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It’s impossible to see a naked person walk by you and not be stunned. You cannot but notice if naked bodies pop up on your screen while you are enjoying your favorite Netflix series. There are possible reactions to this; curiousness and fascination to see what unfolds; annoyance that makes you skip the scene; indifference. Whatever it is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see a movie without some slips of nudity; unless you want oto opt for another source of entertainment. But, what has been the basis for nudity over the decades? When did it start? How did it start? Why does it have to be?
History of Nudity in Film
It’s safe to say that the full-blown nudity in movies wave started recently, give or take twenty years ago. But technically, it dates back to the 17th and 18th century. In the early days of Hollywood, moralists were completely against the portrayal of nudity, sexuality, criminality and violence in films. This led to the formation of censorship boards in different states to ensure the enforcement of these standards. However, these enforcements could not stand the test of time because of the challenge at the uniformity of these laws. Later on, Hollywood sort to self-censor its own productions for fear of being shut down.
The Hays Code and the Attempt at Censorship
Following further efforts to regulate the morality of movies produced, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was established. It was headed by General William H. Hays, with the sole aim of cleaning up the motion picture, to prevent the public’s reactions from hurting the movie business. Restrictions were put in place to ban content with themes such as brutality, crime, drunkenness, divorce, nudity and sex. There were eleven “don’ts” which included prohibition of nudity and sexual perversion as well twenty-six “be carefuls,” which were only cautionary.
All of these efforts were in vain, as many studios continued to ignore these regulations because of the reception by film audiences who were interested in content such as sex and crime. Later on, the Hays Code Seal of Approval was formalized and it brought about stricter measures. Still, forbidden films were still being made (Sex Madness;1937, Child Bride;1938), which were exploitative and socially inappropriate. These films with sexual content were later screened in theatres known as “grind houses”, serving also as strip joints.
After the World War II, when the 50’s arrived, there was a gradual decline in the strict censorship and regulation system which has spiraled into what the advent is in the 21st century. The evolution reflects a significant difference in what used to be the standards of morality
Justification for Nudity in Films
The Auteur Theory
It was an aspiring French Film maker in the new wave 1950s that proposed the auteur theory. The theory promoted the idea that film was an art form and a means of personal expression by a film maker. This theory came with the recognition of foreign movies, the likes of “And God Created Woman” (1957). In America, Andrew Sarris was the lead advocate and it reflected in his newspaper column and his book, “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, the unofficial bible of auteurism”. Some other proponents of sex scenes in movies also believe that sex is storytelling, it tells us about the characters. It can be a joke, or a source of fear, anxiety and frustration. To these proponents, sex communicates many emotions beyond sheer carnal desire.
Gradually, the society began to develop a tolerance for mature themes in film, and censorship was becoming obsolete. Different challenges to the status quo changed cultural attitudes. For some measure of control and regulation, age ratings, parental guidance, were introduced to curb and regulate viewers’ discretion.
At the early stages of the gradual acceptance of nudity in films, expressive “art house” films from Europe brought the realization that sex in films meant greater profit. This is not very different from what obtains in the 21st century. Nude scenes always mean many views and in turn, a lot of profit to be made. A very close example is the romance novel-based show, “Bridgerton” which got a lot of attention when it was newly released. According to the New York Post, Netflix revealed that “Bridgerton” ranked №1 in 83 countries including the US, UK, Brazil, France, India and South Africa and it made Top 10 in all 190 countries where Netflix is available except Japan. This just goes to show that nudity, with emphasis on sex, really does sell. Likewise, “Fifty Shades of Grey”, the 2015 American erotic romantic drama. This movie grossed 166.2 million dollars in the US and Canada and 403.5 million dollars in other countries, against a budget of 40 million. So, maybe it’s not always about the art. Perhaps, art is just the perfect cover up to prevent admitting that we know viewers love nude scenes and want to keep seeing them, so let’s continue giving them that and make our money.
Art or Discomfiting
While it would be impossible to limit film makers and their freedom of expression of whatever art means to them, where do we get to draw the line. How do we determine what is okay or what is not? What’s the way to go about differentiating the “safe nude scenes” and “the out of the ordinary ones”? Some argue that viewers are free to watch whatever they please, which is why there are existing guidelines like the age ratings and the content description (suicide, sex, violence). With the existence of these guidelines, viewers then get to choose what they would rather watch and what they would rather pass.
The Nigerian Movie Industry and the Reception to Nudity in Movies
Over the years, the Nigerian society is one that has upheld an esteemed, deeply rooted level of moral consciousness and conservativeness, especially when it comes to nudity and sex scenes in its film. If you grew up in a Nigerian home, then you can relate to how awkward it can get if you are watching a kissing scene with your parents. You are not the one on the screen but you are embarrassed. So you either change the channel or you pray for the ground to swallow you up. That’s just a kissing scene, not to talk of a full blown nude or sex scene. But for the recent guts and expressiveness in the air, sex is not something that is freely talked about in Nigeria and nudity is in fact completely frowned against.
However, times have changed and social media has helped cement that change. This change is also reflective of the Nollywood culture and the Nigerian movie industry at large. Gradually, nudity is being introduced into our movies and it seems to be sneaking in slowly, waiting to become a norm. There have been a number of releases lately on Netflix that have featured a pattern of nude and unclad scenes. “Anikulapo” grossed a total revenue of N9,387,000 in just seven days of its release. Shortly after, we also had “Elesin Oba” and “Shanty Town”. It is important to acknowledge the brilliance of the storytelling and the beautiful interpretations and these movies really did justice to that.
However, we’re not sure the stories were good enough to divert the attention from the controversial nude scenes. When certain actors were called out and condemned for being nude or bearing some part of their body; they are always quick to say; “It was a body dub”. Meanwhile, body dub or not, it is still nudity.
Would we also say that this new wave by Nollywood is a form of expression of art, or a way to meet up with modern standards so as to make money?
Is it Possible to Make a Great Movie Without Nudity?
This is not completely a yes or no question, so we would let the facts answer the question. Have there been movies that have grossed at the box office without nude or sex scenes in them? The Marvel Cinematic Universe readily comes to mind here. But let’s start from the most recent “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. In 2022, it was the fifth biggest Hollywood hit at the worldwide box office after crossing over $767 million at the global box office. The first Black Panther film also concluded with $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office. We can also agree that the storyline was gripping, riveting and purged variety of emotions from its audience. Love, Romance, revenge, were all vividly portrayed without any character having to strip off clothes.
Also very noteworthy is the blockbuster, “Avatar: The Way of Water”, which already overtook the 1997 iconic hit, “Titanic” and claimed the third spot on the list of the highest grossing movies of all time at the box office. “The Way of Water” made $2.243 billion, against Titanic’s $2.242 billion.
While some preach that nudity might be necessary to the story-telling, to reveal some information about the character, there is a very thin line between what is needed or not. So, the question is, are nude scenes necessarily always there to improve a story’s plot, for art or are they a strategy to make you glued to your screens?
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