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We're being stripped of choice


Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, Holmes' great female nemesis, in 'Sherlock'

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, Holmes' great female nemesis, in 'Sherlock'

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, Holmes' great female nemesis, in 'Sherlock'

WHAT has become of the Radio Times? Back in the day, the BBC's in-house listings magazines could be relied upon to provide regular updates on The Archers and some nice cake recipes. Now it's got interviews with actresses explaining how they love to whip their kit off in the name of art. Ireland's Eye will be publishing a guide to the best locations for sex shops within a half hour's drive of Croagh Patrick next.

The actress in question was Lara Pulver, whose pre-watershed nude scenes in period drama Sherlock on New Year's Day provoked more than 100 complaints from viewers. That's more than Jeremy Clarkson got for insulting the whole of India on the Top Gear Christmas special. Such is the power of a woman's breasts.

Pulver remains unbowed in the face of the criticism, declaring that it made her feel in control to shoot scenes in the nude. "There's nothing to hide behind, no mask, and something really empowering takes over.''

No doubt she's right. Getting nude can feel good; most of us wouldn't shower any other way. The flesh-coloured body stockings and boob suppressors that actresses often wear when shooting sex scenes must be awfully cumbersome, too. Getting naked was the practical, professional thing to do. It also made sense in terms of the story. Pulver was playing Sherlock Holmes's great female nemesis, Irene Adler. Her body was a weapon in the battle to discombobulate the uber-logical detective. Broadcasting it before 9pm was a clear mistake, because whatever goes out at a time when families are watching together shouldn't make so many of them uncom-

fortable; there's a time and place to push the boundaries, and shortly after eight o'clock during the holiday season, when few parents are in the mood to answer questions from children wondering what a dominatrix is, isn't one of them. But there was nothing wrong with the nude scene itself. It worked.

Even so, it's still curious to see how actresses have gone from regarding nude scenes as a necessary evil to advance their career to now embracing them as some kind of act of feminist affirmation as a modern woman. Directors probably can't believe their luck. It used to take persuasion to get a woman to strip, maybe a bit of bribery and alcohol as well. Now they're practically begging for the chance to do it. Lara Pulver even said she refused to say her lines until co-star Benedict Cumberbatch had "stared at my boobs". One can only imagine his response: "Well, if you insist ... "

This is a strange development when, in many ways, the opposite ought to be true. Nude scenes were once fleeting, blink-and-miss-it affairs. Now there are whole websites devoted to endlessly replaying such material. No need to sit through a whole movie, or even fast forward the tape, for one brief moment of titillation. Now there are sex scenes, whole sex scenes, and nothing but the sex scenes, 24/7.

Instead of being more cautious of how their bodies might become commodities in an increasingly pornographic culture, many actresses are going in entirely the other direction, not only by eschewing body doubles and flesh-coloured body stockings, but by doing real sex scenes. Chloe Sevigny performs unsimulated oral sex in the movie The Brown Bunny, which is going to be confusing for children in future should she voice a character for Pixar and they Google her name to see what else she's been in.

Lots of other big names are appearing in what, until a few years ago, would have been considered extremely explicit films, too, such as Bryce Dallas Howard, Heather Graham, and Mimi Rogers. Nudity has moved from the arthouse firmly into the mainstream.

Then, of course, the same women invariably complain that they're not taken seriously. Why should they be taken seriously, any more than the Playboy Playmate twins from Celebrity Big Brother are taken seriously? The line between glamour model and gritty performer is arbitrary at best, and blurring all the while.

Not that Lara Pulver is complaining. Yet. But it usually takes time -- generally until the offers of work dry up, at which point it's traditional to bemoan the way you've been typecast as a curvaceous babe when all you really want is to be respected as an actress. Until then, they're happy to bask in the attention. Lara Pulver might buck the trend, but she'd be the first one if she does. Increasingly the trend is to make oneself as much an object for male consumption as any porn star, whilst dressing up submission to an erotic stereotype as some kind of radical act of feminist affirmation, before complaining about sexism when your figure and career both go pear-shaped.

It might be "empowering" for well-paid actresses to add "looks good in the buff" to the list of accomplishments on their CV, at least for as long as they're still in demand. But this oversexualised sea in which we all now swim isn't so empowering for women as a whole, and young women in particular. Quite the opposite. It's enslaving them with a particular interpretation of what it is to be a woman just as much as the patriarchal tropes of old. Once girls had to be demure, or they were condemned as inadequate. Now they have to be sexy, or else be condemned as equally deficient. You're hot or you're not. Self-worth is measured in wolf whistles. It isn't a healthy way to live. An unclothed Irene Adler isn't the point. What's significant is the fact that the BBC felt it could push the boundaries back before the 9pm watershed, forcing us all, as it were, to symbolically stare at Lara Pulver's breasts.

Aggressive sexual imagery started on the outside of mainstream entertainment; it crept into the fringe via self-styled groundbreaking -- now it's firmly ensconced at the centre, with those who object being derided as prudes or philistines. Coming soon: bondage on Downton Abbey, and The XXX Factor at tea time for would-be porn stars with implants and a sob story.

There are many words to describe what's happening, but "empowering" isn't one of them.

Sunday Independent