A few years back, Miles Teller and Justin Chon were interviewed about their party comedy, 21 & Over. While talking about the film’s R rating, Teller said, “I remember saying there is a lot of male almost-nudity ... why don’t we balance it out with the females because I think that would be nice for the young male audience.” The interviewer responded, pointing out “people laugh at male nudity.” Chon: “That’s why all of us are naked in the film. [Laughs.]”
The exchange perfectly captures the commonly held belief: Female nudity is sexual; male nudity is funny. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which opened well this past weekend, successfully subverts that supposed comedic truism by creating instances of female nudity that trade in taboo and shock, not eroticism. It serves a purpose typically reserved for male nudity in comedies: to generate laughs.
Ever since Walk Hard (2007), and especially Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), male full-frontal nudity has been a quick way to a big, ballsy laugh. Often using shock, both because male nudity is rarely seen in film and because in comedies it’s often used especially grossly, it increases the stakes of the scene, playing with taboo, discomfort, or grossness. However, though there’s been a noticeable uptick in straight-up dick in comedy, the trope of “male nudity is funny” has been the case for a while. Films that use male nakedness in this way include Borat (2006) and essentially everything Sacha Baron Cohen does, The Jerk (1979), Life of Brian (1979), There’s Something About Mary (1998), American Pie (1999), Old School (2003), Shaolin Soccer (2004), The Simpsons Movie (2007), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), The Hangover (2009), and Popstar (2016), to say nothing of innumerable magazine photo shoots of comedians, such as this one.
Now take American Pie, and compare how Jason Biggs’s body is used versus Shannon Elizabeth’s. Biggs’s butt is shown while fucking a pie; Elizabeth undresses while the entire school watches on a webcam without her knowledge: Guess which is played for laughs? Female nudity has been used as superfluous titillation so often it’s impossible to list. A moment that captures the difference pretty trenchantly, even with just implied nudity (as you don’t see either’s body in full), is the iconic skinny-dipping scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation:
In it, Chevy Chase and Christie Brinkley are doing the same exact activity, swimming naked (with Chase doing it behind his wife’s back). But the director (Harold Ramis) uses Brinkley’s sex appeal as the catalyst for Chase’s awkward reactions, all of which is good for a laugh.
I point to the director there, because he or she decides how to establish a scene, in terms of both visual and contextual framing. Mike and Dave is Jake Szymanski’s first feature, but he excels in that regard. There are three scenes prominently featuring female nudity, in each presented not for sexual but comedic purposes.
The first example comes when Mike (Adam Devine) walks into a steam room to see his wedding date Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) dispassionately fingering his lesbian cousin/rival Terry (Alice Wetterlund). Tatiana is participating joylessly, having agreed to do it in exchange for Rihanna tickets. Mike doesn’t know this; he also doesn’t care about the motive, and he and Terry get into a fight. Though there was no nudity during the sex act, as both women are covered by towels, their bodies are revealed during the fight scene. While kicking his ass, Terry gets Mike in a headlock. Cut to Mike’s face pressed up against his cousin’s boob. He screams in horror; the audience laughs at the shock of seeing a man up against his relative’s naked body part.
Later in the movie, Alice (Anna Kendrick), who is Dave (Zac Efron)’s date, convinces Mike and Dave’s sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard), who is having second thoughts about getting married, to do ecstasy. They end up freeing horses from a stable. Dave, who is trying to look for them, walks by the stables to find Alice and Jeanie are naked. Szymanski establishes that we are seeing things from Dave’s point of view with a shot of Jeanie, full-frontal naked. This moment got the biggest laugh of the movie, playing identically to how I remembered Jason Segel’s full-frontal scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall being received. By having it be through a sibling’s eyes, Szymanski removed any potential for sexiness and allowed it to serve as straight-up shock comedy. (Part of the joke of the scene is how big Jeanie’s bush is. Big-bush jokes have existed before in movies—Scary Movie comes to mind—but MDNWD steps it up by having it attach to a real person.)
The last example most literally treats female nudity like male nudity. At the end of the movie, we hear Mike say he didn’t know he could have sex in this position. The position is then revealed to be him up on a table, with Tatiana standing against him, thrusting. She is the aggressor. It’s neither a sweet nor sexy scene; it’s a sex scene shot for laughs, as with the one in, for example, Team America. The joke is in the flipping of gender norms, and heightened by the unlikely physics of the position. Szymanski presents Tatiana’s butt, in similar fashion to MacGruber’s insane sex scene, with its hilariously exaggerated thrusts.
There is only one truly sexualized naked body in the movie, and it belongs to comedian Kumail Nanjiani. He is given money by Alice to give Jeanie a special massage and, boy, does he, but not before rubbing so much oil over all his body. Though the massage scene is meant to be funny, Nanjiani is clearly meant to be sexy, as he brings Jeanie to orgasm—without, as he specifies on multiple occasions, penetration.
I don’t want to make too much of this: A couple of desexualized female nude scenes and Kumail Nanjiani’s oiled butt does not equality make. But Szymanski does prove the truism about how nudity must be used in comedies to be false. Nudity is sexual; nudity is funny. It depends on the context, not the gender.