Words by Chelsea Lorren Brown
You’d be hard pushed these days to go a few hours without being witness to some kind of publicised female nudity; whether it be a HBO sex scene, a twerk-filled music video, or even a provocative illustration on a tradies tomato sauce stained t-shirt.
Breasts, butts, and variations of the female form have been saturated into our popular culture, our society, and our lives; hardly as a celebration of female sexuality and beauty, but instead as a sexualisation for the gratification others. But past the obvious degrading aspects of this culture, and the harmful values it’s installing in young people, are the double standards that seems to be dictating when we find female nudity acceptable. Porno magazines in petrol stations? Hell yeah! A woman breastfeeding in public? Shameful! Pointless background threesomes in Game of Thrones? Yes please! Realistic sex scenes with a larger female lead? Urgh! Much of the society we live in is becoming increasingly geared towards female nudity of a titillating premise, with negative connotations for nudity without any sort of sexual gratification, or with a woman taking control of her own body.
For many feminists around the globe, Lena Dunham and her critically acclaimed TV show GIRLS has become a beacon of girl power hope. The show certainly has its flaws, one of which is its lack of representation for women of colour, but that’s a discussion for another day. The show revolves around four young women living in New York, each with rapidly different personalities, looks, and values. Being an avid feminist herself, Dunham – who writes, directs, produces, and stars in the show – has worked hard to create media which appeals and relates to the 20-something women of today; a demographic which is often underrepresented in terms of reality.
Dunham refuses to shy away from the awkward and unglamorous reality of life, most notably during scenes featuring sexual encounters and nudity. Dunham herself, a heavier woman, has an air of confidence and nonchalance during her own frequent nude scenes, as if to say, “Yeah, this is my body, it’s here just because, do you have a problem with that?” What has become so telling of our society is that yes, there are many people who have a problem with that. Is it because she’s considered overweight? Is it because her nudity sometimes appears without being in a sexual context (for example, in a recent episode Dunham appeared nude for a brief amount of time as she chatted with her boyfriend and got changed)? These reasons seem to be the most argued against Dunham’s nudity, but generally reek of, “if we’re not getting a kick out of boobs being on the TV, what’s the point?”
In fact, at a recent press panel to discuss the release of the third season of GIRLS, a male reporter asked the table – which included Dunham and producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, amongst others – why Dunham was naked so often on the show, but without managing to hide some pretty serious ingrained double standards;
“I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you [Lena Dunham] particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.” – Tim Molloy, The Wrap.
Dunham’s response was short and sweet, “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem.” At which point the reporter seemed to get offended, acted dumb, and cried “but that’s not what I meant!”
Perhaps, at the forefront of his mind Molloy’s aim was not to question the use of nudity when it’s not; a) for his masturbatory needs, or b) by the body of a svelte European model. Perhaps he didn’t even realise that to imply being naked on TV for a reason other than titillation was pointless, as if the only use for the nude female form is for the male gaze, rather than a portrayal of actual life. No matter how unintended the insulting and sexist wording of Molloy’s question was, the insult and the sexism was undeniably there, woven so thick into the reporters mind that he was entirely unable to see the gravity of what he had just asked.
What’s more is that this sort of mentality is not just confined to that one reporter; you only have to look in the comment section of any GIRLS or Lena Dunham related article to see the exact same type of entitled and choosey way of thinking…
“Oh yes, she’s also utterly unqualified to be nude on t.v. Yuck.”
“Yeah I would pay money to never see her naked again.”
Compare all this to the frequent female nudity on Game of Thrones, which has experienced nowhere near the uproar that GIRLS has, and even then, for different reasons. A simple Google search of ‘Game of Thrones nudity’ brings up a page of links to compilation videos and super-cuts, boasting the inclusion of every single sex and nude scene in the show. A measly two articles pop up pertaining to the use of nudity on the show, one of which is less about criticising and more about tallying up the nude stats. For the record, Googling ‘Lena Dunham nudity’ presents a page of criticism and analysis, often from a negative point of view.
But these double standards don’t stop at TV shows and the media; we experience a contradictory approach to female nudity, especially the exposure to breasts, in everyday life too. How many times have you walked past the window of a petrol station, or into a newsagency, and been greeted by the front cover of a porno magazine sporting a blonde, tan, huge-breasted woman in hardly-there lingerie? It’s not as if these magazines are hidden away in dark corners, they’re out for all to see, including young children. And let’s not forget the chosen fashion statement of many men around Australia; t-shirts with expertly built women, lounging around in a state of undress, often while making sexually explicit gestures and expressions.
We go every day, wandering around, sub-consciously taking in all these breast-filled images, not really thinking anything of it. It seems the only way to cause a good public out-cry these days is to breastfeed your child in public; oh the horror! Admit it, we’ve all seen the news stories where a woman has been kicked out of a public place, or made to go into some dingy back room while she feeds her child. People don’t want to see an exposed breast while they’re drinking their tea!
In one most recent ridiculous story from America, a woman was denied the request to breastfeed her son in a Victoria’s Secret store (of all places!), and was instead told to do it at the end of an alley where no one would see her. Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong hit the nail on the head during their Weekend Update segment saying, “Apparently, they [Victoria’s Secret] don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about what breasts are for.” It’s reassuring to know that in most cases like these a public apology will be released, and the mother is often portrayed in a sympathetic light; it’s made clear that the people shunning the breastfeeding mother were in the wrong. Regardless, for this to be such a common occurrence speaks volumes of the many people in our society who have a problem with public breastfeeding, or even feel uncomfortable at the sight of it. How has it become commonplace to feel squeamish, awkward, and sometimes even offended by a mother feeding her child in public, but perfectly acceptable to display sexually explicit images on clothing and magazines?
These examples of double standards in our society are only two of countless issues, ingrained so deep into our way of thinking that it’s often hard to take a step back and realise exactly how hypocritical we have the ability to be. But as with many problems, realising and admitting to our mistake is the first step in changing. The issue isn’t going to disappear quickly; it’s going to take years of unwinding to accomplish. But with every single person who wants to stand up for a breast feeding mother, or discuss the hypocrisy of television nudity with their peers, we come closer to rectifying a truly damaging way of thinking.