Was Mapplethorpe the moment we lost the battle for American culture?

Robert MapplethorpeI watched HBO’s documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe, and it brought back a long-forgotten memory.  In 1989, my then-boyfriend and I went to an art gallery affiliated with UC Berkeley to see the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that had so aroused Jesse Helm’s wrath. My memory is that the gallery was arranged so that one saw Mapplethorpe’s uncontroversial photos first — the flowers; the famous and not-so-famous faces; and the black and white human bodies shown, not as sexual objects, but as architectural landscapes.

Looking at the pictures, there was no doubt that Mapplethorpe was an extremely good photographer. The images were often emotionally sterile, but his sense of line was unfailing.

The crowds in the gallery, though, weren’t there to admire Mapplethorpe’s good lines and famous faces, which weren’t that much different from a lot of high-end photos that one found in many fashion and architectural magazines from the 1980s. People were there for one reason only: To see the infamous “X” photos, the ones showing explicit gay sadism and masochism, complete with exposed genitalia.

Penile torture? Check. Fisting? Check. Undinism? Check. Whips, chains, Great Danes . . . three on a chandelier? Well, not quite all that, but certain the whips and chains were there too.

I’m sure many in the gallery were there purely out of prurient interest.  The majority, though, seemed to be there for the same reasons that my then-boyfriend and I attended the show:  To show how hip we were and to make it clear that we weren’t going to let some puritanical Southern “hick” like Jesse Helms censor “art” in America. (Obviously, this was during my Democrat youth.)

I vaguely remember that, when I saw the photographs, I was partly fascinated and completely disgusted.  The fascination was connected to a single thought:  “Do people really get pleasure out of those grotesque, and probably painful, activities?”

My then-boyfriend had a much more visceral reaction.  He put his hand across his mouth, bolted for the exit, and threw up in the bushes.

Here’s my question for you:  Can you imagine anyone today having a reaction similar to his?  In the years since the fight over the Mapplethorpe exhibition, our world has become saturated with pornography and penises, all of which were off limits in polite company before the Mapplethorpe show.  For anything short of snuff films, there’s nothing left to surprise us anymore.

Heck, highly-rated shows such as Bones — which are popular with the teen set — boasted entire episode about horse fetishes and The Simpsons, shown at 8:00 p.m. Saturday nights, saw Homer enjoying a lesbian fantasy about his wife.  Our gag reflexes have been deadened by non-stop exposure to things that no one spoke about outside of New York’s, San Francisco’s, and Los Angeles’ club scenes.

The fight now isn’t about pictures of tortured penises in hoity-toity art galleries; it’s about whether we’re discriminating against a minute percentage of the American population, those who have a gender-focused form of body dysmorphia, when those of us still athwart the barricades yelling “stop” say that it’s wrong for men with functioning penises to be allowed free run in bathrooms that serve little girls, teenage girls, and women (something for every sick rapist’s or exhibitionist’s favorite fantasy).

In a sane culture, one that hadn’t had dysfunctional, perverse behavior normalized over the past thirty years, the vast majority of Americans would never countenance what’s being forced on us now.  We’d say that we have sympathy for those poor people with body dysmorphia.  Because of that sympathy, we’d be willing to try certain workarounds, such as making a single use staff bathroom available for the high school boy who has been dressing in girl’s clothes since fifth grade.  What we won’t do, however, is turn every public bathroom in America into a pedophiles’ playground.  It’s never been part of the American polity that avoiding discrimination against the minority requires possibly dangerous discrimination against the majority.

What the Left refuses to recognize is that, when it comes to men, clothes don’t always make the woman.  That is, just because a guy dons a dress, that doesn’t mean he thinks he’s a woman.  I happen to know a guy who’s slept with thousands of women.  He wouldn’t dream of sleeping with a man, but he loves dressing in women’s clothes.  His practice is harmless enough, and he’s not a threat to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that the next guy who shows up in a dress is equally harmless.

Or take the case of the man who, when his grown daughter came calling, answered the door wearing his deceased wife’s clothing.  When the daughter expressed surprise, he told her that he’d been cross-dressing for years, because he was a woman trapped in a man’s body.  With his wife’s passing, he was out of the closet and getting himself ready for gender reassignment surgery.  The daughter, who had a distant relationship with her father, didn’t see him again for a year or two.  This time, when she knocked, he answered the door in male clothing.

“What happened to the gender reassignment surgery?”

“It turned out that I’m not a woman trapped in a man’s body; I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.  And I get much more action with women if they think I’m a man.”

After you’ve finished untangling that, please remember that, under the new rules the Left is insisting America accept, this “lesbian man” could be in the bathroom stall next to your daughter at the airport, the baseball game, the local Walmarts, or any number of other busy, crowded, impersonal public restrooms.

Compassion and kindness do not require stamping “normal” on behavior that quite obviously isn’t normal.

While I’m on the subject, let me talk a bit about gender-based body dysmorphia the Left has managed to “normalize” within just a few short months.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to a person who feels that, at a fundamental level, his/her body is wrong.  This is not the same as a woman who wishes she weighed less or a man who hates his skinny calves.  Few of us are completely satisfied with our bodies, but we change our diets, or exercise, or look for makeup and clothes that downplay things we don’t like, and then we get on with our lives (or we do nothing about what bothers us and still get on with our lives).

People with body dysmorphia don’t just dislike something about their body.  Instead, they are convinced that the wrong body (or body part) somehow got attached to them.  Their sense of wrongness is so great that they feel compelled to remove or reconfigure whatever it is they believe is alien to their identity.

If you read tabloids such as The Daily Mail, every so often it runs stories about people with severe body dysmorphia.  The stories are always distressing.

There’s Jocelyn Wildenstein, who has been trying for years to look like a cat:

Jocelyn Wildenstein

Or Peter Burns, who embarked on a radical gender change long before Bruce Jenner even began plucking his eyebrows:


And the most recent entrant into the lists, Richard Hernandez, the formerly human man who is busily converting himself into a female dragon, complete with missing ears and minimal nostrils:

Richard Hernandez before and after

All of us looking at these photos instinctively know something is wrong with Wildenstein, Burns, and Hernandez.  To have ones sense of self so seriously disconnected from ones physical being is a tragedy — and for that reason, I think we ought to pity these people.  They deserve compassion, not contempt.  But we do recognize, as I said, that something is wrong with them.

Since the Mapplethorpe revolution, however, we’re no longer able to acknowledge that something is wrong with this person too:

Bruce and Caitlin Jenner

Despite the fact that Jenner has the same body dysmorphia as Jocelyn, Pete, and Richard, we’re told “This is a hero!  Celebrate!”  Well, I don’t view Jenner as a hero.  I continue to respect Jenner’s past accomplishments, I appreciate that his political values are conservative, I dislike his exhibitionism, and I feel compassion for how obviously he suffers as he tries to find a happy meeting spot for his body and his mind.  What I don’t do is think he’s a hero, and I don’t think what he’s going through is normal.  The problem, though, is that once you’ve normalized Mapplethorpe’s S&M and penis worship, you’ve made it awfully difficult to back away from conversations about whether Bruce has or has not augmented his false breasts with an amputated penis and artificial vagina.

If I had to go back and distil the essence of this post, I’d say that those of us who think we’re at the front line of the gender wars are not.  We’re fighting a rearguard action in a battle that we already lost back in the late 1980s.

Of course, losing the battle doesn’t mean giving up.  We can still fight.  Just as the Left pushed the culture in this crazy direction, it is possible to push it back the other way.  The pendulum swings, and then swings again.  I do like to remind myself that the rigidly moral Victorian era was preceded by the unusually corrupt Georgian period.  Just don’t expect any victories in the near future, that’s all….