Germaine Greer's sexy boysby Sebastian Smee / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Might men be incomplete versions of boys? That is the quietly insulting suggestion buried just beneath the surface of Germaine Greer’s new book, The Boy. Greer trawls through art history, classical mythology and some social history looking for evidence to back her thesis, which is that over the past two or three centuries, our culture “has become blind to boyhood as a contrast to manhood.”
Greer’s focus is on representations of the male figure at an age when “he is old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave.” Boys are beautiful, she declares, in her wonderfully illustrated tome – just look at these pictures! Many people’s first instinct may be that she is exploiting the dubious sanctuary of art to validate dangerous desires. But in the current climate, in which we have all but given up on the distinction between eroticism and pornography, Greer is trying to draw a distinction between delight and desire. There is a subtlety in the writing and an openness to complication one doesn’t always find in her work. The result is a book that strikes me as courageous.
Since her argument hinges on the erotics of boyhood, Greer’s view of the nature of boy sexuality is fundamental: “Boy sex is irresponsible, spontaneous and principally self-pleasuring,” she writes. “Boyhood is a playground and the game is polymorphous perversity.” This is in contrast, presumably, to what Alice Munro has called men’s “decent narrowness of range,” which, in the sexual sphere, can so easily turn into an indecent narrowness of range – a tunnel-visioned, psychic imbalance tending towards abuse. Greer, by marrying boyhood sexuality to “the female gaze,” tries to suggest a whole new visual erotic: not predatory and obsessive, but sophisticated and intimate. In an appreciation of representations of boys in art, she believes, “there is a world of complex and civilised pleasure to be had.”
Such is the polemic. Yet images can have a richness of connotatio…