Nudity in the media

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
November 17, 2003

Mark Ruffalo appears nude in “In the Cut.” Sean Penn bares all in “21 Grams.” And Ewan McGregor — Obi-Wan Kenobi himself — shows off his lightsaber in “Young Adam.”

“It’s about time that men are stripping down,” Neve Campbell says in the current issue of In Style. “If we have to take it off, they should too.”

Hallejuah, sister.

Yes, the film industry has finally risen to the occasion. But don’t get too excited, though. This trend won’t last. While Hollywood may be making baby steps to level the playing field, it’s still the exception rather than the norm.

Despite the fact we’ve become accustomed to e-mails promising to increase the size of our guy’s penis, Americans tend to be a bit queasy when it comes to the male member. Not so with female nudity. As British filmmaker Mike Figgis (“Leaving Las Vegas”) says, Hollywood is based on “almost” seeing a nipple.

When two nude women share sex scenes in a mainstream film (think Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in “Mulholland Drive”), it’s considered hot and erotic. But when two shirtless men so much as kiss — as Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix did in “My Own Private Idaho” — the audience, especially the male audience, squirms.

You’d think equalizing the nudity factor would be a no-brainer in the 21st century. But the fact is we’re still living in an era when female nudity titillates an audience, whereas male nudity shocks us.

“Sometimes there’s a value of full-frontal shots that has more to do with surprise than with sexual content,” says Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum. “We usually see a naked penis in movies to convey something other than sex since, unless the penis is hard, there’s not much of a sexy message. Seeing an actor’s naked penis really does make him look vulnerableand there’s dramatic value in that.”

There’s also the sentiment that straight men have no interest in seeing nude actors on screen, while women don’t mind — or will at least tolerate — seeing nude actresses in films. Some might even argue that women just have no interest in seeing nude men.

Not so, according to gender expert Laura Shamas, an adjunct professor who teaches cultural mythology at the University of Southern California.

“It’s a sign of the power structure that the female gaze is not honored while the male gaze is,” Shamas says. “Until advertisers realize women and gay men have some gaze that is worth valuing, nothing is going to change. As much as people would like us to believe that we have grown into an enlightened society, the commodification of the female body is still very much in our culture. There definitely needs to be more of a balance.”

Even when women’s preferences are honored, it tends to be in a “safe” setting that doesn’t threaten heterosexual men. There’s full frontal nudity on Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” but since most of the male characters are gay, it’s OK.

“I can’t think of a woman who wouldn’t be interested in seeing more male nudity in films, especially because it’s such a rare and wonderful sight,” Schwarzbaum says.

Adds People magazine movie critic Leah Rozen, “Women would be happy to see more male nudity, but it is not a big deciding factor when they’re weighing where to spend their box office dollars. Hollywood makes movies for 14-year-old boys, and 14-year-old boys don’t want to see male nudity. Also, male stars who will bare more than their chest and abs are few and far between — let’s hear it for Richard Gere and Kevin Bacon.

“Ever since the introduction of the freeze frame button on VCRs and now DVDs, there’s no way most male stars are going to set themselves up for that kind of close scrutiny. Ditto for women. Notice how few major women stars show their breasts or anything else these days? The Internet has only made it worse. Once seen naked, you’re naked forever.”

That concept didn’t seem to bother Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, who both bared all for “In the Cut.” Directed by Jane Campion (who also got Harvey Keitel to drop trou in “The Piano”), the film is graphic, though not quite as explicit as the version that was shown at the Toronto Film Festival.

Sara Marcus went to see the film recently with her boyfriend. Neither was expecting to see Ryan naked, much less Ruffalo.

“I actually was really happy they were both naked, not because I had a particular desire to see either one of them with their clothes off but because it was just more real,” says North Sider Marcus, 28. “I’m so sick of all these movies where the couple is having sex, but only the woman’s nude. Like that’s realistic.”

“The nudity is very much a part of the film’s style and story,” says “In the Cut” producer Laurie Parker.  “It’s not gratuitous at all, but rather an intimate portrait of an adult woman beginning a sexual love relationship with an adult man. Male and female nudity should be given equal time. Women are interested in male nudity, although women may be less interested in gratuitous nudity than men are in seeing gratuitous female nudity.”

In order for the balance to shift — gratuitous or not — there would need to be some changes. Hollywood’s heavy hitters would have to include more women. More actresses would have to say no to nudity, while more actors said yes. And that won’t happen unless it’s mirrored in everyday society.

“We’d have to get beyond a commercial consumer society and eliminate all gender power differentials,” says Chuck Kleinhans, a film expert at Northwestern University. “Consuming others — at least visually — is built into our society, both from a capitalist and a patriarchal point of view.”


The Good:

Viggo Mortensen: Best known for playing Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this handsome actor let it all hang out in 1991’s “Indian Runner.”

Ewan McGregor: God bless his Scottish heart — and other parts. McGregor’s nude repertoire includes “Trainspotting” (1996), “Velvet Goldmine” (1996), “The Pillow Book” (1998) and “Young Adam” (2003).

The Bad:

Edward Norton: The intense actor was full-frontal scary in “American History X” (1998).

Bruce Willis: Talk about much ado about nothing. The hype surrounding Willis’ willy in 1994’s “Color of Night” proved to be little more than a fleeting glimpse. Willis apparently did his part, but nervous studio execs cut the more risque shots.

The Ugly:

Harvey Keitel: Keitel scored with back-to-back full-frontal nude roles in 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant” and 1993’s “The Piano.”

Geoffrey Rush: Rush gave a brilliant performance as the Marquis de Sade in “Quills” (2000). Sadly, he’s perhaps the best argument against having more male nudity in film.


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