A couple of years ago I went to a rather interesting fetish conference in Istanbul. One bloke, giving a paper about porn, read his paper monotonously from his notebook; behind him on the screen played a pornographic slide-show.
In the question time that followed his paper, I asked him what 20 minutes of footage of women being penetrated had to do with his research. Scowls and groans followed and I became the token “feminiazi” of the conference, daring to rain on the parade of those free-wheelin', sex positive academics. (That I was there talking about my own sex-positive book on sexual perversion was apparently lost on them).
Truth be told, I actually have no problem with images of nudity. I do however, think that disregarding time, placement and one’s audience can render such images sexist. Using pornographic images of women – and women only – to decorate a lacklustre conference paper is one example. Using such images to make an opening scene of a very boring – and exhaustingly preachy – film memorable is another.
Flight opens with the pilot at the centre of the ill-fated title voyage (Denzel Washington) woken by a phone call summoning him to the cockpit. As he guzzles down the remnants of last night’s booze, his companion – colleague Trina (Nadine Velazquez) – walks around the hotel room naked. Full-frontal. Back and forth, back and forth she walks, her breasts, her minimal bush on display. Miss it the first couple of times? No worries, there she goes again.
My feminism isn’t about randomly jabbing fingers at things and claiming they’re sexist. In fact, there are plenty of scenes where full frontal female nudity is relevant to a narrative. One of my favourite films from 2012 for example – Take This Waltz – had a lovely scene of old and young, fat and thin women each naked and towelling off after a swim.
The year prior, in the equally excellent – if gut-wrenching – Shame we saw a lot of the protagonist’s (Michael Fassbender) penis because he was a character perpetually kowtowing to the yens of his cock. For Brandon the sight of his penis was much more relevant than his face.
When women’s bare bodies are used to decorate a scene – as exclusively eye candy or as a quick and dirty rationale for a more adult classification – it is sexist and it is testimony to the enormous disparity that exists between scenes of schlong and those of vulva: one is, apparently, arty, beautiful and worth eyeballing; the other a threatening eyesore.
Later this year I have a book coming out – American Taboo – which has a chapter on full-frontal male nudity. In it I quoted from Douglas Rowe’s article on nudity in film:
scenes with full-frontal male nudity usually can be timed with a stopwatch while those with nude women can be measured with a sundial…
I like this quote because it highlights one of Hollywood’s many double standards that Flight complies with. We don’t see Denzel’s dongle – God forbid – because penises are considered as much more confronting/explicit/aggressive/challenging than a vulva. Because men and women are expected to enjoy a long hard look at lady genitals but to find the wang offensive if not an egregious turn-off.
Flight will be memorable to me for a host of reasons. That Denzel got nominated for an Oscar while Anthony Hopkins' excellent performance in Hitchcock got ignored will plague me in perpetuity. Most of all I’ll remember it for it’s embarrassing opening scene. And the reminder that it serves of how much sexism still exists in cinema. Pretty good soundtrack though.