Essay: Eyes

by Valerie Steele .

‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object,’ wrote the psychiatrist Robert Stoller. A high-heeled shoe, for example, may tell many different stories. For a woman, slipping into a pair of high-heeled shoes can transform her into a different, more sexually-alluring person. For a male-to-female cross-dresser, it can signify the transition from he-male to she-male. Eye make-up may function in similar ways. What magical stories do eyes and contact lenses tell?

SHOWstudio’s The Fashion Body, a project involving 42 films, has now been followed by a series on Fashion Fetish. When I researched my book, Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, I discovered that the majority of sexual fetishes are items of clothing (shoes, underwear) and body parts (hair, buttocks), although anything can be a fetish (bugs, the handlebars of an Italian racing bike, the voice of a soprano singing). Moreover, the term ‘fetishism,’ which conjures up images of sexual fantasy and ‘perversion,’ is not just a Freudian thing. Along with its role in psychoanalysis and sexology, fetishism has played an important part in the discourses on religion, capitalism, and art. Certain dissident Surrealists were particularly drawn to the concept of fetishism, which visualizes power and desire. As Georges Bataille once wrote, ‘I defy any lover of modern art to adore a painting as a fetishist adores a shoe.’

One might have guessed that Daphne Guinness would have focused on shoes for her film in the Fashion Fetish series, but she says, ‘My fetish is my eyes.’ Looking at Daphne’s film, I was struck by how seldom the eyes are explicitly identified as a fetish. Of course, there was the masked orgy in Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut, and Bataille’s notorious pornographic novella, Story of the Eye, in which the protagonist’s eyes bulge, erectile with horror, when he discovers a dead woman’s blue eyeball inside another woman’s vagina, gazing at him through tears of urine.  Even more infamous is the eye scene in Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, in which Simone Mareuil’s eye is held open and then – cut to a cloud crossing the moon - slashed by a razor, releasing a gelatinous mass of vitreous fluid. 

Daphne’s film is not so lurid, but nor does she focus only on eyes. As she says, ‘I also use contact lenses in order to make the world more soft, my vision is almost too good. So I think it may be, to me, another form of defense.’ To the extent that contact lenses serve as a defense, veiling reality, they do seem to function as magic fetishes, albeit not precisely in the psychoanalytic sense of the word.  The physical vulnerability of the eyes, soft like poached eggs and soggy with fluid, would seem to be the opposite of the classic hard phallic fetish, such as the stiletto heel. And yet, as Daphne observes, ‘A fetish is much more than that.’

Fashion and fetishism are linked, in part, through their association with the artificial. Daphne’s film opens with a shot of dozens of differently-colored contact lenses - the lenses resembling a set of irises surgically removed. Contacts look like eyes, but they are not eyes. Over the course of the film, Daphne repeatedly inserts these contact lenses into her red and teary eyes, causing her mascara to run. Eye make-up, which has existed for millennia, is almost certainly intended to augment the wearer’s sexual allure, partly by increasing her apparent ‘beauty’ but also by emphasizing the role of artifice.

Daphne told me that people have sometimes criticized her for wearing differently-coloured contact lenses, as though it were unacceptable vanity to change the colour of your eyes - although it is perfectly acceptable to change the colour of your hair (or your eyelids). Since her eyesight is perfectly good (‘almost too good’), the contacts serve no ‘useful’ purpose. Rather, they are a type of fashion accessory – a peculiar kind of prosthesis.  Certainly, the effect can be striking – as Daphne with brown eyes looks like a very different person than Daphne with pale blue eyes. There is something deeply uncanny about this transformation.

‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object,’ wrote the psychiatrist Robert Stoller. A high-heeled shoe, for example, may tell many different stories. For a woman, slipping into a pair of high-heeled shoes can magically transform her into a different, more sexually-alluring person. For a male-to-female cross-dresser, it can signify the transition from he-male to she-male. Eye make-up may function in similar ways. What magical stories do eyes and contact lenses tell? Daphne’s film provides clues, while remaining ultimately mysterious.

‘All I came to SHOWstudio with was my turban, sunglasses, and contact lenses,’ recalls Daphne. She was inspired by the 1962 Jules Dassin film, Phaedra, scenes from which play in the background of her own short film. The fact that Phaedra, which is in black and white, is projected behind Daphne gives it a dreamlike quality. As in dreams, the significance (if any) of the details is often obscure. Why are Daphne’s fingernails painted different colours, like her variously coloured contact lenses? Why is she singing Bellini’s famous aria, Casta Diva?  Daphne hints that there are connections between Phaedra and her own life. Certainly, there are obvious visual correspondences between Daphne and Melina Mercouri, the actress in Phaedra, both of whom wear virtually identical white dresses, turbans and, sometimes, sunglasses.

The sunglasses – like the contact lenses – are, of course, another prosthesis for the eyes, and like any prosthesis, they have something uncanny about them. For all their movie star glamour, there is something sinister about sunglasses. If you can’t see a person’s eyes, you may feel uneasy, as though something (their soul? their intentions?) were being concealed from you.

Blind people also wear dark glasses. When I was born, it was common in the United States for premature babies to be deliberately exposed to massive amounts of pure oxygen – with the result that many babies were blinded.  Although not blinded, my eye sight was badly affected, and when this was (finally) diagnosed eight years later, I received my first pair of (very strong) eye glasses. I still remember the visceral shock when my mother’s face suddenly came into focus for the first time. As an adolescent, I acquired contact lenses. I remember one of them popping out during a basketball game, and all of the girls dropping to their knees to look for the missing lens – transparent and almost invisible.

Many years later, the retina of my right eye detached, ‘like an old piece of scotch tape,’ as my eye surgeon put it.  I came out of the surgery screaming with pain. I no longer wear contact lenses and even hesitate to put on eye makeup. Without my glasses, I am lost. Is it any wonder that eyes seem very fragile and precious to me? 

I wish I could remember the name of the philosopher who said, ‘To see, to know, is happiness.’  Certainly, the idea that sight translates into insight is an ancient one, related to the supposed connection between light and truth. Conversely, blindness is equivalent to error or castration. Eyes evolved as organs of sight, and tears function to lubricate the eyes. But watching Daphne’s film, it is clear that the symbolism of eyes is profoundly complicated. For although one of the film’s dominant images is that of Daphne’s red, crying eyes, it is also clear that sight itself is associated both with pleasure and power.