The newly-released Deadpool movie has brought with it a whirlwind of controversy over film content. Foremost in that discussion has been the subject of nudity, and pronouncements that the film is immoral because of scenes with full nudity, both of men and women. Now, I have not seen and have no intention of seeing the movie myself, so I’ll leave Deadpool‘s judgment in other hands and instead address the broader question of whether nudity in film is always immoral. Some people clearly say “yes” (while treating the subject of lust and pornography as a male-exclusive issue; gosh, I hate that!), but in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, I ANSWER THAT…
…with an excerpt (okay, an entire chapter) from my senior thesis, A Theology of Film, written in 2009 in candidacy for my Bachelor’s degree in theology from Christendom College. My fellow Catholic Geek, Matt Bowman, suggested months ago that I should revisit this subject here, and I can’t think of a better time than the present!
The Body on Screen
If a filmmaker wanted to have his film condemned by Christians, the simplest and easiest way for him to achieve that is to have nudity or sex in his movie. Demonic worship or something else so evil would naturally enrage a Christian faster, but such content is extreme, while nudity and sex are more common and realistic for a filmmaker to portray, appealing to a much larger audience than followers of the occult (whom most filmmakers probably have no desire to appeal to, anyway).
Christians, generally speaking, have a tendency to consider nudity and sex as corruptive and pornographic when portrayed on film. In the opinion of such people, films and photographs containing nudes are evil, or in the case of films the scenes involving nudity are bad scenes. Interestingly enough, however, most of these same people, with the exception of the puritans among them, have no or little problems accepting paintings or sculptures with nudes as good art.
Many famous paintings of mythological people or stories, such as the Birth of Venus, and numerous frescos of Christian events such as the Last Judgment, Adam and Eve in the Garden, and images of Heaven and Hell, all involve nude figures of both men and women. Sculpture, too, depicts many nude figures. The Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David are two major examples.
Nude art is everywhere in the classical and Christian world, even in Churches. The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is filled with such art. Crucifixes with a nude Christ have been sculpted, as well as paintings of the Blessed Virgin nursing Christ, one breast bared. Christian literature, too, contains instances of nudity. For example, the story of St. Agatha in The Golden Legend does not shrink away from detailing the tortures she suffered, even though those torments involve her being stripped naked.
Take this passage as an example, “Enraged, the consul ordered that her breasts be roughly twisted, and then commanded that they be torn off. And Agatha cried: ‘Cruel and impious tyrant, does it not shame thee to torture, in a woman, that with which thy mother suckled thee?’” After St. Peter appears to Agatha and heals her wounds, she is again tortured by the consul, who “commanded his men to scatter potsherds on the ground, to mix burning coal with them, and to drag the maiden, stripped of all vesture, over this fearsome bed.”
The purpose of literature is to describe a person, place, event, etc. so that the reader can imagine what is described to him. To properly picture St. Agatha’s martyrdom, the reader has no choice but to imagine her stripped of her clothing; her tortures are too specific to imagine the incident any other way. Yet no normal Christian would complain that this literature is pornographic. No one would think of it as an attack on chastity.
Painting, sculpture, literature: nudity has been accepted as a legitimate subject for portrayal for each of these arts. Why then, should it be denied to film? What is acceptable in other art forms should be acceptable in film as well.
Though valid, this argument will not satisfy all people; and understandably so, since someone could argue that as a different art-form film is subject to different laws. In one sense that statement is true, but that will be discussed later.
The logical starting point for a discussion of whether nudity is morally permissible in a film is the question, ‘what is nudity?’
Simply put, a person is nude when he is not wearing clothing. Nudity is not an action; it is an external accident of the body. On its own, nudity is not wrong or evil in any way. How could it be? Man was created nude; he was not meant to wear clothing. Clothing came after the Fall. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
If nudity were evil in itself, then a man would be guilty of wrongdoing every time he bathed or changed his clothing, and every infant born into this world would commit sin as soon as he left his mother’s womb. If nudity were evil, married couples would have no choice but to resort to evil every time they tried to fulfill God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
So, if nudity is not wrong, why does man wear clothing? He wears clothing to guard against concupiscence. Adam’s sin caused an imbalance between man’s body and soul, so that the soul nolonger has the control over the bodily passions it once had. Images may arouse illicit or inappropriate passions, providing temptations. When an image (meaning something seen by the eye; not necessarily art) involves the human body, particularly when it is unclothed, it can lead to sexual temptations.
This has led many Christians to condemn nudity on the charge that it leads to sexual sins, whether physical or mental. But an universal condemnation is impossible, because the sight of the unclothed human body is not evil. The body is created by God, and everything He creates is good. Seeing the body of another is seeing something good, and that sight does not incur sin. If misused, that sight can lead to sin, but it is never sinful in itself.
Note that there is a difference between seeing the body and viewing the body. Seeing the body does not require an intention; viewing the body is an action and does involve intention. When intention becomes a factor, nudity enters the realm of morality. Seeing someone naked may prompt temptation, but it does not constitute a sinful act. Only when nudity is intentionally used for arousing inappropriate sexual passion (meaning sexual passion with the wrong person, at an illicit time, or at an improper place) does it become wrong.
Christians tend to hold the view that nudity is intrinsically sexual, making it inappropriate and corruptive. Stripped down to its essentials, their belief is that nudity equals sexual equals evil. This creed contains three major errors:
- Nudity equals sexual.
- Sexual equals evil.
- Nudity equals evil.
Consider the first of these errors. Man was created without clothing, but his sexual passions were not rampant. Man’s passions were not aroused simply by the sight of the naked body of the opposite sex. Granted, that was before the Fall, but that state was not lost. The sexual passions are now more easily awakened and harder to control than before Adam’s sin, but those passions have not become rampant. If man were incapable of looking at another’s body without arousing his sexual passions, then male doctors could never have female patients, and vice versa, which could lead to disaster in a difficult pregnancy if the only available doctor happened to be male. By the same standard, a mother could not see her son after giving birth until he was cleaned and clothed, nor could she ever bathe the boy, lest her sexual passions be enflamed. Sons would be in the exclusive care of fathers, and daughters of the mothers, until the children could care for themselves. The multitude of nudes in Christian art would constitute a black mark against the Church if the body must, without exception, be clothed in the presence of others. Husbands and wives would be the only people who could ever safely see the body of the opposite sex, since they can rightfully engage in the sexual act.
All these examples suggest that perhaps nudity is not enough to arouse sexual thoughts and passions. Something more is needed.
In fact, sexual passions can be awakened independent of nudity. What matters is intention. If a nude person intends to arouse sexual thoughts in another, then his behavior and the way he moves and talks probably will have an overtone of seduction, and very likely his nudity will prove to be a temptation for a member of the opposite sex. The same behavior, though, could achieve the same result if the person were instead wearing clothing. The person who acts in such a manner is guilty of impurity, both in body and in mind, and of providing an occasion of sin for anyone who sees him. However, the viewer has not committed sin, but merely experienced a temptation, which he can resist or succumb to. Only if the viewer falls to the temptation is he guilty of sin.
It is entirely possible that the unclothed person could be the one without sin, and the viewer is the one who is guilty of impurity. For instance, a woman enters a room she thought was empty, and inadvertently finds and sees a man in the process of changing his clothes. At this point neither has committed any sin, and both could walk away with only the pain of embarrassment.
But suppose the woman lingers, or turns away but reflects on the image of the naked man, musing over lustful fantasies. The woman in this situation has sinned, but the man has done nothing wrong. He is not responsible for those lustful thoughts in the woman’s mind.
Apply the same principle to art. The human body, being both good and beautiful, is a fit subject for art, whose purpose is to depict good and beautiful things. The nude figures in art are often like the man in the room: there is nothing wrong with them, yet someone could purposefully use the image to arouse his own sexual passions, or someone with puritanical tendencies might find the art scandalous. For both types of observers, the nude figures become an occasion of sin only because they want them to be; the images themselves are blameless and beautiful.
This is not to say that nudity in art is always blameless. Many artists abuse nudity and turn it into a tool for arousing lust and sexual passion. For this reason some Christians would be willing to argue that nudity should be forbidden in art. But as Neil P. Hurley says in Theology Through Film, “abuse does not argue against use.”
The second error regarding the body, that sexual equals evil, is much easier to disprove than the first error. The goodness of the body and of procreation has been written and spoken about often in recent times. Pope John Paul II is the most prominent voice in this discussion. His papal addresses, which have been compiled to form the famous Theology of the Body texts, are filled with teachings regarding the intrinsic goodness and beauty of the human body and sexuality. John Paul II teaches that the marital act is the ultimate symbol of a husband and wife’s love for each other: a physical sign of a spiritual reality.
The first chapter of the book of Genesis also speaks to the goodness of human sexuality. God’s first command to Adam and Eve is to “be fruitful and multiply.” Apart from a special intervention by God (the only example being the Blessed Virgin), how else can a man and woman “multiply” except through the physical union of sex and the procreation of children? God, Who is completely good and completely just, always commands man to do good things, never evil. Therefore, sexuality must be something good.
The third and final error, that nudity equals evil, tends to be the conclusion of many Christians when they see an instance of nudity, almost certainly because they believe that nudity arouses inappropriate sexual passion. But, as has already been shown, nudity does not arouse sexual passion on its own. It can be used for sexual purposes, but is not sexual in and of itself. Even if it were intrinsically sexual, nudity would still not be evil, because sexuality is not evil. In fact, since sexuality is intrinsically good, the proper conclusion would be that nudity is also intrinsically good.
So, the argument against nudity is destroyed regardless of whether one considers it sexual or not. If it is sexual, then nudity is intrinsically good; if it is not sexual by nature, then there is no legitimate objection against it. Either way, nudity cannot be called evil. Even when abused, nudity does not become evil. An abused thing never becomes evil; it becomes abused.
The idea that nudity is not bad on its own probably shatters many people’s concept of modesty. Modesty conjures up images of plunging necklines, exposed midriffs, short skirts, and bikinis. Yet, some people may wonder at this point if any of that could be called wrong if complete nudity is not an evil thing. Why should one complain about partial exposure of the body if the entire body can be shown without causing temptation?
Modesty is not about clothing; it is about attention and behavior. Someone could be naked and still be modest, and conversely someone could be immodest and yet fully clothed. Is a spouse immodest on her wedding bed? No. Her behavior and attire (or lack thereof) befits the situation.
The film Lady in the Water provides a good example of a naked yet modest woman. The nymph, Story, wears very little clothing throughout the entire film, and in a few parts it is implied that she is wearing nothing in the presence of a man. She was too innocent to understand the purpose of clothing. Nudity did not bother her, and she was unaware that it might bother others. No one would accuse her of being immodest.
On the other hand, a clothed person can be as immodest as a naked one. A fully clothed woman wildly moving her hips and rubbing her chest could be equally as provocative as an unclothed man lying on a bed. Modesty depends on intention. If the intention is to sexually arouse someone in a situation when it would wrong to do so, then the person is acting immodestly, regardless of how much clothing he is wearing.
But if intention is what matters, then can clothing ever be immodest? Yes. Intention is as relevant to attire as it is to action, because action is involved in putting on attire. Immodest clothing intentionally draws attention to sexuality rather than to the person. It emphasizes specific parts of the body so that the focus of the beholder is diverted to those parts exclusively.
Well-intentioned artists occasionally do the same thing inadvertently. Several paintings of Biblical or classical figures portray their subjects naked, with the exception of one part of the body, which is covered by a fig leaf or the subject’s hand or hair or some other object. The viewer’s attention is drawn by the unnaturalness of the concealing object’s presence to the part of the body that it is supposed to be hiding. In some cases it is more modest to show the body nude without emphasizing the fact, than to point out the nudity by covering specific parts of the body. A proper Christian attitude towards modesty and nudity allows for the one who sees the body to do so without being aroused.
The story of St. Agatha’s martyrdom in The Golden Legend attests to this Christian attitude. After her first set of tortures, during which her breasts were torn off, Agatha was cast back into prison, and St. Peter appeared to her as an old man. Peter offered to treat her wounds, assuring Agatha that “thy modesty need not be disturbed by me, for I too am a Christian!”
However, this does not mean Christians should or could become a society of nudists. Modesty also demands prudence, and prudence requires that men cover their bodies to avoid the possibility of temptation, for themselves and others, even if they do understand the true relationship of modesty, clothing, and nudity.
All this goes to show that theoretically nudity may be shown in a film, but that does not establish if it can be shown practically. Something may be theoretically possible and at the same time practically impossible.
Because of concupiscence, it is easy for an actor or a filmmaker to overstep the bounds of modesty, whether intentionally or accidentally. Concupiscence also makes it possible and effortless for a movie watcher to turn an instance of modest nudity into an occasion of sin. Nudity in film, more so than nudity in painting or sculpture, requires limitations.
Several paragraphs ago it was mentioned that film is governed by different rules since it is a different art form. That is true in a certain sense. Pope John Paul II details a distinction between two types of art: representative and reproductive art. Representative art (painting and sculpture) does not present its subject perfectly; for various reasons the final image differs from its original model. Reproductive art (film and photography) makes an exact or near exact likeness of the subject.
Here is Pope John Paul II’s description of these two kinds of art:
“In painting or sculpture, man/body always remains a model that is subjected to a specific reworking by the artist. In film and even more in the art of photography, there is no transfiguration of the model, but the living human being is reproduced: and in this case the human body is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction achieved by appropriate technologies.”
Of the representative arts, painting is the most like film, making it useful for comparison. A person’s body in a painting is part of a larger image, something the viewer knows when he looks at the painting. For the painting to convey its meaning, the viewer must see every part of it, and he must also be able to see the parts in the context of the whole image. When the painter does his art well, a nude figure in the painting does not claim the viewer’s exclusive attention, since it is seen in context. In film, too, nudity should be seen as part of a whole and not call attention to itself.
This begs the question, in film, what is the whole? Is it each frame, each shot? If that is the case, how can a nude character avoid attracting attention, since the human eye is drawn to light and movement, which in film usually means the eye is drawn to the characters on the screen. If film was not subject to different rules than those that painting follows, the body would likely attract such attention, and nudity would probably be impossible to show.
However, each frame, each shot, and each scene are the parts, not the whole in a film, and they must be seen in the context of the entire film, from its start to its end. For nudity to not call attention to itself, it must fit into the structure of the complete film. This means that it must be necessary, must serve a purpose consistent with the rest of the film, and it must not lead the viewers into temptation. These are the rules film is bound to in regards to nudity.
Purpose is a good starting point in discussing the portrayal of cinematic nudity. When a film contains an instance of nudity, consider why it is shown. Nudity cannot be inserted into a film on the whim of the filmmaker, and most definitely not to capitalize on the attraction of humankind to sexual passions and pleasure. For nudity to rise above whim and exploitation, it must serve the film either by furthering the plot or character development.
It might seem difficult for nudity to further the plot of a film without the film being pornographic or exploitive in some way, but a good plot takes realism and historical accurateness into account. For instance, a film about St. Francis of Assisi would not be completely accurate if it did not show the pivotal moment in his life when he gave anything, including all his clothing, back to his father. Or a film concerning the Roman gladiators might try to be as historically accurate as possible, and show scenes of nude athletes. Or, perhaps a character in a film was caught in a burning building, and, in addition to numerous burns on his body, his clothes were burned away.
Nudity used for character development should reveal something about a character’s personality or prompt change in the character. Perhaps a character is put in a situation where he sees someone naked or is himself naked, and the film shows his reaction to the situation. Maybe the scene reveals the character’s integrity and respect for the opposite sex, or it could show his modesty. For example, suppose the film concerns a gentleman and a woman who has grown up with the belief that love is purely physical. She has never been shown respect by men, and as a consequence lacks respect for her body. Expecting the gentleman to be the same as other men she has met, the woman undresses in his presence. But the gentleman stops her and r
espectfully covers her body. This shows the gentleman’s integrity as well as providing an awakening moment for the woman.
For a more concrete example, consider Story from Lady in the Water. The scenes in which she was unclothed portrayed both her innocence and Cleveland Heep’s propriety. In Lady in the Water the instances of nudity were implied rather than shown, but the circumstances were such that in another film they could warrant a visual image.
The above-mentioned examples may give legitimate reasons as to why nudity may be shown in a film, but they say nothing about necessity. Even if the reason is valid, visibly portraying nudity might not be necessary. Shooting a scene with nudity should be a filmmaker’s last option.
Before using nudity in a scene, a filmmaker should investigate whether there are other ways to depict the scene without requiring his actors to perform unclothed. M. Night Shyamalan had a good reason to show nudity in Lady in the Water, but it was not necessary for him to do so; he was able to achieve the needed character development without showing Story unclothed. Every filmmaker should strive to do the same.
However, filmmakers must also be aware of the ‘fig leaf effect.’ Sometimes, the best way to deal with nudity is to show it, but without emphasizing it. Concealing the body under circumstances when it would be more natural to see it has a backlash effect: it draws attention to the very thing the filmmaker was trying to avoid. In such cases the filmmaker has metaphorically placed a fig leaf over the image, and the viewer’s attention is attracted by that leaf unnaturally suspended over one part of the body. For this reason, filmmakers are not required to go out of their way to keep nudity out of the film, yet they should do their best to refrain from using it unless not showing nudity would have a harmful effect.
Take Children of Men, for example. In a pivotal moment of the film, the character Kee removes her clothing to show Theo that she is with child: the first pregnancy in the entire world in eighteen years. Kee’s clothing was designed so that it hid the fact that she was pregnant; so, the easiest and, cinematically speaking, the most dramatic way to show the audience this miracle was to have Kee take off her clothing. A critic would be hard-pressed to find an alternate method not involving nudity, which at the same time did not seem fake or forced. The mood and focus of the scene is on the girl’s pregnancy, not her body.
Once purpose and necessity are established, a filmmaker’s next consideration is how to depict an instance of nudity. It must be shown in a respectful manner. Despite having a legitimate reason for showing the body unclothed, a filmmaker could still resort to exploitation of the sexual passions by casually, flippantly, or disrespectfully displaying the body on screen. This is not to say that the mood and circumstances surrounding the instance of nudity must necessarily be serious or grave, but it cannot be treated in such a way that the audience sees the body as merely one more object on the screen. The body is part of a person, a person with dignity, and it must be treated as such.
However, the filmmaker’s stance should never be confused with that of the characters. The film must consider the body respectfully, but the characters do not have to. The characters can treat the unclothed body disrespectfully, on the condition that the viewers know that this treatment is wrong. In Schindler’s List, the Nazis force their captives to undress upon entrance into the concentration camps. The Nazis’ intention was to humiliate and dehumanize their victims, compelling them to lose all sense of dignity and value. The film portrayed this act of the Nazis as horrible, revealing how evil and terrible the Nazis and concentration camps were. The film shows respect for the body through the Nazis’ disrespect.
Every instance of nudity in a film will affect the viewer in some way, and the filmmaker should aim towards creating a positive effect. Yet, despite diligent examination of why nudity is being shown, proper reflection concerning its necessity, and respectful context, the nude image might still awaken the sexual passions of the viewer. The fault could lie with the actor, whose behavior carried with it sexual connotations; or it could be the fault of the filmmaker, who did not realize that the situation or the way it was handled had sexual implications.
Either way, there are only two solutions: scrap the scene or try again. Sexual passion is a good thing, but aroused at the wrong time, place, or with the wrong person it can be sinful or an occasion of sin. For that reason, a film must never arouse sexual passion.
However, the filmmaker is not responsible for catering to puritans or the overly-scrupulous. Those people like to find temptation and sin where none exists, and they will condemn content in films based on their radical opinions rather than truth. A properly-handled instance of cinematic nudity poses no danger of sin to a normal person, yet the overly-scrupulous carry their temptations in with them, and accuse the film of pornography. The fault is theirs, not the filmmaker’s.
The same is true of twisted men, who turn any sight of the body into lust. A filmmaker must exercise care when showing nudity, but he need not worry about pleasing or offending the extremes. Normal minds are the filmmaker’s concern, and if their sexual passions are not aroused, then the filmmaker has achieved his goal, and, assuming all other conditions are met, he has presented a good and legitimate instance of nudity in the art of film.
If a scene requires nudity but the filmmaker judges it unnecessary or imprudent to show it, he may resort to implication. He can do that by filming from angles that do not show the nude character, or show only a portion of him on screen. That character or another’s facial reactions or spoken words might indicate to the audience that nudity is present, or perhaps some other method would be employed.
While there is less chance of temptation for the audience with implied nudity than there is with visible nudity, nevertheless a danger still exists. It is the danger of imagination. Something performed off-screen remains visually unspecified, and so, like the pages of a novel, that content is left to the audience’s imagination. In the case of nudity, the viewer might picture things he should not be imagining. Most of the time, however, this will be a problem with the viewer, not the film.
Nevertheless, the film should not provide fuel for illicit thoughts. Words, facial expressions, shadows, sound effects, and every other tool at the filmmaker’s disposal should in no way lead the audience to lustful thoughts. Though this problem is not one a filmmaker is likely to come across, he should at least be aware of its existence.
When the whole question of nudity in film is analyzed, it might appear that nudity is permissible as long as it remains separated from sex. That is incorrect. Nudity is permissible as long as it refrains from arousing sexual passion.
Sex, as already demonstrated, is good and beautiful, and as such is a fitting subject for art. This concept presents a paradox: sex may be shown in art provided it does not arouse sexual passion. In painting and sculpture the apparent contradiction is not as difficult to reconcile, but for film it is hard. Because film captures moving and life-like images, it will almost assuredly arouse sexual passion in the viewer, making it extremely unlikely that an instance of sex in film could ever be morally justifiable (this is assuming that the filmmakers employ some method that does not involve the actors committing sin in the first place). However, it is conceivably possible that a film could portray the sexual act in such a way that it does not arouse the sexual passions of the viewer.
In all other ways, displaying sex in a film would follow the same guidelines as showing nudity in a film, but it must be even more necessary in order for it to be permissible. If sex is somehow necessary for the film (as with nudity, not on the whim of the director and not for the purpose of exploitation), a filmmaker should find some way to imply it rather than show it. With implied sex, the danger of leading on the viewer’s imagination is much more real than with implied nudity. The guidelines involved with showing nudity become the guidelines for implied sex, but expanded to incorporate the auditory aspects of film as well.
As an example of implied sex done well, consider What Lies Beneath. A character-building scene early in the film revolves around a husband and wife’s relationship, and finishes with them preparing for the marital act. The audience knows exactly what the couple is going to do, but the film cuts to the next scene before anything happens.
The thought of portraying sex in a film, whether implied or otherwise, will probably cause many Christians to cringe and raise their defenses, fearing that such content would undoubtedly constitute pornography. But in his book, The Screen Arts, Edward Fischer warns viewers to “be careful not to confuse the creative artist with the sly pornographer. The artist deals with evil because it is a part of life, but he shows evil as evil; the pornographer deals with evil because he finds it saleable, and he makes evil seem good.”
Pornography concerns itself with sinful sex, and portrays it as a good thing. When a good artist deals with sinful sex, he treats it as a bad thing. The artist makes a distinction between sex performed for lust, and sex performed for love, a distinction the pornographer never bothers with. A good artist knows the difference between the moral and the immoral, and he can convey that difference to the audience through his artistic skill. That is what makes it possible for an artist to show sex in a film, even if, from a practical standpoint, sex is nearly impossible to portray visibly.