From Lady Godiva to Femen: Paul Rouse looks at the history of naked protests.
Did Lady Godiva know what she was starting? When the wife of the Earl of Mercia rode naked through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century to protest against her husband’s oppressive tax legislation, it set a trend. Since then, protestors of all shapes, sizes and political persuasions have recognised the impact that the naked body can have in raising awareness for their cause, be it by shock value, titillation, humour or simply - in all senses of the word - exposure.
There were no paparazzi around in England in the Middle Ages of course, and the Lady Godiva ‘story’ may have been just that - the first recorded case of an urban myth. And if she lit a fuse, it was certainly a slow-burning one, with few recoded incidents of naked protests until well into the 20th century. Social conventions would have undoubtedly prevented a lot of protestors in the intervening period from stripping off to gain publicity, even if there had been the means available to them to widely disseminate their message. But in modern times, a combination of a more liberal attitude to the human body and the expansion of the media, be it of the serious or prurient kind, has seen the naked protest come of age.
It was the youth of the post-war generation, epitomised by the (admittedly clothed) James Dean and Marlon Brando, who really defined social rebellion, and by the 1960s, taking your clothes off in public to make a point had started to become a fairly common occurrence. At Woodstock, it was little more than a mild-mannered two-fingers up to the ‘squares’ in the establishment, whilst John and Yoko’s famous nude photo shoot was just a clever way of promoting an album. When the time came to make a serious protest - their equally famous bed-ins against the war in Vietnam - it’s interesting to note that the couple actually kept their clothes on.
You don’t have to be a celebrity of course to generate publicity by going naked, although organisations like PETA have used several famous faces (and bodies) in their fight against the cruel treatment of animals, whilst love him or hate him, Stephen Gough seems to have become a celebrity thanks to his long-running antics in the UK as the Naked Rambler.
In most cases however, naked protestors are merely ordinary members of the public who happen to feel strongly about something, and have decided that the best way to get noticed and show the world how they feel is to bare all. One of the obvious analogies of staging a naked protest is to highlight how, having been stripped of political power, protestors have subsequently stripped themselves of clothing, whilst the anti-war lobby sees the vulnerability of a naked body as a sharp contrast with the uniformed and often armed body of a soldier or policeman, highlighting the inequality of the authority/victim relationship.
With some protests, the nudity is simply justified by being directly relevant to the issue in question, hence those protests in favour of nude beaches, or the right to go topless in public, the latter a particularly controversial topic in the USA, where a lot of people seem to have an unhealthy hang-up about it. The same goes for the Brazilian students who staged a naked protest when one of their colleagues was expelled from college for wearing a mini-skirt, or American singer Amanda Palmer, who responded to cruel jibes from the Daily Mail about her wardrobe malfunction at Glastonbury by getting completely naked on stage at the Roundhouse in London, where she sang a specially composed song called Dear Daily Mail criticising their anti-feminist brand of ‘journalism.’
It could be argued that she played right into their hands. Women using their nakedness to garner attention while simultaneously showing anger at being objectified is something of a double-edged sword, and even if their naked bodies bring attention to their cause, isn’t that actually self-objectifying? Discuss.
It doesn’t seem to deter the seemingly growing legion of protestors willing to strip off in support of their beliefs however, and it’s true to say that the overwhelming majority do seem to be female (unless, like students at exam time or sunbathers during a heatwave, they’re the only gender the media is actually interested in photographing). As with the subject of advertising, so with protests: sex sells. If the media is more likely to run a story where the naked protestor is female rather than male, perhaps the female protestors know this: in which case, are they simply getting one up on the media and playing them at their own game?
Which brings me neatly on to some of the ‘rules’ of the game itself, certainly as far as the protestors are concerned.
Number 1: be topical. Don’t spend too long planning your protest, especially if the issue you’re concerned about is currently making the headlines. People have short memories and, these days it seems, even shorter attention spans.
Number 2: get your timing right. Research newspaper and magazine deadlines, find out when TV news editors make their daily decisions on what to cover, and don’t stage a protest if you know there is something far more important happening that is bound to take up coveted column inches or air time. You’re not going to compete with a royal wedding or the World Cup.
Number 3: ensure your cause is a genuinely worthy one (politics, censorship, religion and animals are all good starting points) or failing that, highly original. Even hacks get hacked off from time to time, even when there are naked bodies, lithe or otherwise, involved.
Number 4: be persistent. Organisations like PETA, Greenpeace and the World Naked Bike Ride have built up their reputations over many years, and via numerous events.
Number 5: harness technology. The term ‘media’ in the modern age increasingly includes the internet, so use websites, social networks, blogs and Twitter for self-promotion. And you’ll be surprised how many stories that finally end up in the traditional media first surface via the web.
As Bob Dylan, the grand-daddy of protest songs himself, noted: the times they are a’ changing, and if you thought naked protests were past their sell-by date, think again. They are - or at least can be - as relevant and forceful as ever, and we have seen some recent and powerful examples of how the naked body can still be used to highlight injustice, prejudice or just plain stupidity on the part of those who make the decisions that affect us all.
International Women’s Day in 2014 for example saw nude demonstrations in Paris and other cities standing up for the rights of women in the Middle East; during the Winter Olympics, a Beirut pressure group turned the negative publicity involving skier Jackie Chamoun's nude calendar shoot around in order draw attention to an issue of far more significance to most Lebanese women - domestic violence; and a group of French publishers and book sellers held a naked protest aimed at the French politician who recently tried to censor a perfectly harmless book called Everybody Get Naked, which depicts people from all walks of life taking off their clothes in an aim to calm children’s fears about their own bodies.
Torn from the current headlines meanwhile, the topless feminist group Femen stormed the Crimean parliament to vent their anger at Russia’s annexation of the province. Originating from the Ukraine, the well-known and very media-savvy group could be said to be perfectly justified in their actions, although they often don’t do their own cause any good by virtue of the fact that they now seem to be protesting against everything: sexism, prostitution, pornography, media censorship, religious institutions, political dictatorship, you name it.
And so we’re back to Brando, and the famous line from The Wild One. “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Johnny: “Whadda you got?”