I’ll be honest – I didn’t expect to do a lot of thinking on this topic. I thought that a photograph of a naked woman could only be pornographic, or at least a sign of exploitation; we see plenty of female celebrities nude or barely-covered in their music videos, but I wouldn’t consider this art. There is nothing about lying down behind a cluster of candyfloss clouds, and playfully kicking your legs up behind you, that challenges stereotypes about women’s roles in society or how their bodies should look.
However, my opinion on this changed when I was first introduced to singer, model, and all-round powerhouse, Grace Jones. In particular, take a look at the cover of her album ‘Island Life’:
This photograph is amazing in a lot of ways. For starters, who here holds fond memories of the R’n’B and hip-hop of the early naughties? Sean Paul and Blu Cantrell (whatever happened to Blu Cantrell?), I continue to Breathe and, in your honour, I always will. Anyway, a lot of R’n’B videos of that era and this one feature oiled-up or water-soaked ladies, who must have been preparing to slip ‘n’ slide away from all those charming men looking to cross those “Blurred Lines”. To name but a few examples:
- I Need a Girl – P. Diddy ft. Ginuwine, Loon, & Mario Winans (2002)
- I’m Sprung – T-Pain (2005)
- ICE – Kelly Rowland ft. Li’l Wayne (2012)
- When I Grow Up – The Pussycat Dolls (2008)
- Beautiful Liar – Beyoncé and Shakira (2009)
Sure, Grace Jones appears basted and ready to pop in the oven at 74°C, but she looks like a hard-working woman glistening with sweat – not a nineteen-year-old girl, whose oily maracas will be a nine-year-old boy’s first memory of MTV. She looks athletic, because her pose is strong, flexible, and pretty gravity-defying as far as her balance goes – or perhaps not, according to Jean-Paul Goude, the photographer behind the image. Rafael Alexander quotes Goude on this (http://rafaelalexander.com/), describing how Jones had to be photo-shopped into the position we’ve come to know and love – he argues that you have to be incredibly supple to do that in real life, as I have just discovered by attempting the same thing in my living room.
However, I don’t think it matters that the pose isn’t real – the end result was still a powerful image which uses female suppleness to show strength and composure, rather than how many ways women can get their ankles behind their ears. The plain, wall-papered background, which reminds me of primary school assemblies, makes Jones the undeniable feature of this album cover – and not because she’s asking, “Don’t you wish you could have sex with me?!”
Jones’ attire adds to the effect: sweat-bands around her wrist and ankle; support bands around her knee and elbow; and a stereo-typically masculine haircut that perfectly displays her calm, yet determined expression. Even without knowing who she is, you can tell she means business – she doesn’t pander and pout to the camera, but focuses on her microphone, displaying the focus and dedication of an athlete in her field.
Another awesome example of the naked female body as artistic comes from – believe it or not – Pirelli’s 2016 calendar. A version of this calendar has been published every year since the 1960s, given as an exclusive gift to chosen celebrities and customers. According to http://www.harpersbazaar.com, 2015 model Candice Huffine described Pirelli as the “epitome of sexy”, while Sasha Luss claimed that prior guest stars had inspired her to believe in a career beyond her twilight years of thirty; Isabeli Fontana has been featured seven times, says Luss, and she has two kids! To think that those charitable folk at Pirelli included a flabby-belly-mummy in their sexy ladies calendar – what a world we live in!
So over the years there have been fish nets, latex, and Naomi Campbell in a giant red rubber tyre – but what will 2016 hold in store? Just to make sure that the change really hits home, here are three photos from the Pirelli 2015 calendar:
And here are three photographs from the 2016 calendar:
The 2016 calendar, shot by Annie Leibovitz, includes women from various walks of life who have played huge roles in the worlds of business, sport, art, and/or politics. Among them are: Yao Chen, actress and the first Chinese United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador (that’s one hell of a title); Natalia Vodianova, Russian supermodel and founder of The Naked Heart Foundation; and Kathleen Kennedy, producer and chairperson for Lucasfilm. In a promotional video, photographer Leibovitz describes her intentions to have no pretense in this calendar, and to “show exactly who these women are” (http://pirellicalendar.pirelli.com/).
So what’s so amazing about these photographs? Aside from the huge progression made from one year to the next, the poses are strong, with Serena Williams’ muscular back and legs creating an awe-inspiring image. Even Amy Schumer’s image, where she seems to be casually enjoying a naked coffee break, creates a narrative that goes beyond her clothing – she is wearing very little, but her behaviour seems no different to a woman in jeans and a top, stripping away the fictional glamorization of nakedness that’s been seen in previous Pirelli calendars.
So what does all of this mean? Well, maybe a naked female body can be artistic – but some extra narrative is required, one that isn’t to do with sex or relationships. Perhaps some humour, not at the expense of the subject, or a story that shows the protagonist’s autonomy and strength in a way other than having men lust after them. Either way, I feel happy to say that the naked body in media doesn’t have to be pornography, but that giving a blowjob to a police baton definitely isn’t a piece of artistic expression.
Thanks so much for reading! Let me know what you think by leaving a comment, or liking/sharing this post!
Something extra to note (16/03/2017): At the time of publishing this article, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend, who asked: “Why is it important that a naked photo be artistic?” I wanted to clarify here that this was a topic that I found interesting, and was curious to try and unpack further – everyone is entitled to do as they please with their bodies, and I in no way mean to imply that women should only show their bodies if it can be classed as artistic!