In her Guardian article, Time To Make The Link Between Abuse And Film Content, actress and filmmaker Kate Hardie makes the compelling argument that men continue to hold the power on how women’s bodies are portrayed on screen:
“[Nudity] is nearly always decided upon and filtered through male eyes. Nearly every actress will tell you about scripts that included scenes of female nudity that seem to have no apparent reason for being there and that are often degrading.”
As any longterm Bang2writer knows, I have no problem with nudity on screen – in fact, I’m more likely to argue FOR more of it, especially when it comes (arf) to men and what I call ‘equal opportunities nudity’. Hell, if female characters are to get their kit off, then male characters should too as far as I’m concerned!
And certainly, in the last fifteen years or so the ‘female gaze’ has been invoked via the likes of muscle-bound, naked men courtesy of Wolverine and his mates (other buff naked guys are available).
But outside the realm of characterisation (theoretical), there’s the PHYSICAL realm – i.e. actors have to *get* naked. So Hardie raises an interesting point about the ‘degrading’ nature of so many instances of female nudity for actresses.
Nakedness and Power
So, what’s the difference? Well, this is the thing. Wolverine might be naked, but he’s still POWERFUL. There’s zero vulnerability there. We see nakedness in male characters in this way as STANDARD on screen.
It’s this automatic strength that’s missing in terms of female characters. Instead, we’ll see them naked/scantily-clad and:
- Sexy – see representations of sex workers, but also just women in general. (Women are far more likely to be represented as sexy as standard, clothed or unclothed for that matter).
- Vulnerable – cue lots of female characters in the shower for no real reason, especially if they’re VERY SAD about something that happened in the story.
- Dead – whilst it’s true many murder victims IRL turn up naked, the overrepresentation of female bodies (especially white female bodies that are somehow still beautiful and poised and even, ugh, sexy) on screen is waaaay OTT. (See the sexy, vulnerable girl who winds up dead, posed in an objectifying way for the UNholy trinity on this one!).
Note that I’m NOT being a ‘feminist killjoy’, calling for a veto on sexy, vulnerable or dead naked female characters by the way. There’s been plenty of stories in which the above have worked (at least for the first two, anyway). As ever, it’s not that anything *exists*, but that there’s not enough variety.
Consider Charlize Theron’s character in ATOMIC BLONDE. The lead Lorraine IS impossibly sexy, but she’s also vulnerable *and* incredibly powerful. We see her naked in a myriad of ways in the story and none of this is a problem, because we’re seeing hfer clothed and unclothed in various contexts, rather than just the one.
We see Lorraine bathing and tending her wounds in ice baths (to show what a badass fighter she is); plus she spends a lot of time in her underwear smoking and listening to tapped phones (what woman hasn’t done that?? That’s my whole weekend, right there).
Plus, as Theron herself says of *that* sex scene with her co-star Sofia Boutella: ‘I’m a dancer … She’s a dancer … Being naked is nothing‘.
Of course, Theron is a big star. She can presumably tell filmmakers to F right off if she feels the nudity is gratuitous, degrading or humiliating.
Many other – especially younger – characters don’t have this privilege and never will. So it’s up to the (predominantly male) creators to consider instead whether nudity is justified in their projects, as Hardie alludes to here:
“I wonder whether the powerful creative men making it so clear that they know that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator – and that sexual predators are wrong – will also take time to truly look at all the other ways, overt and subtle, in which their male power dominates our industry.”
It doesn’t have to be either/or on this one, either. Again, no ‘feminist killjoy’ stuff here, saying no one deserves to get their rocks off. I know I did during ATOMIC BLONDE – the fact Lorraine isn’t *just* hot is the icing on the cake.
What Writers Can Do
Obviously there are limits to what screenwriters can do. 9/10 we don’t get to decide what even movies and TV *we’ve* written LOOK like. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, we may end up with something we don’t like in our stuff. Shit happens.
But there ARE story decisions we can make in approaching female characters that can at least HELP AVOID the obvious exploitative, male lens stuff like I’ve outlined above. In other words:
Don’t JUST write sexy, vulnerable or dead naked women please!!!
Oh and before anyone says it … This doesn’t mean *never ever* writing nudity, either. If it fits the story, write it. But for God’s sake actually make it count and remove that *automatic* male lens.
Politics aside, it’s dull seeing the same thing all the time! Let’s have a little more variety, yeah?
Want more on this?
Want more on writing a story that’s not the ‘usual’ or the ‘same-old, same-old’? Check out my latest writing book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film – I put gender, race, ability and LGBT characters under the microscope in probably the first book of its kind! ‘Lucy Hay nails it’ says BAFTA-nominated screenwriter and author Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch; Afterlife; The Awakening); ‘A timely guide to creating original characters and reinvigorating tired storylines’ – Debbie Moon, creator and showrunner, Wolfblood (BBC). GET IT HERE, or click on the cover pic for details.