March 15, 2010

Less or no nudity in hit movies today?

I'm not a movie person, but after re-visiting a lot of the big movies I saw as a little kid in the '80s, I'm struck by how much full or partial nudity there was compared to now. My hunch is that this reflects the general transition during the early-mid-'90s from wild times to tame times. It would take more effort to find out just when the "nudity in film" change happened, but as a brief comparison, consider just 1984 vs. 2009. We only want to include movies that lots of people see; if few see it, it's no big deal.

I looked up the top ten grossing films for both years at Wikipedia and then went to the "Parents' guide" section on each one's IMDb page. This lists instances of full or partial nudity, other sexual content, violence, profanity, and so on. It seems to be edited by paranoid parents who labor to tar all movies as depraved, so if there was something serious in it, they wouldn't miss it. So how do the hit movies of 1984 differ from those of 2009?

Each year had a hit movie that showed a non-human female with a mostly-nude costume that showed some of her breasts -- Ghostbusters and Avatar. I don't think that counts, but it's hard to call. For true cases of showing bare breasts, bare buttocks, full frontal nudity, etc., 2009 had only one hit movie with such images (The Hangover). However, five hit movies of 1984 did (Beverly Hills Cop, Police Academy, Footloose, Splash, and Purple Rain). So, the typical high-exposure movie from 1984 would have shown something, and the typical one from 2009 would not.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this shift is in the amount of nudity shown in screwball teen movies -- if any genre is going to show something, it's this one. In Porky's (1981) there's full frontal and backal nudity, other shots of bare breasts, and so on. In Dazed and Confused (1993), there's nothing. American Pie (1999) has only one sequence showing bare breasts. And when we reach Superbad (2007), they don't show anything at all. It's understandable if they don't show anything in teen movies that aren't about slackers and adolescents trying to get laid, like Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Mean Girls. But even the screwball teen movies from at least 1993 onward refrain from showing nudity. And conversely, even a general coming-of-age movie like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) had full frontal nudity back during wild times.

Because the movie industry is one of the most competitive out there, it must be that this shift is due to changes in audience demand. If young people today still wanted to see bare boobs and butts, the movie studios would give it to them. This shift in their cultural tastes parallels their behavioral changes; promiscuity among high schoolers has been falling since 1991. Therefore, it is not simply a substitution of internet porn for teen movie nudity. It's part of a larger pattern.

(Also, adults weren't going to see Beverly Hills Cop or The Terminator in order to see T&A, since they had easy access to porn. Nudity in hit movies is not there to physically arouse the audience but to suggest wildness in the environment.)

Another curious thing I notice that's related is how juvenile young people want to remain today compared to during the '60s through the '80s. During all times, teenagers want to become independent and start living what they picture as the cool young adult life. Still, there are pendulum swings around that constant desire. Just look at how popular Ice Age, Harry Potter, and Transformers are. Or Pokemon -- still. Flash back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High again, and teenagers are worried about getting the right job in the most high-status part of the mall, or moving up from a job at a crummy vs. a respectable fast food place.

When young people perceive the world as pretty safe, they're going to delay going through rites of passage -- omigod, why should i hurry? i mean it's not like the world's gonna end or anything. Of course, when they do believe that life is shorter and more dangerous -- such as when the violent and property crime rates are going up -- then their mindset is more one of "piss or get off the pot." In particular, it's time to get a job and to work toward making some babies. While tame times last, though, they're more interested in meta-ironic-detached portrayals of rites of passage or else childlike fantasies. In the '80s, it was mostly little kids who were into The Neverending Story -- not college students, who were too busy working, driving around in their cars, drinking or doing drugs, and getting it on.


  1. There was a big clamp down on letting teens in to see R rated movies in the late 90s.

  2. I was in my pre-teens in the first half or so of the 80s. The only place you could see nudity was a Playboy or Penthouse (usually stolen from someone's dad's stash) or in something like Porky's. So it was a valuable commodity. You'd sit through a meh movie to look at some boobs for a couple seconds.

    Nowadays there's more nudity on the internet than you could even look at in a few lifetimes so maybe it's just kind of boring to people. No shock value or excitement etc. So why put it in a movie?

  3. On the other hand, there's much more nudity in TV (HBO especially) these days than there ever was.

  4. Teenagers these days grow up watching online pornography, so their appetite for nudity has not at all moderated. Movies with nudity get R ratings. Nowadays, fewer and fewer people go to movie theaters, preferring to watch new releases a few months later on DVD or Blu-Ray.

    Teenagers are the exception, because they go to movies to socialize with each other and for dates. Usually, adults socialize less as they age, and teenagers long to get out of the house and into the open, so theaters are as fine a location as any.

    This is why movie studios cut down on nudity and violence, because having a PG-13 rating means that the movie will likely make significantly more money than if it were rated R.

    While most mainstream pictures are tamer, R rated movies are at least as violent as ever. The aforementioned example of hardcore online pornography is especially telling. The difference now is that teenagers are a more important movie audience than they were before, because adults view movies in theaters less.

  5. I already explained why it's not a "porn substitution effect." If you were able to get into an R movie before, you could've simply bought a dirty magazine or rented a dirty movie. It probably would've been cheaper than going to an R-rated movie. It would've had more explicit sex content, and with greater variety. And it would last longer: forever (magazine) or at least as long as you want to watch it for several days (movie). Hence you'd choose either of those over the R-rated movie.

    If you weren't old enough, it's the same: trying to bypass the rules and sneak into an R-rated movie, or bypass the rules and get hold of a dirty magazine or movie, such as having someone buy one for you. Bypassing the rules to get a dirty magazine or movie is only slightly harder than sneaking in an R-rated movie, and more than outweighed by the benefits to horny teenage boys. (Again: much more explicit, more variety, and lasts a lot longer.)

    Teenagers aren't a bigger part of the audience than before. It's mostly kids and adults now. They also don't hang out anywhere, let alone movie theaters. Just go and see! These days they spend most of their time behind locked doors like everyone else.

    And again recall how into Harry Potter, etc., they are. There's a general pattern of becoming more tame in behavior and juvenile in tastes. That's the big picture, not a bunch of ad hoc accounts for each change.

  6. On the other hand, there's much more nudity in TV (HBO especially) these days than there ever was.

    There is? Nudity remains almost entirely taboo on television.


  7. "I already explained why it's not a 'porn substitution effect.'"

    I agree with your points, but nevertheless, the fact that teens watch porn more often than ever now shows that their taste for nudity is as powerful as ever*. It's just a matter of accessibility. The movie industry would want to make its films as easily accessible as possible, as opposed to putting the onus on teenagers to sneak in. That is why even a fairly grim movie like Terminator Salvation cuts away at violent shots until it can get a PG-13 rating.

    "Teenagers aren't a bigger part of the audience than before. It's mostly kids and adults now. They also don't hang out anywhere, let alone movie theaters. Just go and see! These days they spend most of their time behind locked doors like everyone else."

    Statistics on movie theater demographics are hard to locate. Even if the percentage of teenage movie goers is similarly small as it is to other groups, I will say that movies are disproportionately aimed at them, and I recall Steve Sailer complaining about the intense volume of movies, which excites the young and infuriates the old.

    Here are the top grossing movies of 2009:

    Three of them (Harry Potter, Up, Alvin) are childish, and Harry Potter is relatively dark (so I hear, I don't like Harry Potter). None of them seem particularly appealing to old ladies. Only Star Trek and maybe Sherlock Holmes would be appealing to middle age men, and that's only because of the source material, not the actual movies themselves.

    Those movies don't win Oscars, but they keep the movie industry existent. Naturally, the movie industry's breadwinners should be accessible to as many young people as possible if they want to survive.

    "And again recall how into Harry Potter, etc., they are. There's a general pattern of becoming more tame in behavior and juvenile in tastes. That's the big picture, not a bunch of ad hoc accounts for each change."

    I think your theory that American culture is relatively tame and placid, when compared to the culture from approximately 1964 to 1994, has a lot of validity. The problem is when you stretch it out to explain everything, when a particular explanation is more fitting.

    * I expect that teenage tastes are as raw as ever, but that they trust people much less easily. After the crack wars, it seems that Americans were much less enthused by drugs, sex, rebellious music and the like, and lost trust in other Americans. It's not a matter of being prudish (though some Evangelical sectors are this way), but of being suspicious.

  8. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" seemed like the usual teen trash when it came out in the theatres, but when it was shown on broadcast TV with all the nudity edited out, it was easier to see that it was made by a fine filmmaker, Cameron Crowe, who was just putting in exploitation elements because that's what the studio wanted.

  9. its simple math. most revenues come not from theaters but from dvd sales. a small handfull of media companies control the majority of the movies. the largest seller of dvds is walmart, which just happens to be headquartered in the bible belt.
    remember nudity and/or sex=devil.
    violence=good clean all american fun.
    for a good explanation watch "this film is not yet rated".

  10. I dont see the purpose of nudity or extreme violence in movies or tv shows. When i was growing up they didnt have to show all of this. The shows were still entertaining and funny. It is sad now to see where our morals have gone out the window. Everyone thinks it is ok because it is entertaining. People need to look at what this constant exposure to extreme violence and nudity has done to our kids.

    I love movies but it is hard nowadays to find a movie that i can watch that will not offend me. As a women why would i want to go to the movies with my boyfilriend and see a naked women on the screen?????


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