Friday, August 27, 2010

Nudity and Othering: National Geographic

I was getting ready to write about the colonial gaze and how nonwhite women's bodies (particularly African women's bodies) are considered more available for public view than white women's bodies. The example that immediately came to mind was National Geographic Magazine; after all, who doesn't remember flipping through it, looking for scandalous pictures of bare-chested African women, because it's okay to show them naked, right? They're primitives!

So I hopped over to the NatGeo site to see what recent examples of colonial gazing I might find, and came upon this Q&A in their NGC Blog, about their show, "Taboo":

Q: I was extremely disappointed in this episode of naked taboo where National Geographic considered it acceptable to show the breasts of the African women but censored those of the white women in the United States and Australia. Too many times I have to be disgusted by this blatant form of bias where one considers a culture or race to be superior to another. I hope National Geographic makes a greater attempt to stop this form of bias.
A: Thank your for your recent question about our Taboo program on nudity. It's a good question that we've wrestled with and we've worked to develop a policy that we believe is consistent and respectful. Our policy for showing naked breasts, and when, is based on decency standards for broadcast television here in the U.S., and on the cultural norms of the people we are featuring. It is not based on race. Generally we will show nudity when the broader local culture sanctions it as part of daily, regular public life, and we obscure it when it is not part of the regular public culture. In the Taboo: Nudity show, as you noted, we see blurred female Caucasian breasts and unblurred female African breasts. While there may seem to be an inconsistency here, the distinction lies in the culture in which the practice was filmed. In this program, the societies in which the Caucasian women were filmed (various states in the U.S. and Sydney, Australia) regard female breasts as private parts of the body. In these societies, it's generally not accepted for women to appear in public, daily life without covering their breasts. Yet the society in which the African women were filmed (the Hamar of southern Ethiopia) female breasts aren't viewed in the same private manner. Because our presentation of nudity is dictated by local customs, a program that covered a nude public beach in a Caucasian country where those beaches are legal and normal, for example, might include some shots of unblurred female Caucasian breasts. Interestingly, in another Taboo episode, "Body Modification", we profile the practice of breast ironing in Cameroon. In that story, the breasts of the featured young African woman are blurred, since we filmed the segment in a private home, and within that Cameroonian society, female breasts (whether African or Caucasian) are kept covered. Again, thank you for this excellent question; I hope this clarifies our policy.

I have mixed feelings about this. I am glad that the people at NatGeo have thought about this issue and attempted to create a coherent policy for dealing with it. (I can't find an actual copy of the police online, but that's not surprising, given than it's for internal, editorial use.) And I appreciate their noting that they blurred out Cameroonian women's breasts because those women do not show their breasts publicly, so at least they seem to be following the policy.

But is this policy any different than the colonial gaze? That is, if we view breasts as private, sexual parts, why is is okay to look at them on people who don't feel that way? If we look at breasts with a sexual intent, aren't we in a sense sexually violating the women who are filmed, because they did not consent to show their bodies in a sexual manner? I realize we cannot legislate people's thoughts, and I cannot force people to watch this show without feeling titillated, any more than I can force a man who accidentally sees down my blouse if I bend over to not have a sexual thought about me. But it seems like we are still violating these women by allowing them to be viewed in a sexual manner that they are not expecting, when non-African women would know that showing their breasts on camera would be a sexual act and would presumably not consent to it.

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