We Saw Your Sexism: Modesty and Rape Culture
When I was in college, I did a semester abroad in Oxford, England, at the university there. This semester was a life changing one, as most semesters abroad are. I was introduced to many different people with differing life experiences and life views and learned a lot about myself and treasure that time I was there. During this time, I had two roommates. One of them, while on vacation in Florence, Italy, exhibited some rather strange behavior. You see, there’s a lot of art in Italy. There’s a lot of art featuring naked people in Italy. Said roommate was apparently uncomfortable with the idea of seeing boobs and penises in an art museum.
So she carried a spoon.
When she approached pieces of nude art, she would carefully position the spoon to cover up the objectionable parts and view the art that way. It wasn’t that she objected to the art itself, but that, for her, there was no context in which nudity in the public sphere could ever be okay – not even in famous masterpieces of ancient art.
The principle that caused my roommate to carry a spoon into museums and galleries is the same one that produced the sexist ridiculousness that was Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” song that opened the Academy Awards this week.
That principle? That nudity is only ever erotic.
That principle is a dangerous one, as Christianity Today and Think Christian* contributor Karen Swallow Prior demonstrated when she tweeted during the ceremony: “Are the actors who showed their boobs really pissed at having a song sung about it? That would be a bit hypocritical?” This was followed quickly by: “If you show your boobs, don't get on your high horse about someone singing about it.”
Prior’s point, as exemplified in the second tweet, is one you've heard before - what amounts of skin you show in public has a bearing on the perception of you as a moral agent. Mainly, the amount of skin you show has a direct inverse relationship to how angry you can be over people disrespecting you.
There are a number of problematic elements at play here and I’d like to try to tease each of them out. So let’s set aside Prior’s tweets for a moment and focus on why McFarlane’s song was sexist and wrong.
The first problematic element of MacFarlane’s work was the male gaze. The Academy that is responsible for the Academy Awards is 77% white men. Most studio executives are men. The majority of directors are men. Movies that fail the Bechdel test are far more prominent and more likely to be backed by major studios than movies that pass it.
Hollywood, and our subsequent movie-going culture, is built around what men want, what men see, and what men desire. Specifically, it is built around what white, cisgender, heterosexual, young men are supposed to see, want and desire, as filtered through the lens of advertising and marketing firms.
It is hard to be taken seriously as a woman in this environment. And it’s a common thread that women who push themselves for their art are often involved in roles that require them to bare some skin. It is, in many parts, the nature of the beast. Insofar as McFarlane’s song was meant to lampoon that part of Hollywood culture, I understand it.
However, MacFarlane is a white cis het man, surrounded by men, singing about how awesome it was that artists at the top of their field showed their boobs. Rather than a lampooning of the male gaze, MacFarlane’s song reinforced it – especially with the titles he chose to cite as titillating examples of showing boobs.
Hilary Swank was mentioned for Boys Don’t Cry, in which she plays a trans man who is violently raped and then murdered. The nudity in that movie occurs within the rape scene.
Charlize Theron was cited for the movie Monster – also a rape scene.
Likewise with The Accused and Monster's Ball.**
Scarlett Johansson was cited not for her art but for phone pictures that were stolen from her hacked phone and disseminated without her permission. She has never actually appeared topless for a movie role.
Instead of satirizing the male gaze, MacFarlane’s song reinforced it, informing women that all that matters in the world of Hollywood is whether or not someone saw their boobs, regardless of context.
By calling out specifically scenes that were depictions of rape (and photos that were not distributed with the consent of the subject), MacFarlane is espousing the idea that all nudity, regardless of context, is erotic – and reinforcing the idea that female bodies exist for the purpose of creating sexual reactions in cis-het men.
A song about seeing penises may have actually functioned to better highlight the satire, but that would have been far too subversive for the creator of Family Guy.
And this severance of instances of nudity and the contexts in which they appear is where we come back to Karen Swallow Prior’s tweets. Rather than challenging his satire, and challenging the male gaze of Hollywood which demands that female bodies be reduced to tits and ass, Prior’s tweets are pointedly directed at the actresses themselves.
Her point seems to be: if you are an actress who shows skin for the purpose of your art, and a man removes the context and focuses on the boobs, it’s your fault and you are not allowed to get mad, because you should have known that would happen.
In other, slightly harsher words: it’s your own damn fault you were objectified. Keep your clothes on.
Rather than respecting the art that these women are putting forward and responding to the sexualization of women’s bodies by attacking the very man who is doing it, Prior’s tweets and her framing of the issue blame the actresses for the way their art is treated. They are, in her words, “giving in to sexism” rather than acting in a subversive manner by treating their bodies as their own property with which they can make good art. (She also implies that these women - many of whom are Academy Award winners! - are not "serious artists.")
A female bodied person who appears nude for a rape scene in order to increase the impact of that devastation? It’s her fault when a man objectifies her.
It’s not a tough leap – indeed, no leap at all – to see the parallel to that within rape culture.
A female bodied person who wears a short skirt to the dance club because damn it gets warm under those lights? It’s her fault when she gets raped.
When we blame women for the reactions of men – whether it is to their art, to their clothing, to their “unladylike” behavior like riding public transit after dark – we reinforce rape culture. Prior’s tweets are a smaller example of it, couched in modesty culture, but they show how much modesty rhetoric – don’t show your skin because MEN – is on the same spectrum as rhetoric that blames victims for their assaults.
More disturbingly, when I challenged Prior on this point, she informed me that the reactions of people like MacFarlane should make these actresses think twice about their art. These actresses’ pieces of art – which included nudity that must and always should be taken in context – are what need to be examined and revised and redone in order that they may not fall into the trap of the male gaze. Once again, the gaze of the patriarchy must be accommodated and bowed to, rather than challenged. If I wear a low cut top and a guy on the street catcalls me for it, I am the one who must change, rather than he.
It is not hypocritical to expect that one’s art be honored within its context - it is the baseline of respect. It is not hypocritical to expect that one’s body is respected regardless of modesty or immodesty. It is the baseline of human dignity.
It is not hypocritical to expect that, because you are a human being, you will be treated like a human being, not as a set of boobs or whatever genitals you sport.
*Full disclosure: I write for Think Christian on occasion.
**For more about these scenes, read this excellent piece at Salon.