Graphic Nudity

August 09, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Time for another MPAA-related rant. Maybe I should dedicate one day a week to an anti-MPAA ReelThought.

Last week, I saw Broken Flowers, the lastest Jim Jarmusch film. The MPAA has given it a justifiable R-rating. That's not what this column is about. Instead, it's about one of the reasons for the R-rating. According to the MPAA's content description, it is rated R for "graphic nudity" (amongst other things).

"Graphic nudity?"

I can't recall having seen that phrase used before to elaborate on a rating. "Graphic violence" - yes. "Graphic sex" - yes (usually NC-17). But not "graphic nudity." So what constitutes "graphic nudity?" I was curious. Was I about to see a close-up of a vagina or a penis? Was someone in the film going to spread his or her legs? The lack of an NC-17 indicates that the "graphic nudity" occurs in a non-sexual situation, so pornography seemed unlikely. Maybe it would be something like the still photographs in Kinsey. That, as far as I could guess, would deserve to be tagged "graphic nudity."

So what was so shocking, so unusual that the MPAA coined a new term for it? A naked woman walks into a room, smiles at Bill Murray, then turns around and walks out. Admittedly, we see pretty much all of her (breasts, buns, pubic hair), but it doesn't last long. Three seconds tops. Frankly, it's a lot tamer than some nude scenes in films that have not been labeled as containing "graphic nudity." There was pubic hair in The Devil's Rejects, and the only "graphic" that film got was for violence.

There are reasons beyond the "graphic nudity" for Broken Flowers to be rated R, so I'm not going to quibble with the classification. But, from the MPAA's perspective, the nude scene alone would disqualify this movie from a less restrictive rating. And that's where things stop making sense. Once again, I find myself asking why a naked human body cannot be seen by anyone under the age of 17. The context is non-sexual. Are breasts such a horrifying sight that we feel the need to protect minors from seeing them? (This makes even less sense with girls, since they have them. Are they not allowed to stand naked in front of a mirror?)

Even after bringing religion into the equation, it still makes no sense. (Nudity is not a sin, and if the presence of nudity results in lust - which is a sin - the problem is with the observer, not the nude person.) The point of this scene (and countless others like it) is not to titillate or arouse. It's to illustrate an aspect of a woman's character (that she's uninhibited and doesn't mind casual nudity). People in this country are scared of the human body. It freaks them out. They can't deal with the concept that covering something up makes it more taboo. If women were allowed to go topless as freely as men are, the intense fascination with breasts would abate in a generation or two. (Look to those counties where female toplessness is legal.) There would still be breast festishists, just as there are foot fetishists and hair fetishists today. But naked breasts would no longer be objects of shame and fear.

And now the movies give us "graphic nudity." For those keeping score, here is what I believe the MPAA means by some of its cryptic, unhelpful phrases related to naked bodies. "Discreet nudity" refers to a glimpse of flesh, but nothing that can be identified except by pausing the DVD player during a particular frame. A quick flash of a nipple or partial view of buns fits into this category. "Nudity" refers to a breast or bun view - anything that lasts longer than "discreet nudity," but doesn't show anything between upper thighs and hips in the front. "Graphic nudity" is what is more commonly referred to as "full frontal." Or at least that's what I think it means. I'll need to see some more "graphic nudity" before making a final determination.

Whatever will the MPAA think of next?