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Nudity in TV: Liberating or Just Plain Creepy?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

Written by Eleanor Thornber

Image via HBO.

Why is HBO so obsessed with a nude cast? When I first put on The White Lotus and heard the usual “this program contains strong language, adult themes and nudity”, I wasn’t too surprised. HBO loves a pair of boobs and a swear word more than a 13-year-old boy who has discovered them for the first time.

However, (spoiler alert, I guess) I wasn’t expecting to see a full-on dick within the first 15 minutes. That was more of a surprise - to my poor dad and me. After I got over my initial shock, I found myself thinking, “oh, that’s nice! A penis! I hardly ever see those… on TV!". It happens again in season 2, as Theo James strips in his hotel room. That’s got to be inclusive, right? Surely, that’s progressive? In a world where there are boobs-a- plenty, that’s a step in the right direction. Or is it?

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dick on telly”, was the response of one of my friends upon the news that I had just seen Theo James’ (probably) fake penis in my living room - and I have to say, the number of times I have is also minimal. My 14-year-old self would have fainted at the sight of it if it appeared in Divergent.

The main reason why that penis was shown was for comic relief. It wasn’t sexual in any way, even though the wife of said penis’s owner was inspecting it. But boobs are never comic relief on TV. It’s pretty rare, or dare I say lucky, if a showing of breasts serves more of a purpose than just simply being shown.

Also, these weren't real penises. They were prosthetic ones, which seemed like a massive cop-out. In fact, unlike the usual female body parts we see on TV, I’m pretty sure that all of the penises we see aren’t real (this is my own assumption and for the sake of my sanity, I really don’t feel like doing any deep-dive research into whether this is true or not, so just go with me). And if they are real, they probably don’t always belong to the actor. Can I even discuss nudity on TV when the male side of things usually isn’t real? Probably not, but I’m going to anyway.

Sydney Sweeney stars in The White Lotus. Upon seeing her name in the opening credits, I embarrassingly turned to my poor father and said, “if she is nude in this, I might have just to veto watching it”. Why? Well, in Euphoria, another HBO show notorious for bad language, drugs, sex and misbehaviour (the criteria for just about any HBO show ever made), poor Sydney has her boobs out every 2 minutes, often without a proper reason why. She’s said she felt very comfortable on set, but I’m not sure how I’d feel if my director yelled “get them out” at me at every opportunity.

It’s appalling that my first thought upon seeing Sydney Sweeney concerned her breasts, but unfortunately, that seems to inevitably come to mind with her. It seems like this will be something she will live with for the rest of her life, as people tagged her family members in stills of her nude scenes, something she rightly labelled as “disgusting and unfair”.

Luckily for me, Sydney Sweeney doesn’t go nude in The White Lotus - though I’m sure the only reason for this is because she plays an underage girl, otherwise HBO may have found a reason to show them at some stage. Despite my actively trying to fight against it, it’s a shame that I immediately fell into this sexualisation-of-Sydney trap as soon as I saw her on screen because I think she is an incredibly talented actress - this is what she should be recognised for. Despite all the trolls and all the debate, mainly sparked by her nude scenes in the second season of Euphoria, Sydney Sweeney has made it clear that she won’t shy away from nude scenes. On the bright side, at least we get to see Alexandra Daddario’s boobs instead. HBO wouldn’t have passed that one up, now would they?

I’m fairly certain that those sightings of penises in The White Lotus is an anomaly. The only other times I can remember were watching A Room with a View in my English class at 13 and that scarring ordeal in Game of Thrones where Theo gets his chopped off. Again, neither of these instances had overly sexual undertones - unless you think A Room with a View has homoerotic undertones, but that’s an article for another day. But every single instance I can remember seeing breasts on TV was founded on sexual purposes.

All this got me thinking - is nudity a good thing or a bad thing? Is it empowering that Sydney has decided what she does with her own body, even if it means that all she really gets recognised for is her body and not her acting? After decades of sexualised women on the big screen, is it a good thing to see a penis instead?

I’m not the only one having these thoughts. Though shockingly, if you Google “nudity HBO”, criticism is not the main thing that comes up. Interestingly, it’s actually encouragement, often not elegantly disguised but rather damningly embellished. “10 of the best HBO shows with the most nudity”, “if you like nudity, these 17 HBO shows are for you”, and “the sexiest shows on HBO right now” - no, these aren’t exaggerations. I only found one article highlighting the same concerns about excessive nudity on TV.

I’m starting to lean more towards nudity in general doing more harm than good. If my immediate thought upon seeing Sydney Sweeney is her nude scenes, that’s probably an indication that it’s a problem and not a liberation. Maybe that’s just me, I’m sure there are people out there that don’t do this, but I’m fairly certain that it’s the majority.

I don’t think nudity should be removed completely from TV. But if two people are having sex, which I'd argue is the only proper reason people should be naked on TV, then the nudity should be balanced. Full-frontal nudity and sexualisation of a woman should be balanced with the same thing for a man - he should be fully nude too and it should be his actual penis, not a plastic one.

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