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As recently as January, the U.S. Supreme Court was debating whether TV networks should be fined for showing a bare body part – in this case, a woman’s butt – on an episode of ABC’s “NYPD Blue.”
A lawyer arguing for the networks noted enforcement could lead to complaints about the Summer Olympics in Beijing: During the opening ceremonies a statute of a bare-breasted, bare-bottomed woman was plainly visible.
A decision isn’t expected until June, but no matter the result, the very fact this is a matter before the highest court in the land troubles historian Mike Foster.
America remains surprisingly prudish, or at least hypocritical, about nudity, says Foster, co-author with his wife, Barbara, of the biography, A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaccs Menken (TheGreatBare.com).
“Officially, we’re uptight about nudity,” he says, “but happy to watch it in the media. Advertisers use nudity to make a buck, publishers to sell product, and protesters take it off to make a point.
“Lindsay Lohan’s nude spread for Playboy earned her a million dollars and was pirated on the Internet. Helen Mirren, at 64, posed topless for a puff promoting ‘Love Ranch.’ PETA women, who strip in public for attention to animal rights – ‘go naked instead of wearing fur’ – have been joined by their men.
The “ultimate fantasy commercial” for this year’s Super Bowl featured a beautiful Colombian model looking stark naked. It was done with paint and 100 million viewers feasted their eyes on a nude illusion.
Foster says our nude hypocrisy stems from the Victorian era, when actress Adah Menken was dubbed “The Great Bare” by writer/admirer Mark Twain. The Civil War-era bombshell singer and actress became famous as The Naked Lady for her starring role in “Mazeppa,” a drama in which she rode a stallion up a four-story stage mountain, apparently in the buff. She actually wore a flesh-colored body stocking, but the audience gasped – yet another nude illusion.
It’s mystifying that in Western Europe, the birthplace of many American traditions and values, billboards, TV shows and commercials featuring nudity are commonplace. Nude sunbathers enjoy their nations’ beaches – and don’t go home with awkward tan lines.
One hopeful sign that America’s easing up: At actress Betty White’s televised 90th birthday tribute, Tina Fey claimed the older actress told her: “Never let anyone tell you that you are not good enough to pose nude.”
Yes, our favorite “Golden Girl” did it, decades ago. Yet another “dangerous woman” ahead of her time?
Michael Foster is a historian, novelist and biographer, acclaimed by the New York Times. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “A Dangerous Woman” is his fifth book. Barbara Foster is an associate professor of women’s studies at City University of New York.
Published: March 29, 2012 – Volume 10 – Issue 50