Is it My Job to “Rescue” Women Who Undress for the Camera?

From a concerned reader (with a few slight edits):

Your argument robs adult women of agency because it says outright that they are not consenting and implies they cannot consent. It infantilizes adult women and asserts that they can only be protected by men with a white knight impulse. We’re getting into an area where women are regarded as little more than sheep, being led by whatever crook is nearest.

As regular visitors know, over the past few years I have focused much of my blog’s attention on how the entertainment industry places pressure on actors to perform nude and/or sex scenes for audiences. It’s a problem that is at once both tacitly acknowledged and blithely ignored. I have argued further that those who suffer most under this burden are actresses.

With my emphasis on women, some readers have responded with major concerns. I am both thankful for and alarmed by this feedback, because the quoted critique above is not what I have meant to communicate. Not at all. I offered a partial answer in a previous blog post, but I would like to give my critics more than just a passing glance. They deserve direct eye contact and a measured response.

UNIVERSAL VS. PREVALENT EXPERIENCES

I can see how some readers might get the impression that I think all actors are coerced into nude and/or sex scenes, and that women (especially) are always forced to do something they would never do otherwise. After all, I’ve addressed this issue largely in general terms.

In reality, it is true that not every actor experiences shock or shame when faced with nude/sex scenes. These experiences, while not universal, are prevalent. That has been my point.

This distinction is critical, and maybe I have not effectively communicated it. Not every actor feels violated by these situations, but a significant amount of them do. There’s a difference between all and many. In focusing on the experiences of the many, I do not mean to imply that it is the experience of everyone.

Some men and women do indeed seem to be fine with the nudity and sex acts required of them. Some actors even appear at times to gravitate toward the challenges included with such roles. Kristen Stewart is one example. In commenting on a recent film of hers that required nudity, she said, “I’m pretty open. I think people are a little too f—— weird about it, to be honest, but that’s kind of why I was like, ‘I’ll do it.’”*

THE ROLE OF CONSENT

To quote once again from the person who wrote to me:

Part of [the job of an actress] includes pretending to be someone else who is in lust or love with a make-believe person that someone else is pretending to be. Those are the terms of the job, and the actress knows that going into it. She has consented to it. She may have trepidation, just as the school teacher may not enjoy teaching fractions and the brain surgeon may not enjoy suturing. But that doesn’t mean the women aren’t acting of their own free will.

There is much here that I actually agree with. I have not intended to argue that consent is completely out the window in the filming of sex scenes. I agree that women (and men) agree to do such things. It is in the nature of the agreement (where intimidation, or coercion, or societal pressure, is involved) that troubles me.

Furthermore, the above comparison between acting and other vocations doesn’t completely work. There is a huge difference between the violation of a person’s comfort zone and the violation of a person’s conscience. The challenges involved in teaching fractions, for example, may be intimidating, but not morally problematic. At times, intruding on a person’s comfort zone may be thoroughly appropriate. Intruding on one’s conscience, however, is never appropriate.

Besides, is it not at least possible that certain individuals enter the acting world hoping that they’ll never have to do a sex or nude scene? Or that they think they’ll be able to avoid such things simply by saying they don’t want to do them? Or that they’ll never be asked to do such things to begin with, so they don’t even worry about it? In such cases, they may end up facing an ultimatum weeks or months or years down the road: do this sex/nude scene or lose the role/job/career. Such situations do indeed happen.

And then there are the situations experienced by those like Jennifer Lawrence during the filming of Passengers. She’s an A-list actor with a large amount of freedom to accept or reject the projects offered to her. She was not forced into filming Passengers against her will. She signed up for the movie knowing there would be some on-screen sex. It appears that her conscience really didn’t bother her until the actual filming of the scene.
                                          
Yes, consent was a real factor in Lawrence’s whole experience. That does not negate what I’ve been saying—that there is real cultural/societal pressure placed on actors to sexually act out for the camera. Sometimes the pressure isn’t felt immediately. Sometimes actors don’t fully realize where the cultural current is taking them until the trip over the edge of the waterfall is imminent. Then it forces actors to either downplay or deny the fact that a stomach-churning descent has taken place.

The bottom line is that consent and coercion can coexist. It is possible for an acting experience to involve both factors. The presence of one does not necessarily or automatically negate the presence of the other.

WHITE KNIGHTS…OR SOMETHING ELSE?

When it comes to gender representation, Hollywood is a largely homogeneous subculture, in that it is run primarily by men. In 2013, film studio executive positions were reported as being 100% male. Whatever the percentage is now, the truth remains that a large portion of our entertainment industry’s output is based on male preference and perspective. My emphasis on the ill treatment of women in particular isn’t based on deficiencies in women, but on the prevalent role of men in the industry.

To a large degree, men are the cause of the problem. They are the main ones writing, filming, directing, and producing much of the content I have critiqued. It is no secret that sex sells, and men are typically the ones wielding their power and influence to sell their products in a way that appeals to the male sex drive.

When I focus on the abuse and objectification of women, it is not a call for men to be the guardians of the entertainment galaxy, as if we are the only ones who can rescue these poor damsels in distress. Rather, my focus on women is, at least in part, a call for men to stop contributing to the problem. We will not self-identify as white knights if we rightly see ourselves as the dragons. If we men will take responsibility for the evils we have overlooked, encouraged, or participated in, it won’t make us heroes; it will mean we’re doing what we should have been doing all along.

FLESHING OUT MY ARGUMENT

There is more I’d like to say, but this piece is long enough already. As I continue down this rhetorical path, I may need to make more clarifications on what I have already said, as well as address additional and related issues about which I have said little or nothing.

To those who have provided me with the constructive criticism quoted above: thank you. I would ask that you continue to engage with me and help me see things from different angles and vantage points. Your input is valuable and appreciated.

* It is interesting to note that Stewart’s own family acts “f—— weird” (to borrow her words) about her sexual scenes. After her parents watched one of her movies (which had explicit sex), she avoided talking about those scenes with her dad altogether. And another movie that required nudity was, as she put it, “just not something that [my parents and I] engaged or talked about.”

photo credit: stylegirls via flickr, CC

Comments

Cap Stewart said…
From a concerned reader (with a few slight edits): “Your argument robs adult women of agency because it says outright that they are not consenting and implies they cannot consent. It infantilizes adult women and asserts that they can only be protected by men with a white knight impulse. We’re getting into an area where women are regarded as little more than sheep, being led by whatever crook is nearest.”

[This obligatory comment is designed to make Facebook recognize my article’s content. Thanks for your understanding.]
Kat Coble said…
Correct me if I am mistaken but that's me, isn't it? It's been awhile but I recognise having written those words.

I have just had a major personal tragedy, which strikes me as bleakly humorous because when we initially had this conversation I had to back away because of ANOTHER personal tragedy.

But I do owe you the courtesy of consideration and will give this a thorough ponder ASAP.
Cap Stewart said…
Yes, it *is* you, Kat! And it *has* been a while--too long, honestly. It is I who have owed you a thorough response, and this blog post is my long-overdue answer.

I am so sorry to hear about your personal tragedy! Please don't feel any obligation to provide further feedback immediately. If you have additional thoughts, I would certainly love to hear them, but only when the timing is appropriate for you.
Jeffrey Thayne said…
Another way of saying this: in ordinary relationships, we understand that women have the right to withdraw consent even after consent was initially given.

We also understand the nature of power differentials to make consent coerced. A boss can say to a female employee, "Have sex with me, or lose your job." The woman can still decline, but the costs are so high that it becomes borderline coercive. So much so that we treat it as a legal matter.

But we now ignore all these considerations when it comes to actors in Hollywood productions. Once initial consent is given, we frown on them when they later withdraw consent. And we act like they are freely choosing, even though their very livelihoods and careers are on the line.

It's a double standard.
Cap Stewart said…
Yeah, I'm glad our society is slowly moving toward a more robust and nuanced understanding of consent. Of course, as you point out Jeffrey, there are still some double standards that we need to work through.