I’m puzzled by the standards we apply when deciding what is appropriate for television viewing and what is not. Janet Jackson exposes her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, and the nation goes apoplectic. But Samuel L. Jackson sticks a gun to someone’s head and blows his brains out, and the nation gasps “Awesome!”
Of course, we realize at once that the latter is make-believe and the former isn’t make-believe. But the same fervor exists when the nudity is clearly make-believe, as in computer games where “nudity” is nothing more than a bunch of computer generated pixels. When the fantasy role-playing game Oblivion was initially released, it was rated T for teens and above. But, then, a fan identified only by the handle Maeyanie on Game Politics discovered the code that placed underwear over the game’s characters, rewrote the code and released it online as a mod that other fans could download and install if they chose. The mod meant that when you removed armor or other clothing from a character, female characters were “topless,” i.e. exposed breasts for those unfamiliar with the English euphemism. Of course, the male characters had been “topless” all along, so the issue wasn’t nudity, per se, but nude female breasts. There was such a furor over the matter that the makers of Oblivion were forced to assign an M rating, for Mature, to their game even though they had not released it with nudity as a component. So, I don’t think real versus fiction is the reason for why people view the two events differently, and I find the standard disturbing.
Historically, the view in the United States against nude breasts was so pronounced that some places passed ordinances against women breastfeeding in public. As recently as 2006 and 2007, Arizona and Arkansas, respectively, passed state legislation that finally exempted breastfeeding mothers from public indecency laws. As of January 2008, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, “thirty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws with language specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location” (“50”). Other states, such as Massachusetts, North Dakota, and West Virginia have no legislation expressly prohibiting breastfeeding from being classified as public indecency. Indeed, I find the very fact that states passed laws exempting breastfeeding from public indecency laws to be, sadly, very telling – especially since many of those laws weren’t passed until the twenty-first century. Why do women have breasts if not for feeding their young? They certainly don’t exist just for stuffing into undersized bikini tops.
So, we are finally making progress in the United States when it comes to breastfeeding in public, but nude breasts still unsettle us, as Janet Jackson’s exposure planned or accidental reveals. What kind of message are we sending to children when something that is perfectly natural and normal, a female breast, is identified as a violation of standards of public decency; but an unnatural act, certainly outside of the norm, brutally killing another human being, is in accordance with existing standards for public decency?
I think we are sending our children the wrong message.
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But, I also understand that some people object to nudity and violence for moral or religious reasons. I can certainly understand objecting to violence for moral reasons: violence harms others. But how does nudity harm anyone? I am not trying to dismiss out of hand the views of those who find public nudity offensive and indecent. I am genuinely baffled by it. Most of what I have heard or read in objection to public nudity identifies morality as the basis for the objection. Some moral principles are universally accepted: prohibitions on murdering, for example. But other moral principles are not universal and are founded wholly on faith. As Maeyanie noted in her interview for Game Politics, “I think America should lighten up a bit. There’s a good chunk of the world which [sic] isn’t nearly so obsessed over making our own bodies off-limits – I should know, I live there.” Matters of faith cannot be argued as, by definition, faith is belief without proof. So, I must necessarily limit my explanation of why nudity might be seen as indecent to points that can be measured external to personal faith, which is not to say that the issue of moral beliefs cannot be addressed at all. Indeed, I think the interpretation of the moral stories we have grown up with can influence our acceptance or rejection of, in this case, displays of nudity on television or in other media such as computer games.
Media influence us. Too many studies and social commentators have addressed media influences to list them all here, but these studies and commentaries usually focus on modern media like television, movies, and music, and fail to recognize that long-standing media such as scriptures also influence our perceptions by creating a worldview through the language they use. But I do not, necessarily, want to limit the perception of language to only verbal expressions. Language reaches beyond words, alone, as the phrase “body language” clearly denotes. Images, too, carry messages. Most of us, if not all of us, are familiar with the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. The exact origin of the phrase is contested, but the concept dates to at least Napoleon’s time when he is purported to have said, “A good sketch is better than a long speech” (“Picture”). So while my efforts to identify a possible root for our cultural unease with nudity may center on words as used in our cultural myths, it is important to remember that the resulting perception reaches beyond words alone to images that either please or unsettle us.
The power of language as a creating force is ancient and spans many cultures, but for the sake of simplicity, I am going to use the Bible to illustrate the point because the Bible is more readily known in so-called western tradition and western culture is my primary focus for this essay. So my exclusion of other worthy myths is not intended as disrespectful. In Genesis, God speaks and things are created: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (1:3 KJV). Further, we read in the New Testament that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 KJV). This power of language to create is not exclusive to the gods if we realize that language creates a worldview as Neil Postman terms it in both The End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death. It is not difficult for us to imagine how this can happen and can be easily illustrated.
“He” in relation to “God” clearly fixes in many people’s minds the image of an elderly bearded male to the exclusion of female images even though, as Joseph Campbell so aptly notes, the word “God” in English is meant only to designate a being that is beyond the scope of human experience. Gender is hardly beyond human experience. But “supreme and ultimate reality,” and a “Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness,” as Merriam-Webster Online defines “God,” certainly is beyond the scope of human experience.
Helen Keller can shed light on language as the creator because, arguably unique, she possessed conscious memory of both the time when she did not have language and, later, when she had acquired language. In writing about the acquisition of language in her autobiography, she defines Anne Sullivan not as the person who had come to teach her language but as the person “… who had come to reveal all things to me.” That is a very powerful and telling statement about the power of language to shape our perceptions of the world: that is, to create a worldview. And language does create a worldview. It creates a worldview when it fixes in people’s minds a male image of a Supreme Being, and it creates a worldview when it fixes in people’s minds the notion of nudity as indecent or shameful.
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Again, I turn to the Bible. After Adam and Eve have defied the commandment given by God to Adam given before woman was created to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their immediate reaction is interesting: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7 KJV). Later when God returns to the Garden of Eden and discovers Adam and Eve hiding, Adam explains he hid from God because “I was naked” (Gen. 3:10 KJV). Nudity, i.e. nakedness, is clearly shameful in the story and is an indication of sin; neither Adam nor Eve, apparently, having been aware of their nudity before having broken God’s commandment. If nudity is shameful and clearly linked to sin within the context of the story, then we can understand why people in western traditions might be uncomfortable with displays of nudity and see them as indecent.
Japanese culture, however, offers a different perception of nudity in one of its creation stories. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, fled to a cave after her brother, the Storm God, Susanoo, threw a flayed pony into Amaterasu’s weaving hall. Of course with the Sun Goddess hiding in a cave, the world was covered in darkness. The other Gods gathered together in an attempt to coax Amaterasu from her hiding place, but all the attempts failed until Ama-no-Uzume arrived. The kami (spirit) of merriment began dancing a striptease. As she shed her clothing, the other deities hooted and cheered encouragement. Amaterasu hearing this commotion from within her cave became curious as to its source. Gradually, her curiosity won out and she had to investigate. This furtive peek was enough to let sunlight back into the world.
The Japanese creation story is telling in a number of ways, but for our purposes, I want to concentrate on the role nudity plays in bringing sunlight back into the world. First, nudity is not represented as shameful in the story. Its presence in the story is both natural and playful. But, more importantly for our exploration, the striptease (i.e., nudity) brings sunlight: sunlight is life is light is enlightenment. Patrick Drazen notes in Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation that in many anime series, such as Sailor Moon and Tenchi Muyo in Love, nudity “is not intended to be sexual. Rather it’s symbolic of [the character] entering a purified state and becoming worthy of her powers” (56).
I first became aware of this distinction during long discussions I had with a foreign exchange student from Japan who was attending the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley. He had complained to me about some of the changes made to Japanese animation for release in the United States, and among his complaints was listed the deletion of scenes of nudity. For him, removal of the nude scenes also removed an important spiritual element from the characters in question. They were transformed in the US versions from spiritually pure and worthy beings to mundane superheroes who, as is so often the case in US comics, seemed to derive their powers not from within or from external spiritual sources as a result of living a worthy life but from some outside source such as radioactive ooze or technological advances. The latter is not to suggest that such sources of power do not also appear in some anime; they do. But it does suggest that an essential component of Japanese anime has often been misunderstood in the United States and all too often removed from anime releases in the United States “because of Western perceptions that it is pornographic” (Drazen 56).
I am not suggesting that Janet Jackson’s breast exposure was an exercise in spiritual expression though I cannot dismiss the possibility, either, because I neither know Ms. Jackson personally nor any more about the event than what any other consumer of news sources knows about it. What I am suggesting is that the language of our cultural myths, in particular, the creation story from the Bible, shapes our worldview so that we interpret nudity as shameful. Further, I am suggesting that nudity need not be interpreted as shameful or sinful, as the Japanese creation story demonstrates. As Joseph Campbell notes in his interview with Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, “You get a totally different civilization, a totally different way of living according to your myth.” Perhaps, given Amaterasu’s story, we should consider Maeyanie’s advice and “lighten up a bit.”
I understand that my suggestion and Maeyanie’s advice will not, of course, likely appeal to many for whom the Bible is the single defining “Truth” in the world; but I have already noted that matters of faith cannot be argued because they are not founded on evidence. Thus, my appeal is not directed to them. We need to recognize that language creates a worldview and shapes the way we interpret both real-life events and media images. We need not always react with vehemence and derision when we see displays of nudity because nudity is not always shameful or sinful. We can, and I would argue must retain the right to make our own decisions about what is appropriate for our own viewing and for the viewing of those for whom we are responsible such as children. But even if our children are exposed to nudity when we feel it inappropriate, as in a Super Bowl halftime show, we can moderate our responses by identifying nudity for what it is, natural, and by explaining our own beliefs concerning when and where displays of nudity are appropriate. The matter need not be handled with anger and derision, by leveling fines, or by dictating for everyone adherence to a worldview they do not accept.
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