Werewolf Striptease

Humans distinguish themselves from animals in part by their wearing of clothes. ‘From this perspective’, writes Mario Perniola, ‘nudity is a negative state, a privation, loss, dispossession’ [1]. A particular perception that nakedness is primitive was established during early encounters with indigenous cultures and during slave trade. As Ruth Barcan observes, ‘the opposition between nakedness and clothing lies at the heart of unconscious assumptions about what is most essentially human’ [2].

Denuding is, therefore, one way to imply a descent into savagery; a return to a primal, animal nature. This descent is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the transformation of humans into monsters. Christian Pyle proposes the transformation of the comic book superhero, She-Hulk, is ‘an atypical striptease’ which transforms Jennifer Walters into ‘the savage She-Hulk’ [3]. The Hulk and his female counterpart are superheroes who, when affected by extremes of emotion, particularly anger, physically transform into monstrous green giant. This transformation, in which the characters’ muscles swell to monstrous proportions, rips their clothes from the characters’ bodies. For fantasy creatures such as this, clothing operates ‘as a clearly demarked boundary between the self and the Other’ [4]. The loss of clothes is an explicit indicator of descent into monstrous savagery. The civilized human identity is lost to the primal, animal identity, and during this descent vestiges of civility and advancement are destroyed.

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This transformation, as depicted in literature, comics, film and TV, is also an opportunity to expose the body to a lustful adolescent audience. Recent science-fiction and fantasy tales have found countless excuses to expose the bodies of their male heroes, particularly those who are subject to transformation between human and non-human identities. Recent sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy have exploited denuding to such an extent that it has become a defining feature. Promotional materials for MTV’s Teen Wolf (2011-) unashamedly permit voyeurism in their teenage audience, with images depicting a naked torso beneath ripped shirt: an image that has come to signify a recent transition from man to beast, and vice versa. For the comic book character, the Hulk (and his screen incarnations), and werewolves ranging from Buffy’s Oz to Being Human’s George Sands and Twilight’s Jacob, violent metamorphosis from human to other involves such extreme physical transformation that their clothing does not survive the change, and is typically shredded or cast off.

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Philippa Levine also observes, however, a trend for depicting nakedness as ‘helplessness’, and the vulnerability of the female nude has influenced depictions of all forms of nakedness. She identifies a trend in the late colonial period for depicting ‘the naked savage not only with defenselessness, but with childlike qualities’ [5]. Some contemporary depictions of denuding have explored the convergence of these two different connotations of nudity, and have stumbled upon contexts in which savage otherness and childlike vulnerability meet. Curiously, some of the most compelling examples of this convergence can be found in contemporary fantasy tales of monsters and werewolves.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Being Human (2008-2013), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and the Twilight saga (Katherine Hardwicke, 2008, David Slade, 2010, and Bill Condon, 2011-2012) all present the werewolf as cursed. These werewolves the reluctant victims of their conditions, and so do not voluntary sacrifice their human form for that of an animal. It follows that their undressing is also unwanted – an unfortunate side effect of their condition – and thus these narratives avoid positioning the character as willingly eroticized.

It is worth noting that both Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and Twilight are intended for teenage audiences. Bridie Connellan explores such teenage idols through the female adolescent gaze, observing that ‘these teen male figures of spectatorship are never actually meant to be touched and thus remain “safe” objects for young girls to gaze upon’ [6]. Despite the physical danger that may be posed by their monstrous wolf identities, the characters remain sexually passive. That their denuding is involuntary protects viewers from what may otherwise be perceived as a predatory striptease. They do not knowingly or willingly present themselves as sexually desirous, and yet still invite the female gaze.

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Nudity thus reinforces the vulnerability of man, in contrast to beast. The characters are particularly shy when they transform back into human form. For Buffy’s Oz, and the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012), the human alter-ago is often modest: the polar opposite of his beastly counterpart. Buffy’s Oz is depicted as embarrassed by his nudity whenever he wakes, and hangs a towel to preserve his modesty [7]. In The Avengers, Bruce Banner loses his clothes in his transformation from human to beast, and so when he reverts to his human form he is left without protection from cold or the prying eyes of curious onlookers. He is forced to hide, or make do with borrowed or stolen coverings. These characters’ modesty further reinforces the message that their undressing is neither voluntary nor predatory.

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The vulnerability of the naked body, in contrast to the strength and aggression of the monstrous alter-ego is continually emphasized throughout TV and film depictions of werewolves. The werewolf’s body is denuded through transformation that, like Kirk’s ripped tunic, signifies descent into animalistic savagery, and yet simultaneously, like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, emphasizes the vulnerability of denuded human. In promotional imagery for the US remake of Being Human (2011-), werewolf Josh Levison (played by Sam Huntington) wakes naked, next to the deer that he has slaughtered as a wolf. The bloodstains on his naked body, and the similarity between his state and the dead deer that lies beside him, suggest that he is both perpetrator and victim of violence. While naked, he is both savage and vulnerable.

References:
[1] Perniola, Mario (1989), ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, in M. Feher (ed), Fragments of the Human Body: Part two, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 237.
[2] Barcan, Ruth (2004), Nudity: A Cultural Icon, Oxford: Berg, p. 71.
[3] Pyle, Christian L. (1994), ‘The Superhero Meets the Culture Critic’, Postmodern Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1.
[4] Heaton, S. (2013), ‘Consuming Clothes and Dressing Desire in the Twilight Series’, in D. Mulch (ed.), The Modern Vampire and Human Identity, New York: Palgrave McMillan, p. 84.
[5] Levine, Philippa (2008), ‘States of Undress: Nakedness and the colonial imagination’, Victorian Studies, vol. 50, no. 2, p. 213.
[6] Connellan, Bridie (2009), ‘Consuming ‘Man Candy’: Teen idols and the feminine adolescent gaze’, in N. Lee, C. Henderson (eds) Arna 2009: The Journal of the University of Sydney Arts Students Society, Sydney: Darlington Press, p. 10.
[7] When Buffy is herself transformed to and from a rat in ‘Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered’ (season 2, episode 16), she finds herself returned to her human form, naked and embarrassed in the school basement, and in a rare moment of vulnerability for this otherwise powerful superhero, she is forced to seek help in finding her clothes.

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