With the recent announcements that Playboy will stop publishing nude photographs of women, citing that with porn so ubiquitous, nudity has become passé, it’s time to revisit a discussion regarding nudity from the book Everyone Agrees.
Keeping Abreast on Things
On February 1, 2004, nearly 90 million Americans were shocked when they saw a female nipple (belonging to pop star Janet Jackson) on national television during the Super Bowl halftime show. Viewers were so shocked that they complained a record 200,000 times to the Federal Communications Commission the following week about the complete disregard of morality presented by the show’s producers, and the furor spurred a controversy over who was to blame for the wardrobe malfunction. The controversy, dubbed “Nipplegate,” got everyone involved, and the story occupied the media outlets for days. The nipple exposure ended up costing CBS, the network that aired the Super Bowl, a dear $550,000.
The wardrobe malfunction wasn’t the most intriguing aspect of the controversy, though; what was most interesting was that in the wake of an exposed breast on national television, the otherwise pornographic and sexually violent extravaganza that led up to it was relatively ignored. The nipple exposure was the climax of a carefully choreographed dance burlesque that included dozens of constantly gyrating and scantily-clad extras, crotch-grabbing rappers, and dance moves that persistently imitated sex. Any rational person could have described the entire show as soft porn. But viewers weren’t particularly disturbed by the indecent physical behavior throughout the show until there was partial nudity involved. Why should they have been? They had been inundated with nationally televised dance acts by the likes of Britney Spears and Janet’s brother Michael Jackson for years, all of which featured enough gyrating and crotch-grabbing to give viewers nightmares for weeks.
For some reason, in 2004, the raunchy dance style had been deemed appropriate by society—probably for the same reason that nudity had been deemed inappropriate. It was okay to simulate sex as long as the participants were fully clothed, and it was okay to grab private parts as long as they actually remained private. This bizarre morality may seem inconsistent when looked at objectively, but such was the state of society around the time of the 2004 Super Bowl, and it still is. Based solely on Nipplegate, some may rightly claim that we’re losing all sense of morals, but I will attempt to show that the controversy reveals that our morals are still alive and kicking, but that the manifestations of those morals are completely different than those of our predecessors.
Cultural norms have changed dramatically throughout history—for proof, just take a stroll through your local art museum. If there is a realist modern painting with people in it on exhibit at the museum, they will most likely be clothed (picture Edward Hopper’s depictions of everyday life). It would be challenging, however, to find a Renaissance painting without a nude or multiple nudes featured (picture Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus). Popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, these paintings were not hidden for mature eyes to see, as their cinematic equivalents might be today; they were put on display in public places like halls of state and even churches. Go back even further in history and you’ll find a more ubiquitous representation of the naked human form. Nearly all major non-portrait works from ancient Greece and Rome were nudes. It’s evident throughout art history that there was no Nipplegate controversy in the time of Caesar.
While nudity in art was common up to a couple hundred years ago, there is very little evidence of popular art that depicted overtly sexual acts, not to mention violently sexual acts like those portrayed by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. It appears that we have reversed the concept of common decency. In the Renaissance and before, the nude figure was something to be admired and appreciated, while sexual acts were hidden from public view. Today, we are inundated with sexual simulation throughout our popular culture, but nudity is strictly forbidden.
Interesting to note, however, is that the cultures involved all thought they were being modest. Nudes during the Renaissance were acceptable because they were depictions of ancient gods or fictitious characters like Venus. Only when the nudes were portrayed as everyday people (as in the Impressionist Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia) were they deemed controversial. Likewise, we have a very strict concept of decency today: there is to be no nudity in the public arena—outside of the rare nudist colonies, which are no doubt full of people no one really wants to see naked, anyway. In general, nudity is prohibited, which is why there was such uproar about the exposed breast in 2004.
Renaissance art and the Super Bowl halftime show represent another monospective. Both cultural artifacts contain two distinct aspects: a concept of morality and the manifestations of that morality. Renaissance Europe and modern day America each believed that some things were morally acceptable while others were not, but the manifestations of that morality (nudity in the Renaissance and sexually aggressive dancing at the Super Bowl) were opposing. In essence, the two cultures agreed about morality, but the expression of that morality was different.
This dichotomy of belief systems based on a single innate tendency is also reflected in the concept of beauty throughout history. At the beginning of the last millennium, plump women were considered the most attractive of the species, an ideal that was recorded in the myriad paintings and sculptures that depicted the most beautiful women of the time. Today’s society contrasts that mentality with an overwhelming attraction to thin women. Should we assume that we have changed the genetic urges that attract us to the fairer sex? Is our innate attraction so whimsical that it changes with the fashion of the day? Or, is there another reason why men used to like full-figured women hundreds of years ago but prefer thin women now? It turns out that our genes haven’t changed—we’re still sexually attracted to partners that would help to produce the best offspring. But our information has changed; a slightly rotund female used to imply wealth and healthy portions of food, whereas now the same characteristic implies less wealth and a healthy portion of McDonald’s.
The dichotomy of beauty relates to the theory of concurrence in that, despite the seeming difference in standards of what is decent or attractive, we have and have always had a fairly strict sense of decency and beauty. In other words, we agree with our historic predecessors about the basics: modesty and healthfulness are good. The manifestations of these traits, however, are different from age to age and culture to culture, depending on the fashion and the media of the time.
But should we expect it to be any other way? Different cultures in different times require the population to show off their morality differently. When anthropologist H. H. Johnston reported on his visits to Central Africa in the 1890s, he told of ubiquitous nudity among the natives and very little clothing when it was worn. But surely this is due to the extreme heat that saturates the geographic area and the lack of appropriate textiles, not the lack of morals. In fact, as Johnston wrote, “It may sagely be asserted that the negro race in Central Africa is much more truly modest, is much more free from real vice than are most European nations.” This was true despite the accepted nudity, which was morally offensive to many Europeans at the time.
Modesty, then, is common to most examined cultures—even those that have very little need for clothing. The difference is in how that modesty is projected. Late nineteenth-century Central Africans and Renaissance painters displayed modesty through reserved behavior, whereas modern women display modesty by concealing their nipples. In each culture, modesty is valued, just not in the same way.
This cross-cultural agreement on the value of modesty is probably due to the deep social and psychological benefits we receive from it. As Havelock Ellis wrote in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, “It is necessary, before any psychology of sex can be arranged, to obtain a clear view of modesty.” In other words, a woman (because women control the pre-sex psychology of a couple) must display modesty to achieve sexual arousal and further emotions of love. Modesty, whether exhibited through fear of the sexual act or a sense of self-value, is one way to resist an attracted partner; and when attraction is resisted, it is usually exacerbated. Thus, as Charles Féré wrote in The Evolution and Dissolution of the Sexual Instinct, “The tendency to resist the male in most females is in reality nothing but a method of allurement.” The converse is also true. Ellis wrote that a woman lacking modesty also lacks “sexual attractiveness to the normal and average man.”
Believe it or not, even the raciest members of today’s culture have a sense of modesty. Watching MTV or other media that depicts reckless youth rubbing their bodies against each other on the dance floor may make it hard to believe that these performers have any decorum, but they do. Girls on MTV may dance like strippers and make out with anyone who walks by, but they wouldn’t dare reveal their nipples, an act that would violate their bizarre sense of modesty. Even when participants in this form of modesty break down once a year in the annual Mardi Gras celebration and unveil their breasts to wide-eyed drunken onlookers, the show is usually brief and limited. It’s exceptionally rare for one of these exhibitionists to display absolutely no modesty and walk around completely naked the entire evening. If she were to do that, she would most likely receive looks of confusion rather than the looks of lust given to her flashing friends. Modesty exists in strip clubs, too. When a striptease takes place, the dancer usually starts off with at least some clothing or other barrier to complete nudity—the tease aspect—that is slowly shed throughout the performance.
Although it doesn’t seem like it, we all share a sense of propriety that helps to facilitate attraction between the sexes. From the goddess in a Renaissance painting to a dancing college student in a typical MTV show, a sense of propriety exists in order to elicit attraction. The manifestations of our modesty are clearly different, but we all innately agree that modesty is a good thing.
Why do atheists and believers argue for hours without first defining “God?” Why do people describe Nazis and Soviets in exactly the same way yet place them on opposite ends of the political spectrum? Why do some judge others for being judgmental? Why are some psychologists trying to disprove psychology? And how does arguing show that we really agree? In the fascinating and groundbreaking new work, “Everyone Agrees”, J.S.B. Morse uncovers clues to these riddles and reveals how disagreements are merely the result of a difference in perspective of a shared “mountain of truth.” Using entertaining examples from both scientific literature and pop culture, Morse breaks down the popular “us-against-them” and morally relative mentalities, proving that everyone really does agree, even when it comes to such hot-button issues as politics, religion, and the NFL’s best quarterback. “Everyone Agrees” offers an introduction to the theory of concurrence, a unique take on human behavior which places logic (or simple common sense) at the heart of a universal morality. With the same accessible style and penetrating insight found in Morse’s first two books, “The Evolution Diet” and “How To Take Advantage of the People Who Are Trying to Take Advantage of You”, “Everyone Agrees” provides an entirely new perspective on perspective itself.