"Body Parts" examines the labor of movie nudity – the good, the bad and the merkins

Kristy Guevara-Flanagan spoke to Salon about her new documentary that features Jane Fonda, Sheryl Lee and more

Published June 11, 2022 12:59PM (EDT)

Body Parts (Frazer Bradshaw)
Body Parts (Frazer Bradshaw)

"Your body no longer belongs to you," is one statement, repeated several times and in multiple iterations by numerous actresses in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's illuminating documentary, "Body Parts." This film, which is receiving its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, astutely analyzes how women are treated and presented in Hollywood films and television.

Guevara-Flanagan traces the way women had power in front of and behind the camera as far back as the 1920s and 1930s — until the Hays Code changed the rules. In the 1960s, women went from "romance without sex" to "sex without romance," as a series of films broke down barriers for female sex and nudity on screen. Jane Fonda, who is interviewed in the documentary, describes playing prim ingenues in the 1950s and 1960s and then doing her famous striptease over the opening credits in "Barbarella," a film directed by her then-husband, Roger Vadim.  

Women are often seen as scantily clad extras, peripheral to the main, male characters. Depictions of male aggression range from women being "kissed into submission," to rape-revenge narratives...

Women are often asked to get naked as a way of "paying their dues" as several women claim; some actresses have lost jobs if they don't — forget what was agreed upon in the contract or nudity rider. But the perils extend far beyond the simple unfair treatment of how women are filmed and undressed. There is the experience many actresses have where they must disassociate to "get through" having to perform a nude and/or sex scene. There is negative body image and shaming (especially where weight is a consideration). There is the gif that will live forever on the internet, and social media reactions.

In addition, there is the lack of pleasure women have on screen. Women are often seen as scantily clad extras, peripheral to the main, male characters. Depictions of male aggression range from women being "kissed into submission," to rape-revenge narratives that do not offer "strong" female heroines, but actually depict brutalized women who have to survive trauma. And these points are all magnified for women of color, disabled, and trans performers, who are given far less screen opportunities to play roles that allow them to be sexual and have desires. 

RELATED: Jane Fonda weighs in on #MeToo perpetrators

As "Body Parts" shows, women have (successfully) lobbied for intimacy coordinators to monitor consent and what is done on a film set and seen in the final product. They have fought for advocacy and protection against harassment. And they are starting to get more jobs in powerful positions to change the status quo. But a seismic change still needs to happen. 

Guevara-Flanagan spoke with Salon about her fantastic new documentary. 

I admire your documentary short, "What Happened to Her," about how women are often portrayed as dead and nude in films and TV and the impact of that. This film takes a deeper dive at how we look at images of women on screen. Can you talk about your growing interest in this topic of representation?

"Body Parts" was born from that short, "What Happened to Her." When I made that film, I thought there was something very powerful about pairing images from film and TV with an actual person who played a dead body, Danyi Deats. It just intrigued me, and I thought about making three short films, one about death, one about sex, and one about birth and labor in film and TV, which I am still very interested in.

I started to research sex and nudity and spoke to actresses and there was so much more at stake in what they were being asked to do. There were so many players involved from legal to who they were acting with, that it started to expand. And it started to expand further when I started interviewing actors. Sheryl Lee was one of the first people I spoke with. Then I got an interview with Jane Fonda. I thought, "OK, this had to be a bigger film." A year into looking at this and talking to people, the Harvey Weinstein scandal blew up and TimesUp and #MeToo brought these concerns to a national consciousness. That became interwoven into the film as well. It really snowballed. I didn't plan for it, but I was captivated by labor and what goes on behind the scenes that audiences don't necessarily consider when they are watching a screen.

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What decisions did you make regarding the narrative — the topics you presented, the participants you interviewed, and the film clips you chose to illustrate examples? 

I became obsessed with the connecting of the dots and researching. The film took five years to make. While the pandemic shut down production completely, it allowed us to dive into editing and begin thinking about the Hollywood archive and how to amass these images. With my short and images of dead women, I could corral that, but sex and nudity is all over the place. It was about being representative of different eras and different genres — the good and the bad and the ugly. I was also very influenced by the work of the experts, Linda Williams, who has written about sex on screen, and Mick LaSalle, who wrote really captivating work about women of the pre-code. My job was to figure out clever ways to fold in their arguments. It was hard not to not include certain moments, but the film had a tipping point. I had some historical aspects, contemporary stories, some verité of behind-the-scenes processes, and reenactments. I needed to glue it together. I am very fascinated with historical perspectives of sex on screen. 

"'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' was a touchstone film ... it wasn't over-the-top in terms of its comedic sexual content. ... I thought it was one of the few films that spoke to me about that stuff as a young woman

I appreciated the idea expressed in the film that movies teach us about sex. What films were flashpoints for you in terms of sexual expression or education?

Definitely, for me — and I have to give a shout-out to Katrina Longworth, I love her podcast. I did not know she did one on the erotic '80s until I finished my film. I'm really enjoying that. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was a touchstone film. I grew up in that generation, and that it wasn't over-the-top in terms of its comedic sexual content. There is comedy, but I remember taking it pretty seriously as a young woman and I thought it was one of the few films that spoke to me about that stuff as a young woman. I do also remember seeing "The Blue Lagoon" with my grandma, and being, "Oh, My God! There are naked people!" and feeling very awkward about the nudity and sexual content in that. When I was growing up, sex in film was caught by accident. We didn't have the means to access that. We had a cable box, and occasionally something explicit would come across it. 

Body PartsBody Parts (Frazer Bradshaw)

The psychological impact of actresses filming sex scenes is well presented. I was very gratified that you showed not just the work of intimacy coordinators but also the situations that prompted the need for them on set. What observations do you have about their effectiveness of advocates and the fact that there is also still a lack of protection for some performers; it seems that women can or do still lose their jobs if they don't get naked on camera.

It's an area I was less familiar with, not being an actor. Actors are in these extremely vulnerable positions — especially young ones that are just starting out and female ones, of course. You are moving from set to set, and there is no HR supervision. It is very hard to protect yourself in that kind of a situation when there is a very distanced oversight mechanism.

"I was very interested in that aspect, too — when is nudity un-sexualized? I would say that Lena Dunham was wonderful in bringing that to audiences."

Beyond intimacy coordination, there are many ways in which the power dynamics are still not great, and people are not protected. You can still go to an audition and be asked to strip down to your underwear or wear a bathing suit. You are asked up front whether you would consider nudity before even knowing exactly what the role might be. You have to make decisions right away on what you are willing or not willing to do. It seems like such a make-or-break thing. If you do it once, you will keep getting asked to do it over and over again. You are someone who does that. And if you don't do it, what opportunities are you missing? There is, I think, still a "paying your dues" perspective in the industry for actors who are starting out and trying to establish themselves. I don't know how to level that playing field, but it is one in which power can certainly be abused and people can be taken advantage of.  


On that same point of not feeling like women can say "no," Rosanna Arquette describes the sadness she felt having to do a nude scene at 19, and Michelle Krusiec explains her despair playing Asian stereotypes and the lack of female pleasure in cinema. In contrast, Alexandra Billings talks proudly about doing a nude scene to show a trans character being sexual, and Lauren "Lolo" Spencer explains the importance of giving disabled actresses roles that allow them to be sexual. What can you say about the way women are both powerless and powerful when it comes to having control over their bodies?

Part of the problem I would say in terms of representation is that there is a narrow script of who is allowed to be sexual and sexy, and how they are filmed. That is where the industry starts to have an impact on the audience, and who they think is sexy, and who they can ask out, and how they can behave. That's part of the problem when you have straight men who control the lens of who gets to be seen as this beautiful ideal and how those women should act and what sex even should look like. It has been very narrow, especially in American cinema. That leaves out the audience and affects us on how we feel about ourselves and how we engage with each other. 

I also wanted to make a film that didn't just say it is all bad, that we shouldn't have sex and nudity. I agree with the actors who said sex is a beautiful thing and worth exploring. We just want to see different perspectives. Those perspectives are so important to audiences — to see themselves in romantic situations. I love what Alexandra Billings says, that nudity can be natural and everyday, and is not sexual. I was very interested in that aspect, too — when is nudity un-sexualized? I would say that Lena Dunham was wonderful in bringing that to audiences. This kind of nudity that was awkward and different and everyday. People didn't know what to do with it. It was about our bodies and seeing different bodies on screen. 

"It was hard to get people to agree to speak on camera ... There is so much concern for women actors being labeled difficult for speaking up."

I appreciated Rose McGowan's comments as well as those by Sarah Scott who spoke out about harassment. These are baby steps to solving a larger, more systemic problem. "Body Parts" features clips from films including "9 to 5" and "Bombshell" to illustrate women being victimized in the workplace. You also address Bikini Days at studio castings. Can you talk about this issue and the fear or reluctance some women have about coming forward in this particular industry? 

People are still really concerned about their reputations. It was hard to get people to agree to speak on camera, and even just to be associated with a film that talks about sex and nudity on screen. A lot of people would rather there wasn't that focus, and even if they have done it, they don't want to be known for doing it. #MeToo and TimesUp really amplified voices for women who have been put in certain situations feel comfortable in coming forward. It is still very tight-lipped and people concerned about reputations. They don't want to be seen as difficult. Even Emily Meade has said she didn't work for a long time after "The Deuce," and she doesn't know if it was because she did so much nudity in that show or if it had to do with speaking out and asking for an intimacy coordinator being brought to the show. It is hard to know. There is so much concern for women actors being labeled difficult for speaking up. There are so many people trying to get into the industry that you are seen as replaceable when you don't go along with things. I feel like this film scratches at this surface. 

"Body Parts" features some segments that show a merkin maker, a body double, and a visual effects artist whose "beauty work" cheats what we see on screen. I am not sure I will look at a performer in the same way again. What can you say about these jobs and how they influence the industry and what we see — or think we see?

It is one of the aspects I was really interested in early on and wanted to include as much as possible. Bringing nudity to screen requires so much work, when you are basically not wearing anything. Why is this army of people necessary? It seemed like there was this Frankensteinian process of putting a woman's body together. This is where the title comes from. You need to make this ideal from body doubles or digital beauty work done afterwards — you can't just leave the body as it is. It has to be hyper-ideal. It's not that we all don't want to look and feel good, but it's a slippery slope. These are not realistic images by any stretch. The merkin maker was so interesting and it was not what I would expect in that women felt more comfortable wearing them because it was a layer on top of their nudity, like a costume piece. It was a revealing process to representing women's bodies on screen. The movie magic is fascinating to me. 

You film makes the point that more power for women, people of color, and queer and trans talent in front of and behind the camera can change representation. How can we as viewers change our habits to improve things? 

The film is really showing audiences that you can know more about the films that you consume, like you would an ingredients list. What went into this? If you can't figure out if an intimacy coordinator was used, for example, then who made the film? Who directed it, who lensed it, who wrote it? What perspective are they coming from? I think more attention will be paid to that in the future. Audiences can also just support women-made content. I remember before the pandemic I tried to see only films made by women at the movie theater, and it was really hard. I ran out of films! Voting with your pocketbook to supporting these projects so they can stay in theaters and on TV. That is important, and I love all these efforts happening now to advance female critics and the role they play in swaying opinion and giving films the ability to have more weeks at the box office. Those aspects are really important for general audiences to consider and take part in.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Body Parts Kristy Guevara-flanagan Movies Nudity Tribeca Film Festival Women