There are several tests to quantify how well a narrative treats characters who are women. The most famous is probably the Bechdel test for women’s representation — two women must have a conversation about a topic other than a man in the film for it to pass. When Alison Bechdel first created the test in 1985, most films were not able to pass, but, in recent years, over 50% do.
Obviously, the Bechdel test only scratches the surface when it comes to a woman’s role in a story. Other tests have since been created. The sexy lamp test, for example, tries to determine how important a woman is in the story — if you can replace her character with a sexy lamp without the story falling apart, then it isn’t good representation.
These tests are flawed in many ways, but they are designed to get us thinking about what we’re seeing on screen when it comes to representation. In high school, as I started to watch more TV from around the world, I started to think about the discrepancies between the ways women and men are portrayed onscreen, especially when it comes to nudity.
Seeing naked women on screen is fairly standard in film and television, but male nudity isn’t as common. One 2018 analysis of over 1,000 popular films found that around 25% of women in these films had nude scenes, compared to 9% of men. I started noticing this disparity after watching the first season of “Babylon Berlin,” which featured the first televised male nude scene that I had ever seen. Male bodies were presented in sex scenes and in nonsexual settings, like skinny dipping and nude body searches. It made me realize that the only bodies I had ever seen naked onscreen were of cis women, whose bodies are almost always displayed gratuitously.
After finishing “Babylon Berlin,” I started to become aware of the boobs-to-balls ratio in the shows and movies that I watched. My experience as a viewer aligns with the analysis’s findings: Most media that features nudity skews towards showing naked women. Few shows have one-to-one ratios and none that I’ve seen solely show men naked.
One reason for this might be because of who is behind the camera. Women are subjected to being viewed through a patriarchal lens that focuses extensively on how attractive they are to heterosexual men, a phenomenon known as the male gaze. Their characters don’t inherently need to be nude to be interesting, well-rounded people, but society’s obsession with women’s sexuality devalues them if they are not catering to a patriarchal sex fantasy.
A recent analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media found that women movie leads were four times more likely to be shown naked than their male counterparts. Powerful women in film and television are often characterized by their naked bodies in ways that men are not. And the sexy, powerful woman trope can be seen everywhere — from TV to video games and even to the way women leaders in history, like Cleopatra, are seen as sex symbols.
Topless women are featured in a few of Netflix’s episodes of “The Witcher,” and lead actress Anya Chalhotra, who plays Yennefer, appears naked twice. Her nakedness is tied to her access to power — she undresses in these scenes to perform rituals that would make her a more powerful sorceress; there is also a disturbing and misogynistic undertone to these scenes. It seems that a woman’s power is directly tied to her body and her sex appeal.
Henry Cavill, the male lead who plays the titular character, does not appear naked in the same capacity that Chalhotra does. Cavill is shown naked in a bathtub, but only his torso is visible. It makes sense that he doesn’t wear clothes while bathing, but Chalhotra doesn’t necessarily need to be shown naked to perform a spell and establish that she is powerful.
The expectation for women to appear nude onscreen can also have detrimental effects on actors. Emilia Clarke, who played Daenerys on “Game of Thrones,” revealed that the early nude scenes “terrified” her. As a new actress, she did not have the knowledge or power to argue with showrunners who asked her to appear completely naked in front of the cast and crew. In later seasons, when Clarke refused to be naked on screen, showrunners guilted her for disappointing “Game of Thrones” fans, as if they were only watching her for her naked body — a dismissive view of both Clarke’s boundaries and her performance.
Strikingly, there are few depictions of full-frontal male nudity on “Game of Thrones,” compared to the many instances of women’s nudity. When male nudity is presented, it is rarely presented sexually. Instead, they are presented in regular contexts, such as pulling out a penis to pee.
Thankfully, in the years since Clarke’s first nude scene in “Game of Thrones,” there have been movements in the film and television industry to change the exploitative nature of intimate scenes. Many shows now hire intimacy coordinators, who work to make sex scenes more comfortable for actors while making sure that everything occurring on screen is consented to by everyone involved. The necessity to hire intimacy coordinators is especially evident after the #MeToo movement, but it can’t repair the implicit attitudes of sexualization that exist in the media’s presentation of women’s bodies.
Even movies that center around sex shy away from depicting full-frontal male nudity. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has plenty of nude scenes of Dakota Johnson, who plays the female lead, but does not have a single comparable shot of Jamie Dornan’s penis. It’s strange that a movie targeted towards heterosexual women chooses to solely display the heroine naked. Similarly, “Call Me By Your Name,” another popular film with plenty of sex scenes, doesn’t feature any male full-frontal but does curiously include boob shots — a confounding decision in a movie about gay men’s intimacy.
Women’s bodies are often shown in both sexual and casual settings, like when they’re lounging at home, but when men are put in similar positions, the camera shies away. Filmmakers are only comfortable placing women in these vulnerable positions. Women are typically represented as more delicate and therefore more defenseless than men, and nudity may be a literal way to characterize femininity. It is unfortunate, though, that femininity is defined by men in film through a naked and conventionally attractive cis-gendered body as if that is all women have to offer to the screen. There is an inherent sense of dehumanization because women’s bodies are represented as the most important part of their being.
Recently, there have been efforts to close the gap and make the boobs-to-balls ratio more even. HBO’s “Euphoria” shows 71 penises in its eight episodes, with one scene alone having almost 30. Although there are still scenes of naked women on the show, the sheer amount of male nudity is shocking because viewers aren’t accustomed to seeing it. In “Euphoria,” male nudity is presented in a way that’s similar to the historical ways naked women are shown on screen. While the nude reversal of gender that “Euphoria” employs is interesting, it does call into question how necessary these scenes are, especially given that the characters depicted in them are mostly minors.
Movies are also selective in the type of bodies that are shown on screen. The naked women we usually see on screen are conventionally attractive (skinny and white), as most of the women in the film industry are. Transgender characters are rarely seen in films from major studios. Bodies that exist outside of the gender binary also deserve to be well-represented but are unfortunately dismissed from most mainstream media.
Actors have also recognized the boobs-to-balls disparity and have called on each other to close it. In 2015, Kevin Bacon noted the gender disparities of nudity and started #FreetheBacon, wherein he encourages male actors to free “your weiner, your balls and your butt.” Mark Duplass, who appeared nude on HBO’s “Togetherness,” said that he believes in what he calls balls equality, and the need to show naked men on TV not as sex symbols but just as regular people.
“If boobs or a vagina come out, a penis or a set of testicles should go along with it,” Duplass said in a 2016 interview. “It should be 50/50 in this country.”
While Duplass championing for balls equality is commendable in closing the gap, it won’t change the gratuitous and harmful always in which nude women are represented. It might be impossible to divorce the framing of these nude scenes from patriarchal gazes — “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the mainstream erotica that doesn’t have a single penis in it, was directed by a woman. Even a female director portrays women characters as objects of desire and sexuality for men, further complicating ideas about representation. These issues of objectification are deeply entrenched in social norms and the film industry in general, and more conversations must be held for progress to be made.
Nudity in film and television is a complicated topic that needs to be understood from multiple angles — from how gratuitous it is to how much power an actor has in the scene. And persisting media trends — who is shown naked, how much and when — often point towards objectification of women’s characters. Evening the ratio isn’t just about showing men naked, it’s about reducing the gratuitous depictions of nude women, too.
Women, though, are more than just their bodies. When filmmakers decide to highlight only women in vulnerable or sexual positions, they reinforce gendered stereotypes of what women can be. And even if the boobs-to-balls ratio approaches a perfect one-to-one, we must still contend with how women are written and how much agency they have in the stories we’re watching.
The only piece of media that I have seen with a one-to-one boobs-to-balls ratio is the third season of Netflix’s “Castlevania,” which also features well-written women. In the show, nudity is presented sexually and non-sexually but fits well within the narrative. In one scene, a prisoner is shown naked and the camera shows his entire shivering body, including his genitals. And while seeing a flaccid penis in a cartoon is a little unsettling, it adds dimension to his condition and highlights how depressing his imprisonment is. What “Castlevania” doesn’t include is gratuitous depictions of naked women. Boob shots only appear in sex scenes alongside bodies of naked men.
What makes season three of “Castlevania” so compelling isn’t just its even ratio, it is also the depth of the women characters, including lesbians and women of color, who all have distinct personalities and aren’t relegated to simply being sexy. There are plenty of shows with amazing women characters, including “The Witcher” and “Game of Thrones,” but the misogynistic ways in which these shows portray women by hyper-focusing on their bodies prevent them from being truly great examples of representation. “Castlevania’s” director even refused to show one of the most powerful women in the show topless, moving away from the ever-present sexy powerful lady trope.
Instead, bodies in “Castlevania” are treated similarly regardless of gender and in turn, both are represented less gratuitously. Films and shows that have a more even boobs-to-balls ratio are often better at presenting nudity as a narrative device rather than a means for objectification. Male nudity itself signals changing attitudes towards nakedness in media as a whole and reverses them — men can also showcase the vulnerability that was previously only assigned to women characters, and women don’t have to be sexy to be compelling.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.