New West End shows The Bodyguard and Viva Forever! feature plenty of female whooping at male nudity. Would it be acceptable the other way around? By Mark Lawson.
Is it all right for theatregoers to be sexually aroused by actors? The question arises because of a distinctive sound that now regularly breaks out in audiences. During two new London West End musicals – The Bodyguard and Viva Forever! – a huge whoop came from women in the audience during sequences when an attractive man took off his shirt. Even operatic clientele seem to be affected: I witnessed a similar reaction, though admittedly from what appeared to be a party of schoolgirls, during a male nude scene in Calixto Bieito's recent production of Carmen at English National Opera.
What's striking about this response is to imagine what would happen if men behaved in this way. In last week's column, I discussed Phyllida Lloyd's tremendous all-female production of Julius Caesar, in which, as it happens, there is a scene in which one of the cast walks around the stage naked.
As a liberal man brought up by a strong mother, I knew exactly what to do at this point: avert my eyes from her body and concentrate on her verse-speaking, or the lighting rig. Any man in the audience who had responded in the manner of the women at The Bodyguard, Viva Forever! and Carmen would – quite rightly – have been asked to leave the theatre and, if they were on a date, would probably have ended up going home alone.
Clearly, it can be argued that the demands of audience decorum differ between a Shakespeare performance and a musical or a production by the established provocateur of international opera. (Bieito is unlikely to be worried by shrieking during the nude scene.) But I am fairly sure that men who vocally expressed their appreciation of female flesh during any mainstream piece of theatre would meet hostility from women around them.
As it happens, Jenni Murray had suffered similar concerns at the hen-night yells that pursued Lloyd Owen during the performance of The Bodyguard that she saw, and initiated an on-air discussion of the subject on Woman's Hour last week, in which I was asked to take part. The question the programme posed was whether a double-standard is in operation, with women consumers of culture now treating male performers exactly as they have criticised men for enacting with female actors: objectifying their bodies and looks, responding to their sexual appeal rather than their talent.
Without being Talibanesque about it, my view is that there is an inconsistency here, and that the actors in question are at risk of being demeaned. It also intrigues me that the reaction of some women when challenged on this question so uncannily echoes the defence of sexist men in the 60s and 70s: come off it, love, it's just a bit of harmless fun. I've even heard the suggestion – again, an appropriation of an old male-chauvinist line – that the whooping shows how much they like and appreciate men.
The issue also arises for reviewers. As Jenni Murray pointed out, the theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer, was widely criticised for sexism when he described Nicole Kidman's nude scene in David Hare's adaptation of Schnitzler's The Blue Room in 2002 as "pure theatrical Viagra." Given that the principal effect of that drug is to create and sustain erections, the critic was perhaps giving more visceral information than his readers needed – and I think the controversy probably made him and other male critics more thoughtful about their descriptions of female actors. The conclusion which the Woman's Hour debate reached is that women's sexuality is generally more benign than men's, and therefore they may genuinely mean nothing by hollering when men get their kit off or drooling over movie stars in reviews.
I have some sympathy for that view, but I think the question of the whooping at male nudes in theatre also touches on a more fundamental aspect of the performing arts, which is that the sexual response of the audience is often part of the equation. A production of Romeo and Juliet in which a majority of viewers found neither of the leads attractive would surely be doomed to failure, and the profitability of Hollywood has historically depended on making movies featuring stars who will ignite the sexual feelings and fantasies of the mainstream audience – a major reason that so few film actors have come out as gay. Even so, I think that critics of both sexes should be wary of parading their crushes in print and, while The Bodyguard isn't a very good musical, it would be marginally better without the whooping. Source.
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