I received this question on Twitter this morning.
When female celebrities show nipple, does it help the cause or hurt it?
My opinion on the value of celebrity bare-chestedness is that it depends, but in the balance, I think celebrities “freeing the nipple” or otherwise going bare-chested or even flashing or having not-so-accidental “wardrobe malfunctions,” though usually motivated by career furthering and not social evolution, does ultimately help people normalize to the sight of the female nipple.
You can’t shock a person twice with the same thing. So each time someone sees a nipple, it becomes less and less noteworthy.
On the other hand, posing provocatively with bared nipples creates a sexual association which makes it harder to disconnect the female nipple as a sexual object.
As I’ve said before, most topfreedom advocates are not arguing that people should not enjoy the sight of a female breast or nipple, or feel sexual excitement about breasts, but I do think it is wrong that women are often reduced to their bodies and that because some people consider some female breasts sexually exciting all females somehow should lose the right to control what we do with them, when men do not.
What topfreedom activists do argue, strongly, is that a woman’s attire must be decoupled from her perceived consent. Walking around completely nude, or in a tight dress or short skirt, is not permission to touch her, assault her or rape her.
The validity of female celebrity bare-chestedness becomes a much easier question when one considers how we receive male celebrity bare-chestedness. A quick Google search of Channing Tatum (the sacrifices I make for this blog) reveals a lot of bare-chested pictures with captions like, “Channing Tatum Goes Shirtless, Shows Off His Perfect Body for a Family Beach Day!”
On the other hand, Miley Cyrus’ bare-chestedness is quite often referred to as “antics” and Kim Kardashian was recently blasted for posting porn and attention-seeking for sharing simple bare-chested selfies.
In males, bare-chestedness is often viewed as powerful and strong. In females it is often viewed as immoral and obscene. Not always, and certainly improving, but it’s not a very controversial statement to make, I don’t think.
I was watching an American Ninja Warrior marathon recently (don’t judge) and many of the males competed bare-chested. I just shook my head when one of the muscular competitors made a big show of removing his shirt, causing the crowd to go nuts and the announcer to ejaculate, “Shirt off for power!”
So Scout Willis walking around Manhattan bare-chested was great. She looked powerful, confident and relaxed. Her walk brought a lot of positive attention to the issue. Elizabeth Hurley doing her thing on a beach screams normality. Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have just as much right to use the appeal of their bare-chestedness as Channing Tatum does.
I do find fascinating the boundary blurring of a Jenny Frost for example, a member of the female British pop group called Atomic Kitten. They mostly do PBS-friendly, vanilla covers of vanilla songs, and seem to dress themselves out of the Land’s End catalog. Their audiences are young, female and white, very Disney, mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends awkwardly sway-dancing and lip-syncing. Two of the three singers dress modestly…it would be impossible to claim they were trying to steal anyone’s husband.
But then there is Jenny Frost, who is costumed similarly except she often wears the naughty-sister version of the same outfit, often braless, with revealing fabrics or low cut tops, with obvious nipple protrusion and breast movement or underboob, her dancing causing her nipples to come ever so close to being seen outside her garment in a way that makes you never want to look away in case you miss the split second where they do show themselves. (Finish my article before you get lost in a Jenny Frost click hole, please.) Indeed several times her nipples have shown themselves (with fairly obvious fake unawareness from their owner) and the reaction from the audience was just to smile their perfect smiles and keep swaying, hand in hand with their mothers and sisters and daughters.
We could laugh at the contradiction, but instead, I choose to take heart and find proof that once again, the sight of female nipples does not cause injury or hysteria. People expect this of Jenny Frost, and so when it happens, no one is shocked. Jenny Scordamaglia, of Miami TV, same thing.
So once again we arrive at expectations. The sponsors of the New Hampshire anti-nipple legislation of 2016 argued the importance of protecting family’s expectations when they go to a beach or pool.
And to that end, the topfreedom movement is a battle to move people’s expectations. When people expect to see something, seeing that thing is not shocking and therefore not as scary… like violence on television and vitriol in politics.
So in the battle to move people’s expectations, celebrities going bare-chested does shift those expectations. In fact, I’ve heard several people say in the defense of my own bare-chestedness, it’s nothing you can’t see on prime time TV these days. Even though it’s not really true, it’s still an interesting phenomenon.
As to the value of celebrity behavior in general, I offer no opinion.