The Nude Vs. Naked: Looking at the Female Form in Brian DePalma’s Shower Scenes

At the beginning of Kenneth Clark’s seminal art text he defines the idea of the nude in art compared to the imperfect idea of naked. “It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model that the students are industriously drawing will know this is an illusion.” (5) Beyond art schools, the difference between the concept of naked and nude can be seen many times in film. Because of the use of lighting, cinematography, editing, and various cinematic techniques the body is always seen in its perfect form, what Clark would call “nude”. The perfect nude and its imperfect counterpoint naked are used together in two of director Brian DePalma’s films. In “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill” shower scenes are used at the beginning of the film to juxtapose the difference between the nude and naked. These shower scenes use traditional standards of beauty and rely on what society has decided is the most appropriate and beautiful female body. In the theater the viewer is in the same position as museum goers. DePalma’s female frames the female nude the way traditional art frames the female nude.

Both films feature the nudity of their female leads in the first frame that is placed on screen. By beginning each film with female nudity the director (DePalma) uses the filmgoers discourse with cinematic nudity to titillate and thrill the audience. Although the film going public is both male and female, the male gaze is where the power lies within these opening scenes. The discourse involved is described by Stuart Hall as “how human beings understand themselves in our culture and how our knowledge about ‘the social’, the embodied individual and shared meanings comes to be produced in different periods.” (43) Although an audience is not homogenous, the public discourse is categorically male. By framing the scenes from the outside looking in, DePalma assumes that the gaze is male because he is a male. Like most male creators of art, DePalma assumes the role of authority and presents his cinematic nudity as the standard. A heterosexual male is engaging with the film and the nudity by looking at it through the discourse of being male and having his values and gaze approved. The heterosexual female watching the film will engage with the nudity by looking at the ideal female form and looking for connection or critique to themselves. In both cases, the audience is looking at the film and engaging with the nudity in a way that is analogous to their life.

In both “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill” DePalma opens the films with shower scenes that are filmed in gauzy focus with classical sensuous music. The scenes glide along the bodies of idealized female forms. In “Dressed to Kill” Angie Dickinson is seen as an idealized form of a mature woman. In “Carrie”, the shower scene is filled with teenagers washing up after a gym class. Both scenes feature different ages of women, but they are still very similar. They are white, thin, and classically beautiful. In both films shower scenes the idealized figure of the female artistic nude. “The categories ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ are not innate and do not have an intrinsic meanings; rather, they are socially constituted, along with definitions of perfection and beauty. Social and cultural representations are central in forming these definitions and in giving meaning to the configurations of the body.” (Nead, 10) In classical art, the female nude typically conforms to what is deemed attractive in the time period that the art is produced. Beauty changes through time. In both of these films, the female bodies that are being filmed are sexually appealing and conform to the standards of beauty of the late 20th century. The female bodies in close-up are firm and thin with large breasts and small hips. This is the common standard of beauty. DePalma uses what the consensus (audience) believes to be beautiful and illuminates the standards of beauty in the culture through the nudity displayed in the shower scenes.

In both of these scenes the women are filmed in a way that makes them traditionally attractive and sexually arousing. The use of score, cinematography, and steadicam camera work to create a situation where the viewer is actively gazing at the female nude. “In ‘Carrie’, when DePalma took us into the girls’ locker room we were (deliberately) put in the position of a male voyeur, and what we saw was a boy’s leering fantasy.” (Kael, 306) In this way, DePalma is part of a traditional view of the female nude. By creating a gaze that is inherently male, DePalma is filming his nude females in the classical tradition common in art. The females are made to be looked at in these opening scenes. The viewer is on the outside of the scene watching a group of females (“Carrie”) and a single nude (“Dressed to Kill”) in a position of power. The viewer is made to look at the nudes on display through a heterosexual male lens. The power of female nudity is that it is in display in such a way that viewers are thrust in a male heterosexual position. When the female body is on display in a museum as a classical sculpture or painting, the viewer is in the position of looking at the nude from a male perspective. In the DePalma shower scenes the viewer is placed in the same position as the museum patron. All the viewers are made to feel heterosexual and male because of the females on display.

The bodies are seen as perfect and beautiful and should be appreciated. The gaze looking at the film looks at the nudes in a critical eye. “We cannot discuss the nude without considering its practical application, because every time we criticize a figure, saying that a neck is too long, hips are too wide or breasts too small, we are admitting, in quite concrete terms, the existence of ideal beauty.” (Clark, 13) The gaze onto the nude females in DePalma’s shower scenes is a heterosexual male one. Because of the maleness and sexuality of the gaze, two issues come into play. The first is that the female looking at the cinematic images becomes critical of her own body because of the discourse involved in looking at idealized female forms that are being displayed by the male artist. The second is that a gaze that is firmly heterosexual begins to separate the viewer who is not heterosexual. Looking at this nudity creates a separation of the various viewers. DePalma, like Clark, looks at the artistic image of the nude as a heterosexual and male view. In both films, “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill”, the image of the nude is idealized and the gaze is the most important. The women’s faces are mostly obscured and their bodies are the important. These nude film figures are non-essential to what we are seeing. The women are just something to look at. Like Clark states when discussing the importance of the artist and unimportance of the subject. “In the history of art, the subjects that men have chosen as nuclei, of their sense of order have often been in themselves unimportant.” (8) The women in the scenes are secondary to the importance of the male gaze in creating the image.

The male gaze attached to the camera looks at the bodies as sexual beings and sexualizes the personal ritual of shower. Looking at these scenes within the realm of art, the nudity on display falls into the line of art criticism and history as a whole. “In the discursive formation of the female nude, art criticism functions as an important site for the production of meanings and values. In the main it has worked to legitimize patriarchal views of femininity whilst claiming set apart from the daily political concerns of society.” (Nead, 55) In “Dressed to Kill”, the female nude is alone in a shower and framed in a traditional style. The nude body is in the center of the frame and is enrobed in hot water steam and framed within the shot by a glass shower door. Because the films are genre thrillers, the content is out of the realm of the political with no larger statement being made. But, female nudity is in itself political. Because women are typically the “subject” as defined by Lynda Nead, their nudity and vulnerability is already in a political position because of the patriarchal power structure. Whenever a female nude is displayed there is a political meaning. Unlike Kenneth Clark’s idea that “there are thousands of nudes in European art that express no idea except the painter’s striving for formal perfection.” (350) But, by being male, white, and heterosexual the art cannot be in a vacuum. The art holds the ideals and powers of the society they are a part of. In both “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill” the women are being displayed by a heterosexual male power paradigm. By framing the female nudes in the center of the frame and in the most body flattering style, Brian DePalma is making a statement about what is acceptable and beautiful in the female form. He is creating a nude in the artistic sense.

The shower scenes in “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill” both end with the nude being disturbed and becoming “naked”. Naked, as defined by Clark, is the unattractive and unflattering form that occurs in the real world. Nudes are perfect specimens of their time while naked is the reality of the human condition. In DePalma’s shower scenes, nakedness barges in and looks in discomfort at the realness of the female body. The shower scene in “Dressed to Kill” ends with Angie Dickinson’s character being interrupted by her husband as she is masturbating. The masturbation and clothed husband change the composition of the beautiful nude. The female perfection on display alone and uninterrupted is intruded upon by a clothed male and sexual behavior. The female nude is sullied by the intrusion of reality. She is no longer a “nude” but she is “naked”. By masturbating, the female becomes part of normal society and no longer a nude to be ogled, but a naked person with imperfections and foibles. “In the 19th century sexuality took its place as the key component of individual identity, that it became the key to individuality, the essential core of human character and behavior. Within respectable ideologies, sex and sexuality were annexed to the private sphere; they belonged to the world of personal values and were to be hidden from the promiscuous specular regime of the public.” (Nead, 99) By having his camera capture a more mundane and private matter he shatters the illusion of the ideal perfection of the nude and makes his subject completely “normal” and imperfect.

In “Carrie”, the shower scene ends on a more private and feminine note. The main character, played by Sissy Spacek, begins the process of menstruation in the shower. The music abruptly stops and the character is huddled and cowered as other females jeer at her. DePalma’s male gaze makes the idea of menstruation one of fear and disgust. The gaze becomes more condemning and looks upon the main character as both disgusting and pitiable. The idea of menstruation appears to disgust the director and in turn is to be disgusted by the viewer. “The historical repugnance to women has a rational basis: disgust is reason’s proper response to the grossness of procreative nature.” (Paglia, 12) DePalma looks up the character as impure. She has started her period. By partaking in this personal and natural part of female life, she has sullied the beauty of the nude. The nude is an asexual creation of beauty by the artist. By having the character start her period, DePalma makes her human and therefore naked.

In both films, DePalma places the viewer in the position of objectifying the nudes while looking at nakedness as well. The nakedness shows the female form in a more “real” view. But, by showing the perfect form at the beginning of the shower scenes Brian DePalma appears to separate perfection from reality. By delineating the difference between “nude” (perfection and asexuality) and “naked” (imperfect and sexual) DePalma gives the viewer two views of female bodies and places them as two ideas about the feminine. The viewer must then look at both views of the female form and must determine what part of the female is real. There is a true difference between naked and nude. “In part, we give objects, people, and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which we bring to them. In part, we give things meaning by how we use them, or integrate them into our everyday practices.” (Hall, 3) By showing idealized nudity and the nudity that most experience daily, DePalma differentiates between nude and naked. He makes sure to show the viewer both forms of the female and creates a division in the concept of femininity.

Looking at the films “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill”, both directed by Brian DePalma the viewer is placed into the male gaze that is standard in the classical Western art forms of sculpture and painting. In both films DePalma appears to shows females as both nude and naked. When the viewer looks at both views of the feminine they are faced with a choice. The women in the film are seen as perfect and admirable and also as “normal”. DePalma forces the viewer to judge females. The viewer sees perfection and reality in both scenes. DePalma looks at both females and sees the nude as something to appreciate and the naked as something to pity. Like most, white heterosexual male artists, the idea of nakedness is one to pity while the nude is on display to appreciate and luxuriate in the ideal of female beauty. The nude is the ideal of art and beauty while the naked is the reality of the female. The artistic world works to frame the nude as the standard bearer of femininity. But, in reality, the naked is the true female. She masturbates and menstruates. She is the true form of the female. The naked female is what artists like DePalma ignore. But, without the imperfect female there is no model or subject. The nude needs the naked to create the art that viewers gaze on and artists create.


Carrie. Dir. DePalma, Brian Perf. Irving, Amy, Spacek, Sissy et al. DVD. MGM, 2001.

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1956. Print.

DePalma, Brian. “Brian DePalma’s Guilty Pleasures.” Film Comment May 1987: 52-54. Print.

Dressed to Kill. Dir. DePalma, Brian. Perf. Caine, Michael, Dickinson, Angie et al. DVD. MGM, 2001.

Edwards, Kim. “Get Away from Me, You Bitch.” Screen Education 41 (2006): 92-96. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London, England: Sage Publications, 1997. 13-75. Print.

Kael, Pauline. Taking it all in. New York, NY: Marion Boyers Publishing, 1986. Print.

Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. London, England: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

Shor, Francis. “Father Knows Best: Patriarchal Rage and the Horror of Personality Film.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 3.3 (1995): 60-73. Print.


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