novels, stories, articles, and essays produced online — took off. While fan fiction and other forms of Internet literature (wangluo wenhua) enjoy popularity around the world, nothing compares to Chinese readers’ passion for the form at its height. By 2012, there were more Chinese reading online literature than doing online shopping.
The popularity of Internet literature was ostensibly driven by the threat of official print censorship. More likely it was the result of expanded Web access for a wide variety of readers and writers, communicating readily, quickly, and cheaply. Users’ efforts to create a peer-to-peer network were not so different from the motives of late-’80s gay activists working to establish a community of equals. As one early Internet writer noted, “The real significance of Internet literature is that it gives literature back to the people.”
Like the Gospels, a cultural touchstone of a different stripe, Beijing Story exists in several radically different versions. Despite its outsize popular influence — Beijing Comrades was also made into a 2001 movie by Stanley Kwan — the book has never been officially published in mainland China, or rendered into English. This translation is based on an expanded version prepared by Bei Tong in hopes of a state-sanctioned (guanfang) publication, although the state’s blessing — necessary for mainland publication — was ultimately withheld.
And like the Gospels, Beijing Comrades has its own apocrypha. “There are those who believe that she is a tongqi,” translator Scott E. Myers writes of the author, “a heterosexual woman with the misfortune of unknowingly marrying a gay man. Others suggest that he is novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo” — despite the fact that Wang Xiaobo was dead when the novel was written in 1998.
There is also this particularly tantalizing explanation: Bei Tong, author of that enduring vision of gay male affection, may be a straight Chinese woman living overseas. (At minimum, a Chinese someone living overseas; Myers remains somewhat ecumenical.) Bored and aimless as a New York expat, Bei Tong has explained, “I immersed myself in the world of the Internet: playing chess, chatting online, surfing porn sites. When I read all the pornographic stories that were out there, my first thought was: F—! What the hell is this? I knew I could write something better.”
And then she did.
Our lovers don’t meet cute — they meet dismissive. Handong, the narrator, is a self-confessed “brat” making his vague fortune in business. Lan Yu, a Xinjiang kid working his way through college, is at first unimpressive: boyish, underdeveloped, with uncertain Mandarin and a “faint anxiety in his eyes.” “Don’t your parents give you money for school?” Handong asks during one of their first exchanges. The irony of the book’s title, at least in this translation, is soon apparent. Our titular lovers are not comrades at all, with the equality of income, status, and purpose that the term implies. Lan Yu asks for a job, and Handong thinks something could be arranged. In the morning, he leaves Lan Yu 1,000 yuan and a note to forget about working and focus on his studies. Lan Yu takes only half, and as a loan. He intends to make good.
Although the novel, in its earliest iteration, was written at the turn of the century, it is intended as a decade-sweeping period piece, beginning in the mercurial 1980s. Handong rhapsodizes on
the many distractions ushered in by the so-called age of reform, the era of primitive accumulation that had promised to transform China from an impoverished nation into a powerful one…In principle even those without powerful family backgrounds could jockey for successes never before thought possible. All you needed was some guts and determination and entry into the get-rich-quick class was yours for the taking.
The plot of Beijing Comrades is, in part, the story of Lan Yu’s self-making under Handong’s watchful eye. Lan Yu works a string of more or less menial jobs that span the range of his worlds: as a tutor, as a construction worker pulling 12-hour shifts in the summer, much to Handong’s amusement. “‘Five-hundred yuan a month!’ I repeated with a derisive laugh. ‘A motel hooker’s asking price is four times that!…Besides, what the hell kind of job is that?’”) Handong offers him instead a series of easy luxuries and interest-free loans, which Lan Yu virtuously resists.
Erotic fiction is a careful trick to manage: detailed enough to feel fresh and compelling, spare enough to feel — in the reader’s hands — participatory. The characters themselves, particularly Lan Yu, have the blank, Mad Libs quality of much romantic fiction. “He had the clean, soapy smell typical of young men,” Handong considers. “When I looked at his face, I saw not just a handsome young man, but the breathtaking power of youth.” In his afterword, Petrus Liu refers to Lan Yu, perhaps charitably, as a “role model of nonidentity.” Still, this too is the tactic of much romantic fiction, at least since Pamela and Pygmalion: as the audience imagines its personal Lan Yu, Handong shapes one in his own image. Handong’s “nefarious agenda,” as he playfully admits, is “to make [Lan Yu] shake off the cultural and intellectual arrogance of the new world and learn to enjoy the material pleasures of the new one.”
As Lan Yu holds firm, Handong begins to wonder “which emotion was stronger, my affection or my resentment.” Affection wins out, as it must. For Handong, Beijing Comrades is a story of slowly softening and falling in love. Although he initially sees his time with Lan Yu as no more than a sexy hobby — “like horse-racing,” as he explains to his distraught mother — he eventually wises up and sees the error of his ways. He swears devotion, just in time for the Year of the Snake.
As a tribute to the ’80s, the novel is sweetly nostalgic. The Teresa Teng cassette sitting on a dresser will bring back memories for Chinese of a certain age, as will chunky Big Boss cell phones and the ideological preciousness of characters’ names — Handong (defend Mao), Aidong (love Mao), and Jingdong (revere Mao) make for formidable siblings. There are references to West Berlin, and the capital’s beautiful blue skies in the summer, when “[f]or three solid months, there wasn’t a bicycle lot in Beijing that wasn’t jam packed.” By the end, as the millennium approaches, our heroes are stepping out of their “burgundy Cole Haans” and slipping into the boudoir.
“The intensity of two men making love can never be matched by straight sex,” Handong proclaims, and Bei Tong makes you believe it. The book falls significantly higher on the erotica spectrum than Fifty Shades of Gray. The lovers’ sexual adventures are compellingly rendered by Myers, who, by marvelous coincidence, was working at a gay bar in Beijing even as Bei Tong was writing her novel in New York. Like the love affair, his translation begins a little stiltedly, but becomes increasingly assured. Slang is a barrier never fully crossed, but Myers makes capable work of “the local vernacular, which was so legendarily vulgar it had its own title: Beijing Bitching.” It’s a plausible summary of the book, from Lan Yu’s perspective.
Once firmly united, the lovers’ romance is strikingly sweet and normative. “He smiled and pushed his nose against mine as if he were a bear rolling its cub…‘I don’t have to come,’ I whispered into his ear. ‘I just want to hold you.’” The novel finds new tension in an implausible series of disasters: tonsillitis, coma, cerebral hemorrhage; suicidal parent, wicked stepmother; seedy prostitutes, sexual assault; criminal investigations, stints in prison; reversals of fortune, sad parting after sad parting after sad parting. Tiananmen features as a plot point, but only as a winsome threat to poor Lan Yu. Ditto the cringe-worthy red herrings about AIDS. (“If you meet someone new,” Handong warns, “you have to be careful. I don’t want to hear through the grapevine that you’ve caught some kind of disease!”)
For all its sad, socially conscious pillow-talk (“Do you think gay people can have everlasting love?” Handong asks), it would be a mistake to view Beijing Comrades as an accurate chronicle of the Deng Xiaoping era, or as a representative document of gay Chinese romance. The novel is, ultimately, the stylized erotic fantasy of a (straight? female?) expat, with considerable help from online readers, produced 20 years after the fact.
But despite the author’s likely inexperience, Beijing Comrades is filled with confident, jaded insider tips — how to treat virgins, what types of women to avoid. Handong speaks with same assurance on these topics as he does on Deng Xiaoping’s China. “There’s no doubt about it,” he declares, “it’s a hell of a lot easier to seduce a man than a woman.” When it comes to women, the novel’s tone is consistently snide. Characters, plagued by needy girlfriends and manipulative spendthrift wives, complain of “the typical flat ass of most Asian girls” and their friends’ “shrill, housewife bitching.” “When a woman has sex with you,” Handong explains, “it’s because of something you have… or because they want to find someone who will let them be a parasite forever.” When Lan Yu feels jealous, Handong orders him to “Stop acting like a woman. Every little thing makes you so damn suspicious.”
It’s a curious structural misogyny, perhaps the result of a misunderstanding on the author’s part, a belief that men love men because they hate women. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between disdain for a conventional mainstream life and hatred for women, who never come off well. Nor do foreigners, for that matter — neither the “damn Japanese” nor the Western “imperialist aggressors.” The solution is a gay socialist utopia built for two.
In one of the novel’s happiest moments, Handong and Lan Yu driving through the hills, goofily singing the March of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: “’The hope of our people is on our backs, an invincible power are we!… March on! Our troops march toward the sun! To the victory of the revolution, and the entire nation’s liberation!’ We fell into peals of laughter. Never had a song felt so good.”
The cultural order may have fallen with Mao Zedong, but Bei Tong finds that lost feeling of political and social cohesion in an ideal same-sex relationship, placing all the charged meaning of tongzhi, in its traditional sense, in a gay couple. Created on a website, crowd-sourced in serial, Beijing Comrades is the people’s public fantasy of intimacy. Handong wonders “whether two ‘comrades’ could be lifelong partners, loving one another and taking care of each other til the end.” Beijing Comrades is one generation’s best effort.