As long as I’ve watched TV I’ve wondered: how is it that the heroine always seems to wear lesser clothing than the hero?
Don’t female stars get cold filming in snowy weather with their flimsy costumes while their male co-stars are bundled up in weather appropriate warm clothes? Why is there an assumption that the audience watching consists only of heterosexual men – especially when statistics have proven otherwise?
Take for example the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones. Despite having a 42% female viewership (that is about 2 million women) more than half the nude scenes in the famously gratuitous show have depicted female nudity. Unfortunately, this is not the exception but the norm in the industry, whether it is to revive flagging ratings, titillate male viewers or sometimes, simply for no reason at all.
As former Suits actress and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle says, “In the show, for example, in this season every script seemed to begin with ‘Rachel enters wearing a towel,’” – the Rachel in question being a paralegal and aspiring attorney – not remotely a ‘sexy’ profession. She was able to challenge her director to get the script changed; however, most actresses do not have that option.
In order to understand this problem, it is important to understand the power dynamics of the movie and TV industry. Most directors, producers and financial backers are heterosexual, middle aged men who if asked about the imbalance in theses scenes would flippantly reply: sex sells. And to a certain extent that is true.
According to the New York Film Academy, in the top 500 critically ranked films from 2007-12, over 26 percent of female actresses appeared partially nude on screen versus less than 10 percent of men. Even the most illogical or plotless show or movie could increase its selling power by adding a scene where the female lead takes off her clothes. This is despite the fact that science has proven that men and women are equally likely to be turned on by sexual images. Even so, even in the more ‘open minded ‘ and liberal West the heroine is still the one wearing the skimpy armoured bikini or the impractical but sexy dress.
Isn’t showing the female body instead of hiding it away empowerment? Doesn’t it show female emancipation? Unfortunately the answer to that is almost always no. When looking at nudity in television and film from the perspective of the ‘male gaze’, we realize that while male nudity, when it is shown, is depicted in a matter-of-fact manner, female nudity is almost always sexualised.
Sure, men have shirtless scenes too, but they are mostly seen working out or farming or being manly in general while a scantily clad woman is almost always a damsel in distress or a femme fatale.
Laura Mulvey the feminist critic who first coined the term ‘male gaze’, as Sarah Yanacek reports in this article, gave an example of the first appearance of actress Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 film, The River of No Return. Yanacek writes, “During the scene, Monroe’s character is subject to the male gaze in a way that treats her like an ornamental object. Through a sexualised outfit and the lounging position she assumes, she becomes an object to be viewed, both by the audience of the film and the predominantly male audience within the room of the scene.”
Of course, most of us don’t need an Oxford scholar to tell us what the male gaze means, having experienced it for ourselves on a daily basis. One can only imagine the feelings of the female actors who are forced to perform ‘item’ songs, sex scenes and nude or half nude scenes just to advance their career.
Though Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general have a long way to go in terms of their portrayal of women and equal treatment of female and male characters, there has been a recent shift in the view of what audiences want and an acknowledgment that sexy depictions of male characters do in fact bring in as much attention and ratings as that of female characters. Case in point: Aidan Turner, hero of historical drama Poldark stripping off was ranked as the most memorable moment of 2016.
However the solution is not simply to add more naked male characters randomly. As TV psychologist Honey Langcaster-James notes: “This is what women have been subjected to for a long time of course, but simply turning the tables and objectifying men wouldn’t be the best solution to this. I do wonder what effect this trend might have on the male psyche. There is already a great deal of pressure on men, especially younger men, to achieve the ‘body beautiful’. I do feel concerned about the impact on male self-esteem and self-image if they start to absorb some of this messaging.”
I personally don’t want to see nudity of any kind – male or female on my TV screen or during a Netflix binge session as I prefer to focus more on the plot; however, it is understandable that people might want to see attractive people on TV. The point is, in this field as in any other, men and women must play on an equal field. Both deserve to see and be seen on an equal basis.
Today, as writers rooms and directors chairs become more diverse, there is hope that there will soon be a future where both women and men will have their desires catered to equally, in a way where neither feel degraded, unnecessarily sexualised or objectified.
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Shootout At Wadala
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