Is Nudity Really Necessary?

Lena Dunham in Girls

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

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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