A while back, I wrote a column here on whether female nudity in film is art or exploitation. One of the things I posited in that column was that the existence of female nudity as such in a film isn’t what determines whether it’s art or exploitation — it’s the context in which the nudity is presented, as well as how it’s viewed by those watching it. Several readers got in touch to ask, “Do bare male chests in film equal bare female breasts?”
No, they don’t — and here’s why.
Any discussion of the sexual objectification of women versus men in film has to start with considering the differences in the way women versus men tend to be objectified in society overall. For example, is a billboard advertising men’s underwear, in which a sexy male model is shown lying languidly clad only in boxer briefs objectifying and sexualizing the male body in the same way that a Victoria’s Secret billboard ad objectifies and sexualizes the female body?
Both are examples of objectification to a certain degree, but in the male ads the ads play more to how the wearing of underwear of a particular brand will contribute to a man’s perception of his own virility. Victoria’s Secret ads target both the sexual insecurities of women — “Buy our sexy underwear and men will find you more physically attractive! Keep your man happy by being as hot as one of our models!” — and the proclivity of men to see women not as sexual beings, but as objects for their own sexual gratification.
I would argue that there is also, generally, a marked difference between the ways in which women versus men are sexualized in society, from the Barbies and Bratz dolls marketed to our young daughters, to the clothing styles targeted at tween and teen girls, which are getting increasingly revealing and sexed-up at ever-younger ages. Just take a stroll through the halls of a public middle school to see how a lot of 11-to-13-year-old girls are dressing these days. Witness also the prevalence of articles in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Cosmo Teen and their ilk that focus on how to make yourself more sexually attractive to men and how to please your man sexually once you have him, as well as the myriad ways in which young girls and women are portrayed as sexual objects in media generally and film in particular.
And while there’s nothing inherently bad about having a hot sex life within your relationships, there’s nothing inherently good about focusing on teaching young women that their primary function in life is to sexually satisfy men through displaying their body parts. And a big part of this problem is the assumption (primarily by men) that there’s nothing wrong with men viewing women in general as little more than tits and ass on display for their gratification.
Children Now, a California-based children’s advocacy organization, analyzed gender portrayal of female characters in video games in its publication “Fair Play: Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games,” noting that “Female sexuality was often accentuated with highly revealing clothing. Female video game characters showed quite a bit of skin. Nearly one in five female characters (21%) had exposed breasts (7% fully exposed), 13% had exposed buttocks (8% fully exposed), and 20% had exposed midriffs. In addition, females were more than twice as likely as males to wear revealing clothing (20% of females and 8% of males).” And as the publication notes, the portrayal of sexy female characters is harmful not only to girls but to boys as well, in that such portrayals help shape the perception of what an “ideal woman” is and “influence girls’ feelings about themselves and their place in the world, and they may also
influence boys’ expectations and treatment of females.”
The same holds true for the ways in which women are portrayed in films. Consider how often we as film journalists write with something akin to awe whenever an actress is given a meaty part that focusing not on her body or its various parts, but on other aspects of her character, or when female characters are focused on something — anything — besides their relationships with men. Consider also the prevalence of depictions of female characters in sexualized situations, gratuitous nudity, or revealing clothing, as compared to how often we see men in film displayed in the same context.
Just how bad is it? If we look at the website Mr. Skin, a website that tracks down to the minute scenes of nudity of film, we see on the front page these words: “Looking for nude celebs? Your search is over. Mr. Skin has them ALL! See naked Hollywood right now!” And then look at the pictures right above those words: eight actresses, in various stages of looking sexy. Not one man with bare chest and sculpted abs. The website offers “FULL size clips and pics from our ENTIRE library!” to horny guys who, presumably, are not looking to the site to provide much in the way of intellectual stimulation.
If you click on “Take a Tour” of Mr. Skin right off the front page, moreover, you’re immediately treated (with, I might add, no age screening or parental approval requirements to keep minors from stumbling across it) to sexual, revealing, and bare-breasted stills of Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, and Monica Bellucci. But wait, that’s not all! Let’s see how Mr. Skin further objectifies these actresses:
“Halle Berry won an Oscar for baring boobs, butt, and bush in her nakedly passionate performance in Monster’s Ball. Be sure to also check out Halle Berry’s nude Golden Globes in Swordfish, Things We Lost in the Fire, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. See beautiful Halle Berry nude now! Join Mr Skin now!”
“Angelina Jolie nude is the sexiest woman alive. See all Angelina Jolie nude pics and videos at Mr Skin. Watch Angelina Jolie bust out her boobs, butt, and bush in Wanted, Original Sin, Taking Lives, Mojave Moon, and more. And don’t miss the Angelina Jolie lesbian sex pics and vids from Gia. Join Mr Skin now!”
“You fell in love with Monica Bellucci as Persephone in The Matrix movies. Now see Monica Bellucci’s naked tits, ass, and pussy! Get complete Monica Bellucci hot nude pics and sexy videos from Shoot ‘Em Up, Irreversible, Malena, Brotherhood of the Wolf, and more. Join Mr Skin for Monica Bellucci nude now!”
Wow. I’m sure Halle Berry will be thrilled to note that she won that Oscar not for her acting, but for baring her body for a bunch of horny pervs living in their parents’ basements to wack off to. The thing is, a website like Mr. Skin is not just a problem in and of itself, it’s reflective of the larger issue of how women are viewed by men — although it’s worthy of note that Mr. Skin does not, so far as I can tell, differentiate the actual context in which nudity appears in film, which is part of what separates nudity as art from nudity as exploitation.
Nope, these guys just take any instance of female nudity in film they can find, slap it up there for the masturbatory pleasures of their membership (and the dollars they rake in through objectifying women), and sexualize actresses relentlessly, reducing them to nothing more than tits, ass and pussy. For this reason, Mr. Skin is one of my least favorite sites on the entire internet — all the more so, because I happen to know some otherwise intelligent male film journalists who contribute to it, seemingly unaware (or perhaps not caring) that the “work” they provide to that site objectifies not only the women in the films they analyze for nudity, but every woman they know — their female friends, wives, mothers, sisters, nieces and aunts, all of whom, in their relationships and interactions with men, have to deal with the consequences of the objectification of women in media as existing for the sexual pleasure of men.
Ask any woman you know if she’s ever felt threatened, objectified, or reduced to tits and ass by men in her day-to-day life: walking down the street to work past a pack of leering guys, riding the subway or bus, working in an office, going out for a girls’ night with her friends; then ask the men you know if they’ve ever, in their entire lives, felt threatened in the same way by women. Gratuitous depictions of female nudity in film, the sexualization of women’s bodies in media in general, and websites like Mr. Skin all contribute to this problem, in a very real way, by sending the message that it’s perfectly okay to view women as objects of sexual pleasure and nothing more. Perhaps the men who contribute to Mr. Skin should consider whether they would write about and objectify the girls and women in their personal lives in the way the write about the women they’re reducing to body parts in their roles in films.
But what about male nudity in film? The thing is, even when you do see male nudity in films, it’s rarely objectified in the same way that female nudity is. The bare male chest, glorious though it may be, is never as sexualized as the bare female breast; women’s breasts — which, by the way, exist physiologically for the feeding of infants and not primarily for the sexual pleasure of men — have been completely sexualized by the misogynistic portrayal of female breasts in various forms of media, including film, as existing for primarily for the arousal of men. This turns the female body, which can, of course, also be displayed nude in artistic ways, into little more than tits, ass and bare cleavage for the purpose of stimulating men who watch the films in which nudity takes place, regardless of its context. And even when directors do use nudity in more artistic ways, as in Darren Aronofsky‘s use of nudity with Marisa Tomei‘s stripper character in The Wrestler, very often the men who watch those scenes are more concerned with the visceral thrill of seeing bare boobs than with the context in which the nudity is portrayed.
I’m not a prude, I don’t think sex is inherently bad or dirty or immoral, nor do I think that all nudity is necessarily objectifying as such; it’s very often not a case of the work itself being objectifying, but the way in which film nudity involving actresses, even when it’s clearly intended to be artistic and not exploitative, is sexualized in a way that nudity by men simply is not. When Viggo Mortensen went full-frontal nude in the steam room fight scene in Eastern Promises, that nudity had context: his character was going into a steam room for a conversation with a bad guy, so of course it made sense within the context of the scene that his character would have to be nude. But you would never hear a man arguing that Mortensen chose to do that scene just because he wanted his bits-and-pieces displayed to turn on women watching the film, nor is there any unspoken expectation that just because he went nude for this particular scene in this particular film, that he can or should be expected to reveal all in future films. Compare that to the way in which actresses who’ve bared themselves for the screen are seen by men — and the above references to Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie on Mr.Skin are just the tip of the larger iceberg of how women’s nudity in film is viewed.
There are, of course, larger societal issues involved in the ways in which females are sexualized and objectified in media, and it’s not something that’s going to go away overnight. On the one hand, the sexualization of females in film, even when fully (or mostly-fully) clothed, as in Megan Fox‘s sexy “leaning over the broken car” scene in Transformers or Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, exists in part because of the societal expectation of how it’s acceptable for men to view women; on the other, the prevalence of female sexual objectification in media feeds that expectation, teaching our sons from an early age why women exist and what they’re there for. Men are not objectified in this way in media generally to nearly the extent that women are, and it’s an overall cycle of perception, desire and consumption that continues to feed the way in which women tend to be viewed by men, not just on the movie screen, but in our real-life interactions with them.
So no, Virginia, bare male chests in movies do not equal bare female breasts. There cannot be any sort of parity for the ways in which male nudity versus female nudity is viewed in film, so long as women continue to be marketed through media generally — including Hollywood — as a sexual commodity for the consumption of male consumers, and until we as a society overall evolve beyond the stereotypical view of women as existing primarily for the sexual pleasure of men. The men who promote, consume, and encourage the reduction of women into their body parts need to recognize that their own perceptions of women and why we exist are a big part of the equation, and that when they objectify women in movies, ads and video games, they by extension objectify every woman, thereby contributing not only to the ways in which we feel unsafe in our personal lives and become victims of unwanted sexual advances and assault, but to the way we as women feel about ourselves and our relationships with men.
So here’s a challenge for all you men out there: The next time you view a scene involving nudity from an actress in a film, hit the pause button on your inner horny teenage boy and ask yourself how you would feel about that woman being objectified as a sexual object — or being written about as “tits, ass and pussy” on a site like Mr. Skin — if she was your sister, your mother, your daughter, your niece, or your friend. And then adjust your own reaction accordingly. If more men would view all women as being worthy of being treated with the same respect they would show to women they know, we might just start getting somewhere.
– by Kim Voynar