NAKED IN PUBLIC 3: Free the Nipple Campaign

Similar to the FEMEN activists, the members of the “Free the Nipple” campaign often use their naked torsos as banners. Yet their goals are not nearly as diverse. Nor have they chosen the entire patriarchy as their adversary, but are working on one question: “Why are men allowed to show their naked torsos in public while women are forbidden to do so?” It’s about equal rights or rather equal treatment.

The campaign was launched in the U.S. in 2012. At that time, it was already permitted by law in many states to show oneself bare-chested in public as a woman. However, this had not prevented conservative police officers from repeatedly arresting women who actually did so on the grounds of “causing a public nuisance.”

The initiator of the campaign, Lina Esco, had been working as an actress since 2005. In her script, she picks up an incident from June 1986, when seven young women met for a picnic in Cobbs Hill Park, Rochester, NY, taking off their shirts and exposing their breasts, knowing it was only a matter of time before the police showed up.

“The activists were charged with violating New York state penal law section 245.01, which prohibits exposing ‘the private or intimate parts’ of one’s body. The law went on to spell out a crucial gender distinction: On ‘a female person,’ said ‘parts’ included ‘that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola.'”
Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, the two initiators of the picnic, challenged their convictions in court. They argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment made it unconstitutional for lawmakers to ban women — but not men — from going topless.
The court threw out the women’s convictions, but they did not go as far as Santorelli and Schloss wanted them to.
Instead, the court’s majority sidestepped the constitutional issue with a narrow decision. The court referred to an earlier 1973 decision that said Penal Code section 245.01 should not apply to “noncInstead, a majority of the court sidestepped the constitutional issue with a narrow ruling. The court pointed to previous decision in 1973 that said that section 245.01 of the penal code, should not be applied to “the noncommercial, perhaps accidental, and certainly not lewd, exposure alleged.”

It is rumored that Esco first made a documentary showing herself walking bare-chested through New York City. She then used this documentary for teasers that she posted on social media under the hashtag #freethenipple. But no such documentary exists. The reality was somewhat different.

Lina Esco wrote a screenplay with the working title “Girlrillaz,” about a group of young activists who expose themselves in New York City as a way to demonstrate against unequal treatment. The film tells how, after initial setbacks, they find more and more supporters who take the issue to the public.

In a piece for the Huffpost, Lina Esco recounts,

Free The Nipple (which I directed straight through Hurricane Sandy, unaware of the second, very different “storm of censorship” I would face) is based on the real-life efforts by a group of women who, like Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People”, bravely fought the double-standard body-censor laws in New York which stipulated that only men could be shirtless in public. Their direct actions resulted in the 1992 victory and legalization of public toplessness for women in New York City — and yet the NYPD continued to arrest women anyway! And so, in 2012 I took to the streets with my cast, crew, and armies of topless women in an attempt to end this insane war on women’s boobs. And in a case of life imitating art — or more specifically, I like to think — art catalyzing civil, civic action — the first week we started shooting Free The Nipple, something extraordinary happened: our little independent film exploded into a full-blown “real life” series of direct actions, with topless women, activist groups and graffiti artists invading the streets of New York, waging cultural war for our freedom. It was beyond inspiring to see so many dedicated individuals from so many walks of life, filling in to play their part in a concerted movement.”

The actions were meant to highlight society’s moral double standard that allows men to show their nipples but finds this reprehensible in women, making it impossible for them to breastfeed their babies in public, for example. And while war and crime are on every channel on television, Janet Jackson’s free nipple during the Superbowl was a scandal that occupied the international media for days.

Again and again, the filmmaker intersperses quotes from famous men to give her theses more weight. In addition to John Lennon and Gandhi, she also deliberately uses pornographic lines of argument: “If a country, in general, defines obscenity largely through sexuality instead of through war and killing and hating, what kind of world is that? And from Larry Flynt comes the quote, “I think the real obscenity is educating youth to believe that sex is something evil, ugly and dirty. And yet it is heroic to spill guts and blood in the vilest possible way, in the name of humanity. Ask yourself this: Which is more obscene, sex or war?”

Ultimately, the filmmakers and activists are concerned with raising awareness about the hypersexualization of the public. What does it mean to be a woman in modern society when even young girls are raised to be ashamed of their breasts and to hide them as well as possible?

At first, it looked as if Lina Esco would not find a distributor for her project. That’s why she started posting short clips from her film, showing the different actions, on social media. Thus, even before the film was released in December 2014, Lina Esco received support from numerous celebrities: Throughout 2014, several celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler, Rihanna, and Chrissy Teigen posted photos on social media to show their support for the Escos initiative.

However, although these celebrities used the hashtag or slogan, their criticism was directed primarily at the social media, which also censors any form of the depiction of female nudity, especially nipples, and accordingly deletes posts with such content. This gave the fight against unequal treatment shown in the film another dimension of meaning. It was suddenly also about freedom of the press and censorship.

“We are trying to hack social media. To democratize the Internet. To abolish censorship in this country for good,” Griffin Newman, alias Orson, accordingly declares at one point in the film. This goal seems similarly lofty as the end of the film, which suggests that the Free the Nipple campaign is finding imitators all over the world. Film snippets can be seen with the subtitles: Occupy Wall Street, Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Tunisia, Ukraine. In part, they also show the struggle of law enforcement against the naked women, as in Tunisia or Russia, but also the incredible influx of supporters, as in Finland.

Whether all these images are authentic is impossible to say. But perhaps it doesn’t even matter. The topless protest has reached broad sections of the population, whether through the direct influence of the campaign or because of the social conditions that are bringing about a change in people’s minds.

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