Where Has All the Nudity Gone?
I miss breasts.
Actually, in this modern age of internet porn and the increased visibility of pornography in general, finding photographs of bare breasts has become as easy as taking a breath. I live in a world where I can be researching an article, and discover a photograph of a nude woman by accident. My 15-year-old self, languishing back in the early 1990s – when precious pornography had to be carefully sought in magazine form – is writhing in unsurpassable envy over my present self. So finding pictures of breasts, hardcore porn, and any kind of deprived sexual act on film is one of the easiest things in the world these days, and there is now an entire culture of gleeful, open onanism surrounding said activities.
But it’s not porn I miss. I miss mainstream studio movies that feature nudity. I’m certainly not the first to make this observation, and I will definitely not be the last, but it seems to me that nudity – both male and female – in mainstream film is at a low ebb. There are dozens upon dozens of films in the world that warrant an R-rated treatment, but remain mired in the market-friendly PG-13 camp, merrily obscuring breasts, biting their tongue over cussing, and killing many without showing any blood.
Okay, It’s Not Totally Gone…
To be sure, there are still notable instances of nudity in modern film. Eva Green, for instance, is most certainly not shy about stripping for the camera, having had some fun femme fatale roles in both 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Gone Girl featured a young mistress who stripped for Ben Affleck. Wild featured a few artful and vulnerable scenes of Reese Witherspoon exposing herself both physically and emotionally. Anne Hathaway openly admitted (well, jokingly, at the Oscars) that she stripped in Love and Other Drugs for Academy recognition. Heck, even Kristen Stewart had a nude scene in the maligned film version of On the Road. But now I’m beginning to sound like Seth MacFarlane at the Academy Awards in 2013, when he sang the marginally tasteless “We Saw Your Boobs.”
So the nudity is still lingering in certain corners of cinema, and it is always welcome. But I do get an overall impression that there is just less of it on the whole than there used to be. I grew up in the 1980s, which was the era of slasher films and teen sex romps. Not a week passed, it certainly seemed, without theaters offering up either a group of topless teen girls getting killed by a maniac, or those same girls wrestling with the clumsy advances of their horny male counterparts. And, thanks to my generation’s free access to cable television, we could see breast-loaded R-rated films like Revenge of the Nerds, Porky’s, Zapped!, H.O.T.S., and of course the much pored over Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Related: Nudity! Nudity! Nudity!
Teen sexuality was, in that raunchy and pandering genre, seen as something to be celebrated. The teenager’s impulse to get laid was revealed in all its embarrassingly naked glory. Sure, sexuality was most often seen as a silly thing, but at least kids had it. Teenagers have always had a powerful sex drive. The movies, however, seem to have forgotten that in recent years. Remember the remake of Endless Love that came out earlier this year? The film all about a teenage girl finding her sexuality for the first time with a dangerous new boyfriend? The amount of nudity in that film? None. We can at least occasionally look to the gross-out comedies of the early 2000s for instances of sexuality. Thank you American Pie, Road Trip, and EuroTrip, for carrying the torch.
Frankly, I blame the inception of the PG-13 rating for the downfall of frank depictions of sexuality in film. Before there was a PG-13 rating in place (it was introduced in 1984), feature films could dip more deeply – and far more merrily – into adult territory. If filmmakers were to write cussing or violence into their film, they may as well go the whole nine, and have sexuality as well. As such, screwball comedies form the era were resplendent with sex. And while a lot of the sex comedies were immature and goofy, they were still ostensibly for adults.
The PG-13 rating has essentially killed off movies for adults. The teen dollar is too strong for studios to ignore, and now the bulk of films released in theaters are rated PG-13. Too edgy for the little ones, but not so rough that 14-year-olds can’t see them. The PG-13 rating has proven to be a marketing goldmine, and more and more filmmakers have increasingly played straight up the middle.
In many cases – perhaps in most cases – this has proven to be a detriment. Take a look at the highest-grossing film of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, a big budget PG-13-rated space adventure film based on a comic book. That was a film that was possessed of a somewhat naughty spirit, playing up the goofiness of the usual comic book fare, and featuring a few fleeting moments of dirty words. I imagine a version of that film that was rated R. One that had naked space vixens in a few scenes, and a lot more uses of the F word. In my mind, that is a better film. But there’s no way Disney, the film’s producers, would have allowed for those things in their lucrative superhero franchise. They needed to ensure that teens and kids and everyone could see Guardians of the Galaxy.
If that example doesn’t convince you, consider the following: The Girl Next Door was a film about a teen boy who discovers his attractive new neighbor may have once been – or perhaps still is – a porn star. While the film is rated R, there is little in the way of clear nudity. Lots of bras and simulated sex, but no actual sex. Why shy away from sex in a film about pornography? Consider: Bring It On. A PG-13-rated film about cheerleaders. Shower scenes, sexy dancing, and cheerleaders. It’s about cheerleaders. It has no nudity. That would never have happened in the 1980s. Consider: Coyote Ugly, a film about sexy bartenders on the make for sexy guys. It is rated PG-13, and there is no nudity.
The fact remains that R-rated films don’t make as much money as they once did. Of the ten highest-earning films of 2014, eight were rated PG-13. The remaining two were rated PG. The highest-earning R-rated film of the year came in at #12. It was 22 Jump Street. We no longer live in a film climate, but a carefully constructed marketplace. And in such a marketplace, frank depictions of adult – or even teen – sexuality are outright taboo.
There are other reasons nudity has contracted in recent years. For one, I think certain filmmakers don’t want their films associated with porn, and nudity-aggregating websites like Mr. Skin are deliberately blurring the line between thoughtful and carefully selected nude scenes, and outright prurience. Studios seem to know that ay nude scene they approve of and allow into their films will instantly be ripped from their context, and placed next to regular hardcore pornography as if they were the same thing.
For that same reason, many actors and actresses refuse to do nude scenes. Before the internet – heck, before home video even – young aspiring performers in low-budget movies would happily do nude scenes, knowing that no one would ever see them outside of the grindhouse circuit. They could appear topless without their families ever finding out. Now, however, any and all nude scenes can make their way onto the internet, and the comforting anonymity of grindhouse theaters is now nationwide. Sure, you can do a nude scene, but be prepared to face that nude scene for the rest of your life. Be prepared to be known as the guy or the girl who got their junk out.
Heck, thanks to some enterprising criminal hackers, certain celebrities have had their own private nude pictures revealed to the world in recent years (and this year in particular). Privacy is a thing of the past, it seems. Actors and actresses may be daring to a degree, but many would rather not be banked in porn vaults.
So they say no to the nude scenes. The studios get a PG-13 rating, and once again any sort of frank or adult or mature visual discussion of sex has to be obscured by evasion. In the 1940s, sexuality was coded by things like cigarettes. In the modern age, sexuality is coded by fantasy and violence.
At least we have the art houses keeping the torch burning. Under the Skin was an odd and contemplative look at human bodies, and 2014 was the year Lars Von Trier gave us a near-pornographic 5 ½ epic called Nymphomaniac. With so few films made for grown-ups, we now have to seek out smaller theaters, smaller films, and more thoughtful and daring outsiders to get true tales of human sexuality. “Mainstream” is now synonymous with “adolescent.” One has to go to the fringe for anything adult and sexual. And that’s just not right.
Male vs. Female Nudity
One last largely unconnected point: Have you noticed that when a woman takes her clothes off in a movie, it’s mostly meant to be titillating and sexy? Sometimes it will be casual and incidental, but mostly a woman’s breasts are used as weapons of mass prurience. Male nudity, on the other hand, is almost always depicted as comic. We see buffoonish dudes mooning the camera in a movie, and it’s supposed to elicit giggles. A woman can do a sexy dance in a movie. A man can only make an ass of himself trying to do a sexy dance.
A woman masturbates on camera, and it’s about her pleasure. A man masturbates on camera, and it serves to show how ridiculous he looks.
There are plenty of feminist messages to be taken from that observation, and sociological implications about the way men view women vs. the way women view men, etc. etc., but this is not the place to start that discussion. Instead, I’m going to hunker down with my copy of Hollywood Hot Tubs, and pine for the glory days.