Is it just me but is there a lot more male nudes on the small screen currently? Somehow in the backwash of sensitivity toward female exploitation post #Metoo there seems to be a rising tide of gorgeous naked young men walking out of oceans, stripping off to wrestle with a horse, plough or rival or climbing out of beds in strategically choreographed bedroom paces towards the dressing gown/pyjama/sweat pants or. Usually tastefully back lit by the morning sun streaming in from the window so that any accidental glimpses of the family jewels won’t frighten the horses, or scare off any of the middle-aged women (myself included) glued to the screen and other faint-hearted TV licence payers – full frontal isn’t quite acceptable yet on traditional platforms…but I suspect meat and two veg will be on the menu soon.
Network shows like Sandition, Podark, The Body Guard and the deeply historically dubious Catherine the Great all seemed to resort to throwing in another naked or half-naked male whenever the dialogue or action is flagging. To be fair in the case of historical dramas like Sandition (the unfinished Jane Austen novel, Andrew Davies, veteran and award winning TV writer was brave enough to take on) the male nude was not the same transgressive shocking figure he is now. Nude bathing for men only became illegal in 1860, and was an unpopular edict. Before that English men would happily frolic naked in sea and stream in full view.
So at least the nude male bathing in Sandition is historically accurate and as such could be argued as not so baldly gratuitous. The first male bathers were actually introduced in 1870 and were very short red and white striped drawers – eat your heart out Daniel Craig (a scene that frankly just left this viewer wondering about the temperature of the water on the day of the shoot). I suspect the acceptance of nude male bathing was because prior to the 20thcentury the male nude was still considered a classical form and was yet to be sexualised – at least in a commercial context.
Although, interestingly, in 1822 a huge bronze statue weighing 33 tons known as Achilles was erected (no pun intended) in Hyde Park. Commissioned by a society led by Countess Spencer rather whimsically called The Ladies of `England, this 18 foot nude statue was intended to celebrate Wellington’s victories over the French and was cast from seven bronze captured French cannons – they really knew how to use political subtext back then.
After it’s installation the scale of it’s brazen nudity caused such public outrage that the very same ladies were compelled to vote to have a fig leaf installed over its manhood. Ironically the statue later became a much-loved meeting point for aristocratic women about to begin their parade of Rotten Row and potential husband hunting.
Catherine the great (HBO) arguably presents a more dubious argument for the number of nubile naked twenty-something men who are seen perpetually climbing out of Helen Mirren’s bed. As much as I love the notion of an empowered older woman having a stream of far younger male lovers, I couldn’t help wondering how the TV viewer would react if there was a gender reverse and it was a twenty year old girl climbing out of a seventy-four year old male power monger’s bed. Not well, I suspect. But at least we are now allowed a depiction of an empowered older female flexing her…cough…muscles. It’s just a pity this particular depiction is laughably historically incorrect, personally I would have loved to have seen a portrayal of a great older female politician and monarch who succeeded in huge innovation as well as social change and the debunking of the vicious mythology around Catherine the Great, deeply unpopular with her Russian populace because, simply, she wasn’t actually Russian but of the Hapsburgs. I get it, sex sells. And I guess it might be acknowledgement that there are economically empowered women watching out there and that the female heterosexual gaze is finally being catered for.
The Bodyguard was far more dramatically nuanced in terms of the depiction of the male nude and the hero’s catering to the sexual needs of his female politician boss, however Richard Madden still boasted a washboard stomach and compact rear end. Such imagery has led to a discourse around male actors about the intense pressure to maintain such form, quite rightly – male anorexia is on the rise and rise. Let’s just hope celebration of the naked dad bod or the ‘bear’ is just around the corner….