The naked body. Our instinct is to bloody love ‘em. Looking at one, touching one, being wrapped up in and by one. Mm. Damn.
Such sensuality, intimacy and pleasure can be expressed and received from the wonderfully naked body. Plus, the hypnotic motion of some appropriately-placed flailing genitalia or boing-ing boobs can be fucking funny. For most, nakedness is beautifully and inextricably tied to sexuality, and (again, for most) the sight and feel of a naked body is one of huge pleasure. Yet, as certain as my base instincts are of their appreciation of nakedness, most appearances of nudes in my visual field result in my brain and spirit becoming indignant and wanting to phone Terry Wogan to complain. But, of course it’s not the image of the naked body itself that pains me.
Various intersecting cultural values have tried to ruin nakedness for everyone, by gradually bastardizing it into the incessant, controlled, mostly female ‘nude’ we know and I don’t love. Nakedness now appears to be equated with pouting lips, firm peek-a-boo-ing breasts and shiny, tiny, toned, jutting bums. Consider, what’s the ratio of flesh you see that looks like this, to that that doesn’t? Visual Culture pioneer John Berger captured this distinction in his seminal work Ways of Seeing: “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” Writing in the 1970s, Berger was largely referring to nudes of European paintings, but his sentiments perfectly capture the rapacious commodification of nude and near-nude bodies in our omnipresent visual media. Long ago, in the nascent stages of the creation of the corporate Mainstream Media, its CEO, Max White-Powerman (popularly known as ‘The Man’) confirmed for us that ‘sex sells’, and that this fact was a natural cornerstone of a wholesome western cultural perspective (alongside such sentiments as ‘violence is fun’ and ‘fractional reserve banking’). Troublingly, his definition of ‘sex’, like so many before him, seemed to be ‘The Fetishised Female Image’, and thus a longstanding trend of sexist oppression begat a newly-coded visual ideology of domination, via reproduction after reproduction of silent ‘feminine’ subservience.
Fast-forward to a less sarcastic representation of contemporary mainstream media, and as much as person after person fights for diversity in representation and the end of exploitation, the global market is saturated with the imaginary sexualised female. A deodorized, manacled and coercive idea of ‘sex’ is widely sold and desperately bought by most of us, marketed to men as innate power and entitlement, and to women as innate worth and empowerment.
The hijack of feminist ideals by market forces to delineate ‘femininity’ has rightly come under scrutiny of late, and I see the tenets of ‘masculinity’ increasingly examined. But a myth of diversified choices and empowerment gains for women is still stubbornly equated with the ‘power’ of ‘beauty’, and conforming to closely bracketed standards of a ‘feminine’ demeanour continues to pervade the public consciousness’s determination of true, innate female success. The visual and conceptual objectification that occurs when women are framed hyper-sexually and altered digitally maintains a false, but powerful and painfully tangible, bond between Woman and her status as an available commodity.
Two celebrated female writers who I’ve never seen nude, New Statesman columnist Glosswitch and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, recently caught my attention. Freeman’s article Beyonce: Being photographed in your underwear doesn’t help feminism, generated a response from Glosswitch entitled Hadley Freeman: Telling Beyonce she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism. In addition to such beautiful titular tittilation (neither of those was a Freudian slip) both articles are damn well worth a read. Glosswitch is ever-sharp, though my heart leans towards Freeman’s stance on this; if we were not presented with constant hyper-sexualised images of women, a huge part of the “semiotics of a patriarchal society” would be removed from our daily experience (that of the readers of shit, trendy magazines, at least.) Though Glosswitch states she’s not sure of the coherency of such a phrase, she’s made me consider the connectedness of patriarchy, power and semiotics. Half a century on from second-wave feminism, Beyonce is considered one of the most ‘powerful’ women in the world (certainly one of the most visibly present) and is constantly represented to us as a hyper-sexual object. An object with the ‘power’ of great vocal chords, revenue generation and of Being Beautiful.
The Beyonce Question seems problematically framed as whether or not Beyonce specifically ‘should’ be ‘allowing’ her tidy badonkadonk and sexually provocative facial expressions to be photographed again and again for the gratification of both the paying consumer, and her temperature-controlled digital storage facility. But opening up this teensy microclimate of the definition of Woman to the wider, tangible world of sexual domination, in which half of the 2.5million trafficked souls on our planet are women and girls forced into prostitution, the question is not about Beyonce’s personal choices as much as it is about desperately needing high profile females to consider this tension between symbolism and the empirical.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says media organisation MissRepresentation.org; while the wording of that quote is actually pretty defeatist, I get the message. Everything we see and hear around us is so formative, and symbolic messages are being delivered to our consciousness every second via dogged ideological signals from the attitudes of people around us, and the people who control the flow of information about ourselves, our actions and our society.
Many recent strains of feminist debate have centered around feminist writers trying to speak on the behalf of all women. So allow me to spark some debate: personally, my view is (though if you don’t agree then fuck you) that women, especially women in the public eye, need to think hard about their relationship to self-presentation and sexuality if they are going to address the pressing issues facing women with regard to sexual violence (and other inequalities). The more that women are complicit in sexually objectifying themselves, the longer rape culture prevails. This is not a problem with nakedness, it is a problem with the ubiquitous visibility and promotion of submissive female nudity. The suggestion that we might contribute to a more equal collective consciousness is not a naïveté that ‘no more tit shots = equality’. But it is a genuine concern as to what really would “help feminism” in lieu of the invention of a vaccine for sexually aggressive neural processes. (Or perhaps we could just distribute this shock aversion therapy experiment to everyone.)
Perhaps Katy B, Jessie Ware and Ms Dynamite could collaborate on an album about the Fawcett Society, which samples speeches by Hilary Clinton. In their videos they’d wear lush Aran jumpers, buttoned-up blouses and pin-striped slacks, next to backing dancers Noam Chomsky and Jackson Katz doing the running man. And then when they’ve restored harmony to our global society forever, we can represent nakedness in a more meaningful, realistic and loving way, bouncing hilariously into ever after. I agree with actress (and, I found out, dancer!) Neve Campbell: “I’ve never been opposed to nudity. What I’ve been opposed to is nudity for box office draw.”