Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Why is a Bare Breast More Offensive Than a Severed Arm?

Shamus Young | 22 Jul 2014 19:00
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EP 7.22 3x3

This question gets asked a lot. "Why is a bare breast more offensive than a severed arm?" This question - or one like it - has been around in one form or another for decades and is usually presented as a challenge or a demand for explanation regarding the way movies are rated, marketed, and edited.

Then videogames came along and suddenly the difference is even more extreme: Games with nudity or frank discussions about sexuality are hard to find, and when they do show up they're usually very controversial. Meanwhile, games about murdering hundreds of people are so common that it barely warrants a mention. It was a big deal when Catherine came out and suddenly we had a videogame that talked about sex and relationships, but Hollywood makes a dozen movies around those concepts every year. Our fixation on violence and aversion to sex has always been seen as a kind of strange thing (particularly to Europeans regarding American culture) and gets dragged up every couple of years when one side goes "too far" with their content, or when people complain a little too vigorously about seeing something they don't like.

This question is usually framed as a criticism of the broader culture in general: "Why is it okay to cut off someone's arm, but not okay to show them naked? What kind of sick culture loves violence and hates sex?" I think this question is kind of misleading, and makes some faulty assumptions about why we choose certain forms of entertainment and how they make us feel.

Before I dig into this, I need to drag one argument out behind the shed and shoot it, because otherwise it's the only thing people will discuss in the comments: Your particular standards for what is "offensive" are no more valid than anyone else's. Everyone seems to think that their attitudes to the human body are perfectly normal, and that everyone else has these strange fixations or hang-ups. When arguing about what's appropriate for "family" entertainment or what's fit for (say) television, we usually see arguments like this:

1) Can you believe those people, freaking out over bare arms and bellies? As long as you can't see a woman's nipples, it's just fine for family entertainment.

2) Nipples? What's the big deal about nipples? Men have nipples! What makes female nipples magically offensive? It's all good, as long as we don't see anyone's genetailia.

3) What's so bad about showing genetailia? We all have them! It's natural! What is it with you religious nuts obsessing over private parts? It's not like we're showing people screwing.

4) Why not show people screwing? It's natural. I mean, as long as you're only showing two people at a time, and they're attractive, and not doing anything too kinky, I don't see what the big deal is.

5) Well actually...

George Carlin once said, "Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?" The same idea applies here. We all seem to think that everyone more conservative than us is a prude, and everyone less conservative is some kind of sex-crazed hedonist. We tend to classify things as offensive if they're shocking or go beyond the norms we're used to, and these norms are generally shaped by stuff like tradition, climate, and viewing habits. You can criticize American attitudes if you want to, but you likely have someone on the other side of you who says the exact same things about your culture. So for now let's set aside debates on who are the prudes and who are the hedonists and just accept that the border between mundane, edgy, and offensive is really blurry and trying to draw definitive lines anywhere is probably not an awesome use of our time.

Getting back to the main question: "Why is a bare [body part] more offensive than [violent act]?" Let's look at this in passive media (movies and television) before we consider the videogame side of it.

Most passive media is created with the expectation that it will be a communal experience. The vast majority of people go to the theater with someone. Television is often produced with the expectation or understanding that people will watch it together. Violence works for this because we all have basically the same type of reaction to violence. When something violent happens we experience cringing discomfort, body horror, or visceral satisfaction, depending on who was hurt and how they were hurt. Maybe I'm more grossed out than you, but in general everyone is feeling roughly the same thing.

This isn't true for sexual content. When naked bodies and sexual activity appear on screen, we're suddenly having very personal experiences that are probably disconnected from the experiences around us. Maybe one person is aroused. Another will feel inadequate or self-conscious about their own body. Another will feel embarrassed. Someone else will be grossed out. Someone else will find the whole thing ridiculous to the point of comedy. Someone who isn't yet sexually active can find the images scary or confusing. Another person stops thinking about the movie and begins worrying about what everyone else is feeling. We're no longer having a communal experience, we're having divergent experiences.

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