Angela Smith, professor of language and culture, at the University of Sunderland, asks how on earth did nude dating show Naked Attraction make it onto our television screens?

THE naked human body is rarely seen on television, and the rules of British mainstream television continue to prohibit the exhibition of the naked human body before the 9pm watershed. Graphic depictions of nakedness on mainstream TV has been avoided. It shares with the world of art an attitude towards female nudity, particularly upper body, which is not unusual.

However, full frontal male nudity has been the cause of much puritanical shock when it has been shown fleetingly in drama (such as the BBC drama The Singing Detective in 1986), and in reality TV, where it has been accompanied by much pixelation, such as Channel 5’s infamous Naked Jungle in 2000, Naked and Afraid on Discovery Channel in 2013, and in the ongoing series, The Island.

This mirrors the relative invisibility of the male nude in art, which academic Gill Saunders attributes to “the fact that in a patriarchal society men have the power to define, and to define is to control”. In other words, the looked-at-ness of an image, is to construct the nude as being controlled and interpreted by the viewer, falling under the controlling, male gaze that has led to the mainstreaming of pornography that is primarily female.

Only through wider changes in society, where greater gender equality has emerged since the 1970s, can this gaze be shifted away from being purely patriarchal. This is as true for “art” as it is for reality TV.

What makes Naked Attraction such a notable addition to both the genre of dating shows (where its game-show format is surprisingly conservative) and of shows depicting nakedness is that there are lingering shots of both male and female genitalia as talking points in the appraisal process.

Social media and many mainstream newspapers have remarked on this apparent breaking of a final taboo. Stuart Heritage, commenting on the first series in the Guardian, commented that “there is nowhere left for the dating show to go”, and that the “bottom of the barrel has been reached”. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, adopted a sanctimonious attitude masking titillation at the naked bodies on display (the online version of such reports features numerous screengrabs from the show, but with pixelation providing a modesty that the actual show forsakes).

DATING shows on television have increased in number over the last decade. They have, in fact, taken over from the make-over shows that heralded the start of the millennium. Dating programmes on television internationally are dominated by the gameshow format. Indeed, this remains the most common format in the UK context. However, in a crowded schedule of dating shows, it appears that producers are seeking more innovative and shocking ways to attract audiences.

Naked Attraction was launched by Channel 4 in the summer of 2016. With dating shows of various descriptions already cluttering the TV schedules, it would normally have passed unnoticed were it not for the fact the majority of people on screen were completely naked. However, the show is actually more conservative in its editing than the visual transgressions that achieve most attention would imply.

The potential to shock and titillate is ameliorated by the use of surprisingly conservative language to support and hearten the participants, along with a use of the unclothed body initially in the same way as the nude in art. Linguistically, we see direct criticisms avoided, with a formulaic strategy of “it’s not you, it’s me” routinely adopted by all participants. In an example typical of those issued on the show, one heterosexual female participant rejects the male participant on the grounds of his height: “He’s got a really nice penis but, and I didn’t think this would be a big thing for me, I love to wear heels.” In this way, the rejection is couched in a compliment then framed as an issue of the speaker’s preference rather than the rejected person’s deficiencies.

Anna Richardson as host is careful to keep a sense of light-hearted but sincere humour, where mocking is prohibited unless it is self-directed. Aside from the interaction between participants in the studio, this show also strives to normalise certain behaviours or practices through the use of factoids that are inserted into the show to offer pseudo-scientific “educational” graphics about such issues as male hair removal, female attraction to bad boys, and so on. Thus the nudity on screen is actually framed as being scientific and thus clinical in the course of the show.

In this way, Naked Attraction could be seen to have broken one of the last taboos on TV, whilst also offering a more conservative interactional style than the premise would suggest.