girls on film, indeed
November 10, 2003 11:34 AM

This week on WHB, Ryan has us talking about the use of the female body as background visuals in film.

It seems like a couple of posters turned this back around to the porn debate, which I don't think is where Ryan was trying to take us. Whatever one may feel about pornography, it's intriguing that many non-pornographic movies make use have naked and half-naked women as a sort of wallpaper. The movies that come to mind for me are primarily action movies filled with guns and kicking (i.e. the entire Jackie Chan / Chris Rock oeuvre), so I've tended to assume that it's a cheap visual device for entertainment. Besides, everyone knows that (according to stock Hollywood filmic criteria) all gangsters, drug users, organized criminals and seedy informants hang out at strip clubs. Crime = naked women. It's been a truism of Hollywood film - and therefore American life - since the 1920s.

And hey, I like pretty ladies, too. I don't pay it much attention. It's surprising how few examples I can come up with to cite something I know I see weekly; that's how little attention I pay. I know, though, that there are un- and half-clothed women cavorting in the background of many of the brainlessly violent buddy and cop movies I've seen, and I don't notice.

Yet. Ryan, being perhaps less of a pop culture kid than myself, cites a couple of excellent movies with very little action that still use this device. And I find this interesting.

Amélie, I think, is a great film, that just happens to throw in a scene with the main male character talking to a stripping woman in the back room of the sex shop he works in. I realize the French, as well as many other societies European and otherwise, are more open to nudity and sexuality than Americans are, or purport to be, but I feel it still fits. Lost in Translation is one of the best films I’ve seen. At about the two-thirds mark, the two main characters are, inexplicably, in a strip club.

So, it's not just action movies.

And again, I barely even noticed this aspect of Amelie (Lost in Translation I have still not yet seen). I suspect part of the inexplicable universality of the strip club sex shop locale that so many movies use is environment creation for viewers like me. It goes back to that crime = naked girls assumption, but it becomes naked girls = soothingly wacky underground scene. If we see sexiness in the background in a non-"criminal" way, I suspect we automatically associate that scene or character with certain qualities: freedom, sexiness, subculture, perhaps?

I'm sure there's more. I bet movies test better if there are some scantily clad women in the background, and I bet a lot of people, like me, don't even register their presence. I don't know how much this impacts independent films like Ryan's examples, but I'm sure it's a factor in big US studio pictures.

Why might this be? Why might the sight of female bodies please us, make us think more highly of a film even, without us paying attention?

I think it's an extension of the use of the body in all sorts of advertising, and an extension of beauty culture. We've used "perfect" female images to convey happiness, health and desirability for so long that I suspect the female body has become a stand-in for those things. And I don't think this is specifically limited to the male gaze, though it likely originated with men as the intended audience. I think we've gotten to the point where the meaning of the nude female body is weighted with a lot of the same implications for viewers of any gender.

Does this necessarily need to be combatted? Well, yes. It's never a good plan to unconsciously consume. At the least, we should all be paying attention enough to recognize when we see nudity used as wallpaper and to notice how we respond to it.

I don't believe we can or should expect the way nudity is treated on film, this use of the body as object - at least, not until we as an audience have ceased to respond to it.

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