I was recently watching Before Midnight – the latest collaborative film in the Before… series by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke – and I couldn’t help but notice the total lack of balance in the film’s nudity. Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t seen it, in one sex scene Delpy spends a considerable amount of time topless while Hawke remains totally unexposed…and without a hint of an erection. Of course, this happens in hundreds of films but it particularly struck me in Before Midnight because it seemed so out of line with the series’ theme of presenting as raw and real a relationship as possible – laughter, arguments, awkward moments, and all.
Then today I came across Richard Senelick’s article in the Atlantic about how boys and men in the ‘West’ are given much less privacy over their nude bodies than girls and women are. The male author describes the extreme anxiety that he and other boys felt when being forced in school to swim naked with other boys, shower and get dressed without a cubicle, or use communal urinals. “Many men don’t speak up about their desire for privacy in fear that they will be mocked for not being ‘man enough’…Many men do not feel comfortable taking off their shirt to get into a hot tub or swimming pool, and, just like women, they may also feel uncomfortable sitting on the examination table without a shirt or gown. What’s more, a digital rectal exam can be just as unnerving to a man as a pelvic examination can be for a woman.”
I’m not a man, but I can attest that in most of my experiences in educational and medical institutions in Australia and the UK I have never been expected or made to be naked in front of other women against my will. Holly Baxter’s response article in The Guardian argues that this female access to privacy is related to the social imposition of modesty for female bodies – a form of patriarchal control over women’s bodies and their sexuality. While I think that’s a solid analysis of the ‘Western’ context, however, public institutions, swimming pools and gyms in Asia seem to be less prudish about female nudity. Many of the public toilets I’ve used in China and in India have no partitions whatsoever; I’ve had a group of medical students sit in on a check-up I had with a doctor in Thailand, without anyone asking me if I was comfortable with that; and in the female changing rooms of gyms and pools in Beijing, most women happily walk around naked, even when cubicles are available. So I wonder if this pressure to prove your masculinity by being nude in front of other boys – and the anxiety and fear that can come with it – is less of an issue in other parts of the world. Or is it just as problematic and equally un-talked-about? It would be great to hear your experiences.
Returning to Hollywood films, though, I am intrigued and a bit perplexed about the almost total absence of male nudity – and, when there is male nudity, it causes headlines – in contrast to the social expectation, described in Senelick’s article, of ‘real men’ to have no qualms about being naked in public. As Michael Fassbender, star of the (in?)famous film, Shame, argues, “Half of us have a penis and the other half have probably seen one, and so why should it be more normal to, like, chop people’s heads off and shoot people? Does that mean that that’s more acceptable or closer to us as human beings?” I’m also equally intrigued about the reverse phenomenon when it comes to women’s bodies but the issue of male nudity brings up a lot of questions about the social control over, and expectations of, male bodies – something that is rarely discussed in the public sphere, especially compared to how often women’s body image – and the harmful effects of restrictive media representations of female bodies – is a matter of public debate.
Personally, I agree with Baxter’s conclusion that people of all ages and all genders should be taught to love, appreciate and respect their bodies and our societies need to start talking openly about bodies and nudity. This way, whether you’re a boy in school trying to hide in the corner of the changing room or an adult woman wondering why the clothing situation in movie sex is so different to real sex, at least a space will open up to discuss the anxiety or confusion that we’re feeling, without shame.