Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Market in Skin

There was an article going around the other day about actress Ruth Wilson's departure from the Showtime drama The Affair. (MrsDarwin tells me that we saw Ruth Wilson in an adaptation of Jane Eyre, but to be honest I hadn't really heard of The Affair, which doesn't sound like my kind of show.) Her reasons are worth reading about:
While Wilson was said to have understood that signing on to an adult drama at Showtime called The Affair would likely involve some disrobing, she ultimately took issue with the frequency and nature of certain nude scenes. Sources, many of whom declined to speak on the record, say Wilson was often asked to be unclothed in scenes where there seemed to be no clear creative rationale for the nudity other than for it to be "titillating," as one person involved with the production puts it. Another source overheard Wilson ask on set, referring to a male co-star, "Why do you need to see me and not more of him?" Wilson had, of course, signed a nudity waiver when she tested for the pilot, but a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson notes that performers must still "provide meaningful consent and be treated with respect and dignity during production." Sources say Wilson expressed her concerns repeatedly only to receive push-back and be labeled "difficult."

Those insiders add that Wilson felt Treem, in particular, pressured her to perform such scenes. "There was a culture problem at the show from the very beginning and a tone-deafness from Sarah Treem about recognizing the position she was putting actors in," says one source with firsthand knowledge of the production. "Over and over again, I witnessed Sarah Treem try to cajole actors to get naked even if they were uncomfortable or not contractually obligated to."
This reminded me of the stories that went around a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke describing herself both as having to become more outspoken to avoid doing scenes she was uncomfortable with and also feeling uncomfortable at some of what she'd agreed to do in early seasons:
Emilia Clarke has revealed that she once refused to perform a nude scene on the set of a project, despite being told that it would “disappoint” her Game of Thrones fans.
“I’m a lot more savvy [now] with what I’m comfortable with, and what I am okay with doing,” she explained. “I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, ‘No, the sheet stays up’, and they’re like, ‘You don’t wanna disappoint your Game of Thrones fans’. And I’m like, ‘F*** you.’”

Clarke also revealed that she felt overwhelmed by what she described as the “f*** ton of nudity” in the first season of Game of Thrones.

“I took the job and then they sent me the scripts and I was reading them, and I was, like, ‘Oh, there’s the catch!’” she remembered. “But I’d come fresh from drama school, and I approached [it] as a job – if it’s in the script then it’s clearly needed, this is what this is and I’m gonna make sense of it… Everything’s gonna be cool."

She continued: “So I came to terms with that beforehand, but then going in and doing it… I’m floating through this first season and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what any of this is. I’ve never been on a film set like this before, I’d been on a film set twice before then, and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want and I don’t know what I want.

“Regardless of there being nudity or not, I would have spent that first season thinking I’m not worthy of requiring anything, I’m not worthy of needing anything at all... Whatever I’m feeling is wrong, I’m gonna cry in the bathroom and then I’m gonna come back and we’re gonna do the scene and it’s gonna be completely fine.”

She went on to explain that it was only while working with Aquaman actor Jason Momoa, who played her on-screen love interest Khal Drogo, that she realised that she could set her own rules about how much of her body she was willing to show.

“It was definitely hard,” she said. “Which is why the scenes, when I got to do them with Jason, were wonderful, because he was like, ‘No, sweetie, this isn’t okay.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhh.'”

I've seen part or all of several prestige dramas from HBO, Showtime, or more recently Amazon or Netflix. In general, the writing, acting, and production values are much closer to movie levels than they are to normal network television. And yet, one of the things that has struck me in watching these series is that the makers often throw in explicit nudity and sexuality as if it's an expected enticement for the audience. For instance, in addition to actual sex scenes, The Sopranos had as a plot point that Tony Soprano's gang owns a strip club, and thus it wasn't unusual to have an unrelated conversation have a strip routine going on in the background. I heard complaints that in Game of Thrones, exposition scenes that the showrunners seemed to think might otherwise be boring were often set in a brothel.

It's fairly common for people with conservative moral values to criticize the nudity and sexuality in series like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, and for more culturally progressive people to tell them to stop being so puritanical. However, the accounts of these actresses point to a problem with prestige dramas which should be fairly understandable through the ways that progressives often talk about the injustices of markets. What both women describe is a situation in which actresses wanting to have a career are expected to agree ahead of time to on-screen nudity, and then pressured into doing scenes which they themselves feel to be exploitative. And yet, it's hard for actresses who want to have serious drama careers with those studios to say no. There is a large supply of people wanting to do this work, and if the production companies want to insist on doing nudity as a precondition for employment, it's fairly easy for them to say, "Do it or we'll find someone who will." This doesn't mean that actresses can't say no, but it means that saying no will often mean saying no to having a serious career. It's a situation in which "allowing" people to do nude scenes effectively means that many people will be put under excessive pressure to do so.

On the question of watching this kind of show, I suppose I'm something of a moderate. I think that sufficiently mature adults can often (though not in all cases) watch shows that include this kind of content without much harm. And yet, what asking about whether the audience is harmed by watching such content ignores is that the content has to be made in the first place. Perhaps conservatives tend not to address this one as much because it's often taken as a working assumption that Hollywood is populated by godless heathens.

However, I think it's worth considering that even if it's often okay for mature adults to see this kind of content, it's significantly less okay for the people making it -- not because it's too sexy and pleasurable, but because it's too exploitative. Making the original scenes can be harrowing. I've read from multiple sources that scenes involving sex or nudity make for awkward and unpleasant filming days. In the Ruth Wilson article linked above, there are complaints from various cast members on The Affair that people who didn't need to be there invited on set for nude scenes and that footage of those days was shown to people outside the production. Additionally, some people associated with the production allege that the writing of content was at times used to exact a sort of revenge against actresses. When Wilson insisted on being written off the show after the fourth season (and an incident that involved one of the directors showing off nude images he'd kept on his phone from on set) the showrunner initially wrote a scene in which Wilson's character was violently raped and murdered. Only after Wilson's refusal to do the scene was the scene downgraded to a murder that did not involve sexual assault.

Even after the scenes have been filmed, cast are stuck dealing with the fact that those images of them are permanently available to the public -- some of whom do not fit the category of mature adults. I recall reading some years ago an interview with a Game of Thrones actress in which she recounted having fans ask her to sign pictures of her that showed her naked. She said she initially felt it was a huge violation of her privacy, and then realized that they had all seen her naked anyway. But what I think this goes to show is that even when the filming itself is done as respectfully as possible, it can result in later uncomfortable situations that the cast may not have thought of or may not continue to feel as good about as when they initially did the scenes.

I'm not necessarily arguing that all such content should be uniformly banned. However, when studios are faced with a situation where some of their audience expect some nudity in every episode, and the rest of the audience is willing to quietly tolerate it as part of the genre, studios will proceed to put the nudity in so as to satisfy those who specifically want it. And as studios work to satisfy the mature content demographic, they'll create a casting environment where it's very hard for actors to say no to doing uncomfortable and exploitative scenes. If one is to weigh the experiences of those who have regrets about the content they were pressured to film and those who don't, it seems to me that few actors would look back on a career and think, "Gee, I really wish I'd been able to do more nude scenes over the years."


Agnes said...

Some of the nude/sex scenes in movies has a role in the artistic effect/the meaning/the message. But as you say, some of it is only included (or mostly so) to cater to an audience's taste. In doing so, they will also create and enlarge this audience which is toughened enough not to be disturbed by it, and an atmosphere in which it is strange to admit not to be titillated by it/not to wish for it. And even the scenes that serve the artistic message are wrong if the creation involves sexual exploitation. An extreme of this is the scandal about The Last Tango in Paris, but the fact that it is still going on makes it even worse. Another point: intense emotional effect can be achieved by good acting and good filmmaking without resorting to the added emotional effect of nudity and explicitness of sex scenes.

Antoinette said...

Well written article and response.

I remember seeing a television show in which two men are talking. One says to the other BUT you had a nude scene in the episode you shot. What is wrong with mine? The response is that the one in my episode was part of the plotline while you had a nude scene just thrown in without relating to the plot.

Jennifer Fitz said...


When my kids gave me a hard time about objecting to naked scenes, I reminded them that the actors and everyone else on the set had to *film* the scene -- so what about their good???

Our house rule is that if the scene can be filmed without putting the actors in a compromising position, then we can charitably assume that was done until we have evidence otherwise. It is entirely possible to film harrowing plot points of any nature without disrespecting the actors and crew. I mean, presumably we don't have to murder an actor to get a murder scene. We don't have to strip an actor to communicate "naked" as a concept. Any skilled director can find a better way.