If War was Good for Absolutely Nothin', as Edwin Starr sang in 1969, today one has to admit that the female mammary glands are good for absolutely everythin'. From selling concerts tickets to launching human rights campaigns, the boob has never been so present, powerful, pregnant and perky in our society. For better of for worse, 2013 will be remembered as the Year of The Boobs.
The Oscar for best body part was celebrated by Seth Macfarlane in his now famous We Saw your Boobs ballad, in which he gave us a full source book for a little sight of our favorite actresses' cleavage, in full frontal view. In case you forgot the lyrics, let me summarize that Jennifer Lawrence has yet to show hers in a movie; as for Kate Winslet, she's made a generous use of her upstairs assets.
The little swing-y song was meant to be funny. It made humor-less feminists cringe, actresses fake cringe, with fake horrified, pre-taped shots of their mortified faces rather than boobs. And it probably generated thousands of Google searches with key words such as Mulholland Boobs.
So what's the big deal? When I was growing up in France, I was totally accustomed to seeing boobs everywhere. You might say that French are pervs, and you might be right. In my country, women show their breasts on the beach, on billboards, in movies, in TV series, in commercials, with no restrain. It is understood that the boob is made to sell, and no one is prudish about it. My favorite boob perk was the commercial for a fruit juice brand named Joker. The slogan: The Naked Fruit. The advert: a naked girl drinking fruit juice. Simple, straightforward, efficient.
In the U.S., the relationship to boobs is more of a peep tale. The breast tissue can be shown, the cleavage can be deep, the side of the breast can be revealed and shown fairly freely. But the nipple is a big shocker. It retains this magical, powerful peekaboo effect.
Ursula Ofman, Psy. D. clinical psychologist from New York, explains that humans are hard-wired to seek and react to this fundamental body part that we all depend upon for our survival.
Of course, the boob is much more that the sum of its parts.
During the Superbowl half-time show in 2004, America reaffirmed its reprobation of the nipple flashing. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake sang a duet. As the song reached the final line, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song," Timberlake pulled off a part of Jackson's costume, revealing her outer right breast, the breast ornamented with a sun-shaped nipple ring. Janet Jackson's incident was qualified a wardrobe malfunction. It allegedly had the potential to traumatize children and grown-ups alike for a split-second sight of the nipple. It was deemed indecent.
Yet, Lady B, Beyoncé herself, launched her 2013 The Mrs. Carter Show world tour with a striking wardrobe, a highly-functioning wardrobe. At her opening concert, in Belgrade, Serbia, Beyoncé wore a gold corset with fake breasts and nipples, with realistic looking appendixes the size of cherries, or maybe simply the size of Beyoncé's own. The provocative outfit was designed by The Blonds, the brothers' duet Phillipe and David Blond, and leads one to wonder why the fake nipples are acceptable while the real ones are persona non grata, subject to fine when shown on TV.
Actually, what makes the difference is the intent. New York, for example, reaffirmed a law that clearly enunciates that women are allowed to show their naked upper torso anywhere it is acceptable for men to do so. In the street, on a bike, in a park, on the beach -- the breast has right of way. At least in law books. Holly Van Voast, aka Harvey Van Toast, a 46-year-old performance artist, has been arrested and charged numerous times by the NYPD for exercising her right to be topless in the streets of New York.
That prompted the NYPD to issue a memo to all 34,000 officers that if they encounter a woman showing her breasts, they are not to arrest her. For "simply exposing their breasts in public," women are committing no crime.
From artistic expression to political activism, there is only one leap that the perky breast jumped first. In Ukraine, when the feminist group Femen decided in 2008, to use the female torso as a manifesto for expression. The Femens are known for their commando actions where a group of usually young and good-looking women show their message-laden torsos in front of a person or institution they wish to condemn. Their broad goal: "fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations -- sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion." So what's challenging about Femen? The message, or the medium? The activist group appeared in front of an appreciative Vladimir Putin who, well, did not seem to mind their graceful presence.
Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman belonging to the organization, posted photos of herself half-naked with a message written across her bare breasts reading "My body is my own" on the Tunisian chapter of the website. The photos caused uproar with religious extremists, but also with Tunisian feminists who feared that this mode of expression was unnecessary and harmful provocation. Amina was later charged with carrying an incendiary object. The said incendiary object referred to a can of pepper spray she carried in the street for her own protection, and not to any of her body parts.
The breasts are a tool to sell, activate, galvanize, excite, protest, express ideas, and even milk.
So what's the difference between a Femen activist, a model disrobing to sell fruit juice, Beyoncé, an actress showing her boobs on screen and a stripper? The intent to indulge in lewdness. And lewdness is in the eye (or in the boob) of the beholder.