Saturday, 3 August 2013

"Her Naked Glory": Objectification and Female Nudity in Television and Film

I've been reading* a bit of commentary about "Blurred Lines" and Game of Thrones, particularly regarding female nudity and objectification. In the comment sections more than the articles themselves I've noticed a few people (mainly women, incidentally) asking if female nudity couldn't be empowering (or be read as empowering) in certain cases. While the individual comments I saw were not really well worked out with regard to "Blurred Lines," which we probably cannot read as empowering if we're being honest about the video, I still think that this is a question worth asking. I don't really have an answer, but I do want to break this broader question into a few more specific ones.

1. Are representations of female nudity always erotic?
I ask this because male nudity isn't always erotic. In the first season of Game of Thrones (the only season I've seen), there is a lot of female nudity but there is also some male nudity. In the first instance of male nudity that I recall, there is really no sense that that nudity is erotic. It's humiliating and objectifying, yes, but not erotic. (A man is forced to march naked and tied to a horse as a punishment for attempting to murder another character.) So my suspicion is that, if male nudity is not always erotic, then female nudity wouldn't be, either.

2. Are representations of female nudity always objectifying?
I have little to say about this, except that if the answer to this question is no and the answer to the previous question is no, we have to ask the next question.

3. Are representations of female nudity, when erotic, always objectifying?
Again, for reasons like those above, I am assuming that it isn't. The example that's usually cited here is lesbian pornography (as in real lesbian pornography, made by women about women for women, not pornography made about lesbian women by straight men for straight men), but the example that comes to mind for me might be Irene Adler in the BBC's Sherlock. She appears naked as a way of exercising power, and I think her agency is deliberately emphasized in that scene, but I'm not always sure that this sort of agency is maintained as the representation crosses the fourth wall. In other words, can a female character still be objectified for the sake of male viewers while maintaining agency within the fiction?

(Note that you can set this up as a chart, with two columns and two rows; the columns would be erotic/non-erotic and the rows would be objectifying/non-objectifying. I've covered three of the four cells now, but the fourth, non-erotic objectification, is pretty obvious, I think, in that if non-erotic nudity is possible, then non-erotic objectifying nudity must be, since objectification does not rely on eroticization to function. That statement is a pretty important piece of evidence, though.)

4. If the answer is no to questions 1 through 3, then under what conditions do representations of female nudity a) become erotic and b) become objectifying?
This is the question that really interests me, and that I am most ignorant about so far. I suspect that I know the answers to #1-#3 as far as I am asking those questions abstractly: so, representations of female nudity almost certainly aren't always inherently erotic. But maybe, in the cultural and representational settings I inhabit, the conditions making nudity both erotic and objectifying are always present; maybe, under patriarchy, where the assumed viewpoint of any text is both male and heterosexual, and where male heterosexuality assumes subject status at the expense of female subjectivity, representations of female nudity always become erotic and objectifying, regardless of the text's own features. I'm not saying that any of this is true, just that I could believe that it is true without much convincing. But I would need some convincing.

The point where I resist this story that I've posited is where, under patriarchy, male heterosexuality's assumption of subject status always entails objectifying women. I think it's easy to do, and that we (as in "heterosexual men" and not "you and I") are encouraged (by whom?) to assert subjectity at the expense of female subjectivity, but I don't think it's inevitable. That's one place where I'd need convincing. And I'd also need convincing that the assumed reader/viewer is always male and heterosexual. (In other words, just because patriarchy is big and strong doesn't mean it's omnipotent and omnipresent.)

In other words, we are confronted with the problem--the same problem, really, that all textual or cultural interpretation confronts in some way or another--of where meaning resides: intention? reception? context? form? Does a film objectify women, or does the director objectify them, or do the veiwers? Do well-intentioned viewers, watching a well-intentioned and well-executed film, nonetheless objectify nude women when watching in a patriarchal context? Can the act of watching, in anyway and by anyone, recover agency for women represented erotically when nude? Or is it some formal (or intertextual) feature of the film itself that objectifies or does not objectify nude women, and that feature trumps anything you or I might bring to the text? The answers to these questions certainly aren't obvious in the general case of textual interpretation or the specific case of representations of female nudity.

We can ask a version of question #4 of women even when clothed, obviously: Under what conditions do representations of women a) become erotic and b) become objectifying? However, because we criticize films for gratuitous nudity and not for a gratuitous presence of women (the problem is the exact opposite), I think there is something special about nudity that lends it to objectification. (Notice, too, that when people criticize a film for gratuitous nudity, they almost always mean female nudity, not nudity in general.) And gratuitous female nudity does seem for most people to mean "erotic objectification of women" in and of itself, which makes me think that these questions are particularly apt, since if female nudity is not always objectifying, then we ("you and I" this time, not "heterosexual men") should probably be criticizing films a bit more pointedly and accurately than just saying "gratuitous nudity" without explaining how it is objectifying in this case.

(I'm assuming feminist reasons and not prudish ones for criticizing a film for gratuitous nudity. While rather prudish myself, I don't consider prudishness grounds for criticizing a film; it might mean you don't like the film, but it has no bearing on the film's quality.)

5. Are representations of female nudity ever empowering for women, and under what conditions?
Which is the question I started out with. It isn't a question I feel I can answer, though, this time not because of ignorance (as in #4), but because I'm a dude. I feel that this particular question is probably one that men can't answer.
(The title quote comes from Paradise Lost and refers to a pre-lapsarian Eve. There's some obvious baggage with that quotation--for example, Milton's spectacular sexism--which is why I chose it. Because, you know, so-called empowering nudity might come with misogynist baggage.)
*OK, skimming.

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