With Magic Mike XXL (our review here), America’s favorite male stripper sequel, hitting theaters on July 1st, we break down just how nudity has become so ingratiated with American cinematic norms. From the barely provocative titillation of the late 1800s (mmmm, ankles) to Channing Tatum wagging his shtick (sadly, not in 3D), we ask how we’ve come so far and wonder how hard the journey has been.
Nudity has been a part of American cinema for over a century. When motion picture cameras were invented, they were immediately used to film people taking off their clothes. Many early films featuring male and female nudity have been completely lost. Early films with nudity were destroyed or censored. More often, like other films of this era, early films with nudity simply chemically disintegrated over time.
The first likely record of nudity in an American film is likely the 1894 Thomas Edison film Carmencita, which is also likely the first time a woman appeared in a motion picture in the United States. The film featured a woman dancing a striptease-like dance, revealing her legs and undergarments. The 21-second long film might have been longer and included more overt female nudity, but was possibly edited by Edison or later exhibitors of the film to remove any controversial skin.
By the 1920s, most American film production had moved to the wild west of Hollywood, California, where producers were free to create and take risks with new types of movies. Nudity became a feature of several mainstream movies. Surprisingly, it was religious-themed movies like Cecil B DeMille‘s Sign of the Cross that most commonly included nudity.
In 1930, nudity in American films was abruptly ended by the introduction of the Hays Code, which was an agreement among the large (and a few small) production studios to self-censor their content to avoid government restrictions. The Hays Code likely saved American from censorship and forced generations of filmmakers to create a creative film language of symbol and innuendo to tell stories.
Nudity didn’t disappear from movies, though. Nudity remained a staple of “stag reels” which were shot on the new 16mm and 8mm film technologies and distributed in back rooms and street corners. While these were never publicly exhibited or advertised traditionally, “stag reels” are the direct descendants of today’s pornographic video clip industry. Publicly exhibited nudity on film was harder to come by after the Hays Code, but glimpses of flesh were available in ultra-low budget exploitation movies and documentaries, which used the pretense of education to show nudity. Movies as early as 1937’s Nudist Land and as late as 1961’s Diary of a Nudist straddled a hazy line between documentary nudity and exploitative fiction.
The major Hollywood movie studios were in financial trouble in the 50’s and 60’s due to a variety of challenges. Learning from exploitation and low-budget movie producers who remained profitable throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Hollywood scrapped the Hays Code and began to introduce nudity into mainstream American cinema. The nudity of New Hollywood was sometimes used to emulate European art cinema. Seconds, a 1966 thriller starring Rock Hudson was fueled with French New Wave-style editing, a distinctly American theme, and full frontal nudity that was later cut from the public release. But nudity was also introduced into comedies and began to be inserted purely for the sake of entertaining, shocking, or titillating an audience.
Nudity in American cinema is still controversial, despite being commonplace. Female nudity has been criticized by cultural critics on the right and left. Male nudity has become a predictable comic trope and target for cultural critics in the 21st century. In the 21st century, nudity appears publicly and privately on screens large and small. Today’s world of accessible nudity brings a unique new form of nudity to the silver screen.
2012’s Magic Mike was a surprise box office hit and critical success. What could be more shocking to an audience than a movie about strippers without nudity? Men without shirts aside, the sequel to Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL fulfills the promise. Featuring a new director, a new tone, and zero instances of genital nudity or female breasts, Magic Mike XXL might shock audiences simply because nudity is no longer a spectacle. Although this gets us into a bigger debate– why are female nipples more forbidden than male nipples? We won’t try to answer this one today in a single blog post, but we’ll explore more about nudity in cinema soon with the Most Iconic Nude Scenes in American Cinema.