“And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” –Genesis 3:10
We Southerners are often guilty of corrupting the word “naked” into “nekkid.” It’s what prompted the late humorist Lewis Grizzard to quip “‘Nekkid’ is when you don’t have any clothes on–and you’re up to something.”
Nakedness is something we rarely talk about in American culture. We have haunting nightmares of being in public while divested of garments. Our hearts thump in our chest as we sit in a cold exam room clad in only a paper gown as we await the arrival of our physician. We hand our phones over to friends with strict instructions to look only at that one pic. It’s bad form to swipe.
The trepidation we feel is sometimes blamed on our Judeo-Christian heritage. Three short chapters into the Bible and our common mother and father are hunkering behind the foliage after chomping that apple.
Then again, Europeans are from the same philosophical lineage, and they don’t seem to have the same hang-ups, as I once quickly discovered when strolling down a European beach struggling with the impossibly convoluted German word on the sign I passed: “Freikörperkultur.” (Loosely translated, it’s “free body culture.” If you can’t figure it out, use Google. Just be careful clicking on images if you’re at work.)
Whatever the case, there’s a deep-seated psychological aversion in most of us when we think of having our naughty bits on display. Our nakedness belongs to us, and we choose when or if we reveal it to others. One needn’t be a Freudian to spot the overwhelming sense of powerlessness sublimated in such a symbol.
Nudity as vulnerability rears its head in literature, film, television, comic books, etc. It’s such a go-to that the superbly helpful TV Tropes has an entire page of sub-tropes dedicated not just to nudity but also partial nudity.
Growing up a fan of grindhouse films and B-horror movies, the gratuitous nude scene was a given, a necessary weasel. You know, sex sells, especially in genres marketed heavily to pimply-face pubescent males.
Mostly, the nudity is–pardon the pun–nakedly blatant fanservice. Prime example, the schlocky, so-bad-it’s-good 1988 flick Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-er-ama. During the early moments, setting up the ridiculous plot, a group of nerds decide to sneak over to the Tri-Delta sorority house to watch pledges be hazed. Staring through the window, they watch as Lisa and the improbably named Taffy get spanked and covered in whipped cream. Unsatisfied with the amount of T&A they just witnessed, they sneak inside and–just as the viewers–are treated to a soapy, unnecessarily lengthy scrub fest as the two girls wash away the sticky confection amid obligatory arching of backs and naked shenanigans.
That’s the least plausible event in a movie that involves freeing a demon trapped in a bowling trophy.
Other times, the infamous shower scene is played with great effect, nakedness serving as a metaphorical sense of helplessness. Hitchcock, of course, started the trend with the harrowing scene in Psycho. In 1980, Brian de Palma played it to the nines at the beginning of Dressed to Kill. We were all horrified when Freddy Krueger’s razor fingers appeared amid the suds of Heather Langenkamp’s bath.
Various stages of undress can be an easy shorthand in both film and literature, representing terror, unease, shyness, uncertainty, even power under the right circumstances. (Employees of the euphemistically named “gentlemen’s clubs” certainly use it to exert power and extract cash from patrons.)
These thoughts flitted through my mind when I spoke to a friend over the weekend. Having a critical eye and a opinion I value, I always give her first crack at anything I’m thinking of publishing before the rest of the world sees it. She’s read my two short stories up on Amazon and the two upcoming releases.
“There sure are a lot of naked people in your yarns,” she said.
My first instinct was an eloquent denial of “nuh-uh.” Then I thought about it. She wasn’t wrong.
For a budding writer who got his first taste of storytelling with shoddy, low-budget films from the 80s, I probably should have expected it. All that gobbledygook from the psychoanalysts claiming writing is a birthing action mirroring the act that leads to generation notwithstanding, equally plausible is the notion that I unwittingly disrobe my characters because it’s been drilled in my brain.
Circa 1180, something miraculous happened in the annals of British literature. A woman not only penned a book, she published it under her own name. In that day, there were certainly a few female writers, but most either went unpublished, put it out anonymously, or let her husband sign his name and take the credit.
Historians know precious little about Marie de France. She may have been the illegitimate half-sister of King Henry II. She may have been a nun. We do know she dazzled the world with her Lais, a series of 12 stories in verse form.
The most anthologized is “Lanval,” the story of a knight in King Arthur’s court. Unlike his peers, he has no riches, is often ignored by his lord, yet still pledges unwavering loyalty. He is the epitome of the chivalric code.
His luck changes when he encounters an enchanted woman in a tent that would make an emperor flush with shame. She makes the first move, seducing him, holding him under her thrall. Because she is not of this world, she grants him a pretty sweet deal: she will always be his love, and he will be Oprah-rich. The more he spends, in fact, the more riches are heaped upon him.
But like all bargains with fairy people and demons freed from bowling trophies, there’s a condition. In this case, he can never breathe a word to anyone about her.
To condense the action for those who unfamiliar–sorry, but I have a 900-year limit on spoilers–he finds himself in a position where he does tell the Queen and winds up on trial for lying. The only chance of acquittal is producing the woman he claims to love.
As the Knights of the Round Table decide his fate, she trots in on a majestic palfrey, vouches for him, saves him from impending death. He then hops on the back of her saddle and they ride off into the sunset, Isle of Avalon the GPS endpoint.
It’s a remarkable piece on a number of levels. My students, relentlessly coached by me at this point, immediately herald it a proto-feminist tale. Lanval not only owes his success to his lady, but, in the end, he winds up the stereotypical “damsel in distress,” and she is the one who thunders in and whisks him away to safety.
It’s a fair reading, but it’s also easy. Like most class discussions, I take pride in complicating pedestrian interpretations.
Today, we lingered on a particular passage:
“Very fresh and slender showed the lady in her vesture of spotless linen. About her person she had drawn a mantle of ermine, edged with purple dye from the vats of Alexandria. By reason of the heat her raiment was unfastened for a little, and her throat and the rondure of her bosom showed whiter and more untouched than hawthorn in May. The knight came before the bed, and stood gazing on so sweet a sight” (Trans. Eugene Mason).
I hadn’t planned on going there, but some of my best classroom moments have been freestyle. Here the author puts us in the vantage point of Lanval, gawking at a highly sexualized woman making bedroom eyes as she reposes. (It’s worth noting that in our translation, she is naked, a draped blanket strategically obscuring the goods.)
I threw out the name Laura Mulvey and her seminal 1975 critique “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In it, she coins the term “the male gaze.” In ’75, almost all directors, screenwriters, and producers were male. In 2017, well, not a whole hell of a lot has changed.
Movies were shot, scenes were staged, all with the perspective of a heterosexual male’s view of the world, which naturally included objectifying women as a natural fulfillment of sexual pleasure. From Anne Margret’s introduction in Viva Las Vegas to Charlize Theron’s bare booty in The Cider House Rules, the camera itself takes the place of the male characters eyes, forcing the moviegoers into the same perspective. I mentioned the famous scene in Michael Bay’s dumpster-fire of a movie Transformers, where Megan Fox is leaned over the hood of a car, shirt baring her midriff and low-rise jeans, back arched in a felinesque pose.
Plenty of women know their way around a car engine. We might even say those women defy stereotypes–dare we say a feminist portrayal? None, I would suspect, happen to strike her particular pose.
I was equipped with my KJV, not because I’m particularly religious but because I always come to class prepared. In any study of Western literature, a Bible verse might need cross-referencing. I flipped to 2 Samuel 11:2.
“And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.“
Bathsheba – Jean-Leon Jerome (By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)
Mulvey might have written her essay in ’75, but the concept is a tad older.
And, progressive as Marie appears in her lai, she too reverts to a similar form of storytelling.
It’s also noteworthy that the story is called “Lanval,” after that knight who takes requires rescue. We see the world from his point of view, his triumphant savior only appearing in two short scenes. We know his name, as we do Arthur and Gawain.
Guinevere makes an appearance. Her treatment as a man-eater another interesting topic, it’s also significant that Marie doesn’t mention her name, just that she’s queen.
And that opulent, mystical woman draped in Alexandrine fur? We scholars usually call her the “fairy lady” because Maire never gives her a name.
Not a solitary character with XY chromosomes has a proper noun to her credit. No Susan, no Jill, no Wilodean.
Maybe Marie just knew her audience, knew more males would be reading her book because they were more likely to be educated and literate. Maybe she was influenced by the stories she’d read before, unintentionally mimicking it.
Either way, when Lanval ogles the fairy lady upon first meeting, it plays out strikingly similar to the aforementioned collegiate nerds peering through the bathroom door of the sorority house, watching Lisa and Taffy showering together, their vantage point the camera as we voyeuristically realize we the audience are also violating their privacy.
Proto-feminist as “Lanval” might be, that particular moment just ain’t.
A candy-coated feminist outside with complex, tooth-chipping patriarchal filling. I think I can kind of relate.
Find out how in “Peeks” and Valleys Part II:
The Voyeurism of First-Person Narrative …