Monday, July 28, 2014

Is TV Nudity the Wave of the Future?

If you’ve ever been to a nude beach, you probably came to a swift appreciation of what a great idea clothing is. Casual public nudity is rarely if ever sexy, partly because very few bodies are suited to being, well, unsuited, and partly because – trust me on this – nakedness loses its novelty rather quickly. But several TV networks are gambling that this novelty will pay off in an envelope-pushing trend.

Last Thursday for example, nearly coinciding with National Nude Day (hey, I didn’t know there was one either), VH1 premiered the (un)reality series Dating Naked, which is exactly what the title says it is, so I suppose they can’t be accused of false advertising. VH1 describes it loftily as a “new social experiment,” although in this promo stunt in downtown Los Angeles, it is described much less loftily as “romance without pants.”

TLC recently premiered Buying Naked, in which we follow nudists on a search for their ideal homes. Not to be outdone, the Discovery channel presents Naked & Afraid, a series which at least offers a more intriguing title. In it, daring participants are sent to an island to survive with no food, no water and – inexplicably – no clothes.  

What’s behind this? An obvious ratings grab, of course – sex sells, and if not sex, then nudity. Ryan McCormick, former TV producer and media relations specialist, says “I think that the idea of nudity being accepted on a mainstream level… could be a reflection of Americans’ voracious appetite for [sexual content].” After all, he says, “We are the most porn-viewing nation in the entire world.” Of course, nudity and sexiness aren’t necessarily the same thing, as viewers are going to find out, and I don’t think the idea of nudity has been accepted in the mainstream, otherwise such shows wouldn’t be generating the attention they are.

Naturally, the producers behind these series insist that the shows aren’t about just being naked. Executive Producer Mike Kane says that Buying Naked is meant to expose viewers, so to speak, to the nudist lifestyle. “What TLC always does so well, is look at a certain lifestyle that people aren’t as familiar with, and at the end of the day, when you see the [people] that we focus on—we are taking an honest look. We’re not doing it to be salacious,” he said, apparently with a straight face.  

Naked & Afraid producers also pretend that the nudity isn’t supposed to be racy. “We never meant for this to be an exploitative show,” claims executive producer David Garfinkle. “This is a family show.” I’ll pause while you catch your breath from guffawing over that one.

Predictably, VH1 also said there is more to Dating Naked than just the skin. “When you actually watch the show,” said a network representative, “you will get to see that it’s a lot more about connecting with people than it is about the nudity.” No, I’m pretty sure it’s about the nudity.

McCormick actually believes that such fare can have a beneficial social effect: “These shows could make people more comfortable in their own bodies. On TV we are constantly bombarded with advertising showing us how inadequate we are… these types of shows could actually be a welcome refreshment,” he said. “If people watch this and they are more accepting of their bodies, then great.” Nice try, but I think the last thing anyone with body issues needs is for our sex-soaked culture to ratchet up its obsession with naked bodies.

Not that there is much forbidden flesh in these programs. After all, they can’t run with the Full Monty; they still have to meet broadcast standards, so there is more pixilation than titillation. For anything more explicit, people will have to click over to Game of Thrones.

Naked television is spectacle, not entertainment. Spectacle is empty; it momentarily compels your attention, like a wreck on the side of the highway, but lacks any redeeming qualities or effects. Entertainment can deepen your humanity, touch your heart or elevate your intellect, or simply make you laugh, but it brings something of value to the human spirit. Will TV nudity be the wave of the future? Only if we allow spectacle to triumph.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/25)