In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
According to the legend of Lady Godiva, an 11th century noblewoman once rode naked on horseback through the British city of Coventry to protest her landowner husband’s excessive taxation of his tenants. He’d told her that he’d repeal the tolls if she did it, and—ever the altruistic soul—she did, although not without first ordering all the people in the town to post up in their homes with the shutters closed. If “the legend of the nude ride” has any factual basis, it was probably the first instance in recorded Western history of a woman using her own nude body as a form of political protest; interestingly, it was also the origin of the “Peeping Tom” expression, because of the solitary tailor who allegedly bore a hole in his shutters to spy on Lady Godiva as she rode past. As testament to the prohibitive nature of the society at the time, Lady Godiva’s nude demonstration wasn’t even supposed to be seen; according to some versions of the story, the tailor is struck blind the moment he tries to steal a peak, punished for the indecency of his voyeurism.
Several centuries and waves of feminism later, Demi Moore’s daughter Scout Willis became something of a legend herself a few weeks ago when she took a topless stroll around New York for a few hours and narrated the experience on Twitter. As with Lady Godiva, to whom she has been garnering some easy comparisons in the press, Willis’ naked demonstration was linked to a specific political grievance: not taxes, but Instagram’s censorious policies regarding socially shared photos of the female body. Specifically, Willis was protesting Instragram’s practice of kicking users off the site for posting photos with the female nipple exposed. She got the idea after Instragram de-activated her account for posting a picture of herself in a “sheer top” and another of a “jacket [she] made featuring two close friends topless” (predictably, they also de-activated the account she created expressly for the demonstration). When the news of Willis’ nude stunt broke, Rihanna took to Twitter to co-sign the event with the words “FREE THE NIPPLE”; theirs seemed a natural social media alliance, as the pop star had recently had her own Instagram taken down for posting her own nude likeness on the cover of French adult entertainment magazine Lui.
Of course, the public toplessness cause isn’t anything new. There’s a nation-wide movement called “Free The Nipple” that has been around for years, and back in the 1930s, a spate of similarly minded demonstrations succeeded in overturning the legal and social prohibitions against male nipple-baring. What’s interesting about Scout Willis’ demonstration to me, though, is the amount of discussion it’s been generating. For one thing, female public toplessness has always seemed to me to be something of a minority cause; most women I know believe that women should have the legal right to strut around New York City without a shirt on, but I don’t know many who’d say they’re jumping at the opportunity to exercise that right, even if it is legal in the majority of American cities. Beyond that, Willis’ cause feels like something of an uncanny throwback to another generation. When I think of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, I think of my mother telling me about hippies dancing nude in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and a time in New York when women were walking around bra-less like they were freeing themselves from the shackles of the patriarchy. In some ways, I’m surprised at all the talk Scout’s nude stroll has generated, because it feels like society has had this same conversation many times before.
Ask Willis about it, though, and I’m pretty sure she’d view the fact that we’re still scandalized by public female nudity as significant; in fact, I think she’d call it the motivation for the scandalizing demonstration itself. “ Why can’t a mother proudly breastfeed her child in public without feeling sexualized?” she wrote in a defense of the stunt she published on XO Jane. “Why should I feel overly exposed because I choose not to wear a bra? […] What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body—and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her.” According to Willis’ line of thinking, the censorship of women’s breasts perpetuates the sexualization of the female body by making parts of it “taboo” or “forbidden.” As such, her somewhat exhibitionist “shock tactics” would seem an attempt to normalize the female areola, just as the 1930s male protestors stripped bare and stormed public spaces in order to normalize the male one (it worked). Maybe in a truly equal world, a woman choosing to pick oranges from a fruit stand topless would be able to do so without generating any of the gawking that Willis did.
It’s a beautiful thought, although elevating the areola as a battleground for gender equality doesn’t take into account the Peeping Toms. In a response to the demonstration, The Guardian’s Jamie Peck argues that the socialite’s #freethenipple campaign may not be as subversive as she claims it to be. The article is titled “Scout Willis’ topless Instragram protest draws more eyeballs than action,” which pretty much speaks for itself, although Peck makes an especially interesting point about the limitations of an activism that tries to disrupt the male gaze while simultaneously drawing it in: “When your protest results in images that look like they could be in Playboy, is there any way to distinguish the progressive from the status quo?” Jamie Peck would know: she performed a similar feat of experimental nudity herself a couple years ago, in a piece of stunt journalism for The Gloss titled "Ever Wanted To Go Topless In Public? We Did. (NSFW)." When that article first came out, I found myself thinking that the only way I could be persuaded to walk topless in Central Park is if the pleasure I got from being gawked at by strangers (especially random men) were to somehow outweigh the discomfort of being gawked at by them. As Peck presumably has learned, the problem with trying to normalize the female areola is that the Peeping Toms of this world might experience that normalization as titillation and nothing more.
Considering our current information economy, it’s hard to imagine a modern day moral tale in which a Peeping Tom is punitively blinded for his voyeuristic impulses. In fact, the world of Facebook and Instragram and Twitter and Vine practically runs on Peeping Toms—that impulse we all have to sneak a peak at what other people are eating or listening to or wearing (or not wearing) when we’re not actually standing in the same room with them, along with a concomitant desire to share those things about ourselves. In the realm of social media, Lady Godiva and the Peeping Tom are no longer at odds with each other, the one trying to escape the gaze of the other, the other trying to steal a glance and then failing. We post photos on Instagram because we want to be seen, and because we crave the external validation that this consensual kind of voyeurism affords, be it for personal reasons or professional ones.
For those of us looking to bring about a change in society—or at least a change in consciousness—tapping the power of of voyeurism becomes a potentially explosive proposition. In some ways, I’m not surprised that discussion of females in pop music this year—from Miley to Rihanna to Beyonce to Iggy Azealia— has revolved around what they are and are not covering up. While it remains loaded with all kinds of confusing and contradictory meanings, the sexualized female body drives clicks. In fact, as far as political consciousness is concerned, it may just be the most powerful public platform there is. I think that the entire internet felt a frisson of that power when Rihanna showed up to the CFDA Awards wearing simultaneously the classiest, most revealing and most compulsively “grammable” dress in recent fashion memory; if ever a pop star wanted to get back at Instagram for the arbitrariness of their censorship policies, I don’t think she could come up with a better “fuck you.”
As the old adage goes, though, with great power comes great responsibility. Nudity may be a potent weapon in these post-Internet times, but it comes with the risk of merely “drawing eyeballs,” of feeding a Peeping Tom culture that will simply rejoice at another opportunity to behold the female body as an object of sexual gratification. Scout Willis may have been playing into that gaze with her somewhat Playboy-ready selfies, but the conversation she’s opened has revolved to a surprising degree around the double standard by which “women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple—degrading as they might be—remain unchallenged.” Curiously, her ranty internet outpourings against the needless censorship of photos with non-sexual intent has already, indirectly or directly, produced some pretty astonishing results. Within the past few weeks, Instagram has relaxed its policy for women with Mastectomy tattoos, and Facebook has finally lifted its ban on photos of breastfeeding mothers. As Nicki Minaj’s unforgettable “Lookin Ass Nigga” video reminded us earlier this year, it may be possible to reel in the male gaze as a means of taking issue with what it feels like to be looked at. As far as modern day Lady Godiva scenarios go, there’s probably nothing more frighteningly subversive than the moment in that video where Nicki turns her machine gun on the camera; it feels like a rhetorical blinding of the titular lurker, only not by God this time, but by the hand of the female he’s lurking at.