Nudity’s New Normal

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 You may remember a little controversy that happened back in 2004, one that involved Justin Timberlake’s participation in Janet Jackson’s so-called “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show. Timberlake exposed Jackson’s breast for a fraction of a second, prompting national outrage and discussion about society’s standards when it comes to nudity in entertainment.

Fast-forward not quite 10 years, and it seems that perhaps times are a-changin’. We’re seeing nudity turning up more and more frequently in entertainment venues where it once would have been forbidden—with a lot less outrage than we saw in 2004. And Timberlake is once again involved.

The video for his latest hit, “Tunnel Vision,” features three topless and uncensored female models. And it’s the second video in just a couple of months to do so. The other one is for Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines,” which just notched its fifth week as the No. 1 song in the land and is thus far the biggest hit of the summer.

Thicke’s video was banned from YouTube for its explicit imagery, and it looked as if Justin Timberlake would receive the same treatment. In a surprise move, however, YouTube greenlit the video, with a spokesperson telling ABC News, “While our guidelines generally prohibit nudity, we make exceptions when it is presented in an educational, documentary or artistic context, and take care to add appropriate warnings and age restrictions.”

It wasn’t too long ago that an artist of Timberlake’s stature shooting a video featuring three nearly naked models would have prompted outrage and petitions. But there’s been little of that. Instead, YouTube has deemed the racy video acceptable by labeling it “artistic.” And there’s little doubt in my mind that more such “artistic” nudity will likely be coming down the YouTube pike soon, now that this precedent has been set.

But these music videos aren’t the only recent examples of where our culture’s increasingly laissez-faire attitudes toward nudity seem to be showing up.

The Parents Television Council recently reported that pixelated nudity is appearing more and more frequently on broadcast TV these days, as well. In June, the PTC said that that 16 shows contained blurred or pixelated nudity in the first four months of 2013, compared to 22 in the entire 2011-12 television season. Moreover, 70% of these programs received a lenient TV-PG rating. Said PTC president Tim Winter, “If this kind of nudity continues to increase—as we believe it will—and the FCC’s proposal to essentially stop enforcing the broadcast indecency law goes into effect, then it’s certain that the networks will continue to push the limits of decency even further.”

Speaking of pushing the limits, another new show on cable’s Discovery channel is doing exactly that. The reality survival show Naked and Afraid has been generating media buzz since its debut due its seemingly racy premise: plunking a man and woman down in the wilderness, naked, to survive for 21 days. The show blurs genitals and breasts, but not uncovered backsides, a fact that the show’s executive producer Denise Contis insists isn’t intended to be titillating. “We didn’t develop the show to be exploitative, ever,” she said in an interview with Salon.

Some reviewers agree that the show ultimately isn’t as sexy as its title hints. Salon’s Willa Paskin writes, “Naked and Afraid is not, however, some Playboy bunny version of Castaway. … On-screen nudity has rarely been less sexual, but it’s also rarely been used as brazenly to sell a show.” Others, though, have observed that the show’s near-constant nudity is simply impossible to ignore. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon says:

The contestants stop worrying about their nakedness so quickly because there are a h‑‑‑ of a lot of other things to fear. Like dying. All the time. The same can’t be said for the viewer, however. You’d think that after 42 minutes of it, you’d become desensitized to seeing the butts. But you don’t. You just don’t.

So what are we to make of this sudden spike in nudity in the pop culture world?

Generally, I think it’s safe to say that cultural mores change gradually, so imperceptibly in fact that you can only really see those shifts when you look back 10 or 15 years. Sometimes, however, there are significant slippages along these cultural fault lines—shifts that are noticeable enough to detect in real time.

I’d suggest that’s what’s happening right now. As our culture is exposed to explicit sexual imagery in quite a few other venues (R-rated movies, explicit shows on HBO or Showtime, and in online pornography, among others), it seems we’re growing increasingly desensitized to nudity in places we haven’t seen it before.

Indeed, that shift is reflected what Robin Thicke said about his video. Among other things, he said that the only people who would be concerned about the three topless women in his video were “extra-religious people.” No one else really cares, he suggested.

I want to believe there are more than just a few “extra-religious people” who are concerned about the casual nudity in the “Blurred Lines” videos—not to mention the attitudes about treating women as possessions and playthings that the video arguably suggests.

Still, the lack of much controversy about the increase in nudity in entertainment such as Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video sadly suggests that we are indeed growing more desensitized to it. And that’s a troubling reality families today are going to have to deal with. Because if Thicke and Justin Timberlake can get away with it, you can bet there are going to be others lining up behind him to see how much further they can push the envelope.

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