Liberating? Exploitative? A Nude Scene Summer Report Card.
From “The Idol” to “Oppenheimer,” women’s bodies were on display on our screens the past few months. Some executions succeeded with humor, others felt misguided.
By Maya Phillips
This has been a summer of women being liberated — from their wardrobes, mostly. The nudity on our screens has been a topic of constant conversation for months, from the provoking premiere of “The Idol” in June to the left-field nudity in “Oppenheimer” (and the interpersonal havoc it wreaked on some relationships, as one viral TikTok can attest to). In each instance the theme, in one respect or another, seems to be liberation: not necessarily of the de Beauvoir variety, but a female character’s liberation from some kind of enclosure, whether societal, cultural or personal, and her nudity is meant to reflect that.
Depending on the context of the story, the director’s intention, the work’s perspective or the execution of the shot, a nude scene may serve as shorthand for a character’s newfound physical or spiritual freedom, or even an emotional or psychological breakthrough. Or it may be another case of entertainment using a woman’s body for shock value. What follows is a spoiler-filled survey of the most gratuitous, unforgettable scenes of nudity this summer — and an analysis of which ones succeeded in showcasing the female form with reason and intention, as more than just eye candy.
Constant nudity means an unsatisfying night of television.
The setup: On “The Idol,” a young pop star named Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp), feeling artistically frustrated and in the midst of a nervous breakdown, thrives under the tutelage of a mysterious club owner named Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd) who is fostering a cult of skilled wannabe stars.
The scene: It’s tough to pick just one nude scene in this disaster of a television show because Jocelyn is perennially stuck in a state of partial undress. In the first few minutes of the first episode we see Jocelyn in an open silky red robe at a photo shoot, arguing with the intimacy coordinator about her choice to do the shoot with her breasts visible.
By belittling the job of the intimacy coordinator, the scene appears to be less about building Jocelyn as a character than it is about the series planting a flag in the bedraggled land of lurid television. Jocelyn’s insistence on doing the shoot without covering up is meant to illustrate that she’s a liberated woman, fully in charge of her sexuality, her body, her image. But “The Idol” never figures out what it thinks of its own characters, nor what they want or what to do with them.
One of the prevailing questions about the show among viewers was: Are we meant to think Jocelyn is actually talented? It’s unclear whether the show considers its protagonist a true artist or an inept yet deluded peddler of mass-market schlock. Similarly, we don’t know how much control Jocelyn actually has. Her submissiveness to Tedros seems to indicate that she’s being manipulated. So Jocelyn’s daily wardrobe choices — which don’t ever seem to include baggy house clothes for bloated days or cotton pajamas for comfy lounging — seem to be less about her own self-image and freedom than they are about her being trapped in a 24/7 prison of objectification by her public and those around her.
But the show makes a messy concluding three-point-turn near the end, proposing that perhaps Jocelyn was the evil mastermind after all. Just like the show can’t have both its earnest, docile starlet and cunning undercover operator, it can’t have a celebrity with both total agency and an obsession with appeasing everyone in their ideas of what she should look like and what she represents as an artist. Either way, with the show’s cancellation, it seems Jocelyn’s career is forever dead, with no Tedros to revive it.
Fisticuffs in the buff make sexuality besides the point.
The setup: In “No Hard Feelings,” Maddie (Jennifer Lawrence), a crude and awkward 30-something with commitment issues who’s strapped for cash, responds to an ad from a rich couple seeking a woman to date and deflower their unknowing 19-year-old son, Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). Maddie’s attempts at seducing the neurotic and insecure teenager are repeatedly thwarted in the most ridiculous ways, but in the process Maddie and Percy build a real connection.
The scene: One night, as Maddie and a reluctant Percy go skinny-dipping at the beach, some bullies try to steal their stuff. Maddie steps out of the water in a full-frontal reveal, which then leads to a very NSFW fight sequence.
Here “No Hard Feelings” takes a classic romance trope — the sexy, impromptu post-date dip — and wrings out all of the seduction, instead opting for absurd physical comedy. The scene, which includes an impressive crotch punch, succeeds for Lawrence’s dedication to this juvenile (and creepy) entry into the “raunchy sex comedy” category of forgettable B-movies.
The camerawork is respectful, matter-of-fact, with no hint of a lingering eye. Lawrence’s body is not the point of the scene, but the vehicle of the comedy. Her sexuality is incidental; she pummels the beach interlopers so thoroughly that the violence purposely undermines her attempt to appear desirous to Percy.
Miranda deserves better.
The setup: In the second season of this “Sex and the City” sequel, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) struggles to maintain her frayed relationships with her family while figuring out how she defines her sexual identity.
The scene: Despite the show’s revolutionary, daring precursor, “And Just Like That…” can’t seem to figure out how to write its characters into a new world of sex, relationships and dating. AJLT also takes a more demure approach to its depictions of sex — which makes Miranda’s two full-frontal nude scenes in Episode 1 especially surprising.
A beloved character that many SATC fans read to be coded gay — as did Nixon herself, who has been outspoken about her own coming out journey — Miranda discovers a new dimension to her sexuality once she meets Che (Sara Ramirez), a queer nonbinary comedian. In the first nude scene, part of a season-opening sex montage, Miranda is the only one of the cast members who is exposed, shown nude from the belly up in a pool with Che. At first the montage seems to place the queer romance on equal terms with the cis heterosexual ones, but the moment of nudity does seem as though “And Just Like That…” is calling special, almost self-congratulatory, attention to Miranda and Che.
But Miranda struggles to adjust to a new relationship, a new sexuality and a new lifestyle, exemplified by the second scene, where Miranda tries Che’s sensory deprivation tank. Unable to relax, Miranda panics and stumbles her way out of the tank, floundering in the nude. It’s a depiction of the fish-out-of-water metaphor that extends to another scene in the episode that shows her in the bedroom with Che struggling to use a sex toy. Here Miranda serves as a comic aside.
Miranda’s arc has been the least forgiving in the series, given how her journey of self-discovery comes at the cost of her relationships and, in these nude scenes and others, her dignity. Miranda’s nascent sexual liberation is graphically defined by gaffes and naïveté. For a show that aims to represent women — and, particularly, middle-aged women, with more diverse bodies and backgrounds and sexual orientations than “SATC” included in its series — “And Just Like That…” unfortunately uses an older woman’s body as a punchline.
A well-placed tattoo can create comedy gold.
The setup: In “Joy Ride” Audrey (Ashley Park), an Asian American lawyer raised by white parents, travels to China for a business trip that, thanks to her friends Lolo (Sherry Cola), Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), transforms into a crazy vacation full of sex, drugs and misadventures. In one such outing Audrey finds herself in the middle of a threesome with two handsome basketball players. In another, a wardrobe malfunction reveals Kat’s secret genital tattoo.
The scene: The movie’s charm lies largely in its dedication to its tried-but-true girlfriends-gone-wild genre of comedy. So even the formulaic setups and telegraphed emotional resolution are entertaining given how much free rein the characters — and the actors playing them — are offered to showcase the film’s absurdity. One of the reoccurring themes in the movie is the importance of being true to yourself, and the nude scenes fall perfectly in line with this idea.
Audrey’s emotional journey hinges on her unwillingness to find her birth mother and connect with her culture. Her friends mock her for her uptightness and for her unchecked internalized racism — the knee-jerk trust she shows for a blond white woman over someone who looks like her, her obliviousness to her culture’s food and traditions, her infamously poor track record for dating Asian men. So when she sleeps with two attractive Asian athletes, it’s her liberating moment, when she can let loose sexually and feel open to embracing — literally and figuratively — Asianness.
Likewise, Kat’s nude moment — revealing the giant demon head encompassing her full vulva — is the punchline to a classic, tidy setup that traces back to the early scenes of the movie, when Audrey lets slip to Lolo that Kat has a genital tattoo. Lolo’s vulgar line of questioning and theories about Kat’s private art, paired with the reveal that Kat pretends to be a chaste virgin in her relationship with her very Christian fiancé, build up the comedic tension. When her embellished nethers make an appearance, it’s a surprise, but not a sexy one. The garish detail of the demon face — and the pivot to an “internal” view, the camera showing the other three friends peeking into her vagina — rockets the movie’s comedy up to absurd heights without seeming unnecessarily sexualized or exploitative.
One man gets to be brilliant, while a brilliant woman gets to be naked.
The setup: In “Oppenheimer,” the eponymous father of the atomic bomb (Cillian Murphy) is seen through the lens of his research, shifting politics and personal affairs — including a romance with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) — from his school days to his role as scientific director of the Manhattan Project to his public discrediting in the wake of a 1954 security hearing.
The scene: For all of the ways “Oppenheimer” succeeds as a film, from its cinematography and performances to its storytelling, it also commits a cardinal cinematic sin: not just underusing a great actress like Florence Pugh, but also blatantly objectifying her character in gratuitous nude scenes.
In Pugh’s first scene, Jean and Oppenheimer meet and banter, as if to show that she’s a worthy intellectual adversary, and therefore a worthy lover for the man-genius. After a meager couple of lines of dialogue Jean is naked, straddling Oppenheimer while instructing him to translate a copy of the “Bhagavad Gita” in his room. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he translates, immediately transforming the scene into a misogynistic trope so often used in stories about male genius. Jean is not a brilliant thinker with daring politics; she’s not a character with her own story and agency. She is reduced to a body and a brilliant man’s inspiration.
In Pugh’s second nude scene, when Tatlock persuades Oppenheimer to take a short leave of the Manhattan Project to spend the night with her in a hotel, she’s the stand-in for temptation. Her passion for him, and his ultimate refusal to continue their affair, helps the film craft an image of a man who is desired not just for his brain, but also his body.
But the most unforgivable is Jean’s final nude appearance, imagined by Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), during Oppenheimer’s hearing. The only new information the scene is meant to convey is Kitty’s reaction to the council’s line of questioning about Oppenheimer’s affair with Jean. But Blunt’s acting — the hardness in her eyes, the clear expression of disdain and embarrassment — tells us all we need to know about her emotional response. Here the film yet again erases Jean’s personhood; she exists almost purely within the imagination of Oppenheimer and that of his wife, who like Jean, is similarly underwritten. She’s an underdressed footnote in a story about a smart guy she slept with a few times. What woman would envy that?
Maya Phillips is a critic at large. She is the author of “Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse” and the poetry collection “Erou.” More about Maya Phillips
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