Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Naked Harpies and the Fine Art Defense

Quick, name the animated Disney film that was released with female frontal topless nudity, breasts, nipples and all.

Apparently it was OK for Fantasia's harpies to swoop into your face topless, and for various she-centaurs and fairies to have exposed boobs (sans nipples and mostly covered up afterward with halter tops, but yeah), and for baby cherubs to fly around bare-assed. What was up? Wasn't this the Hays Code era of draconian film censorship?

Well, here's the list of things prohibited by the Hays Code:
  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed
Aren't you glad they banned both racism and miscegenation?

Absurdities aside, what's remarkable is how hedged around with qualifiers the nudity language is. It almost seems like it's making room for artistic, innocent, and high-minded nudity; making room for children's butts, as long as they don't turn around.

And indeed, censorship has for a long time tussled with the artistic exception - Christian body shame against Renaissance glorification of the nude, played out in a myriad different arenas from the Sistine Chapel's "breeches makers," to Comstock's crusade against the New York Artistic League, to the final bursting of the dam in the 1960s. As much as prudes read salacious interest into high art, high art was itself used as a stalking-horse for titillation; like the high-minded, body-stockinged "tableaux" deployed for the entertainment of gentlemen in the music-hall era.

It's against this backdrop, still within living memory in the 1970's, that we have to consider the much-commented nudity in early gaming materials. Like this harpy:

Was this kind of depiction considered as harmless to children as the Fantasia harpy? What has happened to our culture in the intervening generation? Why the Janet Jackson-level shock today? Aren't we supposed to be living in the Most Sexualized Times Evar? These questions and more must, alas, await the next blog post.


  1. I think the Janet Jackson thing was blown up because (1) it was not just on public media but very public - the Superbowl is watched by more than a few people, (2) racist backlash against the miscegenation thing, (3) realization by all those conservative people watching her tits bounce around that they forgot to be ashamed they were watching her tits, so when the nipple popped out they suddenly felt self-aware, ashamed, and victimized, (4) conservative finger-waggers ready to spring upon the whole thing because it was ripe for exploitation, and (5) news media cashed in on the easy gain in viewers hoping to see the nipple again and/or hear gossip about it.

    The world does not come to an end and people are not driven to asylums in panic just because somebody's junk fell out. It's stupid that such a big deal was made of it, especially in light of American permissiveness of vulgar displays of violence. If you can show someone's guts spilling out you can show someone fuckin'.

    Anyway, I approve of gaming art including nudity, and I approve of the occasional hair placement or fog wafting to block it, and I approve of LotFP's art direction, and I approve of fighting-women in sensible armor. It's a non-issue. In the end, if we don't like it, we don't buy it.

  2. interesting post...i was looking thru a copy of deities and demigods the other day-lovely art but would it/could it be published today? there is a line between the prurient(which in fairness i also like :D) and tasteful/accurate nudity...a harpy should be naked i think-it's difficult to imagine how or why they would wear a sports bra :D.

  3. realization by all those conservative people watching her tits bounce around that they forgot to be ashamed they were watching her tits, so when the nipple popped out they suddenly felt self-aware

    Absolutely. Nothing induces moral panic like seeing the Nipple on your soul.

    cf. abortion, which makes people think of sex, which makes them (flush with) remember(ed) pleasure, which makes them feel guilty twice over.

  4. It's more complicated than "conservative versus liberal" though - much, if not most, of the new puritanism comes from the left. Especially in the UK, where the right wing press has always been pretty open about its love of the female form (just look at the Daily Mail website or page 3 of the Sun).

    1. That may be so, but as a *game*, D&D activates the "think of the children" and "bloody perv nutters" reflexes. I'll touch on the different socio-political factions involved in the next post plus one.