Guest Post: Pop Culture and the Female Gaze (sNSFW)
Warning: Contains frank discussion of nudity, including some discussion of sexual content, in film, television, and theater.
Nudity and sex appeal seem to be loaded topics, particularly for women. As audience reviews of Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London came out with the revelation that *gasp* the Creature is born naked and therefore the actor playing the role spends a bit of time STARK NAKED ONSTAGE, I started thinking about why this is so shocking.
Then, I read this roundtable at Geektress.com and found myself vexed. Very vexed. For several reasons, (not least of which is that whenever someone says that a character has to be played by someone that’s the nationality/race/orientation/etc., of the character, I feel the need to shout, “THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED ACTING.”) My primary source of vexation is that the overall point seems to be that women don’t want their heroes to be sexy/sexual. Yes, it’s one discussion, and it’s a perfectly valid opinion, I won’t deny that. However, it feeds into a perception of women as not only incapable of genuinely lustful, sweaty desire, but as frail flowers who don’t want male nudity in film/television/theater and will faint at it when it’s presented.
Then, I sent a tweet meant to reject what is seen as a the prevailing point of view in pop culture, namely that women are only interested in a sort of chaste longing that has nothing to do with anything below the waist.
And my twitter feed blew up. In a good way. A frank discussion among women and men on what nudity in film/stage both obscures and reveals about a production, an audience, and how we (at least in the USA) perceive it. One point made during the conversation involved the dissolution of audience immersion in a work due to nudity that should be present and isn’t. For example: there are countless sex scenes where the female partner is completely nude but the male partner is still clothed, at least below the waist. Yet, in Sex and The City it seemed that nearly every cast member except Sarah Jessica Parker was seen in some state of undress over the six-season run. We discussed the lack of hot snogging in porn, and the aggressive misuse of male nudity there, my conclusion being that close-ups of heaving-thrusting-whatever body parts, does not equal hotness. Last but not least, we discussed the fact that so much female nudity in mainstream television and film serves no purpose but to serve the male gaze.
There’s the rub, finally. The myth of sexless female sexuality, the perpetuation of unfunny, unromantic (and very definitely unsexy) romantic comedies as serving the female gaze and interests and yet, men need boobies. Male actors in their 70s are shown as virile lovers of women 30 years their junior, yet women in their 40s are called, “Cougars,” and are vilified for dating men even a couple of years younger than themselves.
Tragically, the only mainstream film in the last five years to explicitly serve the female gaze, and directly address female desire, is Twilight. Yes, I said it. For as much as the dynamics of the series disturb the hell out of me, Twilight directly says that its protagonist has a desire for sex, thwarted though it may be by her suitors. She wants it and she’s unafraid to say it.
Perhaps one of the few adult (i.e., for grown-ups, not porn) films in the last decade that shows that sort of female desire, albeit with some very heavy-handed telegraphing of the consequences of it, is In The Cut. Once America’s Sweetheart, Meg Ryan’s portrayal of twisted relationships, ambiguity, and bluntly transgressive female desire did not do well at the box office, but it did show the audience that women can and do want all sorts of things society tells us we’re not supposed to.
In a strange instance of synchronicity, recently, I came across a New York Times piece that addresses the way we not only historically prefer violence over sex in US film, but have become even more repressive in the 21st century. Some of the reasons are laudable, as women feel empowered enough to say they won’t take their clothes off for a role, and some are ridiculous, as we seem to be so frightened of the mirror of art that the intimacy in a film like Blue Valentine is something we shy away from.
I keep coming back to my original statement: I endorse male full-frontal nudity in film, television and theatre. From Richard Gere in American Gigolo, to Bruce Willis in The Color of Night, to Ewan McGregor in – well, nearly every movie he made, prior to becoming Obi-Wan, to Martin Freeman in Nightwatching.
Perhaps it’s the fear of appearing inadequate due to the endless obssesion with penis-size, or perhaps it’s a fear that nudity will detract from an audience’s attention to a performance, (which strangely, never comes up for actresses) but male nudity is still verboten.
In comics, we’ve seen a history of pin-up proportioned superheroines and villainesses wearing costumes that would make a stripper blush. Even now, in the upcoming X-Men: First Class, Emma Frost appears to be wearing a glorified bra. In reality, it’s actually significantly less sexualized than her original comic-book costume. Mystique on film, has essentially been a lot of blue body paint, and strategic covering of anatomy as though it doesn’t exist, rather than costuming, per se. Catwoman is a leather/S&M festishists’ dream, in most incarnations, although I’m interested to see what Christopher Nolan and Anne Hathaway will bring us in The Dark Knight Rises. Still, what about what women want?
Yes, we’ve had the artificial hardbody and smooth playboy iterations of Batman and Bruce Wayne, the tights and cape of Superman, Spidey’s form-fitting suit and the raw sexuality of Hank Logan/Wolverine in those very tight jeans. In some ways, the exaggeration of comics and their film adaptations are better suited to serving the female gaze. Slightly hyppereal, but attractively drawn, (or cast) presentations of masculinity are a very good way of drawing in an underserved audience.
The New York Times article mentions Brokeback Mountain, and the article’s conclusion on the film’s appeal to a female audience is true. Yes, it is a moving, gripping, heartbreaking drama, but it also has gorgeous men in a gorgeous, if stark environment, with raw, painful, intensely passionate sexuality among all of its relationships.
We don’t get that in the portrayal of most straight romances, these days. Closer, (a dissection of the ways in which we betray and break each other, both sexually and emotionally,) has very little nudity, but an incredibly frank sense of sexuality that serves the male and female gaze equally.
So where are producers of film/telly in particular going wrong? Is it the simple assumption that women will be repulsed by the sight of a completely naked man, fear of the MPAA issuing an NC-17 rating, lack of studio funding, or is it an institutional memory that drifts to the formulaic?
In network television, much as it’s slammed as soapy entertainment without a lot of depth, the universe created by Shonda Rhimes, serves the female gaze in a deeply satisfying way. Patrick Dempsey, Eric Dane, Kevin McKidd, and Taye Diggs have been in some of the hottest sequences on Network TV, providing both the eye candy and romance, and I have had to pick my jaw up off the floor at scenes between McKidd and Sandra Oh, because when you not only have raw sexual chemistry, but the painful intimacy of broken people, well. . . it’s intense.
Go ahead and judge me, I watch Grey’s Anatomy.
Yes, Sex and The City was about the female gaze, but it was a gaze tempered by a traditional, rather than transgressive point of view. Sexual desire was less important than emotional desire and the consumerist desire, except for Samantha, and she was constantly slut-shamed.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an exception to the rule, puts female desire on an equal footing with male desire, and while there are still consequences to that desire, they’re not one-sided consequences. Everybody gets hurt, everybody’s at risk, and desire can mean losing your soul, or gaining it back. Which is a little bit like the real world, if we’re all honest.
In conversation, women encouraged the attempt to de-mythologize female desire, and made clear that we’re not actually prone to getting the vapors at the mere idea of male nudity. (Well, not in the OMG, MY EYES, I CAN’T UNSEE THAT, HAND ME THE BRAIN BLEACH way) The overall consensus seems to be: YES, PLEASE, MORE NOW, I AM SO FREAKING TIRED OF SEEING ALL THESE BOOBS AND CASUAL FEMALE NUDITY.
I asked @SarahLister specifically, as someone who I trust in media/art analysis, for her opinion:
“It’s grossly underrepresented in American media, and this is of course, easy to blame entirely on a predominantly male gaze.” (Sarah is in Canada, which is a bit different to the US, for all we have in common.) She continued, “But it has to be said that while a nude/partially nude female is quite easy to pass off as artistic or acceptable these days, American standards criteria don’t really allow for male frontal nudity even though it’s no less natural than female nudity.”
This touches on something I mentioned earlier – ratings. The MPAA sees fit to rate a film PG-13 without including notice of animal cruelty, (The Roommate, and I’ll refer you to Scott Weinberg’s excellent rant on that topic) but even non-sexual full-frontal male nudity will likely get an R rating. The MPAA warns for male nudity in Grown-ups, Eat, Pray, Love, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but declines to warn for female nudity. That says to me that either female nudity is an expected component, or that the MPAA thinks America has a problem with dangly bits.
Have you seen the amount of porn this country consumes? It’s not all men watching it. Plenty of women watch porn, plenty of women enjoy it. (Although, we would very definitely like HEAT instead of FAKE, and better production values, please.)
Clearly, women are capable of seeing a penis and not passing out. Even one that isn’t safely flaccid and non-threatening. The consensus in discussion, and after asking for input on the subject, through my twitter feed can be found here and here.
I suppose, what I’m wondering, is this – in the mirror of media and pop culture, where is the female gaze? What is the female gaze? I don’t think it’s just one thing, after all. I think there’s room for smart, adult rom-coms, and more intense, mature filmmaking. I think we can cheer our superheroes- and -heroines, speculate on time travel, and enjoy a good high speed chase. Can we convince Hollywood of this though? I don’t know.
What do you think?
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