Thursday, May 1, 2008

Male Nudity vs. Female Nudity in New Movies

The male frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was much heralded in the media before it's release in theatres this past Friday. Every review mentions at the start how the main actor, Jason Segal, is nude at the beginning of the film when his girlfriend unexpectedly breaks up with him as he comes out of the shower. A few reviewers also mentions that Segal is also totally naked for a moment at the end of the film.

Only one reviewer, steadfast Roger Ebert, mentions how incredibly brief these nude scenes are:

Roger Ebert writes, "Between his brief nude scene at the very beginning (a humiliating, emotionally naked break-up and breakdown), and his even briefer final one (a welcome reunion of sorts), he discovers quite a lot about himself through his genitalia."

The flashes to Segal's penis are so split-secondly quick that a viewer doesn't really get a good glimpse of his private parts.

It's no surprise so many of the reviews focus on the nudity. It's rare that a male actor shows frontal nudity in a film, especially the main actor in a film.

In contrast, a few days later I saw "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Gay". No review had mentioned the frontal female nudity that appears in the film. There is one scene, when Harold and Kumar arrive at an old friend's house who is having a "bottom less party" as opposed to a "topless" one, in which a woman greets them at the door wearing no panties. The camera gives a slow shot of her vagina, with its pubes closely trimmed into a landing strip, for a long, slow shot, as if to make sure everyone gets a full, long, look.

Then we proceed to see at least twenty women with their vulvas on full view, a slow pan of the camera to show one after the other.

When we see the fast glimpse of Segal's penis, it's a moment of laughter: the audience guffawed and yelped, even when we just see his backside as he hugs his ex in an effort to get close to her and "feel her body" when she has just broken up with him. His naked body invokes laughter, humor.

I don't remember anyone laughing during "Harold and Kumar" as one women after another showed her private parts to the camera, again, in a much slower, languid pace than the brief shot of Segal's privates. The camera moves so slowly in this scene that there was no way you could miss these vaginas (actually, vulvas) in all their glory, whereas Segal's penis is seen so briefly that one doesn't come away with any memory of what it actually looked like. Ironically, no movie review mentions the female nudity in the film. And, of course, all these women were beautiful, tight-bodied and tan, unlike the fleshy, doughy Segal.

The parallel would not exist: a naked female body in Segal's fleshy state onscreen would invoke disgust, not such empathy or humor.

These naked female bodies in Harold and Kumar did not invoke laughter, even though they were part of the big joke of "the bottomless party." Their bodies were too sexualized, too perfect, too stylized. The only moment of laughter (though also tinged with some disgust) was when Harold and Kumar's friend, the host of the bottomless party, shows his penis, a slip of a thing buried in an excessive mountain of pubic hair--a sight gag. Again, the penis--a source for humor, silliness. The naked female body--a source for sexual arousal and objectification of the female body, but not for humor or empathy.

The naked male body can be used to make the audience laugh, to find humor in it. But the naked female body is always too sexualized to be funny. And it's so common to feature female nudity that it doesn't make the press, whereas the brief nudity of Segal is mentioned again and again as if it's revolutionary for a male actor to reveal himself physically. It is a new thing--but note how it's oddly not a new thing for female actors (Kramer vs. Kramer anyone?)--again Meryl Streep's full frontal nudity was a moment of awkwardness and discomfort, not laugh out loud humor-- and how scared we are to give the audience a good, long look at male nudity without making it a thing to be laughed at.

Wait till Forgetting Sarah Marshall comes out on DVD--there will be a lot of use of the pause button.

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