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My Boobs Do Not Define My Worth

Warning: some adult content.

Someone on my facebook page recently posted this link to a counterpoint over all the flurry about how sexist and racist and generally horrible the Oscars were. The gist of the article is that the opening song “We Saw Your Boobs” is essentially right, because no matter how serious or good a film is that features a nude actress, all that men will see is that she showed her boobies, and the only reason the director or studio included the shot is to a.see her boobies and b.make more money off of her boobies. He argues that this is exploitative, and that if actresses really want to gain respect and make good films that are taken seriously, they should stop doing nude scenes.

Where do I start?

One of Seth’s main gripes is that nowadays in order for a film to be considered “serious” it has to have nudity in it, and that this leads to exploitation. Now I think that this is one of the few comments that he makes which has any validity, but probably not for the reasons he thinks. The reason it seems to have validity to me is because the idea that whether or not a woman shows her top has any bearing on the quality of a movie is just patently false. Oftentimes nudity can be used to shock or question or criticize certain ways of viewing the female body. It has been used that way in photography, in painting, and yes, in movies. In these ways nudity can have bearing on the message and quality of a movie. But that doesn’t mean that one can use nudity to ride on the tailcoats of movies that use nudity thoughtfully. It is somewhat exploitative to ask an actress to do something that really has no bearing on the quality of the movie (while telling her it does) simply in order to boost sales. It’s deceitful, and yes, it uses a human being as a means to an end without allowing them to fully participate in whatever project you’re working on. It is NOT exploitative because of boobs.

My problem with this complaint is that I’m just not sure if it’s true. Seth offers no evidence that these are the motivations behind including nudity, instead all he offers is a hypothetical conversation between a producer and an actress: “Today’s producers say, ‘Oscar winners like Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet do nudity. It’s for the art! Besides, you want to be as successful as they are, don’t you?'” We have no idea whether this ever really happens. Yes Hollywood is driven by profit, no I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the motivation, but you need more than speculation to make this a really valid criticism.

Where Seth’s argument really falls apart though is when he starts pointing out that no matter how artistic or good or well-done or serious a nude scene is, men will still view it as fodder for masturbation. Because of this, he says that when a woman tries to do a serious movie that includes nudity as a way to gain respect, she’s really losing respect (the unspoken argument being that women should stop doing topless or nude scenes).

To quote:

“You girls think you’re making art, but all we really see is that we got you to undress. The joke’s on you.” He (MacFarlane) reminded the women in the audience, including the actresses who participated in the sketch, that despite the awards they might be given that night, despite the respect their movies will garner, they are still showing their boobs for money. And by taking advantage of his naughty-boy image to say it, MacFarlane drove home the point that, while the actors might see their toplessness as “serious work,” the millions of guys at home with their pants unzipped in front of their laptops see it very differently.

The problem with this is that Seth is relying on the premise that the meaning and seriousness of a woman’s work and body comes from the men viewing it. He’s just like any other idiot who says “I can’t respect you if you show too much skin”, or “why don’t you respect yourself enough to cover up?” These ideas have been dismantled over and over, but apparently none of it sinks in, because the same victim-blaming nonsense keeps cropping up. Seth seems to imply that women who choose to include nudity in their careers for whatever reason they might have, SHOULDN’T do that because MEN will see it differently and MEN are right. Oddly enough the same argument doesn’t apply to men though…In addition, he seems to tell women that it’s their own fault for continuing to be nude because they KNOW men will view them as objects, so really the women are just objectifying themselves. He never seems to consider that women might have their own motivations for doing a serious art piece other than “will this please my male viewers? Will I gain their respect?? WILL THE PERFECT ACADEMY OF WHITE MEN HONOR ME???”

I think Seth is right, that men will continue to objectify women who do nude scenes. But I think that’s a problem that the men who are doing the objectifying are responsible for, not one that the women who are being objectified are responsible for. One of my facebook friends argued that actresses who do these scenes are also at fault because they WANT to be objectified for the money. There’s no way we can ever know the motivations of the actresses, but I think the best assumption is that the actresses who make serious, complex, intellectual movies are in fact serious, complex and intellectual people, and may have motivations other than getting the sexual attention of men or other than getting money.

I think that the best way to combat the idea that a woman’s nudity can ruin her career and her ability to be respected is to continue to break down the tight link between sexuality and breasts, or between a naked female form and objectified sexuality. One of the ways to do this is to include nude females in serious art pieces that approach it in a different way, or to continue to have these conversations and point out that men who are objectifying women need to stop. That includes MacFarlane at the Oscars and that includes all the men and boys nodding along at home.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. February 27, 2013 at 5:40 pm —

    Thanks for replying to my blog post, Olivia. I’d be more inclined to respond to your rebuttal if you didn’t call me an idiot, but I’ll make a few comments.

    1) You asked for examples of profit-motivated nudity. Here are two. Halle Berry appeared topless in what she called a “gratuitous” scene in the movie Swordfish at the producers’ request. She was paid an extra $500,000 to do it, and in the run-up to the release of the movie Berry promoted her topless scene on the MTV Movie Awards and recommended people buy tickets to see her breasts. British model Kelly Brook made her film debut in a movie Three (AKA Survival Island). Her contract required her to do three topless scenes. After production was completed, Brook and her husband Billy Zane sued the producers to try to have the nude scenes removed. They lost.

    2) My argument isn’t that actresses shouldn’t do topless scenes “because MEN will see it differently and MEN are right.” My argument is that men will objectify actresses in nude scenes regardless of the actresses’s intentions. They will also pay money for the opportunity. That propagates an industry in which actresses are encouraged to appear naked to make movies more successful. The unfortunate truth is that actresses who do topless scenes help to support a misogynist system, regardless of their artistic intentions. Every actress has the right to do whatever ever she pleases, but she also has the responsibility to consider the consequences — especially to other actresses — when choosing whether to appear nude.

    3) I wish people were less outraged by a comedian mentioning that actresses show their breasts in movies and more outraged by the male-dominated film industry that objectifies women and uses their bodies as commodities by encouraging them to show their breasts in movies.

  2. February 28, 2013 at 9:13 am —

    I’m sorry I called you an idiot. I was quite upset by this topic, and because of how much it reminded me of victim-blaming, I really did feel that you were taking an indefensible stance. I should have attacked the stance and not you though, and I’m sorry for that.
    1.Thank you for those examples. Like I said, I really am inclined to agree with you on that one, and I do agree that it is exploitative of the industry to require women to do topless scenes, just like it would be exploitative of any boss to require a woman to do something sexual in order to make money/be promoted/etc.
    2.I think we generally completely agree that there is a self-propogating system of exploitation happening here and really differ on whose responsibility it is to change that system. I wish we were calling out producers and directors instead of actresses. In my mind this is the same as victim-blaming: you should consider the consequences of the nasty things someone else will do to YOUR body regardless of YOUR intention. To take a slightly more exaggerated example of this same phenomenon, many women are told that they should not wear revealing clothing, because men will then objectify them. If they have self-respect, they shouldn’t want men to objectify them, therefore they should cover up. The problem here is not women showing their bodies, and the topless scenes are not what support a misogynistic system. The directors and producers who demand them ARE what supports it, and the men who consume it at higher rates because of the toplessness are what supports it. Again, I think we agree on the problem, but really disagree on who has the responsibility to change it.

    I do agree with you that if a woman is being pushed into a nude scene, she really should think twice before doing it. I respect any woman’s right to do whatever she feels she needs to do with her body. I even think it’s completely a woman’s right to take money for her body if she wants. But like you said, especially in this instance she is perpetuating an extremely exploitative system, and I think women should take that into account. But I also think that’s the last place we should really be focusing when trying to solve this kind of problem.

    3.I don’t think people are outraged that a comedian mentioned that actresses show their breasts. The outrage that I heard was that MacFarlane attempted to satire the industry but it was a really crappy satire that preyed on the people who are already being exploited and perpetuated the same notions that we can’t respect a woman if we’ve seen her breasts. I believe the dichotomy you mentioned is actually the same thing, and people are pissed at MacFarlane for objectifying women and telling them they should use their bodies as commodities. Even though it was under the label of satire, it attacked the women who are objectified instead of the men who objectify them, and that’s where the issue comes in.

    Again, I’m sorry for the incivility, but this topic riles me up, and I do think that people who victim blame are a problem. Now that I’ve heard more of your position I do think you’ve thought carefully about this, but please be careful not to point fingers at the women who are being exploited. If you had just called out the producers, directors, and industry instead of the women who are trying to survive in an industry that turns them into a commodity, I think we would 100% agree.

  3. February 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm —

    Thanks Olivia. I’d like to clarify something though regarding blaming victims.

    I should’ve drawn a clearer distinction between powerful actresses and beginning actresses in my post, but not everyone I wrote about is a victim. In the scenario I described, actresses with clout — those who are offered many roles and always have the liberty to say no to a movie without risking their career, i.e. most of the actresses called out at the Oscars — are not victims but instead CREATE victims. In the Hollywood system, stars are without question (and I can back this up with examples, if you want) the most powerful people on any given movie set. So when those powerful actresses continue to do nude scenes, whether for money or for art, they are not being victimized. But by perpetuating objectification and the system it thrives in, they create the circumstances through which less powerful actresses can be victimized. That makes them culpable and valid targets for criticism.

  4. February 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm —

    I think that’s a really important distinction, thanks for pointing it out.
    I will disagree with you on one point though: in Hollywood, the most important people are the people who provide the money. For the most part, that is the consumers who decide where to spend their money. While I agree with you that when an actress has some choices about whether or not to make a movie that she knows will perpetuate objectification, she is taking on some agency, and we could criticize her for some internalized misogyny, or simply for being willing to accept the system as it is, we as consumers have some responsibilities as well.
    In addition, I think a woman who makes the choice to do a nude scene IS being victimized by the system. She may to some extent be sharing in the responsibility for that victimization (just the same as a woman who for example chooses to be a stay at home wife and live a life of “submission” may be sharing some responsibility in her own victimhood), but she is still being victimized, and I think that’s something we should keep clearly in mind when we are criticizing patriarchal systems: who is the victim?
    In this case, I think it’s clearly ALL the women who are judged for their nudity.
    But yes, I think you’re right that in the cases where women have tons of other choices and know what they’re doing and choose to participate in a sexist system anyway, we should call them out on their internalized misogyny and the example they’re setting for others and their complicity in the system. What we SHOULDN’T do is then tell them we can’t respect them, or that they’ve degraded themselves, or that they shouldn’t be nude on film.

  5. March 2, 2013 at 12:54 pm —

    Perhaps a case study might be helpful. Now I don’t remember where I first encountered this link. My mind is feeble. I may be getting too old to internet (it’s a verb now!) Point being I might have found it here and forgotten. So, if this was teen skepchick’s link to begin with, be nice. 🙂

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