Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)
The protagonist of Boy Parts, Irina, takes photographs of nude men. She finds ‘average’ men on buses and in shops and invites them to have their pictures taken in her garage studio. These images are inversions of the male gaze, a woman artist objectifying and sexualising her subjects through her lens, often using the icons of kink to cement a switching of the assumed power dynamic. The flipping of gender roles in art isn’t new, but Boy Parts does bring an interesting perspective, ultimately damming the attempted simplistic binary flipping of gender as Irina adopts the violence of masculinity.
The first person prose makes this a clean inversion of male dominance, our perspective is limited to Irina’s gaze, through a casual assumption of the form. Like the patriarchy encourages men to view themselves as the default, for the world of Boy Parts, Irina’s is the default (only) perspective.
Within that perspective, Irina is not great. She’s mean to her friends, she treats her photographic subjects quite flippantly, almost with disdain, rather than as equal participants in the creative process, she’s completely absorbed in her own actions. Keeping her distance, she’s attempting to maintain control. When some intimacy is allowed to develop, from low level touching to greater intimacy as with Eddie from Tesco, it goes wrong. When it’s revealed that she may have murdered a past subject, it cements that her approach to her work and subjects is, in fact, not good.
Where she is flipping the gendered gaze of her work, she is also taking on the aspects of masculinity that are perpetuated by the male gaze. Her practices are exploitative and pretty creepy. If you flip the genders back, if a man were photographing women like this, it would be boring and indulgent. It would be like a formally better version of her co-exhibitor from the end of the book Remy’s work. (or maybe Remy’s work isn’t as bad as she makes out, she is after all not very kind about any of her peers’ work). If you stretch the thought experiment there out over the plot of the book, it would become a boring dark manly antihero thing. Talking to Katherina Volckmer in Granta, Clark describes Irina as this same thought experiment, “what would it be like if a woman acted like a misogynist man, if a woman treated men the way some men treat women?”
Irina’s closed perspective is in contrast to contemporary photographers of artistic male nudes, who tend to talk about it as something conversational or transitional. As Hayley Weir said to AnOther: “I see images of people as a collaboration. The picture is half me and half the subject. In fact it is more like 70 per cent them.” or Paula Winkler to Elephant: “[posing nude is] about the act of transformation: body into image.” But Irina resists this tendency, manipulating her subjects. Sometimes keeping their body parts physical, buried in the woods. Rather than collaborating to make a still image of the body, she uses violence to limit their movements.
But this adoption of a kind of masculinity does not protect her from gendered violence. She gets demeaned, propositioned, and sexually assaulted throughout, in a way that seems somewhat benign. It’s a fact of life as a woman. And that’s out of her control, even as she attempts to exert control over the world around her. She takes on masculine patterns but still has to exist as a woman.
A binary switch, putting women in men’s roles, with men’s attitudes towards them does nothing to address the problems of the gendered world, problems of access and violence still exist. It’s like liberal impulse of more women border guards. It doesn’t work. Irina’s impulse towards this is understandable, she can build a bubble of safety and control around herself, but it also leaves her alone and self-destructive. For some of the men she photographs, it represents a chance to be seen, to feel worthy of being looked at, feeling pretty. A thing straight men aren’t allowed often.
Feeling pretty can be incredibly liberating. It makes you feel wanted and worthy. It might look like a shallow liberation, but love for your body’s appearance is radical. Particularly for people with assigned male bodies, where a lot of the ideals of prettiness are denied to us. As the ones gazing, men aren’t supposed to be looked at. In Boy Parts, some men react to Irina’s inversion of the roles very well, despite Irina’s exploitativeness, and finding some liberation in it. While others react violently, taking it as a threat to their secure masculinity.
Ultimately, this dichotomy of gender as it is constructed, serves neither end particularly well. Personally, I don’t really understand my place in it, but am fascinated by it. Gender is a performance based on social ideas, but that is performed uniquely by each one of us. The idea of gender as a pure binary is palpably false. Which is why the simplistic flipping of roles that Irina represents is a failure of gender bending. Boy Parts is a tragicomic warning against a lazy gender politics that in the end reinforce the problems it hopes to address.
Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they edited fiction at Across & Through, and their writing has been featured in Multiversity, Bido Lito!, PanelxPanel & more. They created the comic Drift with Martyn Lorbiecki. They tweet a load of nonsense @teddyhaynes