The Female Body In Film: Rethinking What’s Normal
The female body has often been sexualized in mainstream film. It's time we become aware of how it affects the way we think about women.
It’s not abnormal or inappropriate to see a naked woman (or man) in a movie, as long as the movie has the proper rating of course. Being naked is normal, a part of life, and in a film, it might signify vulnerability. When people have sex, they’re probably naked. When someone takes a shower, they’re most definitely naked, otherwise, they’re not doing it right. These are moments in life that we see in movies all the time, and that’s okay because more often than not they’re pushing the plot forward.
However, sometimes we see women’s bodies in movies and it is mostly to get the audience’s attention because “sex sells.” When we see bodies on the screen, how do we interpret it? Hollywood dictates what kind of bodies we find attractive, and it also gives us unrealistic ideas about what sex should be like, what is and isn’t normal. So, at what point is a body – woman’s, in particular – moving the plot forward and when is it completely unnecessary?
The Creepiness of American Beauty
One film that comes to mind in this discussion is Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. There’s no complete nudity shown, but our main character Lester (Kevin Spacey) becomes obsessed with his teenage daughter’s best friend, Angela. Utterly infatuated, he cannot seem to stop imagining this teenage girl naked, covered in rose petals. He makes a complete fool of himself throughout the film, making his feelings obvious to both Angela and his own daughter.
While this film won five Oscars including Best Picture, times are changing and the fact that Lester’s transformation at the end of the movie depends entirely on a sexual relationship with a teenage girl is vile. Granted, Lester did not go through with it when it finally hit him that this was literally a young girl. However, the entire change in this character was based on a sexual awakening by a teenager. So, the female body was important to this story, but this is also a story about a middle-aged man’s creepy, sexual obsession with his daughter’s best friend.
Exploitation of the Lesbian Community
Have you ever noticed there are plenty of lesbian-themed movies with sex scenes but not nearly as many with gay men? Not that sex scenes between men are a necessity, but it seems that some films use lesbians to appeal to straight men. Another movie where the female body is important but probably shouldn’t be is Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color.
A ton of controversy followed this film after its release when the actors revealed that the conditions that Kechiche had them work under was stressful and wildly uncomfortable. The movie itself is a romance about a young girl named Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who discovers her queer sexuality when she falls in love with another girl, Emma (Léa Seydoux). The acting is brilliant, the characters are relatable and lovable, and the story is relevant to LGBTQ+ issues today.
The issue with this film is that the sex scenes are not your average from-the-waist-up, one-minute scenes just hinting at what they are doing. The first sex scene is about seven minutes long and is more than enough to make the average audience uncomfortable. Would it have needed to be this long and graphic if it were a man and a woman? Or two men?
The sex in this film did nothing for the plot. You could already see the characters’ passion from the acting. The sex scenes in this movie are nothing more than the director taking advantage of two female actors by making them have sex on screen and calling it “art.” And more importantly, it’s his art. Reading through interviews, he has no regard for how these women felt during filming and certainly gives no comments on their talent. He simply uses these two female bodies to sell this movie.
Shaming Women’s Bodies
Sometimes, a movie can exploit the female body in a way to make it undesirable. In the movie Teeth (directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein), a girl discovers that she has a toothed vagina which will tear a man’s penis off if he’s bad to her. She learns this after being sexually assaulted. For centuries, women have been made to feel like their bodies are disgusting and scary. From their menstrual cycles to just the way their bodies look, women are supposed to be ashamed of themselves.
While there’s the satisfying aspect of the rapist getting his penis bitten off, it may not be worth the fact that this movie panders to the idea that a women’s body is terrifying and gross. This movie isn’t critically acclaimed like the previous two examples, and I don’t interpret it as a movie that takes itself very seriously, but it is still a reflection of society’s view of a woman’s body.
Reevaluation: The Female Body in Film
There are plenty of movies that have “the body” as a theme that aren’t completely negative. The suspense-horror It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) gives a unique take on how a sexual encounter follows you if peers make it their business to judge you based on who you’ve slept with. Many women have to deal with judgment based on how many people they have or haven’t slept with, so it’s an interesting underlying theme in this movie. It’s not nudity or sex that’s bad in movies, it the intention and meaning behind it.
With everything that’s coming out in Hollywood about directors, producers, and actors using their power to take advantage of women to harass or assault them, it is important to take a look back and see that a lot of these men were showing us who they were and what they thought the entire time. People may try to argue that you must separate a work of art from the artist, but art does not exist in a vacuum.
Images of women in film and literature is not a new topic, but it’s time for reevaluation on a lot of movies that are considered “great.” And for that matter, it’s really time to reevaluate all movies and how a woman’s body is expressed to audiences. In some of our favorite movies, is the female body a commodity for a man or is it independent of men? Can we still enjoy these movies with serious issues or do we disown them completely?
What movie with the female body as a theme have you rethought recently?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.