Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Naked in the rushes

Naked in the rushes

In recent revelations about James Franco - part of a deluge of news about alleged sexual misconduct in Hollywood since the Weinstein story originally broke - the most attention-grabbing claims involve Franco allegedly performing non-consensual sexual acts. But also striking are the sorts of film projects he has seemed particularly interested in making. When directing one 'art film', involving actresses in masks and lingerie, he is said to have asked participants to take their tops off. According to another source - a student in his now-defunct film school - Franco regularly sent her emails asking her to audition as 'a prostitute or hooker'. In 2015, he asked another young student to play a prostitute in a film project. She had to perform nude, and act in an orgy scene. She and others were asked 'to appear topless in an unscripted scene and dance around Franco while wearing animal skulls atop their heads'.

Now, apart from feeling that someone should probably take James's Fellini DVDS away pronto, this also got me thinking more generally, not just about the ways in which women are mistreated off-screen in Hollywood, but also about how what happens on-screen can stack the deck against them. To be specific: I thought about the huge amount of 'instrumental' female nudity in Hollywood movies and TV. 

What do I mean by 'instrumental' nudity? I mean casual nudity, introduced as a means to satisfying some relatively banal cinematic goal, which could easily have been achieved some other way. Take a film I rewatched last night: Her by Spike Jonze. Her is a smart and highly stylized morality tale, with all the right hipster credentials. It's set in a future indistinguishable from an Apple advert, complete with tastefully dull Arcade Fire soundtrack, and it's about a man called Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with an operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Ultimately Theodore comes to realise he romantically prefers Samantha to any of the physically embodied 'real' women he knows:  a commitment-hungry castrator (Olivia Wilde), a mentally unstable MPDG (Rooney Mara), and a phone sex operator with a fetish for dead cats (Kristen Wiig). (It's almost as if Jonze doesn't like or understand women, or something).

There's a unannouced and startling bit of instrumental nudity in Her, not involving any of the better-known actresses just listed. It involves a fantasy of Theodore's, based on his earlier having seen some Kim-Kardashian-style nude pictures of a heavily pregnant woman on his phone. The same woman later comes to 'inhabit' his apartment momentarily, naked as before, feeling up her breasts, and enticing him breathily. I've looked for the identity of this actress, and I can't find it. Presumably she doesn't particularly want it on her CV. Or maybe she's not important enough to mention on the cast list. The shot lasts seconds, yet it must have called for days of casting, prepping, and shooting. Its only conceivable narrative function is to show that Theodore is sex-starved, and to show this in a Zeitgeist-y manner. There are many, many ways Jonze could have made that point. But he chose to schlepp a living being (in fact, two of them, perhaps) to his studio, ask her to get her kit off, and tell her to fondle her chest for the camera and so for the world.

When it comes to being an actress - and in particular an unknown or aspiring one - you're more likely to be filmed partially or completely in the buff, than be filmed eating, reading, or working - unless, of course, your on-screen work is prostitution (hello again, James Franco's Artistic Vision) or nude artist's modelling (remember Kate Winslet on the couch in Titanic?). Lounging casually around your apartment? You'll probably be doing it in your pants. Meanwhile, no woman under the age of 30 sleeps clothed, apparently; and all swimming involves skinny dipping. Nor is this confined to 'realistic' fictional worlds: last time I looked, you couldn't go for two minutes in Game of Thrones without seeing some bored-looking naked woman lurking in the background.

The prevalence of instrumental female nudity in mainstream cinema and TV raises many questions. They range from the personal - what happens psychologically to the women who get so depictedwhat motivates producers and directors to include such scenes? - to the ethical - does instrumental female nudity in films seriously harm female viewers as well as actresses? - to the structural - why is the moving image as a medium particularly prone to the use of instrumental nudity? is there something inherently objectifying about cinema?.

The answer to the personal questions seem easy. As the Franco article above demonstrates, women involved in such scenes often feel instrumentalised, disrespected, and used.  The fact they were consensually paid for the work does nothing to mitigate those feelings. As for producers and directors, their motives can of course be various: to make the film sell more with male viewers; to represent a particular male character's perspective, or just a male perspective generally; to connote that the film is 'fun' (think frathouse films); to emphasise that the film is 'serious art' or 'sophisticated' (hi again James!); and so on. It's built into the concept of instrumental nudity that it is used in service of some other banal goal, and not for its own sake.

The answer to the ethical question looks pretty easy too. Instrumental nudity harms female viewers as well as actresses, because it sends them a harmful message - especially when incidences of instrumental nudity in films are experience cumulatively, via several films. This message tells women that they are often perceived by the world (by men, by other women) as bodily objects to be looked at and aesthetically or erotically appreciated, or not. It tells them that one of their main sources of value to others is the way their bodies look - assuming of course that their bodies look as 'good' as those on screen. But it also tells them that this commodity - their bodies - isn't that valuable, because it can be used by others so casually, to make some relatively trivial narrative or 'artistic' or comic point. And of course, it tells male viewers this too.

Structural features of the cinematic and televisual medium reinforce this effect. For as we know, cinema and television are not only able to accurately represent visual and aural details of naked bodies in sexual poses (for instance, as a realistic animation might): they also, in the sense characterised by film theorist André Bazin, show us a trace of some original, actually-occurring event, which involved real nudity (admittedly the story is complicated by digital technology, but the point essentially persists). Some real woman took her clothes off, stood there shivering and bored, and was filmed doing so, producing the image we see now. The method of recording, both in photography and in audio production, means that there is a still discernible causal link between this originating event - involving actresses, their bodies, their movements, and sounds - and what the viewer sees and hears on screen; even if it has since been edited, retouched, recoloured, or otherwise manipulated. The viewer's knowledge of this causal link between the representation of nudity and sex on screen, and some act of real nudity on the part of the actresses involved, surely contributes to its titillating power for many. But it also contributes to a viewer's sense of the relative disposability of a woman's body, since the viewer on some level knows they are witnessing another woman's actual humiliation, inflicted in the services of pursuing some banal and ephemeral aesthetic goal. (Of course they don't look humiliated: they're actresses).

Staying with the structural: there do seem to be media-specific reasons why a film or TV program is suited to the representation of nudity; much better, say, than the theatre or novels. It does visual detail very well, including, most obviously, the close-up.  A moving camera can also take in several details of bodies and positions, in one pan or sweep. And unlike photography and written fiction, it can also reproduce sound, which aids realism.

Still,  this just suggests that film is good at representing nudity; it says nothing about whether it should. Film as a medium contains millions of representational possibilities within it, largely facilitated by its moving, temporally extended, edited, and multi-modal nature. Compare with photographs. Typically photographs are a) static; b) temporally non-extended  - i.e. a photo doesn't reveal itself through time; usually you see all of it at once; c) unedited - i.e. there is usually only one photo, not an edited series; and d) confined to the visual. For these reasons, arguably photographers struggle to convey narratives; they often become dependent on visual stereotypes to convey meaning (a familiar one of which is, of course, a naked, sexually-compliant looking woman).

Films, on the other hand, don't have to be like this. Film-makers can use movement, both of the camera and the actors, to create visual variation and tension; editing to convey narrative and drama; temporal extension to gradually reveal story. They can use recorded speech, other sounds, and musical accompaniment, to contribute to meaning. And of course, budget and local laws permitting, they can point their camera at pretty much whatever they like. In short, there are thousands of creative ways available to satisfy cinematic goals. There's no need to fall back on casual female nudity all the time - the medium certainly doesn't require it.


Photo by Mallory Johndrow on Unsplash


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