Is Nudity Really Necessary?

by Cary O'Dell

23 April 2013

In light of Seth McFarlane's controversial performance at the Oscars, maybe it's time we rethink all the bare bodies.
Lena Dunham in Girls 

Warning:  I’m about to become a prude.

As everyone knows, Seth McFarlane set off a major media fire storm with his recent Oscar telecast hosting duties.  Perhaps his most “irreverent” or “offensive” moment (check your pleasure) was his musical ode to naked breasts in the movies, “We Saw Your Boobs”.

And, yes, it was silly and totally sophomoric and didn’t show a lot of respect for the purpose of the evening, but the criticism it drew for days after, to me, largely missed the bigger issue.
Which is: Why are these women baring their breasts to begin with?  The need to go naked has already ensnared even our most acclaimed film actresses (Meryl Streep, Halle Berry, Jessica Chastain, and Kate Winslet were all name-checked in McFarlane’s song) and television is working hard to follow in their, um, footsteps.  From Janet Jackson’s infamous “nip slip” at the Super Bowl a few years ago to a rising number of women on cable, from the maidens of Spartacus to Girls’s Lena Dunham, suddenly, it seems, there are always a bevy of breasts available for your viewing pleasure.  (I can’t help but be reminded of something Dyan Cannon once quite eloquently observed about nudity in film, “Some things should be worth more than the price of admission.”)

I am not meaning to or trying to “blame the victim” here.  (If, that is, the women mentioned in the song were indeed “victims” to begin with.  And, considering how many of the actresses mentioned took the time to film phony cutaway shots before the broadcast, it seems many of these women were very much in on the joke.)  But I’m also not blaming McFarlane either.  McFarlane was only pointing out what was already there and already seen by millions.
I would argue that if these actresses don’t want to be reminded of these “artistic choices” perhaps they shouldn’t make them to begin with.  We cannot be so coy or naïve as to believe that everyone who watches these film are doing so with only the most artistic and high-minded ideals in mind.  I no more believe that than I believe men buy Playboy for the articles or that Magic Mike became a cinema success based solely the carefully crafted acting of Channing Tatum.

Now I’m all for artistic expression and the servicing of the plot but I just have to wonder how often nudity (male or female) actually is “essential” to a film or a TV show (and, yes, Lena Dunham, I’m talking to you).

Everyone seems to agree that Casablanca is an extraordinary film.  Would it have been any better if Ingrid Bergman had, just for a moment, done full frontal? Oh, I’m sure there’s a second or two in the film when her character is feeling “naked” and “vulnerable” and that could be symbolized by the dropping of her slip.  But would that really be necessary? The truth of the matter is the world produced powerful, effective drama for decades on the stage and the big and small screens and no one had to resort to “the fully monty”.  When did this all change?  And has this change been for the better?

I would also argue that nudity in entertainment seldom achieves its desired effect anyway, unless that desire is to arouse or titillate.  \Most of us are not used to seeing high numbers of naked people—especially naked strangers—in our day-to-day lives. Hence, when we do (be it accidentally on the beach or on the big screen) it takes us a bit out of our norm and, in the case of filmatic or television stories, out of the story we are watching. If what is on the screen is supposed to be “reality”, we are often quickly expunged from that reality in those few seconds or minutes of skin flashing.

Furthermore, despite the rising number of male stars becoming willing to bare their buttocks (or more) on the screen or on the air, entertainment nudity is still overwhelmingly the purview of women. Hence, one can’t help but think that something sociological and political is being communicated in this discrepancy.

Remember 1987, the year that even then was rather uncharitably labeled “The Year of the Bimbo”? It was the year that Jessica Hahn, Fawn Hall and Donna Rice all emerged into popular culture via a variety of political and business scandals. And soon after their entry, there seemed to be a mad dash among the then preeminent “men’s magazine” in business at that time to see who could get them naked and within their pages first. Interestingly, it was a bidding war that no one seemed the least bit surprised by. In fact, it was so much the norm that few bothered then to stop and ask why?

So… Why?

Of course most of that rush to reveal was based on money and press. When Playboy ran their “Women of Enron” pictorial a few years ago (and Playgirl followed with a “Men of Enron” counterpoint pictorial), it wasn’t because Enron was famous for the beauty of its employees (we have Hooters for that). And it wasn’t as a type of economic outreach to some now unemployed workers even if that’s what Hefner’s empire wanted us to believe. No, it was about publicity. Newspapers, blogs and TV stations would pick up the story of the Enron women au naturale and run it with it, discuss it and draw enormous attention to the big bunny’s next issue—and when was the last time Playboy got that kind of coverage? Similarly, such was the attraction with Jessica Hahn, the only one of the three from ‘87 that ultimately did pose, for Playboy, several times, a few years later.

Still, just because someone’s willing to pose naked, why are we so determined to see them naked?

I can’t help but think that it was because Hahn, Hall and Rice were, in their way, each a powerful woman. Perhaps not powerful in the way that a Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem would have preferred but influential nonetheless. Rice, purposefully or not, derailed a viable presidential candidate; Hahn took down a multi-million dollar multimedia empire. 

Then we would get to see them nude. Literally striped for the entertainment, amusement, inspection, and criticism of men. I wonder, is this how society desires to address and deal with powerful and troublesome women, by ostensibly celebrating them (their beauty and bodies) but actually just reducing them down to their body parts?

It’s not just Playboy centerfolds that fall prey to this down cycle phenomenon. In her 2011 memoir, Unbearable Lightness, actress Portia De Rossi related what she felt when her character on TV’s Ally McBeal, an accomplished, high-profile lawyer, suddenly found herself dressed for a scene in lingerie:  “And in that scene I was no longer a brilliant attorney who could make the firm more money than it had ever seen.  I was stripped of that ability and the respect that comes with it when I stripped down to my heart-covered bra and panties.”

I am not suggesting that we ban Playboy and cover up like Victorian dowagers. Believe it or not, I’m not one of those gender warriors who want to neuter our lives and ourselves. Such thinking is backward. There’s nothing wrong with sexual attraction.  After all, it is the impulse that allows for our survival. 

We may not yet be at a place where the various implications of nudity (both on screen and off) can be successfully processed. The lingering brouhaha among both the defenders and supporters of McFarlane’s song certainly says as much.

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