In this month’s column, we focus our thought experiment on how an absence of human sex and sexuality might influence the fine arts, performing arts, and the entertainment we know and love.
Art says a lot about the society that creates, supports, and consumes it, yet it is often an invisible element in most speculative fiction novels. Even subtle mentions of art and entertainment, woven in as backdrop on cottage walls or interactive shows on a holodeck, can enrich worldbuilding. Authors striving to create believable matriarchal or egalitarian worlds can get a lot of descriptive mileage in portraying leisure activities and artistic pursuits that are unencumbered by the patriarchal preferences that have long guided our own world.
The history of fine arts is saturated with deference to male artists, particularly in European societies. While many people can rattle off names like Degas, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Picasso, and Pollock, very few would be able to name equivocal female artists. Throughout history, women have never received the same social support as men when it comes to creative pursuits, be it painting, sculpture, or even photography. Starving artists aside, men have generally been afforded the time, space, resources, and acknowledgment to pursue art as a career, whereas for women, it has primarily been considered hobby or self-enrichment.
The same can be said for music. Within western civilizations, women provided with music and singing lessons were rarely encouraged to do anything with their cultivated talents beyond entertaining their guests. Again, if asked to name great classical composers, most people could readily offer up Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Wagner but are likely unfamiliar with the work of Hildegard von Bingen and Clara Schumann.
Venturing into more recent music history, men comprise the majority of musical acts across nearly all genres of music. Sixty-eight percent of the twenty-five best-selling albums come from men or all-male bands, with only a quarter of those coming from female-only acts. Women also fare poorly in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “40 Most Groundbreaking Albums” and “Top 100 Artists” lists, with only three and eight solo or female-only group appearances, respectively. This decidedly male bias within the music industry also affects songwriters, producers, and video directors.
Female representation isn’t much better in performing arts. Male playwrights outweigh female playwrights by more than five to one when it comes to script production, and those women are subsequently less recognized for their work than men tend to be. On the ballet stage, men are more often assigned key creative positions—such as director and choreographer—than women. And while the number of female ballet dancers tends to outnumber men on stage, they are compensated poorly compared to their male counterparts.
I feel it unnecessary to delve into the issues of film and television. The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have already exposed Hollywood’s sins of misogyny and sexism in regard to actresses, directors, producers, assistants, and film critics. Because the industry is highly visible, so too have been its woes the last two years.
What does any of this have to do with sex, and how would a world without sex affect it? In our inaugural article, we established that control of sex and sexuality—and by extension, the control of women—is a prime motivation in patriarchal societies. While our modern world has made strides toward equality, the effects of our restrictive past still linger. The legacy remains. If we remove sex from the history of human reproduction, we sterilize that legacy.
What happens then to creative expression in this new reality? Within the art world, an absence of male bias means women would likely have received the same level of support through the ages as men in pursuing art as a valid career. Stronger social support would increase the overall number of female artists, driving up their representation in museums and galleries today. Artistic critique would also lose its gendered bias: work would be appreciated equally and equitably—especially in a financial sense—where they currently are not.
I don’t expect artistic content to change significantly, though an absence of sex means less sexualizing and fetishizing of the female body. That doesn’t mean fewer nude paintings and sculptures. In fact, without the perceived sinfulness of sex, nudity carries less shame and fewer moral objections. Art might then contain more bare human flesh as it becomes simply another landscape to paint and sculpt.
Let’s not forget the music industry. Gone are the raunchy videos of the 1980s, as well as the endless sexual euphemisms in music (“Sledgehammer,” anyone?), but then what replaces sex as a subject? Political and social commentary—which has always been lyrical music’s forte—increases for sure, but perhaps we’d see more tunes about food and other tactile yet non-sexual pleasures. I doubt classical music composition would change, but at least concert halls would include more masterpieces from the Schumanns and Von Bingens of our history, just as Rolling Stone’s lists would contain more female-identifying artists. Speaking of Schumann, practical hindrances such as motherhood might still exist for women, but it’s worth noting that Schumann birthed and raised eight children and still managed to build a career as a pianist and composer.
A sex-free world could also have a profound effect on performing arts. Without the controlling interpretation of the masculine gaze, the decision about which artistic endeavors are suitably “male” and “female” disappears. Not only would this result in more female playwrights, directors, and choreographers within professional ballet but also more male dancers and seamstresses. The number of male classical ballet students would also increase to even out the current gender disparity as reported in the anecdotal evidence in this discussion forum.
Finally, how might an absence of sex affect film and television? The most obvious answer is that the pornography industry completely disappears, which means your spaceship crews aren’t wiling away the hours watching “Debbie Does the Delta Quadrant” on the holodeck. In all seriousness, a sex-free world should grant supporters of Time’s Up Hollywood what they—and in fact, what all female performers and artists in the arts and entertainment industries—seek: respect, support, professional treatment, fair pay, and generally more female representation in all aspects of their respective industries.
Now that sounds like a speculative world worth writing about.