The Boob Tube

January 31, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

What do Charlotte Ross and Billie Piper have in common (aside from both being attractive blond actresses)? Both have shown their butts on TV. But oh how different the reactions have been...

Piper, the teen pop starlet-turned-Dr. Who companion-turned serious actress, bared almost all during her recently completed ITV television series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which comprised eight 22-minute episodes and, based on popular appeal, will be accorded a second season. Piper played the title character and, as one might suspect from a program with that name, she was required to show some flesh. She was partially naked at some point in about half the episodes, showing enough of her breasts (side, front) and bum to heat up the inside of the TARDIS. Fanboys (and probably a few fangirls), one can imagine, were excited. The thing is, this was shown on "regular" British TV. Viewers didn't have to pay extra to see the goodies unveiled. It's part of a relaxed national view of nudity that has existed for a long time. (I recall breasts in I, Claudius and that was on British TV 30 years ago.)

Now, to Charlotte Ross. When NYPD Blue debuted on ABC in the early 1990s, it set out to be a groundbreaking show. There was (discreet) nudity, sex, and profanity unlike anything previously seen on network TV in the United States. It seemed that NYPD Blue was paving a new avenue. It was a badge of honor to be asked to bare one's butt for the show and, over the years, almost everyone did it, including Dennis Franz. Charlotte Ross joined the show in 2001 and departed in 2004. Her opportunity to display her wares occurred on February 25, 2003 and turned out not only to be one of NYPD Blue's most memorable "butt moments," but also one of its last. Less than a year after that, in February 2004, Janet Jackson suffered her infamous "wardrobe malfunction," an example of bad timing and crassness that effectively ended television's slow crawl away from prudishness. The FCC came down hard on all of the networks at the time and even Blue had to turn yellow. It felt like being back in the '80s. A couple of years later, NYPD Blue went gently into the night.

Now, suddenly, Ross's butt is back in the news. Five years after the event, the FCC has announced $1.4M in fines of stations who aired that impressive posterior. This has had the unintentional result of causing the scene to go viral on YouTube (link below) with well over a million viewers. Guess there are quite a few who weren't offended by what the saw (or didn't see and want a chance to).

The point - and there is one - is how something similar is treated so differently in countries that share so many things, including a language (despite what some might argue) and a history. The British are often portrayed has being stiff and pompous, yet they're capable of watching female nudity on television without hiding in the closet and wailing for Mommy to turn it off. Americans, it seems, are afraid of breasts. I can't understand why. I once heard a religious fundamentalist preacher attempt to argue that they're "reproductive organs" and that such things are too indecent to be exposed in public. As to the first point, I challenge him to find any reputable biologist who will support him. As to the second point, he can take it up with their designer.

I won't claim that the rest of the world "gets it," because a lot of countries are as backward as the United States when it comes to toplessness. It really comes down to prolonged exposure. Studies have shown conclusively that the more men are exposed to bare female breasts, the less power to arouse they have. Consider the foot, for example. In general (foot fetishists excepted), the sight of a bare foot in America does not cause sexual excitement. But there are cultures where the foot is considered to be erotic and must be hidden from sight. Sound strange? But it is all that different from how we treat breasts in this country? The demonization of toplessness has, to me, always been one of the strangest aspects of this culture.

What it comes down to is that if you live in England (or France, or Germany, or the Netherlands, or Spain, or Quebec, or…), you can see naked women on your TV without having to pay an additional monthly subscription fee. In the United States, you'd better shell out for HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime. The days when we can view something like Charlotte Ross earning her NYPD Blue stripes are long gone. That YouTube clip is a relic of the past, a reminder of days when TV viewers seemed to be coming to their senses. Maybe some day, the FCC will loosen up and people will realize that there's nothing indecent about a breast (it might be noted that nearly everyone has two of them).

Oh, and if you live in the United States, Secret Diary of a Call Girl is coming uncut to a TV near you - provided you're a Showtime subscriber.

YouTube link to Charlotte Ross in "Nude Awakenings" {Sorry, but I can't find any links on "legitimate" sites to Piper's nudity, but if you scour the search engines, you should be able to stumble upon it.}