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?by Elizabeth Kirkwood / January 13, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…