I visited a local high school this week, and taught a taster session on Hardy’s poem, ‘The Ruined Maid’. I was with a group of year 10 students, and they were really sparky and smart. One of the questions we were pondering in the session was whether attitudes to female sexual behaviour had changed since Hardy was writing. Unanimously, these little year 10s said no.
This was both depressing and accurate.
It seems to me that when it comes to sex, nudity and desire, we still have to figure a few things out.
Recently, Emma Watson was criticised for appearing in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, while scantily clad. She was branded a hypocrite for ‘claiming’ to be a feminist while showing some skin. This is not an example of the male gaze- it was a fashion magazine for women. But even if it were for a men’s magazine, would that automatically discredit her feminist principles? Here is the offending image:
Questions I think it’s OK to ask here include “would anyone wear that?” and “is that a ruff?” You might also hope that the hairstyle doesn’t catch on. But being offended about ‘nudity’ and feminist principles here? If she had had “I❤patriarchy” painted on her naked body, I might have understood the outrage…
There are different schools of thought when it comes to nudity in print. The first is that it is exploitative and symptomatic of a culture that thrives on female objectification, making money from the female form and encouraging men to see women as objects that they are entitled to leer at and take possession of. But I think that the issue is both more complex and more straightforward than that.
Consider women’s magazines that print pictures of shirtless men for the viewing pleasure of their female readership. Is this just a tit-for-tat situation? (Sorry) Is this hypocritical? Is it hypocrisy to find strip clubs uncomfortable, but the Chippendales entertaining?
There are differences in the male and female gaze, of course, and the context of male vs female stripping does have an impact on how we view it, culturally. Male stripping is seldom viewed with the same level of seriousness as female stripping, though I imagine that if everyone is honest, no-one enjoys it as much as they might claim to…
There are men and women who make money via stripping or porn out of financial desperation, but it is patronising to assume that all who make such choices do so because it is the only choice for them. If we strip them of their agency (sorry again), then we are presuming exploitation where none exists. (There may be a case to extend the argument to include prostitution, but that is not something I am going to do today, as it is a far more complex issue.)
Wouldn’t it be better if we all acknowledged that desire exists? That people fancy other people, and that’s OK? If it harms no-one, if it is a conscious choice for everyone involved, and if it involves consenting adults, what is the issue? We all have bodies, and it might be time to stop denying that to ourselves and each other. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of equality of nudity- reference to the male gaze won’t go away unless male bodies are shot like female bodies more frequently- but I’m all in favour of equal opportunity nudity, so long as it’s appropriate for the context. Tits aren’t news, so they shouldn’t really be in newspapers. Nor should ‘woman in swimwear at the beach’ be a ‘news item’ that describes her ‘stripping off’ like it’s a titillating event. (SORRY! I’ll stop soon.)
Emma Watson was stunned by the criticism she faced, saying “Feminism is about giving women choices. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.”
I think Hermione might be on to something there.