Published on March 3, 2014 | by Rosie Atkin0
Stripping for art’s sake
Rosie Atkin looks at the representation of nudity from Renaissance perfection to its realistic portrayal in television shows such as Girls.
The nude human form has received attention for centuries, from athletic physical carvings of the Greeks, to its smooth, divine representation in Renaissance art. In our age of media saturation, the nude seems to have reached a status as a bastion for debate.
In television, nudity is filtered through unattainable physical ideals; the deities in Game of Thrones depict fantasy-incarnated porcelain skin, unmarked by the trials of the war-ravaged plotlines.
For those familiar with the HBO series Girls, audiences are likely to be equally familiar with every detail of its writer, director and star Lena Dunham – tattoos, warts and all. Nudity in Girls is portrayed through various contexts; Dunham’s character, Hannah, finds ways of stripping wherever imaginable, whether it’s while she’s cooking, changing, or sheltered slightly by a fluorescent string vest.
Somehow Dunham successfully exhibits the casualness of nudity without relying on sexualisation – yet this frequency of nakedness has placed her in the firing line.
“I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly.” This was one comment directly addressed at Dunham during a recent Television Critics Association panel Q&A. Journalist Tim Malloy, of The Wrap, continued to compare Girls with Game of Thrones, a popular pairing.
Comparing the nudity in Games of Thrones to Girls, Malloy stated: “I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character [Hannah Horvath] is often naked at random times for no reason.”
Regardless of whether the seemingly pointless question aimed to provoke Dunham or not, the criticism poses an interesting point in the debate surrounding nudity. Do television shows such as Girls have to provide nudity to titillate? There is sex in Girls, but it is distinctly un-sexy, depicting the realities of unflattering sex and adding hilarious element to coitus in your mid-twenties. Dunham’s defence was simply that, as humans, we are naked sometimes for “no reason” and “it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive”.
Does the recurring criticism reflect a stunt in attitudes towards nudity and, ultimately, ideals of acceptable body image?
Korey Samuel, studying Public Relations at LCC, believes the discussion reflects continued expectation weighed on physical perfection: “Although we are progressing, women in TV nowadays are still made to be seen as eye candy or decoration, so when we see a beautiful naked woman in Game of Thrones it’s shrugged off as ‘pushing a narrative’, but when we see nudity in Girls from someone like Lena, who might not necessarily be seen as a pin-up girl, people – men mostly – become outraged because it’s not the ‘type’ of nudity they want to see.”
The idea of male-dominance in television and the media is nothing new, but writers such as Dunham are surely challenging the status quo through defiance and an unwillingness to change. By promoting realistic body types – some with scars, with tattoos, and with ‘taboo’ pubic hair – the makers of Girls are opting to harness a right of artistic expression.
This draws in lessons from the modern art industry, harking to styles of confrontational, unabashed portrayals of nudity seen in the works of female artists Jenny Saville, Sarah Lucas, and even the intricate bodily studies by Lucian Freud.
So what can the television industry learn from modern art in its approach to nudity? Nudity in art is celebrated, the human form a subject of endless inspiration.
Life model and CSM Fashion Design student, Olivia Giles, compares the industries presentation of the naked form: “What I do is completely un-sexual, it’s in a very controlled and artistic environment. The people viewing me, obviously they are aware that I’m naked, but I think their mind set is very different – they will look at my body as just an object. They will be very engrossed in their drawing instead of thinking ‘wow, she’s naked’.
“I have never had a bad response. Nobody has ever said ‘what are you doing?’,” she adds.
Giles also suggests that modern art is one step ahead in terms of shock factors: “I don’t think nudity and sex will cause that much uproar for artistic minds because you’re exposed to that anyway; if you see a lot of art and you’re surrounded by creativity, fashion is becoming more controversial, that’s what we’re so used to seeing.”
Criticism and complaint
Any form of art is susceptible to criticism, complaint, and leaves its makers vulnerable to harsh attitudes. At least Dunham is sparking debate, shrugging off such negativity by repeatedly laying herself bare.
Holly Davies, also studying BA Fashion design at CSM, applauds Dunham’s self-acceptance: “Normally, in either TV or film, women’s bodies are quite sexualised and have become objects- so to have Lena Dunham just bare it all and love her body is positive to show. I don’t think it’s done in bad taste either, it’s just saying ‘everyone has got a body, everyone has got boobs, so why is it a big deal?”
So perhaps the negative reception Girls has received for its tendency for a fleshier type of honesty is simply a drop in the ocean. Cinema is progressing towards the extremes of sexual candidness, with Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake set to open new avenues of debate surrounding all things nude.
By challenging what is accepted, these forward steps of openness – which will no doubt cause a stir – may leak into mainstream perceptions of body image. Girls does, after all, reflect many realities of 20-something life; each character is flawed, moving through the mundane paces of trying to start their respective careers. It seems only right that where inane details are exposed, so is the odd body here and there. And as Dunham and the cast of Girls continue to shrug off criticism, maybe a new age of relaxed acceptance is on the rise in television, taking heed of artistic attitudes rather than bowing to the pressure of rigid industry expectations.