Decent exposure

Women have been taking their clothes off in protest for centuries. But now that nudity is everywhere, is the naked body still an effective campaign tool?
January 13, 2010
Nic Green (right): using the body as a site of celebration and protest

The success of Nic Green’s play Trilogy, a runaway hit at last year’s Edinburgh festival and now touring Britain until the end of January, is down in no small part to the fact that it opens with an exuberant dance by 50 naked women. The most interesting question it poses, however, is this: has female nudity become so ubiquitous that it is now invisible? Given that we're bombarded with it daily—on billboards, computer screens and in newspapers—has the naked body lost its potency, particularly as a tool for political protest?

Trilogy sets out to examine why the fire drained from the feminist spirit of the 1970s. Green, a Glaswegian writer/director, and the rest of her young cast spend much of the triptych in the nude: after the 50 dancing women, the second segment is a naked recreation of a seminal moment in feminist history, when Norman Mailer debated women’s liberation with Germaine Greer at the New York Town Hall in 1971—a dialogue documented by DA Pennebaker in his legendary film, Town Bloody Hall. There is so much naked dancing in Trilogy, however, that what at first seems mildly eye-raising, becomes by the end of its three-hour duration, almost domestic.

From Lady Godiva to the bra-burning of the 1970s, naked protest has been deemed rebellious largely because of the “deviant” associations of nudity. Although we now like to consider ourselves too liberal and liberated to find public nudity deviant, clothing still remains the most powerful and immediate signifier of our socialisation. And the re-emergence of nudity as a popular form of political protest in recent years is striking—groups such as Breasts Not Bombs, World Naked Bike Ride and Bare Witness use it as their primary campaign tool. But it perhaps suggests a different story: not that we find nudity scandalising, but that it has become harder to appear truly naked in public.

Much depends on what we mean by nudity itself. As the art critic John Berger noted, there is an important distinction between being naked and being nude. Nakedness, Berger suggested, pays no heed to who is watching. To be nude, by contrast, is to place the body on display for the viewer: nudity remains a form of “dress” or concealment. Too often in naked protests all that is seen by the spectator is Berger’s “dressed nude”— standardised and titillating—leaving the message obfuscated. Naked demonstrations do get media attention. The animal rights group, Peta, frequently make it into their most unlikely home, the tabloid pages, via protests involving attractive young women wearing little more than “modesty lettuce leaves” in the name of promoting vegetarianism. But such “coverage” is almost always derisory in tone: thanks for the tits, but we’ll leave the political tat.

What Trilogy seems to imply, however, is that if naked body is to say something meaningful, it must associate nudity both with its traditionally negative connotations (criminality, sexuality, deprivation and madness) as well as the good ones (naturalness, innocence and truth). Playing on our cultural presumptions, Green casts nudity as neither uniformly erotic nor wholly innocent. Her dancers move neither provocatively, nor naively. They roll elegantly into forceful press-ups, which they hold and repeat, reminding us of the body’s twin nature: at all times both a practical apparatus, and a medium of artful expression. When they do dress, they don intentionally ungainly items—wrestling shoes and knee pads—reducing their erotic charge, and playing with the notion of how women are brought up to compete with other women. They dress for comic “battle” effect, adding an air of aggression to their nudity, subverting any assumptions we have about taking clothes off as being a submissive act. Such is the double-edged quality of nudity in Trilogy that it becomes both a renunciation of worldliness, but also a biting critique of it.

The nudity in Trilogy also demonstrates how language has, in part, failed feminism: how the vernacular of the women’s rights movement has been appropriated by brands who use emancipatory slogans—like being "worth it"—to sell women shampoo rather than politics. And where words are emptied of meaning, the body becomes the most obvious tool of expression. It is no surprise, then, that just as consumerism has encouraged women to obsess about perfecting their bodies, some women have decided to use those same bodies as a site of protest.

So whether or not Trilogy has been successful in its attempt to reclaim the female body, it has at least managed to use it to convey a powerful message. Green does not wish to dislodge the body entirely from its erotic associations, or its deviant ones, or its prelapsarian qualities. If the naked body is to challenge the way we consider the world, Trilogy implies, it must always elicit a paradoxical response: one based on nudity's enduring capacity to shock us, as well as to trick us into believing that it is something innocent.

Trilogy, BAC, 12th-16th January, Tel: 020 7223 2223; Barbican Theatre, 22nd-23rd January, Tel: 0845 120 7511, Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster, 25 January-29 January, Tel: 01524 594151