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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ann Lee

‘I didn’t have a second thought’: why Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson are stripping off on screen

Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s  latest comedy.
Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s latest comedy. Photograph: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

After years of chaste superhero movies dominating the box office and frequent laments for the death of the sex scene, full frontal nudity is making a comeback on screen in a crop of summer comedies, with female stars daring to bare all for laughs.

In Adele Lim’s new Asian-led comedy Joy Ride, which channels the raucous spirit of Bridesmaids, there is a gasp-out-loud scene in which Stephanie Hsu’s character, Kat, a soap opera star, has her skirt whipped off at the end of a dance sequence to reveal a lurid devil tattoo on her vulva. It is an outrageous stunt that is hilariously cringeworthy. Hsu, though, has been keen to point out that a body double was used (“Make sure my mother gets that memo,” she told Elle).

Scarlett Johansson also has a blink-and-you-could-miss-it nude scene in Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s latest comedy. Playing an actor named Midge, she drops her towel while practising some lines, as love interest Augie (Jason Schwartzman) watches dumbstruck from his cabin. There is a charged frisson of romance between them, but as this is an Anderson film, it is a moment more concerned with aesthetics – a tasteful shot in a full-length mirror – than raging lust.

Jennifer Lawrence strips off in the sex comedy No Hard Feelings, in which she plays broke 32-year-old Maddie, employed to seduce an awkward 19-year-old. The pair go skinny-dipping before they are interrupted by some gobby teens who steal their clothes for a laugh. Lawrence gives chase and starts to fight them, her Hunger Games training in full evidence, all while completely naked. She even gets punched in the groin for her troubles.

Why is explicit nudity creeping back on to our screens? “Movies are trying to bring back joy and fun after the Covid years,” says critic Kristen Lopez, film editor for the Wrap. “I think we’re seeing this response to the last [few years] of sadness and trauma. What’s the best way to do that? To bring back frivolity and nudity.”

Nudity, of course, has never strayed too far from the big screen, with more women than men getting naked. A 2019 study looked at 2018’s Top 100 films at the US box office and found that 27.3% of female characters took their clothes off, compared with 8.5% of men. But in a post-#MeToo landscape, it seems as if nudity is less about desire than laughs.

Joy Ride, directed by Adele Lim, stars from left, Sabrina Wu as Deadeye, Ashley Park as Audrey, Sherry Cola as Lolo, and Stephanie Hsu.
Joy Ride, directed by Adele Lim, stars from left, Sabrina Wu as Deadeye, Ashley Park as Audrey, Sherry Cola as Lolo, and Stephanie Hsu. Photograph: Ed Araquel/AP

“Throughout history, we’ve had female figures who have been deeply sexualised, objectified and made into accessories for male leading stars,” says Daisy Richards, a lecturer in media and communications at Nottingham Trent University. “So to have these female star vehicles in which these performers are nude, but it’s not supposed to be sexy, kind of pushes the boundaries of the female body. The more we desexualise female bodies, the more we see them as a tool, a thing that we have and can use for various purposes – not just as objects.”

The #MeToo movement has had a huge impact on the amount of nudity and sex we see (or don’t see) in the cinema, says Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, the director of Body Parts, a documentary about how the female body has been treated on screen. Although there are now stricter rules over the way nudity and sex scenes are shot, with the rise of intimacy coordinators and tighter nudity clauses in actors’ contracts, many directors have been avoiding those scenes altogether.

“People were stepping away from explicitness in films, right after #MeToo, because of fears of being accused of coercion,” she says. The pandemic complicated things further, with actors physically unable to kiss or film close to each other. “The pendulum swung to one extreme and now it’s coming back towards [the] centre.”

It could also be down to audience assumptions post-#MeToo, says Richards. “What we’re seeing is people expecting that there will be less nudity, because somehow nudity is problematic, which it’s not necessarily. So when we do get full frontal nudity, we’re thinking: ‘Oh, this is still happening.’ But it has been happening in lots of different ways.”

Steering away from sex scenes (and sticking with nudity) means it is easier for studios to escape the US R rating, whereby children under 17 have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, thus giving a film a much wider audience. Asteroid City was initially rated R by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) for Johansson’s “brief graphic nudity”, but was downgraded to PG-13 after Anderson appealed. It is not known why the MPA relented, but there is speculation that it was down to the nudity being non-sexual. The R-rating, as set out in the organisation’s guidelines, is specifically for “sexually oriented” nudity.

Jennifer Lawrence strips off in No Hard Feelings, in which she tops up her low wage by getting paid to date an awkward teen, played by Andrew Barth Feldman, far left.
Jennifer Lawrence strips off in No Hard Feelings, in which she tops up her low wage by getting paid to date an awkward teen, played by Andrew Barth Feldman, far left. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Johansson and Lawrence have both acted in nude scenes before. But as two of the most bankable female stars in Hollywood, they certainly won’t need to do any nudity to further their careers. Promoting Asteroid City, Johansson laughed about how “uncomfortable” Anderson was while filming her nude scene, the implication being that she was relaxed about it herself. Lawrence has also talked in the past about how “empowering” her nude scenes were in 2018’s spy thriller Red Sparrow after naked photos of hers were leaked in the 2014 celebrity hacking scandal. For her No Hard Feelings nude fight scene, “I didn’t even have a second thought,” she told Variety. “It was hilarious to me.” Hsu has similarly stressed how comfortable Lim and the team behind Joy Ride made her feel about the vulva tattoo reveal. The message from the three women is clear: any nudity is strictly their own choice (even if they use a body double).

“There is an attempt by women to reclaim ownership of their bodies and make nudity a part of that,” says Lopez. “At the same time, it’s still putting the burden on women, so we’re not really seeing nudity in equal measure for men.” What Lopez would like to see is what she calls “equal opportunity nudity”, although this could be a challenge. “The biggest taboo is male full frontal nudity,” says Guevara-Flanagan.

Male full frontal nudity is usually reserved for arthouse cinema (think The Dreamers, Shame, much of Ewan McGregor’s earlier work) and risque comedies (Lim told the Hollywood Reporter that Joy Ride’s full frontal scene was a “nice pivot” from seeing “so much penis” in films such as The Hangover). The TV industry seems to be happily embracing prosthetic penises in shows such as Pam & Tommy, Euphoria and Minx.

As Christopher Nolan’s atomic bomb epic Oppenheimer showed, in an awkward post-coital scene with J Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his on/off lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), sitting in opposite chairs, both naked with legs firmly closed, male nudity can often be much less revealing than female nudity. “It’s not as overt,” says Lopez. For anyone keen to see a film that redresses the imbalance, Ira Sachs’ Passages, a seductive, astute drama about messy relationships and even messier feelings, starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos, is being released in UK cinemas next month.

Male or female, nudity isn’t inherently sexual, but shown on screen, naked bodies can represent many things – or nothing at all; just another unremarkable part of our everyday lives. “Nudity can be funny, it can be sexy, it can be dramatic,” says Lopez. “I’m all for expanding it out. Maybe we’ll see the rise of non-sexy nudity – make bodies just bodies. If anything, I think that may actually eliminate the stigma. If bodies are just shown as ‘here they are’ – they are not that interesting.”

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