While promoting Ant-Man and The Wasp, star Evangeline Lilly gave an exclusive interview to the Independent wherein she detailed a bad experience on the set of the hit series Lost. She describes that, in Season 3, she was "basically cornered into doing a scene partially naked, and [she] felt [she] had no choice in the matter."
Lilly goes on, "I was mortified and I was trembling, and when it finished I was crying my eyes out and had to go on and do another very formidable and strong scene immediately after. So in Season 4, another scene came up where Kate was undressing and I fought very hard to have that scene be under my control, and I failed to control it again. So, I said. ‘That’s it — no more. You can write whatever you want, I won’t do it. I will never take my clothes off on this show again’ — and I didn’t."
Since the interview, the creators and producers of Lost — J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and Jack Bender — have since issued an apology to Lilly, expressing regret that she was made to feel unsafe in the workplace. The incident described by Lilly, who became one of the most prominent actresses on network television thanks to her role as Kate Austen, is shocking but dishearteningly unsurprising. It is depressingly easy to find accounts by actresses on the big and small screen who felt pushed into nude scenes and fought back against this seemingly mundane but insidious form of sexualization.
Before she became literal royalty, Meghan Markle talked about putting her foot down on the production of Suits after there seemed to be one too many scenes in the scripts where her character Rachel walked in wearing nothing but a towel. After doing nude scenes in Hotel Chevalier and Goya's Ghosts, Natalie Portman admitted that she was "really sorry [she] didn't listen to [her] intuition." Helen Mirren, who was unfairly labeled by the British tabloids as someone who loved getting naked on film, confessed, "I've always had a problem doing nudity. In fact, I hated it. It has never been a comfortable thing. I've never enjoyed it. It's always mortifying. I did those scenes because I didn't want to be uptight. Now I have got stuck in a way with a reputation for doing nude scenes." Georgia Groome, who appeared in the teen comedy Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging, offered a horrifying insight into the mindset of the film industry when she talked about doing a short film where a sex scene was added to the script the moment she turned 15 because it was suddenly legal to do so. During a roundtable interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Will & Grace’s Debra Messing described a similar incident where she was duped into doing a sex scene despite being told it wouldn’t happen.
Unfortunately, we could be here all day listing the examples of actresses who did nude scenes, often under duress, and felt discomfort with the process. Getting naked in public is tough enough, and to do so in a professional capacity in a room full of colleagues who are filming the occasion is its own struggle. It should not be overlooked that such instances are supposed to be just that: professional. They are not excuses for titillation, nor are they something women should feel obliged to do. Yet Hollywood past and present is littered with stories of women who felt their livelihoods and reputations were on the line if they did not yield to a director or producer’s demand for nudity. Every woman who loves pop culture is familiar with that sinking feeling that accompanies seeing another woman on-screen who suddenly gets naked for no apparent reason. There’s always that sigh of inevitability and disappointment when a story takes a U-turn to get a woman to remove her clothes while her male counterpart stays fully dressed.
Even if the nudity is equal opportunity — and it seldom truly is — the camera looks at a nude woman differently to a nude man. Shirtless men, even at their most objectified, tend to be posited as powerful creatures who could still fight for their honor. Naked women are more likely to be made submissive or decorative, whether they’re draped over a motorcycle or suddenly posing like lingerie models in the middle of the action. Remember the moment in Star Trek Into Darkness where Alice Eve strips to her slinky bra, a moment that was included because, in the costume designer's own words, it was her turn and "it’s a rather large male fanbase, and J.J. wanted to appeal to that?" It was so gratuitous and unnecessary that Damon Lindelof later apologized for it, but it was hardly an anomaly in this business. Even in a family-friendly blockbuster with explosions and aliens, women still need to be nude and sexualized and ornamental for an assumed male audience.
The hugely common proliferation of casual female nudity in film and television is directly connected to the industry’s treatment of actresses who participate in it, enthusiastically or otherwise. The female body, or at least the incredibly narrow definition of it preferred by Hollywood (white, cisgender, skinny but with large breasts, not too tall, conventionally pretty), is its own economy in both entertainment and patriarchy. It is assumed that all films or television shows must have some kind of female nudity, regardless of its relevance to the story or character, and that all actresses must be game to perform.
All too often, little consideration is given for how to make the experience comfortable for everyone involved. Not everyone gets offered a body double and not all sets are closed. It becomes even more arduous for actors performing sex and rape scenes for film and television. It’s an unbearably awkward situation that even the most professional sets can’t always make easy, but that doesn’t mean directors and producers should be exempt from trying. This is one of the reasons it has become more commonplace for films to hire choreographers and experts to make sex and rape scenes manageable for the actors and ensure nobody gets hurt. It’s been close to a year since the Harvey Weinstein news broke and we are more keenly aware than ever of how power imbalances in the business are at their strongest during such moments.
A lot needs to change before this unbalanced phenomenon can be truly fixed. On the ground level, actors need support to feel strong enough to reject demands they do not feel comfortable with. That requires a major power shift across every corner of entertainment, from directors to producers to studio heads to the people in the crews who normalize bad behavior. Most of all, there needs to be a change in how we view women in pop culture. Massive leaps forward have been made over the past couple of decades, but all too often the bastions of entertainment lazily fall back on sexist tropes and reducing female characters to props in bras. Nudity can be a powerful storytelling tool and there is a way to film a naked woman that is not needlessly gratuitous or designed solely to excite crowds of straight teenage boys. If pop culture is to have a full toolbox to portray our rich and rewarding tales, they must first be used properly.