What About Actors Who Willingly Undress for the Camera?

Last week, we looked at Hollywood’s underground culture of sexual abuse: how actors are routinely coerced into violating their consciences by performing nude scenes and/or sex acts on screen. While audiences have grown comfortable with watching such scenes, actors are often uncomfortable (or worse) with filming them.

Isn’t it true, though, that some actors willingly undress for the camera? The simple answer is, of course, yes. But it’s an answer that requires at least two clarifications. And since women are the majority of the victims in these circumstances, we’ll focus on women for the rest of the article.

First, it’s not as easy as you might think to discern the difference between willing and unwilling performances. Take just one example (or, rather, an example in several parts) from recent history, all involving a “willing participant.”

Actress Margot Robbie recounts how her audition went for the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. She showed up for the audition in her usual look: jeans and a shirt. Scorsese’s casting director, Ellen Lewis, took one look at her and said, “No, no, no, what else do you have with you?” When Margot said she didn’t have anything else, Ellen made her rush out and purchase “the highest heels she could find, the tightest dress she could squeeze into, and a push-up bra.” Even though Margot never dresses like that, she followed Ellen’s orders.

The result, Margot said, was that her feet hurt and she thought that she “looked ridiculous.” When she finally walked into the audition room, her constant and overly self-conscious thought was, “Don’t trip, don’t trip.” (1) Instead of the expected excitement at meeting Scorsese and DiCaprio, all she could think about was the possibility of falling over and making a fool of herself.

Think about that for just a moment. Before even meeting Scorsese, Margot was turned into a sex object—contrary to everything that felt or seemed natural to her. Made to look “ridiculous” in dangerously high heels, and then paraded in front of a panel of men, Margot was forced into Hollywood’s standard “objectification mold” in order to even be considered for a role in the film.

Fast forward to the actual filming of the movie. In a pivotal seduction scene, Scorsese gave Margot the option of wearing a robe. She thought her character would choose to be nude, so that’s how they shot the scene. No discernable coercion was involved. Nevertheless, Margot had to consume three shots of tequila before she was finally ready. Her nerves wouldn’t let her do the scene without first being sedated.

In another description of risqué scenes involving her, Margot says, “It was nerve-wracking leading up to it, but we had a very limited amount of time to shoot those scenes. The sooner I got it done, the sooner I could put my clothes back on.” (2) Again, these scenes weren’t shot against her will. But when a person says, “The sooner we get this done, the better,” they’re not describing something they relish.

In each of the above circumstances, Margot Robbie willingly submitted to the demands of the filmmakers, even going beyond what was asked of her. She did what was necessary to impress the “god of the industry” (as she calls Scorsese). And yet, when you read between the lines, you quickly see that this young woman experienced a good amount of inner turmoil. Why? Because cultural expectations placed a burden on her shoulders that she shouldn’t have had to bear. Sure, she did the job, but it wasn’t something that came naturally or welcomingly or delightfully.

And what did she get out of it? A stronger Hollywood presence, for sure. But she also experienced the reduction of her humanity through the objectification of her body. While I researched this article, the first suggestion Google gave me for Margot Robbie was “Margot Robbie hot.” Or, just read any online discussion of Margot’s role in The Wolf of Wall Street, and you’ll quickly see how male audience members talk about her. (Hint: it’s the same way a ravished dog treats a piece of raw meat.) Yeah, people were blown away by her role in the film—but for the wrong reasons.

Considering Hollywood’s subculture of sexual manipulation, it’s hard to discern genuine willingness from mere acquiescence. How much freedom needs to be involved in order for an actor’s actions to be labeled “willing”? Is partially willing good enough? How can we as audience members tell when a nude or sex scene is forced, or heavily influenced, or completely free of compulsion? Without being on the film set ourselves and observing the goings on, can we know for sure that “no humans were harmed during the making of this film”? The answer is no.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that 75% of the nudity and sex Hollywood produces is performed freely, with no coercion whatsoever. That still means that 25% of actors are being forced, or at least pressured, into violating their consciences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea that my hard earned money has a 25% chance of causing an actor mental, emotional, and spiritual harm.

That’s the first part of my nuanced answer to the argument that some actors do sex scenes willingly. Since this blog post is long enough already, we’ll look at the second part of my answer next week.

Update: since its original publication, this blog post has received some minor edits in order to eliminate some needlessly controversial verbiage and to enhance its rhetorical efficacy.

photo credit: brooksatwood via photopin cc (this photo has been cropped from its original format to achieve a more horizontal orientation)

(1) This article has a risqué picture, so instead of directly linking to it, I’m posting the url here for journalistic integrity (and so you can check my sources if you feel it’s absolutely necessary):  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/slapping-dicaprio-was-just-the-beginning-for-margo-robbie/article16265484/

(2) Ditto: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/10564466/Margot-Robbie-My-risque-sex-scenes-with-Leonardo-DiCaprio.html