The desire to shock is a strange one. As we grow up, it is part of boundary testing, finding one’s identity and values, be it the 6 year old shouting “bum” and “poo” on a crowded bus, or the 13 year old getting a radical hairstyle/piercing/tattoo/t-shirt to court a reaction. By the time we hit adulthood, we shouldn’t necessarily abandon doing shocking things – plenty of shows at the Fringe will do great things by pushing acceptable limits for instance – but we should have at least grown up enough to realise shock needs to carry with it some broader purpose. Are we using it to challenge accepted wisdom? Are we doing it to advocate some radical lifestyle choice? Or are we a bunch of infants running round with our pants off shouting “look at my willy”?
Channel 4 last night turned itself into the latter. Naked Attraction, in case you missed it, was a new dating show, in which a member of the public selects a date from six naked people placed in boxes in front of them. Bit by uncovered bit they are revealed. The first is booted off on the basis of their genitals, the second on their torso, etc. etc. Eventually, the objects are allowed to speak, and a final decision is made.
That this is televisual clickbait is a given. Faced with the insufferable Tom Bradby on News at Ten, or a bunch of exhibitionists solemnly assessing the precise number of pubes they prefer on their lovers, it’s no contest. But equally, a six year old pulling a moonie would distract you from reading the paper.
Channel 4 commissioners no doubt believed they could discern some higher purpose behind the programme to mask this shameless ratings seeking. “It’s contributing to the debate about body image, isn’t it?” “We’re confronting the realities of modern sexuality and dating.” Thus, in the same way that early series of Big Brother tried to dress up the essential “will they shag each other?” narrative with some pseudo-scientific talking heads about the psychological effects of being observed, so Naked Attraction had vague sub-biology lesson doodles about the human body.
Except the programme fulfilled no such higher purpose. Quite the opposite. There is no more backward step in the campaign against body shaming than a programme showing strangers, who have never seen each other’s faces, let alone engaged in conversation, dismiss each other entirely on the shape of their genitals. One curvaceous girl, whose exposed lower half was initially described as “like a Botticelli”, was then dismissed for not being skinny enough around her nether regions. So far, so shallow.
Worse, presenter Anna Richardson encouraged contestants to survey the flesh on display and describe it in the most dehumanising terms possible, like an overly friendly waitress at a particularly disturbing restaurant. “How would you like your pussy, sir?” “Would madam want tits on her sexual object?” “Could you manage the large dick or would you like something smaller?” “I’d recommend the shaved vag, the hairy one’s off today…”
There were hints that programme makers somehow saw this as a progressive way of treating people. Stripped of the obvious markers of wealth, status or lifestyle, people were free to judge people on who they really were – the woman behind the business wear, the man behind the uniform. At least that’s how it was promoted. Yet it never occurred to them that “I don’t like shorts on men” is maybe a less damagingly personal dismissal than “Urgh! Look at the balls on that!”
And if the contestants themselves believed they were striking a blow for liberation, they were equally deluded. “I’d be naked all the time if I could,” said one. Well, good for you. Why not make like the Naked Rambler then? If there’s one person in Britain making a statement about human nudity it’s him; he does it with purpose and clarity, he shows up a particular ridiculousness of society, and he isn’t actively seeking attention, unlike this narcissistic horror show.
Naturally, the Daily Mail wing of the commentariat/twitterati see Naked Attraction as yet another sign of the end times. It isn’t. It’s a bunch of kids playing “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and then running away from the one who hasn’t grown pubes/boobs yet. It’s an utterly dispiriting and dismal exploration of human intolerance and somehow manages to make a show full of naked people less sexually arousing than Songs of Praise.