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Immodesty is Cool, Except When it Isn't

Jessalyn Hutto

People often joke that one of the easiest ways for an actress to get critical acclaim is to undress in a movie. By showing massive amounts of skin or engaging in an explicit sex scene, she is suddenly taken seriously and praised for her “raw” and “honest” portrayal of a character and perhaps even nominated for a few coveted awards. In these instances the actress is encouraged to view her body as a tool to be used in the portrayal of a character or as a blank canvas to paint layers of personality (or in many instances strip them away) to better communicate the story being told through the camera lens. She and we, the audience, are lead to believe it is not the actress who is naked, but the character.

All of these theories seemed to blow up in Hollywood’s face last week when Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars. Known for his brash sense of humor, MacFarlane did what he does best–made dirty, tasteless jokes at the expense of others. This was to be expected and perhaps even planned by the producers of the highly esteemed awards ceremony, and yet for some reason the audience felt he went too far.

There was a particular musical number performed by the writer/comedian which humorously made fun of the fact that he and the rest of the world had seen certain actresses in the nude. Over and over again throughout the song, MacFarlane listed women who had revealed their bodies to the world through popular films. The point was simple: we’ve seen you naked because you showed your naked self to us. Suddenly the fourth wall (as theater folk like to call it) was torn down and the supposed line between a character’s nudity and a person’s nudity was erased. MacFarlane was criticized for being too crude in speaking–or in this case singing–of these women’s nudity (which of course is warranted). However, little was said of the actresses who were sung about–of the women who opened themselves up for public mockery. In a truly ironic moment of public discourse, the one who talked about the immodesty was criticized, while the immodest women being talked about were ignored and even pitied.

About a month ago I listened to a radio program describing a phenomenon in middle, jr. and high schools where girls are “shamed” through photos taken of them in compromising situations. These girls who have either undressed in front of boys, performed sexual favors for boys, or who have engaged in sexual intercourse unknowingly have their pictures taken in the act, which are then shared through Facebook and Twitter with the entire world. This is called “slut-shaming” and is meant to embarrass the young women and publicly label them as immoral and dirty among their peers. The radio program was titled “The New Scarlet Letter” emphasizing how these girls are being ostracized for their sexual behavior.

The young men, who are equally engaged in immorality, are often left unscathed by the incident. In fact, their reputations only seem to increase in the eyes of their peers. Of course, the radio program was meant to bring light to this injustice and focused solely on the cruel behavior of the boys involved and the mean girls who help them disseminate the pictures or video. The victims–according to the program–are the unknowing girls whose lives will never be the same, whose private lives become immortally public through the various social media outlets available to teens and preteens these days. Nothing was said about the actual immodesty or sexual indiscretions of the girls themselves. Rather, it is what is done with their immodesty and sexual “experimentation” that is immoral. It is the exploitation of their “private lives” that is worthy of scrutiny.

I share these examples (and could go on with more) because it seems like the world is giving mixed signals as to what is appropriate for women (and young girls for that matter) in terms of dress, conduct, and speech. On the one hand we are encouraged to express our sexuality through clothing choices and sexual “experimentation.” We are promised that doing so will allow us to break free from social, cultural, and religious expectations to find our true, strong identities. Yet, on the other hand we see how immodesty and sexual promiscuity have lead only to the further objectification of our sex. More than ever women are seen not for who they are, but for how they can satisfy a man’s lust (either visually or physically). The porn industry rages and threatens to swallow up an entire generation of young men consumed with lust, but rather than spurn such an industry, we women are encouraged to support it, and even enjoy it. We are beckoned to enjoy, promote, and participate in the very things that degrade our dignity.

Actresses are told to strip and then live forever with the shame of the entire world seeing (and enjoying) their naked bodies.

Young girls are told to explore their sexuality (always using protection of course) and then are forever labeled as sluts by their classmates.

Where is the dignity in this? Where is the liberation that feminists like to speak of?

The truth is, the call to modesty and sexual purity is a call to true feminine liberation, because it is a call to gospel liberation. It is a call to find your beauty, worth, and dignity not in your sexuality, but in the One who created you in his image. Living a modest and sexually pure life is not about limitations, but about the freedom Christ gives to his redeemed to live honorably and virtuously. It is about progressing in sanctification with the aim of returning to our created state where we live in perfect harmony with God and man. It is the opposite of objectification. It is the opposite of shame.

The world offers a false liberation to women that only leads to further enslavement, but our God has beckoned us to something better, something pure and lovely–the dignity of being called a daughter of the Living God. May our dress, our actions, and our words be continually purified by the blood that has purchased our initial and eternal liberation.