General 7-9-2004

Letters from a Writer: Front Man

Jean Sramek wrestles with a naked lady.

Jean Sramek

I used to be a feminist. I’m pretty sure I still am.

I haven’t thought about it in years. It was either the giant pudenda or the old guys that made me take inventory.

After a half-decade of hype, a deservedly Famous Artist has published a book of photographs. Like his previous works, they are lush, achingly accurate representations of the natural world. The difference is that these photographs also feature a human model, specifically the Famous Artist’s wife. In the photos, she is extremely nude. The Wife/Model’s body is preternaturally beautiful. Her skin is taut and flawless; her breasts and buttocks are large but not too large; she is trim—hipbones jutting and ribs visible when she lies on her back—but not aggressively muscular; her features are demure and free of opinion or design. The Famous Artist has photographed her in water, against rocks, under sand and driftwood. We see her body relentlessly. One pass through the gallery, a flip through the book, and one is more familiar with her body than with one’s own.

To speak in familiar detail (or at all) about this collection seems wrong and bad. They live where I live. I have gazed at the Lake where the Wife/Model gazed at the Lake, only I have always worn Polarfleece™. If I were a visitor from out of state, or if the Famous Artist had hung his photographs in an exotic faraway location, I would feel more confident. It is unspoken, the collective agreement to enjoy the combination of rock faces and external genitalia. To do otherwise seems impolite, almost indiscreet.

Whoa. Indiscreet? I’m looking at large-format view camera versions of puckered nipples and pubic hair follicles, prints framed to the size of my dining room table, and I’m worried about being indiscreet. What a world. But I live in it. So I’ll just go to the damned opening, eat the free appetizers, make the scene, and listen.

My husband protests. Since the entire collection of naked Wife/Model photographs are available online, he suggests that we just whip up some canapés, open the champagne left over from Easter, sit in front of the computer, and take the nude cyber-tour of Lake Superior, clicking our way from bush to bush. I say we cannot appreciate the photos unless they are the size of our dining room table, plus the champagne and canapés at the museum will be free.

We go, and the awkward fun begins. There is no champagne. I slither among the crowd while the Wife/Model reads from her essay about how it felt to kayak into nature and get sand in her butt crack. She puts it both more tastefully and less interestingly than that, but I can’t hear her because I am listening to comments whispered by people who are all very uncomfortable but are trying to pretend otherwise. They are saying things, the sum of which is, “Weird that she’s wearing clothes tonight. I mean, what’s the difference?” I realize why there is no champagne—because otherwise someone would end up throwing Mardi Gras beads and yelling, “Show us yer tits!!!”

I get some coffee and a lemon bar. An elderly gentleman (let’s call him Art) is waiting to refill his cup, and I absentmindedly cut in front of him, then apologize.

“Women need never apologize for getting in my way,” Art says in a German accent.” He continues, gesturing to his friend, “You see, Rudy? I told you there would be lots to see tonight. You didn’t want to come, but then when I said ‘nudes’ you changed your mind. And now look, we have nice young women drinking coffee next to us.” I deadpan, “How do you know I’m nice? You just met me.”

“That’s true, but you are here at the museum and you have a lovely figure,” says Rudy. “So we will assume you are nice.” I laugh and answer, “Well, now that I’m in my 40’s, I’ll take that compliment gladly.” I can’t believe my own ears—or mouth. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead saying such shit.

Rudy informs me that he is twice my age. He and Art become impromptu critics, telling me in lively detail what they like and do not like about the show. “Too much bare backside,” states Rudy flatly. “I find it somehow … distasteful. I think that it is not pleasant to have a woman’s bare behind displayed like that. I’m really more of a front man.” It takes me a few minutes to process this item from the sports bar vocabulary list, because its delivery by a dignified octogenarian art patron places it wildly out of context. “Front man.” As in, leg man, ass man, breast man? Okay, okay—Rudy’s a front man. Good for him. By the time I get my bearings, Art has changed the subject and he is talking about how wonderful writer Molly Ivins is, because—get this—“you cannot help but love a woman who is at the same time a liberal, from Texas, and a redhead.” Intelligent, I add. Molly Ivins is intelligent. “Naturally!” Art says. “The most attractive women are always intelligent.”

I am dizzy from their company. I excuse myself, then allow a truth to slosh around in my brain: I like looking at my beloved Lake unobstructed. I’d rather there not be a nekkid lady in the way.

I wonder what has become of my bitter feminist self, and whether my unpopular opinion about this show makes me more feminist, or less. I allow myself another truth, which then turns into a self-admonition: I think underpantsless nature photography is a little creepy, yet I’m charmed and delighted to have a couple of 80-year-old German guys flirt with me. Is this a post-feminist phase? Does it matter, as long as I am high-functioning? What is “post-feminism,” anyway?

Summer reading list: more M.F.K. Fisher, less Barbara Ehrenreich, same amount of Molly Ivins.