Question: What is the legal penalty and fine for a woman walking topless on the streets of New York City?
a) 3 days in jail and $1,000
b) 1 days in jail and $5,000
c) 5 days in jail and $1,500
Answer: It’s a trick question, because, according to statute 245.01 per the Appeals Court of The State/City of New York, it is completely legal for a woman or a man to opt not to wear a shirt (or bra) in public. Of course, a man wearing a bra will get more stares than a woman wearing a bra (thank you, Madonna) and a woman going bare-breasted will draw more stares than a man doing the same, but why? Why is a woman’s nipple so controversial? I decided to tackle this subject with my new film —Free the Nipple.
Is it simply a matter of societal taboos, which is to say, a matter of social conditioning? Or are there perhaps intrinsic biological factors, some deep DNA override to why we are so programmed to stare at a woman’s nipples? For the record, today in the USA it is ILLEGAL, a CRIMINAL ACT for a woman to be publicly topless in 37 states, and yes, that even includes breastfeeding in five of those states. Thankfully our country has a very long tradition of amending draconian laws when they no longer serve our modern times. Is it possible with some cultural engineering, a little “societal enlightenment” we could influence legislation and the shock-and-shame reaction that one topless character in my film addresses with the rallying cry: “Don’t subject me to your shame, about my body!”
Freeing The Nipple aside, the film focuses on the hypocritical contradictions in our media-dominated society wherein acts of baroque violence, killing, brutalization and death are infinitely more tolerated by the FCC and the MPAA, who regulate all films and TV shows in the US. Did you know an American child sees over 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV before they turn 18 and not one nipple? Yet the FCC fines CBS $550,000 for Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction; which was covered by a metal “nipple shield” if one looks at the footage. And the mere suggestion of a single lovemaking act with Evan Rachel Wood and Shia LaBeouf in the recently-released Charlie Countryman sends the MPAA into a frenzy, while simultaneously forcing Martin Scorsese to re-cut sex scenes and nudity in his soon to be released The Wolf of Wall Street.
My own film, 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!
How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Just Go Topless
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.
On formal terms, you could say Free The Nipple is a macro-micro story of personal discovery and societal liberation. For me, the making of this film was also a liberating experience; like “With”, the symbolically-named character I portray, the act of being topless in public, is, as my character says: “right up there with being buried alive.”
And so (SPOILER ALERT) when my character runs topless through Times Square, it’s really me confronting my own deepest social fears, in an act of self-confrontation which I believed to be essential, both for my personal evolution, and by way of understanding viscerally, the taboo-tyrannized dynamic I was trying to change. And what better place to raise a flag for personal liberty than Times Square, the crossroads of the world? Like the coming together of different tribes during the making of Free The Nipple, it was a personal victory I’ll never forget.
Of course, these fleeting victories we enjoyed during filming were only the first of our battles. Waging a cultural war via celluloid — I mean digital — after completing my first cut of the film, we encountered a serious reality check: Our lawyers informed us that unless we cut our film the MPAA was going to give us an NC-17 rating (AKA The kiss of death) from the Motion Picture Association of America, who don’t seem to have come very far from the Hays Code (historical comparisons can be drawn between GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Charlie Countryman).
This makes me wonder: is violence encouraged and/or tolerated by the FCC and the MPAA because it instills in us a militaristic mindset? Maybe that’s a ridiculous question, but what exactly is the MPAA’s rationale? That is one of the central questions I am still trying to answer even after shooting Free the Nipple. Whatever the case, after all my research and journey into the “censored heart” America’s darkness, one thing is for sure, it is now time to update these codes and the MPAA’s backwards ratings system.
And it’s also very important to note that Puritanical dicta aren’t exclusive to film industry regulators. When I started my online campaign, Facebook and Instagram banned the photos of topless women that were taken on location, faster than we could put them up. Why can you show public beheadings from Saudi Arabia on Facebook, but not a nipple? Why can you sell guns on Instagram, but yet they will suspend your account for posting the most natural part of a woman’s body? As President Eisenhower said, in the era of McCarthy: “The most dangerous weapons of any Tyrant, are not weapons and guns, but censorship.”
My life’s dream is that this movie will make it to theaters, and help change the ridiculous censorship laws in this country by inspiring federal laws to de-criminalize the female body. I would love your help to free our country from tyrants that throw women in prison for the most basic human right, to be topless on a beach or feed your child without the police arresting you or your wife.
Free The Nipple attracted an amazing cast of actors who are also all hardcore activists in real life. Monique Coleman, who played Taylor McKessie in High School Musical 1, 2 and 3 was one of the first to come on board. Stand up comic and actress Janeane Garofalo from Saturday Night Live, The Larry Sanders Show, and such movies as Ratatouille, Half Baked and Reality Bites joined the revolution soon thereafter. Activist and actress Casey LaBow from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One and Two, and newcomer Lola Kirke, who is starring in David Fincher’s next film Gone Girl, were recruited to be the other fearless leaders of the revolution.
To bypass the MPAA’s rating system, I’ve teamed up with a crowdfunding company as a next level marketing and distribution platform to reach the audience directly. I want people to see the film I intended to make not some Puritanical version that the MPAA feels is appropriate for American audiences. It’s hard enough getting a film made in this world, without being censored in a country that ironically prides itself on freedom.
If you’d like to take a stand against censorship, you can learn more about the production and join the Free the Nipple team here