Our favourite Downtown Abbey star and Hogwarts professor Maggie Smith has recently said during a conversation at Tricycle Theatre that she feels she wouldn’t be able to make it as a young actress in today’s industry, considering how they have to “strip off every second”. But how much have these attitudes to female nude scenes on TV really changed, and to what extent can this increase of female nudity in the media be seen as empowerment of women, spreading messages of body positivity.
The truth behind Smith’s sentiment can be seen in the annual report on the Status of Women and Girls in California, which revealed that in the top 100 films of 2014, 26% of the female characters appeared nude or partially nude, compared to just 9% of male characters. While this rate of nudity is obviously quite high, I would argue that the pressure on younger actresses to do such scenes has existed for a long time, probably during the start of Maggie’s own acting career.
During a time when political correctness was unpopular and every day sexism was considered something that ‘just happened’, it is arguable that Maggie Smith and her colleagues would have experienced more pressure to ‘strip off’ than in today’s industry. Dame Helen Mirren has spoken out about late film director Michael Winner, and his sexist behaviour towards her at a casting session in 1964, when she was required to turn around and ‘show off her physique’. The actress said she found it incredible insulting and felt that actresses shouldn’t be treated like a ‘piece of meat’. Moreover, in 1983 an actress from the film The Wicked Lady had been told by her director that if she didn’t do a nude scene she would ‘never work in films again’.
While some actresses have received threats for not taking part in such scenes, it is also common for those who do decide to appear nude to receive criticism. Amazing. For example, ‘Game of Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke has recently opened up on her frustration at having to continuously justify her decision to take part in this side of acting, and as a result has expressed her wish to not want to take part in further nude scenes, as to avoid the inconvenience. Can’t blame her.
However, the increase in nude scenes has given way to seeing more diverse body types in popular areas of social media. For example, actress Gabourey Sidibe recently took part in a sex scene for US series “Empire”. Although she received criticism for this, her appearance in the scene promoted body confidence amongst black and plus size women, inspiring a twitter hashtag: #MyFatSexStory. This illustrates how nude scenes in films can provide an opportunity to challenge expectations of what women’s bodies should look like, instead of just size 6 and white. Female nudity on our screens can also send more positive messages and its increased quantity can contribute to ending the stigmatization of women’s sexuality.
So although, as Maggie said, young actresses are often seen ‘stripping off’ for the camera, this is something that has been around for a while. And while it has the potential to contribute to the sexualisation of women, it could also end the taboo around female nudity and sexual expression.