It Was the Breast of Times…

When Seth MacFarlane sang the sophomoric “We Saw Your Boobs” at the 85th annual Academy Awards, he lifted the blouse, as it were, and exposed it all: sexism in Hollywood, nudity in films, the dehumanizing of women, and a cultural fascination with breasts. Although adolescents were helplessly giggling at MacFarlane’s  titillating musical number, adults were not as amused. Many of the actresses in the audience (ironically, wearing stunning designer dresses with plunging necklines) were visibly disturbed. Within minutes, tweets and blogs decried the song that essentially objectified women and reinforced the long-held belief that Hollywood is run and dominated by men who in turn fetishize breasts. Vulture, the entertainment news-focused site of New York magazine, noted: “As a fun game, count how many actresses he mentions in this song who are portraying rape victims.” Another interesting challenge would have been to ask: what would audiences think if MacFarlane sang “We Saw Your Penis?”

Diablo Cody, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, is a vocal critic of the film industry’s double-standard: “The attitude toward women in this industry is nauseating. There are all sorts of porcine executives who are uncomfortable with a woman doing anything subversive. They want the movie about the beautiful girl who trips and falls, the adorable klutz.” Cody is actively involved in helping women succeed in the world of cinema. For three years now, she has been the co-chair of the the Athena Film Festival, held at New York City’s Barnard College, that celebrates women’s leadership in cinema. Cody explains: “Since there’s a disparity [out of 12 recent screenwriter nominations, only one was a woman], women’s stories aren’t necessarily being told. So a festival like Athena creates a safe place for these stories. It’s exclusively dedicated to telling these stories. It’s one of these things that are totally necessary, and we have to have it.”

Nudity in film has long been controversial; however directors distinguish nudity (partial or full) as part of a narrative (known in the industry as “artistically justifiable nudity” or “gratuitous nudity”) and nudity in sexual or erotic films (known as pornographic films or simply porn). The earliest film to show nudity was the French silent film, Le Cocher de la Mariee (1899), a 7-minute erotic film showing Louise Willy performing a striptease in a bathroom. By the early 1900’s, Hollywood mainstream studios were producing many films with brief nudity that created sufficient scandal that the industry (via the Motion Picture Association of America – MPAA) developed the Hays Code in 1930 to effectively end nudity and “indecent” or “obscene” content in films. In the 1960s, as social attitudes toward nudity and sexuality changed, the Hays code was repeatedly challenged and eventually replaced in 1968 with the MPAA film rating system. Since a film rating directly impacts a movie’s commercial success, most producers and directors self-censor their films to avoid either an R or NV-17 rating. Today, actors’ nudity waivers require directors to show actors a shot list of a film in advance of shooting, indicating if  nude scenes are required and how they will be presented. For movie fans that like to keep track of nudity in films, there is even a well-researched 706-page reference book (aimed at prurient males, of course): Mr. Skin’s Skincyclopedia: The A to Z Guide to Finding Your Favorite Actresses Naked) and its companion website, established in 1999, that attracts over 7 million curious visitors (ie, adolescents) each month.

Although Seth MacFarlane is excited enough to sing about the boobs that he has seen on the big screen, breasts are a staple of the publication world. Magazine editors, like the executives at Victoria Secret, know that breasts are big business. Most entertainment, fashion, and fitness magazine prominently feature beautiful women with artfully photoshopped cleavage or baring just the right amount of  breast. Excluding salacious publications like Playboy and its ilk, no mainstream publication does this better than Sports Illustrated. Each February SI publishes its greatly anticipated swimsuit edition to honor — critics would rather say “dehumanize” — women (to the editors of SI, having women put on tiny bikinis on a tropical wind-swept beach is considered a sport worthy of an entire issue of coverage). As soon as the swimsuit issue is posted online, it generates more than 52 million page views per month (compare that to the average sports website that generates about 3-4 million page views per month); the printed edition generates $35 million worth of advertising. In the end, the swimsuit issue will reach 70 million consumers (mostly male, of course).

But there is another side to breasts. “We love breasts, yet we can’t take them seriously. We name them affectionately, but with a bit of insult. They can turn both babies and grown men into lunkheads.” writes science reporter Florence Williams in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, “For such an enormously popular feature of the human race — even today, when they are bikinied, bared, flaunted, measured, inflated, sexted, YouTubed, suckled, pierced, tattooed, tassled, and in very way fetishized — it’s remarkable how little we actually know about their basic biology.” Williams’s book is a fascinating and enlightening examination of the human breast through the lens of evolution, biology, psychology, chemistry, plastic surgery, sociology, nutrition, environment (carcinogens), sexuality, and modern culture. And no, the book does not feature a photo of a woman’s breast (but rather two green mountains). Hardly a book that a lunkhead would read; although after reading it, it is doubtful that one would ever look at a breast in the same way again.

For further reading:
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, Norton & Company (2012)
Mr. Skin’s Skincyclopedia: The A to Z Guide to Finding Your Favorite Actresses Naked by Jim McBride, St. Martin’s Griffin (2009)


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