Last week, I shared about the time I was seriously disturbed watching a scene from FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. In short, the scene took what should have been a private, safe moment for a minor and “pulled back the curtain” to the audience, turning her physical and emotional vulnerability–her right to take an innocent bath in peace–into an indecent, bubbly striptease. I identified several other scenes that performed much the same function, and I said scenes like these invited us to be less than human.
My husband Cap has written again and again and again about the objectification of the women playing sexualized roles like these. Even consenting actresses (which is a loaded term—read up on that here) often lose dignity in the eyes of their viewers.
As people engage with Cap, the Story is often brought up as the reason it’s okay to watch these actresses undress. (His response is here.) The Story is redemptive, they say—or overall empowering. Or this scene is necessary to tell the Story—although in my examples last week, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of the visual was needed.
My argument, though, is to take these arguments and examine the issue on their terms. Let’s say the Story IS all-important and its needs must be met. I’m a lit major; I’m down with that.
Do these voyeuristic moments actually serve the story in visual media? Maybe in rare instances: after all, I have not experienced all stories. But by and large, based on three principles, I think it’s more likely that sexual content hurts the story.
Principle 1: Identification
Every story worth its salt aims for some form of audience identification with the characters. I personally identify very much with Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove, for one. It’s possible to identify with someone who is not your gender, but you must admit it’s a lot easier, if you’re a woman, to latch onto the (usually) One Female in the story.
When we turn these women into sex objects, or only put them on the arms of the masculine heroes, it puts a little mark on the souls of the women who have identified with them. It has reduced these viewers, only a little, to feel like they too are best suited to object or trophy status. One film may not have a huge effect, to be sure. But repeated over and over again, women begin to pick up on the pattern of expectation.
When the person we relate to is dehumanized, it can’t be argued that the story is ennobling or redemptive for that character or for us. And whether we’re talking about men or women, that’s approximately 50% of the viewing population for whom the story is damaged—and damaging.
Principle 2: Oh, the Humanity
Of course, killing, injuring, and generally ruining our characters’ lives is in every storyteller’s job description. Characters’ humanity is stripped from them in numerous ways, and the excitement comes when they fight to reclaim it. But is their humanity stripped from them in the eyes of the viewer in any other situation?
When a character is dehumanized in a concentration camp, we hold onto their humanity for them. When a character is killed, it’s their humanity that moves us. But in voyeuristic situations, the characters’ humanity is damaged in the eyes of the viewer as they become objects, not people.
A good story helps us celebrate and cling to humanity. Even “dehumanizing” stories about slavery or brainwashing, ultimately, should give us more desire to be human, not less. But by turning viewers into voyeurs, the screen invites us to shut off caring for characters in the moments they are most vulnerable. It makes US act less human. This, to me, cannot be an ultimately redemptive or empowering story.
Principle 3: Undermining the Story
We are encouraged to care for these characters outside of this moment. They are often well-developed. They have aspirations we hope for, skills we admire, feelings we share. But in sexualized scenes, only their bodies matter.
All the women I mentioned in the last blog post—Winry during her bath, Dr. Marcus during her wardrobe change, and Nicole during her private moment at home—are strong characters outside these scenes. In these scenes, they are all, for a moment, vulnerable, physically or emotionally or both. Their feelings are respected at other points in their shows or movies. Their feelings should be respected most here. But it’s at the most vulnerable that their bodies draw our attention. Winry’s feelings don’t matter. Carol’s credentials don’t matter. Claire’s hurt doesn’t matter. Their human right to dignity certainly doesn’t.
In other words, sexualized scenes that objectify women undermine all the work the story has done to build those women into fully developed, relatable characters. These scenes are working against the rest of the story!
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Roger Ebert on “the cinematic marriage of Sex and Art”: “I am not convinced such a thing is possible. In traditional fiction films, art involves the filmmakers in creating a fiction about characters whose lives we care about. Sex, to the degree that it involves nudity and explicit detail, brings the whole story crashing down to the level of documentary. The actors lose not only their clothes but their characters, and stand (or recline) revealed only as themselves.”
Or, as Donald Sutherland put it, “When I take my clothes off people are no longer looking at me as a character, they’re looking at me with no clothes on.”
These moments undermine not only characters, but also full immersion. When a movie turns an audience on, their focus is not on the story. Their focus is on themselves, how their own bodies are reacting. As Gene Edward Veith says in Reading Between the Lines, “When an actor and an actress take off their clothes in a movie, viewers begin reacting sexually instead of aesthetically” (36). Taking us out of the story for the sake of the story is rather counterproductive, yes?
The full, robust personhood and value of actors and actresses must be protected more than a fictional Story. But let’s protect the story, too. In a good story, characters matter. And when you violate the dignity of a character, you’re violating not just one person, but all people who have rooted for that character, loved that character, cried with or for that character, or identified with that character. You’re violating the story you’re telling, the people’s power to fully enter into it. You may even be implicitly communicating that people without power to refuse are okay to take advantage of. Is that really the sort of story we want to tell?
Veith, Gene Edward. Reading Between the Lines. Crossway, 1990.