Male Nudity in TV Period Dramas – Are we taking it too far?

I read an interview with Tom Hughes in the Sunday Times magazine (link below), in which the interviewer came across as a total witch. She basically said that Hughes refused to reveal anything about his personal life (fair enough to him I say) and that his only appeal was his good looks, marketed through direct competition with Poldark’s Aiden Turner and the ‘sexiness’ of the two battling Period Dramas.

Tom Hughes as Prince Albert in Victoria

I do not deny that he is good looking, but that seems unimaginably rude and, frankly, you couldn’t say that about women without a huge backlash. So why can we say it about male TV stars? Why has it become ok for their bodies to be openly objectified without censure in a way that no longer exists for women’s bodies – trashy mags still talk objectify the female body, but the word ‘trashy’ is key. We censor this kind of talk and assign it to lowbrow journalism, but male nudity seems to exist outside of this realm of the ‘trashy’ and in the normative.

A lake-drenched Mr Darcy – the start of it all?

Male nudity of TV seems to have become a necessary phenomenon for selling television to the ‘yummy mummies’ and watchers of period dramas, ever since Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) dove into the lake in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995). This was a phenomenon at the time, and has progressed excessively since – we never see Mr Darcy’s bare chest but through a glimpse of his wet shirt. Since the enthusiastic response to this scene, male nudity in the Period Drama has become more and more essential to their success. Sexuality has always been a key selling factor of fiction, especially when reimagining period dramas (Bodice Ripper!). But what is new, I think, is the difference in the way we discuss it for men and women.

Poldark (seen below) is the key example for this. The infamous sything scene has sparked many debates on the appropriation of the male body in film and the creation of a female gaze. The latest ‘reports’ say that Aiden Turner (Poldark) has had enough of shirtless scenes – perhaps due to this media obsession. Honestly, who can blame him? He has been objectified constantly, and whilst it has boosted his career, it isn’t the only thing about him. This is where objectifying, both men and women, becomes a problem – we are more than just our skin.

The infamous scythe scene

Perhaps the difference is this: we see men’s chests all the time. Men seem to walk around shirtless at the mildest bit of sunshine. It becomes commonplace and appropriated by the mass – no one cares if you see men’s nipples, right? However, if a woman wears revealing clothes she becomes associated with a stereotype; the result of this is that the female body remains as something that can only be revealed if the woman is willing to bear that stereotype. In Film, to avoid this stereotype the fully nude female body, (crucially, the main signifier of nude: the nipple) belongs to either High Art or Pornography.

The last Hollywood film where the whole breast is bared was Carol (Haynes, 2015) and the whole style of the film, and the content is about high art – it’s not a pornographic lesbian film, it is reinventing the lesbian film into a genuine love story in the style of classic Hollywood. The ‘art film’ style allows for female nudity – an excuse, if you will – what interests me is that male nudity is excluded from these binaries.

So the male body has become the easy way of showing nudity, and of attracting the elusive ‘yummy mummy’ market – but have we crossed the line by implying that male actors are only good for ratings if they are shirtless, as the woman in the Tom Hughes article says. I don’t think this is a fair assessment, nor do I think it is the case, but if this is a common thought does that mean everyone should remain clothed on television or do we just need to change our attitude?

Articles that inspired this post:

http://theconversation.com/why-academics-are-interested-in-the-male-body-in-poldark-and-outlander-42518

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tom-hughes-the-man-sexing-up-sundays-and-mondays-on-catch-up-x2hnmdhcv

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