One of our correspondents raised a question about the ethics of nudity in movies in connection with a remark I made in reviewing Dreamlife of Angels. In trying to pen some preliminary thoughts, I soon realized that the topic deserved a thread of its own, both because more needs to be said than is appropriate in a little â€œcommentâ€ box, and also to provide a better stage for our readers to offer additional suggestions on how to address this topic. Here are a few random thoughts to prime the pump:
1. The origin of clothing was the fall of man into sin; clothing reflected the exposure that Adam and Eve felt, first, in the presence of God, and derivatively, in each other’s presence. The need for covering was ratified by God, and thus became a norm. Intentional, public flaunting of nudity thereafter is, I submit, a vain attempt to revert to the Garden of Eden.
2. Both men and women are fascinated by the female body. This is because woman is the glory of man (1 Cor 11:7), and the beauty of woman’s body is one aspect of that. There is a clear asymmetry between the sexes here. A normal woman does not desire to see men traipsing around with their privates exposed. It was unspeakably evil for Michelangelo to present the holy patriarch naked before the world (and Francis Schaefferâ€™s critique of the sculpture misses the point fatuously). I suspect that homosexuals are right in claiming Michelangelo as one of their own. Indeed, I think we can conclude that male nudity is always homosexual in its tendency.
3. The ravishing character of woman’s body is clearly intended to be confined to marriage, in the context of a personal (I-thee) encounter. This is not depicted or depictable in a movie: to use the terminology of grammar, the 3rd person regard is never the same as the 2nd person encounter.
4. Moreover, the third-person attempt to “observe” introduces yet another evil, that of the peeping-tom or voyeur. In effect, movies would make us all to be peeping toms.
5. The depiction of someone as e.g. an adulterer may be necessary to the story, but there are ample ways to do this that do not depict nudity or the act. Likewise, marital love needn’t have this explicit depiction. It may be that the emotion can only be shown without becoming mawkish via the medium of music. The closing duet in Act I of Verdiâ€™s Otello is a good example of how it should be done.
6. C. S. Lewisâ€™ claim that â€œspiritualâ€ sins should be taken much more seriously than merely â€œphysicalâ€ ones has some merit; but we need to realize that some physical sins are deeply connected to the spiritual. The resonance that nudity and sexuality has with the soul â€“ has anyone else noticed the hush that often descends on the theatre as the salacious scene approaches? â€“ a resonance rooted in its connection to love, reproduction, family, parenting, and indeed every aspect of normal earthly life, and which primal prominence we see confirmed by the very early mention in Scripture, shows that this is not an area to play with.
7. Almost any explicit depictions are going to present an occasion of temptation and fall for many. I list this problem last, because the nuances of the “weaker brother” would need to be introduced if this were the main consideration.
I conclude that, as a rule of thumb, public depiction of nudity is always wrong. I’m inclined to think that even the “artistic” portrayal thereof in the Renaissance and Baroque was just a high-brow cover for salaciousness. However, this does not mean that merely avoiding nudity hedges a scene in from its demoralizing effects. For example, in Lady Eve, at one point it is very clear that a man and a woman are about to have a liaison. Nothing is shown explicitly, and it is very funny to the audience, because the audience knows that in fact they are married. But the man does not know he is married to the woman (trust me; it makes sense). So the laugh that Sturges tricks out of us is ambiguous: afterward, upon reflection, it demoralizes. Similar comments in a different genre apply to Casablanca. There is the insinuation that Bergman let on that she still loved Bogart that night, and Bogart “let her pretend.” It goes by fast, and we get caught up in the grandeur of the bigger story, but it is still troubling. I’m not sure that the thing that is troubling is Ingrid Bergman’s attitude — that is what it is. I think what may be more troubling is the overly gallant way it is taken in stride by Paul Henreid. A great cause is one thing, but the end does not justify any means, does it?
What these considerations show is that the problem is much bigger than nudity per se.
Nevertheless, the nudity brings the temptations and proneness to corruption home in a vivid and primal way. It lifts the problem above the level of rational discussion. It is evil.
I have focused so far on the production of such scenes. Does it follow that it is sinful to watch them?
Just as with the second commandment, a distinction needs to be made between making the image and (passively) seeing the image. We must be careful to exegete the exact sense of the commandment. The former is sin, the latter is not automatically a sin.
Here, we are not talking about the second commandment, but the same distinction can be considered. But we must also avoid the temptation of Phariseeism: to forget that mere seeing can easily become making in the heart. There can be consent, and thus participation. When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers (Ps 50:18).
Nevertheless, the distinction between making and seeing an image leads me to conclude that it is not necessarily sinful to watch a movie in which are scenes that were sinful to produce. If the production has enough strength otherwise, and if providentially one is able to “look the other way” so to speak; to walk backward and cover it with a blanket; then I think that it is not sinful to watch such a production for the sake of the other aspects. If the movie is so great that it becomes a staple in the canon, then one should consider editing out the offensive sections. This is too much work for me; on subsequent viewings, I try to â€œlook awayâ€ so that it is not in the focus of view at least; and fast forward if it is of such length. Perhaps Christian production companies could get permission to market re-edited versions. The problem is the likelihood that, though that scene should not be there, some other scene needs to take its place. Fast-forwarding allows one to mentally note the â€œeventâ€ that is needed while minimizing the temptation to salaciousness; mere deleting would leave a gap, perhaps an irreparable gap. There is no easy remedy to the mess we have gotten into as a society.
In any case, the making/seeing distinction should not lead to a creeping belief that these images are acceptable. They are not: the objections I listed above remain apart from the making/seeing distinction. We need to make our protest known, and boycott or otherwise avoid a large class of Hollywood’s output. We should be willing to give up movies altogether if it comes to that.
Throughout this essay, I have tended to use the universal form of propositions (alwaysâ€¦ neverâ€¦). This is because I wish to resist the tendency to evade ethical norms by a thousand qualifications. In fact, exceptions to my universals can doubtless be found. But I submit that they are so rare that they neednâ€™t even be mentioned in a first pass. The careful nuancing of ethical discussion by the Reformed is one of the glories of our tradition. But I have observed, in many, a dropping of the guard once the tent flap is opened up a little. The camel often does muscle its way in.
A final note: though nudity and its relation to the seventh commandment and the primal issues of life is serious, the casual use of blasphemy, especially of our Saviorâ€™s name, is ten times worse; ten times more demoralizing. This is finally why the â€œsex and violenceâ€ debate, in which the blasphemy does not even come into view, may show that we, the victims of Hollywoodâ€™s corrupt perversity, may also be weighed in the scales and found wanting. The lack of concern for the honor of Godâ€™s name may in the end prove us to be, at bottom, the consumers that created the demand that Hollywood compliantly supplied.