MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Female Nudity in Films: Art or Exploitation?

The issue of nudity in art has been an issue for as long as there has been art, artists, and people to judge their work. When it comes to nudity in film, though, what relevance does the context of the nudity within the storyline or overall thematic elements have in determining whether the nudity is exploitation or art? In Darren Aronofsky‘s The WrestlerMarisa Tomei plays the role of an aging stripper, and the actress is, much like her character, Cassidy/Pam, fully exposed in the nude on the screen. The question is, in the context of the story, is it actually necessary for Tomei to be shown nude, or would the performance have had the same impact by implying nudity rather than showing it?

The film primarily follows the story of an aging wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) as he faces health problems that may force him to give up wrestling, the one thing that sustains his otherwise lonely existence. By day he works in the storage warehouse of a supermarket, his long, bleached-blond, ’80s rocker hair pulled back, answering to a wormy little boss who clearly disdains Randy’s wrestling history. And of course, Randy could crush this boss with one well-executed Ram-Jam, but he needs the trickle of money his job provides to pay the rent on his shabby trailer, so he swallows his pride and slaps on a veneer of servitude in order to keep his job.

The film is also a fascinating compare-and-contrast study of two people who’ve made their livings in exploitative ways as they find themselves aging out of their career paths. The other half of this is Cassidy, a dancer at a strip club Randy frequents. On a basic level, it’s about two people who give themselves in an intimate way to an audience that’s judging them based on what they see on the stage.

In the scenes where Randy’s engaged in wrestling matches (performing now in community centers rather than Madison Square Garden), Aronofsky has his camera in loving close-up with every slam to the mat, fist in the face, chair to the head. We see Randy post-show, cut and bleeding from countless wounds, getting staples from a staple gun (yes, a staple gun … hey, at least it wasn’t a nail gun) removed from his back and chest. We see the self-inflicted razor-blade cut on Randy’s head from which blood poured as he egged on his fans. These guys are gladiators, of a sort, and they understand what the fans who come to see them want: rivalries to cheer and boo for, bodies slammed, bloody wounds, and ultimately, the victor dominating his opponent by beating him into submission and pinning him to the mat.

And while the guys aren’t wrestling nude (that, of course, would bring the homoerotic element of wrestling far too close to the forefront for the comfort level of the fans), they are exploiting their bodies and sacrificing their health for the sake of the money — or, perhaps more importantly, for the adulation of their fans. When Randy walks to the ring to the thunderous noise of rock music that’s as old and outdated as he is, for that brief moment in time, he’s Somebody. He’s a guy who was once a big shot, who had screaming fans filling arenas and chanting his name. He had fame, he had glory … and now, all he has are these brief, shabby remnants of his glory days, these little moments when, for a while, he’s The Ram again, and not just some guy working at a supermarket to barely pay his bills.

For Pam, who makes a living for herself and her young son under the stage name Cassidy, the sacrifice of her body (and her dignity) comes in the arena of the club where she dances for a rotating pack of male spectators looking to ogle the female form in an exploitative setting. We come to understand that Cassidy (like many women who earn a living by taking off their clothes) protects herself by assuming a secret identity of sorts: by day, she’s Pam, a loving, concerned mother who just wants to buy a condo in a safer neighborhood with better schools for her son; by night, she’s Cassidy, wearer of thongs, fishnet bodystockings, heavy eyeliner and glitter eyeshadow, who gyrates around a stripper pole and does private dances for men who (with the singular exception of Randy) view her as nothing more than a temporary vessel for the fulfillment of their sexual fantasies. The question is, does the character of Cassidy have to be shown nude, in order for the emotion evoked by her character arc to have an impact?

Although I recognize that there will be any number of men who will go to see The Wrestler because exploitative websites like Mr. Skin tell them down to the minute just when they’ll get to seeTomei’s bare breasts on the screen (and that’s a subject for another column), I would argue that in the case of The Wrestler, Tomei’s nudity is absolutely relevant to the story. The whole point of Cassidy’s character revolves around both the way in which she exposes and exploits herself for the sake of a buck, and the way in which the men to whom she’s exposing herself view her as “too old” to fulfill their sexual fantasies (also disturbing in and of itself for what it says about both the male sexual obsession with young girls and the way in which men, as they age, become “dignified” while women become “over the hill”).

For us to really feel the impact of Pam’s awareness of her own exploitation in her stripper persona, and in particular the way in which she evokes that despair wrenchingly onstage in the film’s final act, we need to have earlier felt the way in which she accepted (or rather, told herself she accepted) that exploitation as a means to an end. The audience needs to cringe as Tomei writhes on stage for the kind of men who slip dollar bills into stripper’s thongs, needs to feel tension as she’s taunted by a pack of young men for being too old for them to pay her for a private lap dance, needs to feel the pain of that moment when, after years of taking her clothes off for a living, she suddenly feels utterly vulnerable, naked, and exposed.

Some might argue that Tomei agreeing to parts requiring nudity at this point in her career (last year’s decidedly unsexy opening sex scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead being the first) is, in and of itself, a way for her to exploit her body through being an “older” actress daring to bare all before the camera. Certainly it’s garnered her a certain degree of attention. But critics aren’t praising her performance in The Wrestler for her talent with a stripper pole.

There’s a part of me that thinks, yes, it is a good thing for actresses like Tomei to literally get in the faces of the men in Hollywood who would dare to call them too old because their bodies are no longer that of 20-year-old sex kittens. All sex kittens must age into older, sleeker cats, and there is a certain dignity and sense of female power in saying “Screw you misogynistic bastards. 43-year-old female bodies are sexy too!” And I’m not unaware of the arguments from certain corners that take the position that female nudity is power, that women who perform burlesque or strip or act in porn films are exploiting the weakness of men in being controlled by their dicks, rather than the other way around. I get that point, and to a certain extent I can agree with it; certainly I can agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the nude body, male or female. And it’s also true, on the other side of the coin, that there are those who would argue that male actors who bare all are exploiting themselves as well. But in the balance of sexual power, I believe that’s comparing apples to oranges.

The bottom line for me is, I don’t have a problem with nudity in art, or nudity within a particular context. So what it really comes down to when looking at Tomei in The Wrestler is the question of whether this film, and the role of Tomei’s character in it, constitutes art. For me, it unquestionably does. Tomei is exploited far less in The Wrestler than, say, Megan Fox was as she leaned oh-so-sexily over the car in Transformers — even though the latter never took her clothes off.

For that matter,Tomei’s exploited less than Joy Harmon was in the famous “car wash” scene in Cool Hand Luke. That scene served to underscore the dramatic tension of a pack of men held back from committing gang rape only by the presence of a few guards and guns. But, there was never a focus on Harmon other than the existence of her well-endowed breasts as she squeezed a lather of soapy sponge foam over them and pressed them against the car window while the men ogled her. In The Wrestler, the focus of the character of Pam/Cassidy is clearly on Pam as a person and her conflict over the way in which she, like so many women around the world, uses her body to support her child.

Nudity and the exposure of the female body can be about power and the way in which women choose to use it, and I’d argue that Tomei used that to great effect in The Wrestler to give a remarkably moving and evocative performance that was driven by the power of her acting. The nudity was an element of drawing out the character which was essential to the role, but it wasn’t the singular, or even most important thing about it. In the end, though, it would just be great to live in a world where these kinds of questions don’t end up as arguments because the balance of power between men and women is so equalized that it just doesn’t matter. Until that day, though, I’ll settle for an intelligent, talented actress like Tomei who, even though she’s baring her body on screen, is really showing us her soul.

– by Kim Voynar

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