In “Gone Girl,” we see two penises and three breasts – a ratio that’s surprisingly even compared to most other films. There was a lot of Internet hullabaloo about the appearance of Ben Affleck’s dong, enough to prompt my friend to rename the film “Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Ben Affleck’s Penis” – his wife (also known a the world’s most perfect human, Jennifer Garner) spoke about it in interviews, and TMZ buzzed for days. It was a BIG deal. In actuality? The film features barely a half-second profile shot of Affleck’s genitalia. And that was it.
I was confused. (I won’t admit I was disappointed because my Grandma reads these columns.) Why was there such a public response to this demonstration of male nudity when we are exposed to female nudity all the time? It’s becoming a bigger deal when a female actress says she won’t do nudity than when she actually does. Granted, as a eighth grade sex ed graduate and occasional “Masters of Sex” viewer I have enough of an understanding of human anatomy to know that men don’t have a “boob equivalent” – flashing your tits is not the same as showing the world your wang. So the presence of penises vs. boobs in media can’t be compared. Moreover, female genital nudity is possibly even less common than male. I know that. It’s like comparing apples and bananas. (Please pretend to laugh.)
Furthermore, some feminist groups have actually tried to reclaim nudity — protests in the vein of “c’mon , they’re just boobs,” protests meant to liberate, protests meant to shock and engage. Femen is one such group, which holds topless protests in support of sextremism, “female sexuality rebelling against the patriarchy,” according to their website. Though Femen as a group has a lot of structural issues (disavowing all of Islam as anti-women being one of them), their purpose is intriguing, especially in a world dulled by formerly radical feminist actions. Much like the bra-burnings feminists of 40 years ago, Femen’s goals are to undo the shame women feel about their bodies and remove the stigma from nudity.
So when I’m watching “True Detective,” or “Homeland,” or, yes, “Gone Girl” and I feel uncomfortable by the seemingly gratuitous boob action, am I just being a prude? Sure, I never have been nor will I ever be a “Girl Gone Wild,” and maybe my discomfort is a reflection of my own shame. Nudity can be liberating; recognizing boobs for what they are, basically just appendages for baby-feeding. (Yes, I just said that. Yes, I grossed myself out a little too.) But we rarely see breasts presented in this way. (A notable exception is the Rose Byrne scene from “Neighbors” this summer, in which her breasts are painfully swollen and her husband has to milk her. It’s pretty gross. And also amazing?)
It seems like female nudity is presented mainly in two ways; hyper-sexualized, or victimized. Take “True Detective”: a brilliant, nuanced crime thriller, critical darling and veritable masterpiece. How do we see women’s bodies in this show? Either as naked, violated dead bodies, or archetypal mistresses – dumb and young and promiscuous and, you got it, bare-chested. We never see a hint of a penis – and if we did, you can guarantee it would be used as a plot device rather than a salacious gimmick.
So even in “Gone Girl,” (and this is my perfunctory disclaimer for “Gone Girl” spoilers), Nick Dunne’s 20-year-old mistress’ breasts play a starring role compared to Ben Affleck’s penis. While this could arguably be seen as character development – portraying Nick as a shallow philanderer, Andie as the perky teenybopper foil to Amy’s cold brilliance — it’s still an inequitable representation. Andie’s nudity seems mainly there to serve the male gaze, to add some sex appeal. Because the thematic implications of the scene would not have changed if we hadn’t seen her breasts, yet they are shown anyway.
The problem with this kind of nudity is that it is shrouded under the gauze of “drama.” No one expects “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to treat women with respect or grace, so those boobs are viewed with a shrug and a sigh. But using the objectification of women and calling it an artistic choice is, at its core, just as sleazy.
Of course, this analysis isn’t a science; not all expressions of female nudity fit into these conventions, and oftentimes nudity is powerfully used to demonstrate intimacy or vulnerability. Think “Before Midnight,” when a love scene between married couple Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is achingly broken up into a fight. Delpy’s nakedness contrasts their comfortable familiarity with the metaphoric bareness of being emotionally honest. Shows like “Sex and the City” and “Girls” used female nudity to show sexual independence and burgeoning self esteem. Nudity isn’t bad. But showing a naked body without explaining why this character should be represented this way is.
There is no formula to doing nude right, and I bet seven out of ten people reading this disagree with me from one side or the other. But while watching “Gone Girl” for the second time this weekend, my mom turned to me and asked “Is that all we get?” in reference to Affleck’s big reveal. It reaffirmed that there is a disparity between male and female nudity in film and television — a difference in stakes as well, but still, a problematic conflation of female nudity with dramatic quality. And this lends itself once again to the greater issue of representation in the media. If we see female bodies either being sexualized or being victimized, does that subconsciously tweak how we value real-life women? As sexual beings to be viewed and used or victims to be rescued? I worry it does. Call me a prude, but I’d rather see no boobs and no penises than participate in an industry that uses the female body as a gimmick.