Somewhat obvious warning: some links in this article contain nudity. Not advisable to click on these if you don’t want to see nakedness or you’re at a public computer or something.
There was an article on the BBC today “The shock of the (male) nude” which presents an interesting dicussion on why male nudes might still be shocking.
An exhibition in Vienna probes our attitude towards nudity – people in the West have become accustomed to the naked female form, but male nudes can still shock. Before the show opened, the museum even covered up parts of its own posters, saying they had caused public outrage.
Experts commenting on the exhibition said the ‘shock’ of the male nude is linked to the fact that it’s so rarely seen and because male nudity almost inevitably involves the exposure of sexual organs. Art historian Eva Kernbauer, from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, says the aversion to seeing the naked male body also comes from how it has been represented and what associations people link to it. She says:
Male nudity was closely linked to strength, invulnerability and heroism, the female nude to beauty and erotics […] Female nudity is not only omnipresent, it is also unthreatening. Male nudity is more challenging. [It] is very often linked to the exposure of sexual organs – the penis – and this is often done in a way that responds to the classical model of aggression and strength.
Ms. Kernbauer is right, to a certain extent. Female nudity is less “agressive” but what the article doesn’t go into is why this is so. The perception of the female nude as ‘soft’ and beautiful is tied to the fact that female sexual organs were almost never displayed. The eroticism linked to the female nude stems from a suggestion of sex rather than it’s outright display. So even though the male nude itself is rarer, seeing a penis in in art was much more common than seeing labia, for example. A classic example is, as the article mentions, the ‘Venus pudica’ covering her privates, but also many Eves of the Middle Ages, the muses and goddesses of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and even modern female representations still hid or erased female sex organs by painting women with their legs crossed or tightly closed, not to mention completely hairless.
Up until the late 19th century artists didn’t even paint ‘normal’ women, let alone their private parts. Nudes were depictions of classical myths or allusions to Biblical stories, and they were more sensual than sexual. Modern artists like Renoir, Manet, and Rubens pushed conventional boundaries by painting nudes of real women— models, mistresses, dancers, and even prostitutes. Some time later, some artists even dared to paint women with pubic hair. Matisse and Modigliani’s styles were ever more suggestive than Renoir or Manet’s nudes, and Egon Schiele was one of the first to paint women outside the traditional positions, showing all of the women’s privates.
So yes the “classic” female nude was much more common in art. But the female nude which is as overtly sexual as the male nude, was not. Even in contemporary mainstream media, which is arguably more “vulgar” and holds less concern for aestheticism, the kind of open displays of sexuality that made Michealangelo’s David famous, were still shocking coming from women a couple of decades ago. Basic Instinct caused controversy by having as its protagonist a woman who was confident and open about her sexuality, and it even directly linked overt sexuality with danger. It was precisely this combination, this agressive female sexuality, illustrated by the uncrossing of Sharon Stone’s legs in the interrogation scene, which caused so much talk. Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, also caused a lot of controversy when it was first put on stage in 1994. The play caused not only shock, but disgust— because it was explicitly created to break the taboo that exists in our society regarding women’s sexuality. And despite so many nude photo shoots and nudes on magazine covers like Maxim, GQ, and Rolling Stone, full frontal female nudity is still reserved for pornography, even if mainstream magazines photograph models and celebrities in the most suggestive ways.
And if the vagina is still shocking in the West, in other countries it is an outright curse to look upon a woman’s privates. In West Africa, women’s movements have used ‘genital shaming’ or ‘cursing’ as a method of protest. Women of the Liberia Mass Action for Peace flashed their privates to ‘curse’ the men they were protesting against. In Ivory Coast, the same form of protest was used against Laurent Gbagbo.
So it seems that the feeling of being ‘threatened’ by someone’s genitals is very much widespread and embeded in the human psyche. Granted, this sentiment has been greatly watered-down in most Western countries, and Western art and media have significantly pushed the boundaries of our confort zones and what we consider shocking. But I maintain that if penises on display at an art gallery are still shocking to some people in Vienna, then showing full-frontral female nudity would be too. For instance, remember how much talk Billy Crudup’s blue penis caused when Watchmen came out? I bet if the film had had a scene with naked Malin Akerman sitting open legged, it would’ve caused perhaps even more of a stir. Because yes, seeing penises is rare; but outside the world of porn, vaginas are almost non-existent.