The Bare Truth

April 22, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

One of the things that has changed radically with “TV” in recent years is the lack of content restrictions. When I was growing up, TV meant three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC – no FOX yet) and PBS. For the networks, there were definite limitations to what was allowed. When it came to profanity, you couldn’t get away with much of anything. It wasn’t just Carlin’s seven words. “Hell” and “damn” were rare – those were more often than not “heck” and “darn.” “Bitch” – never. “Son of a bitch” was invariably “Son of a gun.” Violence had to be bloodless. And nudity – there was no nudity. Bikinis were okay as long as they weren’t too revealing. Belly buttons (which had been an issue in the “I Dream of Jeannie” days), bare feet, and legs were allowable but cleavage and buttocks were borderline.

PBS had different standards. The first time I saw a naked woman on TV was on PBS (“I, Claudius” for those who might be curious). And the second. And the third. And so on… Now, PBS wasn’t overflowing with nudity but, when compared to the networks, it was the only game. To catch it, however, you had to watch a lot of “Masterpiece Theater” and “Mystery!” because those were the only places it could be found and even then it was sometimes censored. Ah, the ‘70s and ‘80s!

Today, however, it’s an understatement to say the landscape has changed. The networks are more liberal at least insofar as profanity and violence are concerned. However, the strides made by NYPD Blue have been mostly erased. To date, no network program that I’m aware of has shown more flesh than that show…and it aired 20 years ago. In making NYPD Blue, Steven Bochco was trying to force a change. For a while, it looked like he was succeeding. Nearly every cast member – male and female – had to do at least one nude scene. Nothing was explicit – it was mainly butts and side-boobs (no nipples) – but it was there. However, no other series jumped on the bandwagon and several watchdog groups made complaints. To date, no other network TV show has shown that much gumption. When it comes to ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, prurience rules.

But “TV” no longer means the networks. They are a small subset of what people watch and, as far as some viewers are concerned, nearly irrelevant. The first expansion of TV was the addition of cable stations – both “free” and “pay.” In the early days, HBO lived up to its name – Home Box Office. It was a way to see a small selection of movies during the period between when they played in theaters and made their way to network TV (or, in some cases, a UHF “Late Show”). For HBO, home video altered the playing field – they got the movies after they had become available on VHS for-rent but before the $90 price tag was dropped to $20.

HBO wasn’t the only pay station in the 1980s. There was Cinemax (referred to jokingly as Skin-o-Max), which featured sillier, raunchier movies and, at least late-night on Fridays, soft-core porn. I’m not sure when Showtime came into the picture but it was around that era. Locally, there was also something called PRISM, which combined premium movies with sports. That status quo was broken when HBO started making its own programming. That would have been Oz in 1997. The Sopranos started in 1999 and that’s really when the shift started. For a while, it was only the pay stations that created their own programming but soon seemingly every cable network got their piece of the pie. Some of the shows were awful but there were so many of them that, by the law of averages, some had to be good…and those are the ones we remember.

The addition of new content from streaming services like Netflix (which started this trend with House of Cards) and opened yet another front for quality programs. Suddenly, one no longer had to have a physical TV to enjoy TV. And that’s when movie studios started to feel the heat because the top tier of cable TV/streaming programs were proving to have deeper narratives, better character development, and (in some cases) better world-building. And, because the FCC lacks dominion over cable and Internet, there are no content restrictions. Game of Thrones can have an exposition dump while naked characters are engaged in an orgy in the background. Kind-of makes Caligula’s activities in I, Claudius seem tame.

In some ways, movies have reacted strangely to TV. Perhaps recognizing that most of the really good stuff is geared toward adults, they have shifted their focus to PG-13 material. It’s no secret that all but specialty fare (i.e. “Oscar movies”), art house material, and family-oriented blockbusters are targeted primarily at viewers in the 9-16-year old range. Those movies have little in the way of “adult content.” Sex is cute, coy, and mostly off-screen. Violence is bloodless. Profanity is limited to one “fuck” per movie (although I think you can say “shit” as often as you want, goddammit). And (female) nipples are a no-no. In the PG-13 world, women don’t have nipples unless they’re covered by a shirt.

I did a non-scientific survey of nudity in 2017 movies to determine two things: whether we have yet reached a point in which the male/female flesh ratio has gotten closer to 1.0 than it was in, say, the ‘80s and ’90; and whether the amount of nudity has increased or decreased from where it was at the turn of the century. Neither result surprised me.

For the purposes of this overview, I used only reasonably mainstream R-rated movies released theatrically during 2017. The sample size was 65. I compared them to something similar I had done back in 2000. I don’t have the specific numbers from that year but I have percentages and I’ll present those after I get done with the recent results.

First, I define “nudity” as a shot of breasts (female), buttocks (both), and/or pubic areas (both). Nipples don’t have to be visible. The shots can be medium, close-up, or even somewhat obscured. In mainstream movies, the penis is mostly absent (only occasionally making an appearance) but the vulva is entirely missing. The last mainstream vulva I remember is Rosario Dawson’s in Trance.

Of those 65 R-rated 2017 movies, 31 had no nudity whatsoever. That comprises 48%. Five featured male-only nudity and five featured both male and female nudity. So men were naked in 15% of the R-rated movies. Female-only nudity occurred in 21 titles. So women were naked 40% of the time. That’s nearly a 3-to-1 discrepancy between naked women and naked men. But nudity only has a slight edge over non-nudity in R-rated films.

In 2000, there was nudity in 64% of R-rated movies. Solo male nudity never occurred. (There were no movies released that year in which only men were naked.) Sole female nudity occurred 55% of the time. Both men and women were naked at a 9% clip. Those results are very different from the 2017 ones. Not only have the incidences of nudity dropped dramatically but, even though there’s still a significant discrepancy, men are getting naked considerably more frequently.

It doesn’t take a PhD to speculate about why this has changed and most of it has to do with the Internet (in one form or another). Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the lure of naked flesh in R-rated movies was a way to get older teens and college-age students into theaters. Nudity was a tried-and-true route to boosting the box office of any flick aimed at a young male audience. For a 25-year period beginning in 1977 and lasting until around 2002, the male age 15-30 demographic was by far the most desirable one for studios. They would do anything to get members of that gender/age group into theaters. Sex and nudity were a prominent tool.

The Internet essentially ruined the value of gratuitous nudity because now anything in a theater seemed tame compared to what could be seen at home on a computer screen. Plus, demographics were changing. As boys and young men rejected movies in favor of video games (and other pursuits), girls and women became important in driving the box office. By 2017, studios are increasingly targeting women as much as (or, in some cases, more than) men. And, as shown by the increase in PG-13 features, the target group is skewing younger. None of these changes are favorable toward screen nudity in general. (If women were more visually oriented, we probably would have seen a greater increase in male nudity.)

It’s different with TV, however, where the explosion of adult-oriented content has encouraged series directors to explore areas that were once taboo for the small screen. Some of this may just be a reaction to the freedom of being able to do something that was previously not allowed but some may be a natural creative extension of the removal of censorship. Whatever the reason, there seems to be an inverse relationship between movie nudity and TV nudity. As the former decreases the latter increases.

Adult-oriented movies, whether they include nudity or not, are being squeezed out. Successes like Deadpool and Logan are viewed as exceptions, throwbacks to a time when a 20-something male-dominated audience ruled the multiplex. This is the era of PG-13 and, while it may be profitable today, what happens when today’s 12-year olds become 25-year olds and want something more mature than PG-13? Where will they turn? To the place where they’re already getting a lot of their content: their phone or tablet. And that’s what really scares Hollywood because this is one problem for which they don’t currently have a solution.