As much as I’m sure we, collectively, would love to deny it, the American people are a shameless bunch of puritans when it comes to the brass tax and Standards and Practices on television and in the media. Which is why, perhaps, every time Janet Jackson “accidentally” flashes a nipple or Eva Longoria has a wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet, we latch onto it like jackals (not literally in the case of the nipple, obviously). I would seriously doubt that the majority of American citizens are disgusted, not in principle but on visceral reaction, to seeing a naked body. If they did, then I don’t think private fetish clubs and Hustler Magazine would be such thriving institutions in our National economy. But for us, Americans it seems, sex is only appropriate in the private sector, but is not meant for public consumption. Unless it’s a Budweiser commercial.
So, in cable television, where there is little to no enforcement of any Production Code vis a vis instances of nudity, how is it treated, artistically? Cable programming runs the gamut as far as “taste” goes, but in general it’s a safe bet that most shows on HBO or Showtime are going to feature a lot of naked bodies (by virtue of the fact that they, well, can). And taste in the presentation of nudity sometimes runs counter to exploitation. I would argue that HBO’s Girls
is one of the more exploitative showcases of female nudity on television right now, though not necessarily in poor taste; Lena Dunham’s “fictional” alter ego Hannah Horvath is, as every media outlet has covered by now, constantly naked on the show. Notably, ONLY Hannah is consistently naked on the show. I personally couldn’t be more supportive of Lena Dunham taking her clothes off as much as she wants. I think even by the firestorm of jeerers that have rushed to criticize her for being “shameless” about her nudity, she has opened up an important dialog — “Why is this shameless? Because she’s not skinny? Because she’s a woman who’s not subjugated by her nakedness?” etc. But ultimately, in a sense, her bearing her body so frequently is actually hyper-exploitative. Her naked body has become such a talking point and public concern that it feels less and less artistically relevant to the show the more it’s featured. On one hand with Girls,
a show thematically about Millennials who are kind of awful but do whatever they want and that’s okay because Jezebel
said so, it’s fitting that Hannah’s nudity would be exploited as a way of making a political point. But for me, most of the time when Hannah is nude, the scene becomes
about her nudity. Her naked body feels deliberately placed and designed to be remarked upon. If even by the way the shots are framed, her body dominates the shot. It’s a post-Third Wave Feminist “so, what?” moment when she tears off her top. It’s also a necessary one.
Netflix’s original piece of programming, Orange is the New Black, tackles female nudity in a much more delicate way. Never have I seen a show where starkly naked female bodies have been so natural to the story that I genuinely forget they’re there. Being set entirely in a women’s minimum security prison, seeing ladies in the buff was pretty much inevitable. And it’s proven to be a pretty common occurrence amongst both seasons of the show. But there’s a sense that the nakedness is somehow sidestepping any kind of gratuitous exploitation. In a recent interview with Vulture
, Lorraine Toussaint (Vee, on the show) talked about bearing it all on camera:
I don’t do that. I don’t want anyone looking at me going, “Oh my God, she’s so brave!” [Laughs.] Dear God. No. No. No. And then I thought, There’s no way around this. There’s no way this woman would be self-conscious. There’s no way. If I wore underwear, it would actually draw more attention to the moment. How do I do this as simply and as unselfconsciously as I’ve done the rest of Vee? Then I thought, Okay, we gotta do this.
This from a 54 year old woman says a lot. It bespeaks a dedication to authenticity on the show. The characters might be, at times, wildly exaggerated, but there’s never the sense that any one is compromised in the interest of being “TV Friendly”. Vee’s naked body is treated very tastefully in this scene. She is in bed with her surrogate son, reeling after an ethically questionable romp in the sack. But only a part of her body is shown. She’s under the sheets and her breasts are shown but are framed so that they’re either partially obscured by the angle of the shot or by the sheet itself. This is also the case when Taryn Manning’s character Pennsatucky is nude in bed in a scene from the previous season. Their bodies feel natural which I think is key. The scene informs the need for nudity and not the other way around.
This question of being natural
with respect to female nudity extends even in the characters’
level of comfort in their own body. By example, during season 2, the radical activist and generally annoying character of Brook Soso markedly decides not to shower in an act of protest. When she inevitably starts to smell, she is browbeaten by the guards and other inmates to bathe until she’s literally hauled into the shower by force. She screams and howls and literally breaks down crying when forced to strip down in the communal shower. What this ends up being is a character-revealing moment — while Soso is a headstrong, obstinate and unwavering zealot, she consistently finds the harsh realities of life catching up with her. She’s a young girl who’s been incarcerated for dedication to her political beliefs, but she’s also a young girl
who, like many others, isn’t fully comfortable with her own body. Even Taylor Schilling’s principle character Piper, during season 1, immediately hides her breasts when confronted in the shower by her then nemesis Pennsatucky. While other, more seasoned veterans of the institution are completely comfortable showing it all, there is an nod that body consciousness is a very real part of life for many young women. But even by making this point, the show avoids an “Afterschool Special” moralistic slant. Even Schilling herself has stated that she has had issues with her body in the past
. But the characters on Orange is the New Black
speak for themselves. Whatever timely cultural archetypes are represented on the show, they feel shaped by the characters’ specific story.
bloody hell! That’s a naked woman!
While no one has an especially strong case for Orange is the New Black being a universally realistic sketch of modern prison life, the show maintains a strong respect for both its characters and its actors for the sake of telling a compelling story, nude or otherwise. I wouldn’t say this is an unprecedented concept, arguing that HBO’s Oz did the same thing some decades earlier for men, but in a world where naked women are either the subject of salacious fantasies or conservative backlash, it’s nice to see the female form, more or less, for what it is.