Few human experiences are undeniably universal, except for breathing, eating and occasionally being irritated with one’s relatives. But here’s one that’s common: You set foot inside a movie theater, and sometime in the next 1.5 to 2 hours, glimpse an uncovered chest or naked backside. Often, those scenes are sexualized. Frequently, the bare body parts belong to women. Overwhelmingly, audiences accept flashes of breast or bottom without much protest.
Female nudity on-screen is commonplace, at times even banal. A 2018 analysis of 1,100 popular films found that 25.4 percent of women had roles with some nudity, versus 9.6 percent of men.
Depends who you ask. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, will tell you the short answer is this: The majority of movie directors and writers are, and always have been, men. Men accounted for 87 percent of directors and 81 percent of writers for the 250 highest-grossing domestic films of 2019, according to a recent report that Lauzen wrote.
Donald Clarke, chief film correspondent at the Irish Times, will tell you — already told you, rather cheekily, in a 2016 article — that women have more “rude bits” than men, and therefore “need remove less clothing to render themselves ‘partially naked.’” Plus, he jokes, the male genitalia present, um, cosmetic challenges.
Above all, Clarke, Lauzen and many corners of the Internet point a damning finger at the male gaze. The term, coined by British film theorist Laura Mulvey in a seminal 1975 essay, refers to the orientation of the camera: If the lens has a point of view, it’s a male one, aligned with the interests and appetites of male audiences. “Generally speaking,” Lauzen writes in an email, “women’s bodies have been put on display for men’s pleasure.”
A preponderance of men helming films: check.
The camera’s male gaze: noted.
So, are we done here? Hardly.
Interrogating nudity in film is like pulling silks from a magician’s sleeve — start with one inquiry, end up with a dozen other considerations. What is the purpose of the nakedness? What are the filmmaker’s intentions? How much control did the actors have?
“It’s really complex. I don’t think that nudity remains static,” says Clarissa Smith, professor of sexual cultures at the University of Sunderland in England. In fact, “nudity in 1960s films is different from now or indeed even 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”
Smith has doubts about applying the male gaze to today’s cinema. The term was about a particular group of films during a particular period in time (the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s), she says — she’s not convinced it’s “appropriate” in the context of contemporary film.
Constance Penley concurs. A film professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, she is perhaps best known for her pornography scholarship. (Penley, who has been teaching a porn studies class since 1993, years ago embraced the study of “slash” fandom, a group of largely women writers who take beloved male characters from mainstream media — like Captain Kirk and Spock — and write novels, zines and stories in which those men have a homoerotic, explicitly sexual relationship.) Penley doesn’t buy into the neat binary of male or female gaze. She points to the bisexuality of the unconscious, a Freudian concept. At an unconscious level, she believes, we all “have a not just bisexual, but homosexual leaning.”
Indeed, even Mulvey acknowledges that the term “male gaze” is somewhat dated. “It should be read as a document of its time, not for abiding theoretical value,” she wrote in 2015.
What is of value when it comes to nudity? Context.
There’s a difference between sexy and sexist, Smith says. We shouldn’t conflate the two. Take a woman in a bikini. If the woman actively participated in discussions and decisions around her appearance, “we have to recognize that she had agency, that she has an interest in these images and therefore they’re not sexist in the same way” as more lewd forms of representation where a woman has no say.
Questions of control — who wields it and how — often run through professor Rachael Liberman’s head when she’s watching a movie.
“I think about the body and how the body is framed and how it fits into the narrative,” says the undergraduate director in the department of media, film and journalism studies at University of Denver. “Is it gratuitous? What were, possibly, the intentions of the director? How much agency did the performer have in the scenes?”
Later, she typically looks for clues in behind-the-scenes interviews.
Case in point: “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a 2013 French film that explores the relationship between two lesbian women. Liberman initially called it “a beautiful rendering of sexuality and women’s bodies,” but this bearer-of-bad-news reporter told her about the controversy surrounding the film — the lead actresses said the working conditions on set were “horrible” and the director asked too much of them. “Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful,” said Adèle Exarchopoulos in an interview with the Daily Beast.
“Now it’s been ruined,” Liberman says of the film. I apologized. (In a sterling example of openness to new information, Liberman took it in stride. “It’s good. I didn’t do my homework on that one. … That’s my bad.”)
Industry concerns about protecting actors from manipulation or harassment on set have led to an increased reliance on intimacy coordinators, professionals who helps performers safely navigate scenes involving nudity and sex. Just this week, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, commonly referred to as SAG-AFTRA, released guidelines and standards for the use of intimacy coordinators.
Writer and director Elizabeth Wood — whose debut feature, “White Girl,” drew more chatter about its sex scenes than its meaty themes of race and privilege — says she worked hard to create a safe, transparent atmosphere well before actors arrived on her set.
“It’s such a personal story,” Wood says of the film, which is loosely based on her life. It tracks a white college student’s relationship with drugs and her complicated romance with a Puerto Rican dealer. “I anticipated it being a very intimate and difficult experience for a young woman who would get this role, to the point that before someone came in to audition, I first made sure that their agents knew what would be expected.”
To realistically render this tale, Wood felt nudity was required. “I knew that this film had to feel really raw and really exposed.”
While shooting some of the most vulnerable sequences, including a wrenching rape scene, Wood says she’d pull her cast aside and reveal things she’d “never told anyone to help them know why I thought this is important to share, why we were here and doing this, and that they were safe.”
She’d ask questions like, “Do you feel comfortable with a hand here or here, or kissing here or here?” Once boundaries were established, she’d let the camera run. And run. And run.
“I find that when you’re shooting a sex scene, at first, everyone’s trying to really look sexy for a camera. And then you maybe forget the camera’s there a little bit, and you’re thinking more about the other body. And then, as it starts to go on for a while, it’s probably feeling uncomfortable for everyone.” That period, she says, “is when it looks the most realistic.”
The nudity is raw, but in a critical sense, still measured. Watch closely and you’ll notice the cinematography seems to track with the protagonist’s consent. During the rape scene, the camera averts its gaze. Viewers can only faintly see what’s occurring, and the main character is mostly clothed.
“She was blacking out and she wasn’t an active part of it. … It was just complete violation,” Wood says. In that case, “less is more.”
Let’s cut to a final consideration of on-screen exposure. Well-crafted characters — and viewers’ connections to them — amount to much more than nude scenes, says Smith, the sexual cultures professor, who is presently at work on a project about audience responses to “Game of Thrones.” Fans of the HBO series have potent, nuanced feelings about Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the mother of dragons.
“Both men and women find her an inspiring character, and a really strong example of femininity but also leadership,” Smith says, adding that the assumption that men are watching her only because she’s attractive, or occasionally naked, is “really quite sad.”
“It’s really reductive, and it’s not true of women, and it’s also not true of men, right? So why do we persist in those kinds of understandings?”
Another question for a different day.