Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 16, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Nudity in Film: Sexy or (Artful) Culture

Nudity in Film: Sexy or (Artful) Culture

Immortalisation of the female body, is it beautiful or a gross infatuation? Michel Rowe considers nudity in cinema, comparing the media of film, to classic sculpture.
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Image: Pixabay

Nudity in the cultural sphere has been rampant since the Greeks; the geometric period saw both sexes, gloriously immortalised in nude stone for visual consumption. Almost three thousand years have seen us arrive at Saltburn’s full-frontal and a BBC news article, documenting the all-important question of why Julia Roberts never appeared in the nude. Modern cultural critics have suggested many contrasting opinions on the matter, though, for brevity’s sake, we’ll examine just two: nudity as capital, nudity as art, and the intersection of the two. So, strap in, and let’s examine some sexy (or artful) culture.

French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, refers to the body–more often, the female body–as the twenty-first century’s “finest consumer object,” the thing which he deems can be “mined” for value. As a case study, we might look at this in reference to the twentieth-century iconographic Marilyn Monroe, who famously told Lawrence Schiller that her “tits ’n’ ass … got (her a) house and swimming pool.” Monroe, after her famous Playboy contract, jokingly taps into the space where consumerism and nudity coalesce, Baudrillard’s “consumer object,” and in doing so illuminates the troubling, though perhaps empowering, place that commercial nudity occupies. Monroe’s nudity undeniably admitted her both cultural and physical capital. Hugh Hefner agreed to pay the modern equivalent of two hundred thousand pounds for the nude shot of Monroe, and the magazine was an instant sellout. Marilyn Monroe, much like the statues of the Greeks, was culturally immortalised, overnight. Though, importantly, this thrust into the cultural sphere also exemplifies the danger of “mining” one’s body; to be consumed relentlessly; to be read as a product instead of a human. Monroe’s final conversation with Schiller revealed that she believed “it’s still about nudity,” and anxieties over whether “ that all (she was) good for.” The next morning saw the actress dead.

Though, importantly, this thrust into the cultural sphere also exemplifies the danger of “mining” one’s body; to be consumed relentlessly; to be read as a product instead of a human.

In a capitalist culture, the human body becomes a marketing tool. Nudity in advertising and film are selling points. Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, ELLE; the list of companies catering towards sexual appetite is near-limitless. Sex Sells, as the old phrase goes, so to what extent can we consider the nude body as art? Is it mere idealism to suppose the nude body can exist purely in a capitalistic world?

If we consume film and television to experience alternative reality, then inevitably we need to see ourselves at our barest. Nudity is experience. Nudity is expression. Though, more than this, nudity is fundamentally at the disposal of the filmmaker in the same way costume, set, or dialogue might be. Recently, Saltburn’s Emerald Fennell countered recent backlash towards the ending of her new, divisive work, responding that nudity is ‘an act of desecration. It’s also an act of territory, taking on ownership.’ There is meaning, story, in nudity; there is intellectual and creative intention in nudity, faraway from Baudrillard’s “consumer object.” Yet, articles such a‘How to watch Saltburn with your nan (with timestamps)’ and ‘Emerald Fennell on ‘Saltburn’: The Film So Filthy and Shocking We Have to Talk About It’ were still rampant last year. Fennel justifies Saltburn’s nudity well, so why is it that audiences seem unable to consider nudity outside of a shock factor, or overt sexualisation? Psychology may hold an answer. Jonah Lehrer, of Wired, discusses a psychological experiment which tracked individual perceptions of two characters who were shown with and without their torso in the frame. Those who saw the torso in frame perceived the characters to be “extremely sensitive to hunger and desire,” while those who only saw the faces, viewed them as having far more agency. This study suggests the consumption and reading of an individual is biological, and irrefutable, but how might this account for the disproportionately higher rate of female nudity in Hollywood films, according to The Guardian in 2016? Culture cannot be replaced by scientific explanation when it comes to sexual consumption in the media. Artful nudity is possible, but the dismantling of patriarchal objectification must come first. 

Though, more than this, nudity is fundamentally at the disposal of the filmmaker in the same way costume, set, or dialogue might be.

In light of this, the BBC published an article, titled, ‘Julia Roberts says she has made the choice not to do nude scenes.’ In the article, Youngs reports on Roberts’ choice not to do nude scenes in her career, the complexity of which, Roberts sums in the phrase: ‘I’m choosing not to do something as opposed to doing something.’ While choosing to abstain from nudity as an actress famed for romantic comedies may seem click-worthy content, the article reads as needless. Julia Roberts does not do nudity, because Julia Roberts does not want to; she is not ‘criticising others’ choices’ or discussing ‘her views on feminism.’ Roberts is only speaking of her own experiences, autobiographically, and isn’t discussing the far more adventurous topic of women and nudity, as a whole. The fact that Roberts was selected for this interview as opposed to the countless other men who built a career through romantic comedies is precisely the problem. Women and nudity are culturally interwoven in the consumer’s mind, and thus, Roberts is described as ambiguously having a “tough side” when she quite respectfully proposes that she hasn’t wanted to be nude on film.

As a result, we may wonder if artful nudity in film is at all possible. I am hopeful in saying it is. Though, culturally, it is up to us as consumers to consider the ways in which we engage with film, television, and culture. We have the capability to think critically about nudity as more than a ‘shock-factor’ or ‘wholesale sex;’ our cultural literacy can carry us that far.

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