Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Of Boobs and Men . . .

On the 2013 Oscar broadcast, host Seth MacFarlane found a way to flaunt his bad-boy credentials while at the same time seeming to repudiate them. We saw Captain Kirk, time-traveling from the future to critique MacFarlane’s Oscar-night outing, chastise him for a naughty ditty that had infuriated all the women in attendance.  Cue a production number: MacFarlane singing “We Saw Your Boobs,” gaily naming Hollywood lovelies who’d popped their tops on screen. The camera helpfully picked out those implicated. Most of them hardly looked amused by this reminder of the peep-show side of the movie biz, and of their role in indulging the fantasy life of horny males like the evening’s host.

Bare breasts was first sanctioned in a Hollywood studio film in 1964, when Sidney Lumet made The Pawnbroker. Lumet’s purpose was serious, not prurient. He was exploring the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the loss of human dignity among the denizens of a Harlem ghetto. That’s why the MPAA censors recognized it was time to loosen the Academy rules against on-screen nudity.  

The change came in an era when hip young American filmmakers were looking to Europe for artistic inspiration. Continental Europeans, always more relaxed about displaying their bodies on beaches and in ad campaigns, had been far quicker than their American counterparts to incorporate on-screen nudity into their filmmaking. This served, of course, to heighten eroticism, while also launching a full assault on puritanical self-restraint. Back in 1960, François Truffaut made fun of American prudishness in Shoot the Piano Player by showing his leading man, Charlie, in bed with a friendly and very naked hooker. As they joke about TV and films, Charlie briefly covers his bed-mate’s large breasts with a sheet, quipping, “This is how it’s done in [Hollywood] movies.” (Ironically, the shot of her exposed breasts was briefly cut out of the film’s first American release in 1962.}

But after The Pawnbroker, American filmgoers were discovering breasts in a big way. Sometimes female breasts were exposed for thematic reasons, to shock the audience into sharing a character’s humiliation (see Schindler’s List, The Accused, Boys Don’t Cry). In such cases, we were meant to feel violated ourselves. Helen Hunt’s full-frontal nudity in The Sessions was, conversely, a thematic statement about her character’s healthily matter-of-fact acceptance of the human body, despite its imperfections.

Most often, though, we’re expected to be in the mind of the male titillated by the female form.  The Graduate flashed almost subliminal glimpses of Mrs. Robinson’s bare breasts to reflect the psyche of Benjamin Braddock, torn between horror and lust by the sight of his father’s partner’s wife in full cougar mode. When the zaftig and not-so-young Kathy Bates stripped and entered the hot tub in About Schmidt, we shared a moment of truth in with the confused middle-aged man played by Jack Nicholson.

Most filmmakers, of course, are male. And most American films featuring female breast nudity contain more than a pinch of voyeurism. Take it from a Roger Corman veteran: Breasts are the cheapest special effect in our business. Given Roger’s penchant for hiring smart young women as writers, directors, and producers, it is female Cormanites who’ve often found themselves teasing out plot excuses for well-endowed cuties to bare their boobs. Cuties like a young Sandra Bullock in Corman’s Fire on the Amazon. Yes, Seth MacFarlane could have included her on his list too. Ah, Hollywood -- land of the lustful male gaze! Which may explain why Lena Dunham seems to enjoy baring her own imperfect body, since she’s in a position to do it on her own terms.


  1. When the camera cut out to those reaction shots during the Boobs production number - don't you think those actresses were acting their "distress" as previously agreed - or do you think they were all genuinely upset at having their topless moments sung about?

  2. It never occurred to me that those reactions might be staged, but I honestly think they weren't. Many of the actresses mentioned appeared topless in scenes that depicted brutal rapes: for instance, Charlize Theron in "Monster." Such scenes, I'm sure, were not fun to stage, and not at all fun to remember -- so I don't see why someone like Theron would agree to feign a disapproving reaction for the sake of a gag. Also, I don't believe an Oscar host would want to set up canned reactions in advance. The host is playing to a hall full of people, not just a TV audience -- and presumably he wants to elicit reactions that are spontaneous.

  3. I can't recall at the moment if you made a post elsewhere on this subject, Beverly, although I think it's touched on in your book. The topic of women directors working on subjects that deal with lots of nudity would make for an intriguing expansion on this posts topic.

    Or, the reverse of this regarding the female titillation of the male form! Although the list of guys that qualify for a female comedian to sing a song that she saw "something" is a bit limited by comparison, I think.

    But seriously, I remember the big stink ANGEL HEART brought along with it (not just because of Lisa Bonet's nudity and sex scene), but for Mickey Rourke's nudity as well. I was 12 I think when that came out, and it was the first time I recall there being a huge deal over onscreen nudity that may have possibly went too far. The NC-17 rating wasn't far off the horizon from that point.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Brian. I'll give it some thought. Meanwhile I'll pass along something I heard from a female psychology researcher back in my academic days, when the Playgirl centerfolds were a hot topic. She said that while men are generally excited by photographic glimpses of female nudity, women are not turned on in the same way by male nudity. (Men's genitalia is pretty funny looking, no?) It's FEMALE nudity that arouses women, because they tend to identify with the woman who's posing. A fascinating finding, and to me one that seems to make empirical sense. Any women out there who'd care to comment?

  5. Apologies for the late reply, Beverly. Yes, I'd be curious to know other women's take on that, myself. But yes, I've heard that, too, that women can be aroused by female nudity yet I've never actually discussed this with anyone around me regarding the subject, yet I am now wondering what sort of answers I would get!

    I do know women who, at least by their own admission, are stimulated by male nudity; although it's not always full on nudity -- the half naked images of firemen that some of my lady friends have posted on their FB walls are proof of that! LOL!