Tag Archives: female nudity

Full Frontal Nudity, Gender, and the Penis

[warning: contains images that may not be comfortable for workplace or other public computer constraints]

Debbie and Laurie say:

We missed Sezin Koehler’s Sociological Images post about full frontal nudity on HBO back in June. Koehler analyzes the frequent use of full frontal female nudity and the extremely rare use of full frontal male nudity on True Blood, Hung, and Game of Thrones. 

Koehler’s conclusion is:

Ultimately, nudity is rarely necessary to further a storyline.  Women’s nudity isn’t about plot, it’s about treating women as objects and men as human beings.  The problem is systemic. Women’s bodies exist in many of HBO’s varied worlds to serve men, circling us back to a culture of male entitlement that, in the case of [Elliott] Rodgers at least, led directly to violence.

We agree with Koehler’s article, and our more-or-less unique experience of photographing, writing about, and talking to and about naked men in extensive detail, when we were working on Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes makes us want to take the conversation in another direction.

Of course, not all bodies are male or female and not all penises belong to men. This post relates specifically to commercial television and movies, where trans and genderqueer bodies are extremely rare, and nearly always objectified on a different axis than we discuss here.

Here’s the thing. Women are objectified whether or not  we are depicted in the nude. Men are physically objectified more than they used to be twenty or thirty years ago (read Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male for a treatment of this issue), but the vast majority of television and movies, are made with the tacit assumption that men are the watchers and women are the watched. In academic language, these programs are made with the “male gaze.” Shows that never show a naked woman still constantly objectify women’s bodies.

This is why an image of a small portion of a woman’s unclothed body is a nude

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but only a full frontal picture of a man is a nude.
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Men’s full frontal nudity isn’t shown for lots of reasons. It’s still a real taboo (and women’s full frontal nudity is not, but showing labia is). Penises (especially relaxed penises) show the natural experience of being a male human. Once again, we quote Jonathan D. Katz from his piece in the Familiar Men keynote essay:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.

As for the show Hung, which is specifically about a man with a large penis, Koehler points out that “we only get one brief glimpse of it — and not even the whole.”

The very existence of a TV show which makes the invisible central, which builds its entire plot on that-which-cannot-be-revealed says a lot about how women’s bodies–however objectified–are real to the television/movie creative world and the audience, while the essentially male feature of men’s bodies is, in our current cultural context, purely metaphorical. The show is not — it can’t be — about Ray Drecker’s penis; it’s about how we imagine, and create, our own imagery of Ray Drecker’s penis. In contrast, a show about a woman’s body is about the character’s actual body.

All pictures of bodies, clothed and nude, are laden with the gender-specific, deeply embedded overtones that have been placed there by the tens or hundreds of thousands of images of bodies we’ve seen before. The embedded message about women’s bodies is “see all of me,” and the embedded message about men’s bodies is “I get to control what you get to look at.”

Nude Photos as a Revolutionary Act (NSFW)

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Nude Revolutionary Calendar is a project undertaken in support of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a young Egyptian woman who posted nude portraits of herself on Twitter last November, tagged #NudePhotoRevolutionary. Here’s a nude portrait of Elmahdy.

According to writer Saskia Vogel, Elmahdy and her boyfriend were criminally charged with “violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam.” It does not appear that Elmahdy is in jail at this time–if anyone has better information than we’ve found, please share it with us.

In response to the Egyptian government’s criminalizing of Elmahdy, Iranian activist and blogger Maryam Namazie created the Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar (.pdf here and purchase information here). The calendar features a diverse group of women. The calendar photographs were all taken by different photographers, mostly men. We have to wonder how different it would look with more women photographers.

Namazie also created this very brief video featuring Iranian women, naked from the waist up, talking about why they support the project:

Namazie says: “Showing her body, particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are securing power, is the ultimate act of rebellion. Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman’s body. To them, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard.”

and also

“What with Islamism and the religious right being obsessed with women’s bodies and demanding that we be veiled, bound, and gagged, nudity breaks taboos and is an important form of resistance.”

Let us first appreciate the courage of Elmahdy and other women living under extreme religious law and culture, whether it is Islamic or not.

Particularly when the war against women is spreading across the United States and Europe, it’s very important to remember that, while many Islamic women are currently at more risk than women in most other cultures, this phenomenon is not confined to Islam. Fear of women’s bodies, and the resultant attempt to make us disappear, is rampant in all patriarchal cultures. Fear of men’s bodies is certainly a factor in America and Europe, although none of the commentators in English that we’ve looked at seem especially concerned about the full frontal male nudity on Elmahdy’s Twitter feed.

Photographer Mallorie Nasrallah, whose self-portrait is in the calendar, says: “When a tool of oppression can be turned in to an assertion of power, it is a beautiful thing. Nudity when celebrated harms no one, and when made shameful and barbaric harms everyone.”