So Kevin Spacey is in the news this week for what increasingly appears to be a Weinstein- or Cosby-level history of sexual abuse. In Spacey’s case, however, his typical target was allegedly young boys he met through his work as an actor. The story began when actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of attempting to seduce him when he was only 14 years old. Spacey promptly apologized and tried to distract from the horror of the accusation by coming out as part of his apology. It worked for a minute, but then more victims came forward. Now, predictably, Spacey has announced plans to “seek treatment.”

The revelations about Spacey also put a very different spin on some of his past work: The Oscar-winning film American Beauty is about Spacey’s marriage breaking down due in part to his lusting after his teenage daughter’s best friend. More recently, one of the big storylines in season one of his much-discussed House of Cards is his ongoing affair with a female reporter who is 25 years his junior.

Both storylines felt extremely dark at the time, but I think I could rationalize my decision to watch the movies by telling myself that those were just movie scenes, they weren’t “real life,” (whatever that means) and they were only one aspect of stories that had tons of other engaging, interesting material in them. The Spacey accusations, along with the many other allegations coming out about other leading men in Hollywood, have me rethinking that position. Specifically, they have me wondering if John Piper was right all along.

Piper, you might remember, has said on multiple occasions that he refuses to watch any movie that has nudity in it because, while other things in movies can be “faked,” in the sense that it is a person playing a part, the nudity is real:

I have a high tolerance for violence, high tolerance for bad language, and zero tolerance for nudity. There is a reason for these differences. The violence is make-believe. They don’t really mean those bad words. But that lady is really naked, and I am really watching. And somewhere she has a brokenhearted father.

I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s. The few exceptions include doctors, morticians, and fathers changing diapers. “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). What the eyes see really matters. “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).

Brothers, that is serious. Really serious. Jesus is violent about this. What we do with our eyes can damn us. One reason is that it is virtually impossible to transition from being entertained by nudity to an act of “beholding the glory of the Lord.” But this means the entire Christian life is threatened by the deadening effects of sexual titillation.

In the past I remember looking at Piper’s advice and feeling conflicted by it. On the one hand, it’s always seemed basically right and sensible to me to say that millennial Christians are generally too free with their media consumption and could learn something from the stricter guidelines that you would routinely run into with older evangelicals. On the other, Piper’s advice seemed overly rigid. After all, there are many otherwise-excellent movies that would fail his test plus Scripture itself often describes sex in fairly frank ways.1

That said, his underlying point—that you can’t really separate the sexuality you see on the screen from “real life”—is looking more and more indisputable by the day. It’s not just Spacey facing these accusations after all. There are tons of leading men in Hollywood being accused of similar things. Indeed, the best explanation for how Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long may well be that so many other leading men were doing the same things. Moreover, they’ve been doing the same things for a very long time—consider the notorious story of Marlon Brando and his director not informing co-star Maria Schneider about the details of a rape scene so that they could film a more “realistic” reaction.

It seems increasingly probable to me that there is a strong link between much of the behavior we see depicted on screen and the things being reported in these various allegations against Hollywood’s leading men. Certainly in the case of Spacey there are a number of scenes in American Beauty and House of Cards that, somehow, look even creepier today than they did when they first came out. And if that is the case, then it would seem to follow that younger Christians who have generally adopted more liberal attitudes toward media need to return to this question and ask how much we should be willing to look past when it comes to a popular movie or TV show.

To put it differently, those who would argue for a more permissive approach to watching movies that depict nudity need to answer two basic questions, I think: First, how confident are you that the things that actor or actress is doing is really just acting? Certainly in the case of Spacey it seems reasonable to think that the line between real life and acting became very blurry in several cases. Second, how comfortable are you with the possibility that you may be supporting this behavior through your decision to consume this media?

I am still not entirely sure how I answer these questions for myself and I am leery for many reasons of making laws on the matter. But it is becoming more apparent almost with each passing day that the people who have been entertaining America are themselves guilty of some of the most horrific moral offenses one can imagine. If that is what our entertainment dollars are supporting, is it perhaps time for us to look away?

  1. In hindsight, this is, of course, an extremely naive response given the significant differences between print media and visual media, but it was one of my arguments at the time.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Physiocrat

    I don’t buy the you can fake language but you can’t fake nudity since you actually speak those words. So Piper argues you don’t have intent with the words but analgously you don’t have intent in nude sequences – the meaning in the story is different than the reality.

    That said I do think nudity can be a problem I just don’t have a complete account.

    As to the relationship between what is depicted on screen and their own lives similar behaviour has always been associated with Hollywood even in the era of the Hayes Code.

    As to your questions, it really gets the heart of what acting is. When you’re acting you must believe it to be real at the time to put in a convincing performance. I think an actor must have mental strength to prevent them merging the two. Further, this raises questions about method acting since you action real life to inhabit the role- I think this could be a particular issue here.

    As to the second question, since me individually make so little difference to the finances of a film it isn’t a relevent consideration unless you can reasonably anticipate, or a aid, a boycott of a significant number of people.

    As to the general behaviour of people I think the constant portrayal of marriages as an oppressive institution lacking in sexual fulfillment is far more important than nudity per se. Don’t Look Now is an excellent example of a film which is, indirectly, supportive or marriage and has a quite explicit sex scene.

    • Pea-Tear

      “..you can fake language but you can’t fake nudity since you actually speak those words.”

      I didn’t get that formulation from Piper’s words. And I think Meador kinda gestures at the better formulation of the point when he alludes to the differences b/w print and visual media. Best way I can articulate it is with your explanation of what acting is.

      If an actor is putting on a ‘persona’ (in the Latin ‘mask’ sense), their words/gestures can be “put on” when the camera is on, and put off when the work is done. But nudity has nothing to put on. S/he may be a badass secret agent in the plot, but that’s that person’s real body (or their double’s — so still somebody). They may all get there differently, but it’s not ‘acting’ that they are undressed. Their body is the adrenaline offered to the camera in service of the plot.

      In the middle of university, I had to contend with the fact that one of the shows I loved and watched a lot in high school (Scrubs) used sex to move the plot forward, pretty consistently. Especially in that stage of life, I was all too ready to listen to John Piper’s advice. But I admit that I haven’t thought it through to the implications of other things like violence, or rude language (not swearing, but the fact that many TV/film protagonists are acerbic/rude in their interactions). I still think nudity is a category unto itself, but dunno that I’ve thought enough on the other points.

      Fantastic point about the portrayal of marriages though. The exceptions I can think of are marked more by two independents rather than interdependence (like Alastair puts it above), the #powercouple #couplegoals sort of thing.

      • Physiocrat

        I do think there can be an issue with nudity although the words the actor speaks is their words – this is not faked like violence is faked. So the only distinction can be intention to play a role but I don’t see how showing your body couldn’t be interpreted in a similar way as language. My issue is with the argument not necessarily the conclusion

    • lwall

      I think you’re missing some important categorical details in comparing “language” and nudity. For example, there could be a form and content distinction in spoken language; of course, the two are interrelated (medium effects message), but they are nonetheless distinct. In acting, an actor speaks with their own voice (form), but the content is the script, in service of the story being told. Related to spoken language, the question to whether or not we should consume a movie should obviously be “is this a story worth listening to?”, not “do I agree with what the character is saying in this particular scene?”.

      With the physical aspect of acting, there is still form and content, but how we process body language is different than spoken language. Getting straight to the point, I would argue specifically that nudity and scenes of sexuality within films or other visual media, our suspense of belief is in a way overridden, directly engaging our sensuality. Perhaps this is not always the intent, but I believe in practice it’s the case more often than not.

      Perhaps the most obvious omission you’re making, is that in scripture the naked body has a level of sacredness, and viewing nakedness outside of the proper context brings shame. There is a big difference in hearing someone’s spoken voice and seeing their naked body. Therefore, I think we ought to be careful in establishing proper contexts for visual depictions of nakedness as a medium of expression, and not give ourselves license based on the proper contexts for spoken language, which are established on a different set of concerns.

      • Physiocrat

        “Getting straight to the point, I would argue specifically that nudity and scenes of sexuality within films or other visual media, our suspense of belief is in a way overridden, directly engaging our sensuality. Perhaps this is not always the intent, but I believe in practice it’s the case more often than not.”

        I think that can definitely be the case.

        “Perhaps the most obvious omission you’re making, is that in scripture the naked body has a level of sacredness, and viewing nakedness outside of the proper context brings shame. There is a big difference in hearing someone’s spoken voice and seeing their naked body. Therefore, I think we ought to be careful in establishing proper contexts for visual depictions of nakedness as a medium of expression, and not give ourselves license based on the proper contexts for spoken language, which are established on a different set of concerns.”

        Again agreed. My point was solely focused on the faking aspect that Piper mentions which just doesn’t hold up.

        I think as a director I’d have very little nudity, if any, although I’d use carefully choreographed eroticism either to show the love between husband and wife or the allure of sin. Much nudity is not actually very erotic at all. A good example is Game of Thrones. It is just matter of fact.

  • Cal P

    John Piper is, in principle, correct, but he’s weighing on a general American skiddishness and liberal definition of nudity. There are many additional scenarios worth considering: is a modestly angled, clothed, sex scene better than full-frontal nudity? When is someone nude? Only if fully or which body parts? Per stereotype, Europeans tend to be more tolerant of toplessness for women than Americans? How does eroticization fit into this picture? Certainly camera work and actor disposition conveys more than just the clothes. Playboy bunnies wear a lot more clothes than some tribal peoples in Nat Geo pictures, but the latter is not pornographic. Would a father’s heart break over nudity as much as pornography? Piper seems to make a patchwork of Bible verses that skips over all of these questions.

    Also, violence is not just faked violence. To do fight scenes right, there are stunt doubles, physical training, practice etc. and people still break bones, tear muscles, sometimes even die. Where is the concern? Most Americans wink at the extreme violence in many sports we watch (NFL, NHL, UFC, etc.).

    And these critiques are not new. If one wants to get a handle on the stage, one should not fixate on contemporary Hollywood trends but read older critiques. There’s a reason why many Patristics and Puritans railed against the stage. They were dealing with not only the effects of a performance on an audience, but the lifestyle many actors and stagehands lived.

    I’ve not worked through all of these problems, but they are far wider and deeper than even Piper makes them out to be. He’s not digging deep enough and, in the process, gets mistaken for (if he isn’t) a garden variety moralist.

  • Krychek_2

    Let me posit an alternative hypothesis. There are certain jobs that almost seem to require certain personality types, and those personality types tend to have certain types of personal baggage. Harvey Weinstein had a cut throat job not well suited to paragons of virtue, so just how surprising is it when that spills over into his personal life as well. It’s the same reason there have been so many scandals involving megachurch pastors and television preachers — that job, too, requires a certain personality type. At that level, religion is basically just another big business and it attracts the same sorts of CEOs as other types of big businesses.

    And acting requires at least some exhibitionism; a shy, retiring wall flower is never going to win an Oscar for best actress.

    And I’m skeptical of blaming mere nudity, in the movies or in real life. European movies have had far more pervasive nudity and for far longer than American movies. In fact, Europeans are far more accepting of nudity in general, including public nudity, than Americans. I remember my first visit to Europe, when I was on a train that went by a nude beach, and I was shocked to see all those naked people from my train window. I was in for another shock a few days later when the Swedish family that was hosting me invited me to join them in their sauna in which the entire family (including adult children) of both sexes were naked. Neither of those would be acceptable in the United States. Yet a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey would be far less tolerated in Europe than in the United States (at least Western Europe; Russia is another story). So that can’t be the problem.

    Of course, there may be theological reasons for Christians to not see movies with nudity in them; I’m not a Christian so I’m not going to speak to that issue. But it is a separate issue from whether nudity causes Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Someone pointed out in the wake of the first Harvey Weinstein allegations that there is a good reason why the ‘casting couch’ has toxic associations in acting, but there aren’t the same associations with hiring in insurance, for instance. The mistreatment of women in the acting profession is often closely connected with the fact that their sexuality is so much a part of the reason why they are employed. If you aren’t comfortable being naked in front of a Hollywood director, then you might not be comfortable baring your body in front of millions.

    And, in addition to the levels of abuse, the instability of Hollywood marriages and the number of extra-marital and non-marital relationships are not at all surprising when you consider the sort of place that Hollywood is. Lots of young, attractive, and vulnerable men and women are desperately hoping for and depending upon the attention of powerful older men and women, attention that may often take a deeply unsavoury form. Radically integrating the sexes in highly intimate work will encourage sexual impropriety. Work that takes people away from their families for lengthy periods of time in stressful working conditions with sexually attractive co-workers will encourage infidelity and the breakdown of marriages. Work that frequently celebrates and propagates the values of sexual licence will tend to encourage the licentiousness of those who work within it, and the reality is seldom as attractive as the airbrushed vision of it we see on our screens. Abstracting people’s work from the building up of their own households, so that work moves couples towards independence from each other in detached careers, rather than towards interdependence in a shared realm of dominion is also going to weaken marriages considerably, or create unhealthy imbalances of power. The form of the industry is not unrelated to the content it entertains us with.

  • Pingback: My reading list for October 29 – November 4, 2017 | Clay on the Wheel()