I did the assignments out of order, so this is my dystopian fiction; please see my assignment from last week for an examination of known unknowns and mitigation strategies.
My story is meant to examine from the perspective of a deeply misogynistic person how they might be able to live in a world in which a woman has been completely reduced to the image or representation of herself. The consequence, as I explore in this, is very dire: it actually is a negation of humanity and love in a deeper sense; including within himself.
This is the outcome I fear most for trying to mix a ‘feminist’ intervention into a system that is already being used to turn women more effectively into a series of images. After all, dating apps are bad for both genders: on an app, a person makes themselves into object through becoming images that they use to represent themselves. In becoming an object, they then enter into a marketplace of objects. More so, “demand” is not longer cultivated by the individual as it was in pre-dating app dating markets; demand is now amassed and used by the platform to induce more swiping and usage of the app. According to the book, The Labor Of Love, when dating platforms moved into the public space (before, the family was in charge of dating and it happened in the ‘parlor’) the logic of dating changed—now daters are encouraged by the platform that provides the experience of dating to be forever engaged in consumption-oriented activities because it benefits the economy. The economy therefore is constantly pushing us to do a bunch of work that’s actually for the benefit of corporations and not for our own happiness —things like getting a Brazilian wax, getting our nails done, spending time in a gym, buying fancy brands that supposedly say things about who we are. Moria Wiegel calls “tinder industrial complex” and encourages us to understand that that is “exploited labor” in a sense. She says that honoring love means accepting that it is this active form of care that we give to each other. It’s not in demand like the dating market leads us to believe—there is no competition or scarcity, love doesn’t diminish when you give it to one person. You have an endless amount; but the dating market leads us to believe that the opposite is true.
The main character is a painter in this. That was very deliberate. I recently read “women looking at men looking at women” which includes this great quote about representations of women painted by men: “We have no recourse to living bodies in art. I am looking into fictive spaces. Hearts are not pumping. Blood is not running. The markers of the human female in biology—breasts and genitalia that I see in these images (when I see them)—are representations. Pregnancy and birth do not figure explicitly in these pictures, but sometimes what is not there is powerful nevertheless. I am looking at inhabitants of the world of the imaginary, of play, and of fantasy made by painters who are now dead, but who were all making art in the twentieth century. Only the signs of the artist’s bodily gestures remain: the traces left by an arm that once moved violently or cautiously in space, a head and torso that leaned forward, then back, feet planted beside each other or at an angle, and eyes that took in what was there and what was not yet there on the canvas, and the feelings and thoughts that guided the brush, that revised, altered, and established the rhythms of motion, which I feel in my own body as I look at the pictures.”
Therefore, this story is meant to examine the new technology through an age-old analogy: art is also a singularized object that is within cycles of demand. We end up seeing how the piece of art ultimately retains singularization despite the cycles of demand, but it is the person who objectifies it irreparably is the one that loses their own humanity.
I also wanted to allude to sexual harassment and rape culture in his interaction with the high schooler in the art class, so there are extra metaphors in the description of her meant to evoke a more serious assault than the verbal one. Also, forgive me from stealing the ending of the great Gatsby :P—the green-glow was too good a symbol not to reuse.
Brian Watterby was 32, but unlike most 32 year olds, aside from the blue denim jacket that he thought to be the nicest item of clothing in his possession, and a modest but sleek apartment (filled with work-in-progress art that his art dealer often told him bore the same deep colors and clean contrasts of a Whistler or a Vermeer), he owned very little by choice. His apartment, though well decorated, was simple: his satin-linened bed had no frame; his black table-tops were granite-less, and his floor was a markless brown-black wood. Brian spent a great deal of time in his apartment—by choice, of course. He had always thought of himself as the introverted sort, the kind who often stole away with a glass of whiskey and a few amusing thoughts, and therefore had little need to impress the few visitors his apartment did attract.
When he did have the occasional visitor, he was always sure to direct their vision to his most prized and treasured possession: a black and white photograph of a nude woman taken in the 1920’s by Edward Weston. The photograph was exquisite in Brian’s mind; and became the apsis of his many lectures that he served to his guests upon their arrival (“You know how he gets the saturation so perfect like that? He holds the light between his hands, shaping it, keeping it from pouring out too fast on to the developing picture. Can you imagine?”).
In February, when the colors of the trees around him lowered by an octave to deep reds and eventually greys, for the first time in all his fifteen years of painting, he lost his inspiration. He had reasoned that his deficiencies were due to the lack of beauty to inspire him—the routine coldness of this time of the year had driven the high-heeled women he liked to watch from his open window indoors. He had recently grown fond of critiquing these women from his outlook above, sometimes out loud if he was feeling truly up for the game of it. Thick Ankles. He’d think, in light amusement. Long neck. Birthed Three Children; Worn Thin.
As their seasonal skirts had lengthened from summer’s thigh-grazing prints into knee-length knits, and then eventually into pants, Brian found his game had been ruined. He retreated from the window-side, starved of skin to peer at and cursing the weather for providing him such little beauty to observe. Saul, his art dealer, didn’t find his story sympathetic. Instead, Saul had left several brochures in his mailbox—shiny pink and glinting white with the smiles of learned community-arts-center students. In one, he had circled the description to an intermediate sculpting class in thick red pen.
“The teacher’s a tiny little Asian dime-piece,” Saul said over the phone one day, “wears these overalls with nothing under them.”
Brian shut his eyes, and bit his lower lip and twisted the cord tightly around his finger. He imagined the teacher sitting in his apartment with him. A goddess in her overalls, sitting on the blackness of his leather couch. First he’d paint the overalls, he thought to himself. Then he’d bring a heavy over-head light, and paint the shadows in her cheekbones, maybe her chest.
“But I don’t sculpt,” he said finally.
“She’ll teach negative space,” Saul said simply, “any change will bring sales.”
The sculpture class was to be held in a warehouse in Uptown, and it took Brian a few transfers and a 20-minute walk before he finally reached the embellished steel doors that led inside. Having already been stirred sour by the unsightly lack of women on the bus, he found the moist-aired, muraled studio to be entirely underwhelming. Maybe it was because of all the silence that seemed to lay like a fog between him and the back wall of mirrors; or perhaps it was the sharp and noisy angles of the randomly spaced carpets lying across the floor; or even the dust-spattered stool-legs of art stations, which jutted out in peculiar rows like the bones of a fish; or most positively, the nude man in the center of the room, who sat simply on a metallic chair that had been chosen to function as a makeshift pedestal.
Brian moved to the back of the classroom, pulling back the stool of a free work station, which consisted of a small table topped with a block of clay and several small cutting devices—all speckled with dried clay-dust—with bulbous metal heads and sharp tips. As he sat, the point of a not-quite-hammered in nail pricked through the denim thatching of his jeans, and caused him to jump and knock the stool backwards across the floor. The noise quickly drew the attention of the teacher (who did, indeed have overalls, but unlike in his fantasies, she wore them with a striped tee shirt underneath). They locked eyes, hers hard and disapproving of his ruckus. She turned down to her attendance list, her hair falling in thick black ribbons around her face. “David Ortburg?” She asked.
“No,” Brian said, “Brian Watterby.” As her eyes found his name on the page, Brian was struck by the familiarity of her face, thinking for a second that he must have seen those eyes or those lips before, perhaps as one of the late-night women who walked alone in front of his apartment. Perhaps still it wasn’t any single feature at all, but the softness of a face in which beauty just seems to collect in—burrowing into small pockets or freckling unexpected locations. After all, wasn’t that what women were for?—the endless supply of beautiful details he could pull from their bodies and place on the canvas.
“We’ve already moved on to the torso–Ms. Bradshaw,” the teacher said, pointing her chin toward a student seated to his left, “is a lovely student. Why don’t you watch her until I finish over here?”
Turning, he found that he was seated next to a high school student. She was decked in dark brown corduroys, a long white turtleneck, and brown glasses. Her cheeks were pink and round with sincerity, and her forehead flat and just-a-bit too large; both were bordered by the sharpness and shortness of a pixie cut. She shouldn’t keep her hair so short, Brian thought momentarily, it makes her face appear round.
Having assessed the rest of her, he stopped to examine her handiwork as well. Unimpressed, he reached for the cup of water at his desk, but instead of grabbing the tools from it, he accidentally knocked the cup spillingly away from the table, sending a splash of water down on to his shoes.
“Do you need help?” the younger Bradshaw asked about his shoes.
“Oh, that’s just funny,” Brian said, sitting slowly back in his chair, a devilish smile brewing on his face, “you think that you can help me?”
“I have a napkin,” insisted the younger Bradshaw, turning away, reaching into her backpack, jumbling gently inside for her tissues.
“You have a napkin?” he said, mockingly.
“I have one I swear,” she said again. Brian looked at her back, all curved and round as the still entrance of a cave. Her voice as soft and silky as the silence around them.
“You know what,” Brian suddenly lurched his body forward, “I know how you can help me,”
“How can I help?” she echoed softly.
Brian rubbed his hands together, “You can answer me something.”
The younger Bradshaw sat up. “Yes?” she said, her eyes still bright.
He gestured at the nude, his mouth turning into a grimace of sickly sweet delight, “Do you like what you see?”
Instantly, the girl grew stiff next to him, her cheeks losing a bit of their pinkness. She didn’t answer, but instead continued to work, her fingers only momentarily pausing. Brian pressed on—feeling his curiosity thicken.
“I don’t know about you, but—” said Brian, smiling devilishly, “I’ve certainly seen bigger.”
The younger Bradshaw blushed girlishly. “I think he’s fine,” she tried to say, her bright voice growing weary and confused, her eyes darting awkwardly from Brian to the nude and back to her own feet.
Brian licked his lips, taking in her nervous fidgeting and the way she readjusted her glasses on her nose, sliding them up so the rims obscured her gaze. The silence, that Brian had previously felt so fog-like and so blanketing, was becoming quickly ragged. He planted his feet firmly on the ground, and said, in a deep voice, “Tell me what you think, then,” he pressed toward her, leaning in, pushing forward, and putting his hands on his knees, “Would you sleep with him?”
From across the room, the teacher turned her head, finally noticing the discomfort coming from the far side of the classroom. Seeing that Brian was nearly off his stool, towering over the girl seated next to him, she paced over quickly and stood, tall and firm, between him and the girl.
They stare at each other for a moment, the teacher’s eyes firm and hard and amid his own attempt to match their authority. Brian’s eyes flip from feature to feature, searching for a flaw to extract, any snag or tear in her face that he could use to pull her from her seat of authority, to tell her, to ask her, to force her to beg him to stay. But he found none. As he looked around the room, his stomach turned in the same way it did back in high school, upon entering a lunchroom, and seeing so many unfamiliar and cold faces staring back. As he did in high school, he sat for a few brief and honest moments boldly in the silence of the stares, then, knowing he was truly, and deeply, not wanted, picked up his belongings and left the art studio.
Brian reached the door of his apartment, and his fingers struggle to insert the key into the lock. He pours himself a drink and is drawn to the window. Outside, the sun has just set beyond the rooftops of the green, grey and brick Brooklyn homes. In the dimness of the street, among leafless trees, Brian notes only a few night-walkers, but is pleased to see that his neighbors had just begun turning on their indoor lights. Across the street from him, a small-framed, corduroy-clad girl walks up a red-brick stoop and opens the door to a small, modest brown-colored townhouse. He finds himself surprised to notice that the young girl is the same one from the sculpture class—How had I not recognized her? He thought, scratching his head.
He watches as she enters the small Brooklyn house, her little clay masterpiece in tow. She walks through a small foyer, which is decorated with off-white wallpaper and pink and yellow knickknacks stacked on shelves. She disappears for a moment, behind the walls of the house, but reemerges in what appears to be a dining room. Her mother appears to be sitting at the dining room table. Her mother is wearing a bright green sweater that looks loose and comfortable and likely smells like home-cooked meals, and spices like oregano. The girl places her masterpiece on the table in front of her mother, who smiles widely and broadly, wrinkles happily rippling up her face as she hugs her daughter. They both work together to clear a place on the egg-shell colored mantel behind them, then the mother carefully, as if the sculpture was the most tender object in the world, picks up her daughter’s piece and places it between an unframed picture and a glass stein. They then stand to admire and appreciate it for a moment, caught up within the warmth and stillness of their own home, the mother struck with wonder and awe at what her daughter had so skillfully produced with her humble and slender fingers—at what skill she had worked so hard to learn.
Brian puts down his drink, his mouth open. He paces back to his treasured nude painting, which now, with him being the apartment’s only inhabitant, and he, Brian Watterby, the painting’s only admirer, seems rather unwonderous to him.
Brian imagined the woman in the painting gathering herself. Sitting upright in the metal chair. Brushing herself off. Pacing up to him inside the picture. She placed one hand to the invisible glass of the photograph’s wood-framed pen. Like an animal caught behind a glass entrapment at the zoo, her hands pressed to the glass, and left a greasy mark, but no sound passed through. Brian put his fingers to the picture too, his pinkie touching the imaginary hand of the model. In the darkness of the New York apartment, for a moment, there seemed to be nothing but the picture frame separating the two black and white worlds—the model in hers, and Brian in his.
Brian picks up red and black paint, and with the deepest feeling he knows, he paints over the nude’s face with an ugly, black smirk. Yellow teeth, and red, shiny lips.
The sun sets on his balcony, leaving his apartment dark and black. The Weston, now defaced, looked back at him, asking him the same questions it had asked before.
Am I beautiful? It asked.
Brian couldn’t answer. He stared at the painting, it’s smirk and it’s color.
Do you love me? the painting asked again, if you love me, you’ll tell me I’m beautiful.
Brian wipes away a smudge between the yellow teeth. He takes a deep breath, and as if in response, he picks up his whiskey glass, and with one hand placed on his hip, he turns—for what feels like the first time—away from the ever-reflecting glint of the picture frame, and on toward the soft green-blue glow of the steel-tipped Brooklyn rooftops.