Netflix and Nudity: Are We Normalizing or Further Objectifying the Female Body?

– Dr. Anjali Mediboina, House Surgeon, ASRAM

I remember reading a news article about a stalking case when I was young; an Indian man in Australia was arrested for stalking a woman. When presenting his case in court, his lawyer argued that “this man is Indian; in Indian movies, they show stalking as a form of love, and thus, due to the influence of these movies, he too believes that stalking is a form of love, so it is not his mistake[1].” 

There’s no doubt, that movies and media do have a major influence on an individual’s thoughts and behaviors. But I want to talk about nudity in media in particular. 

TOP, left to right: A Painting by Raja Ravi Varma (Untitled); The Birth Of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, Fresh From Bath by Raja Ravi Varma

BOTTOM, left to right: David by Michaelangelo, sculptures at the Sun Temple in Konark, Nude Warrior with a Spear by Theodore Gericault

For some, nudity in the media is seen as liberating, a revolution even. For so long, female nudity has been seen as something shameful, and many argue that it is this shame that gives the patriarchy so much power. Or, as Vedanshi from the ENID Network writes, 

“Every other day, women are being blackmailed because the oppressor is hiding behind their nudes that he either gained unethically, by mistake, or were shared in trust. Victims like Jennifer Lawrence and Erin Andrews would have been bereft of the suffering that they had to go through if not for this stigma[2].”

There’s also the portrayal of the “perfect female body” in media; the fair and flawlessly skinned female with a 36-24-36 figure, which has been the cause of numerous disorders from anorexia/bulimia to body dysmorphia. With more and more plus-sized actresses being welcomed in media, there is hope that bodies of all shapes and sizes will be normalized and nurture more body-positive minds. 

However, the rise of OTT platforms has made sure that subscriptions to streaming services are now household staples, with a wide variety of content at our fingertips. It is my observation that a lot of the content in these platforms contains nudity and sexual scenes, which of course, isn’t a bad thing per se; but do note that this content could easily be viewed by younger audiences. The biggest concern here is that exposure to sexual content at a younger age could cause these viewers to believe that what they see is the norm, as suggested by papers such as Coyne et al[3]

Thus, the question: Is nudity in media good or bad? Are we normalizing or further objectifying the female body?

Well, while researching the topic, I came across a literature review entitled ‘Impacts on children and young people of exposure to nudity on television and other media’, conducted by The Collaborative Trust and released by BSA (Broadcasting Standards Authority, New Zealand) in 2019[4]. A brilliant paper, it presented both sides of the argument really well. 

The paper explored nudity in media in different contexts; nudity within a family context, educational context, artistic context, and lastly, in a sexual context. 

For family context, the paper mentioned a study by Allen & Lavender-Stott in 2015, which asked 199 participants, all American men aged 18-23 years, to remember the first time they saw a sexual image, how they reacted to it and what the situation was when they encountered this image[5]. A significant number of the participants reported that they first viewed sexual images with parents, and further reported that they would have appreciated some form of education from parents. 

Within an educational context, the review substantiated that sometimes nudity on screen can be educational, such as in the case of providing sexual education. 

In an artistic context, the review cited S. Bey’s paper ‘Naked bodies and nasty pictures: Decoding sex scripts in preadolescence, re-examining normative nudity through art education, who proposed using three frameworks- artistic, informational, and pornographic; rather than viewing nakedness as merely sexual, he calls for nudity in the art to “challenge the normative response to nudity[6].”

Most of the studies considered in the present literature review focussed on the sexual context of nudity in media. The negative aspects identified included, but are not limited to: 

  • Sexual risk-taking such as early sexual activity, casual sex, unintended pregnancies, and contracting STIs
  • Impact of sexual attitudes, for example, promoting the idea that to be sexually attractive one has to be slim or muscular, which may affect the individual psychologically. 
  • A study by Vandenbosch and Eggermont in 2011 found that adolescents in Belgium who watched sexually-oriented reality television programs two or more times a week were associated with adolescent girls talking about sex with their peers more frequently and with boys perceiving that male peers were more permissive in their sexual habits; causing both mental and physical harm[7]

However, several positive impacts were also identified. A study of Flemish teenagers by Van Damme & Biltereyst, 2013, argued that watching sexualized media content led to sex becoming less of a taboo subject for adolescent viewers, who were thus able to openly talk and think about what they had seen[8]

Conclusion

In my opinion, there will always be a gray area when it comes to media and consumerism. One on hand, the content in media can be used for good, to normalize nudity and remove the toxic perceptions created by it; on the other hand, the same media can have the wrong effects by creating negative perceptions, especially in the younger audiences. 

The BSA paper also cited a paper by Flander et al., who in 2009 itself wrote: 

“The nature of sexual content on television is constantly changing and what may have been seen as inappropriate in the past, such as full-frontal nudity on reality television, may not be viewed in this way by young people today[9]

This statement made me think of the TV show, Euphoria. On the surface, the explicit nature of the show may be considered shocking, scandalous even, but the raw depiction of drug abuse, sexuality and toxic relationships has actually helped create a dialogue on the Internet about what is and is not okay. Also, these TV shows, like Euphoria and Sex Education, have been extremely inclusive and real in their representation of a diverse range of people and their lives; which brings us back to the first point of normalizing the more realistic female body, and rejecting the idea of “perfection” that media loves to push at its consumers. 

I believe that by questioning the content and by fighting for more diverse and inclusive representation, media can definitely be used to normalize, and not objectify, female nudity and nakedness. 

You can read the entire BSA Literature Review here.

References

1. News. Indian accused of stalking women in Australia – Times of India [Internet]. The Times of India. 2014 [cited 5 May 2022]. Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/nri/other-news/indian-accused-of-stalking-women-in-australia/articleshow/38961767.cms

2. Vedanshi. Normalising Female Nudity [Internet]. The ENID Network. 2020 [cited 5 May 2022]. Available from: https://enidnetwork.org/2020/10/14/normalising-female-nudity/

3. Coyne SM, Ward LM, Kroff SL, Davis EJ, Holmgren HG, Jensen AC, Erickson SE, Essig LW. Contributions of mainstream sexual media exposure to sexual attitudes, perceived peer norms, and sexual behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2019 Apr 1;64(4):430-6.

4. Tapper L, Gardner S, Bagshaw S, Schroder R. Literature Review: Impacts on Children and Young People of Exposure to Nudity on Television and Other Media [Internet]. Bsa.govt.nz. 2019 [cited 5 May 2022]. Available from: https://www.bsa.govt.nz/assets/Research-reports/a014ffca1b/20190723-Final-Copy-Literature-Review-Report.pdf

5. Allen KR, Lavender‐Stott ES. Family contexts of informal sex education: Young men’s perceptions of first sexual images. Family Relations. 2015 Jul;64(3):393-406.

6. Bey S. Naked bodies and nasty pictures: Decoding sex scripts in preadolescence, re-examining normative nudity through art education. Studies in Art Education. 2011 Apr 1;52(3):196-212.

7. Vandenbosch L, Eggermont S. Temptation Island, the Bachelor, Joe Millionaire: A prospective cohort study on the role of romantically themed reality television in adolescents’ sexual development. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 2011 Nov 30;55(4):563-80.

8. Van Damme E, Biltereyst D. Let’s talk about sex: audience research of Flemish teenage television viewers and their view on sexuality. Journal of Youth Studies. 2013 May 1;16(3):287-303.

9. Flander GB, Cosic I, Profaca B. Exposure of children to sexual content on the Internet in Croatia. Child abuse & neglect. 2009 Dec 1;33(12):849-56.

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