Virginia Fallon is a Stuff senior writer and columnist.
OPINION: I have to admit that when I saw first saw male nipples had been cancelled I thought it was funny.
Not really funny-funny but a sort of other-funny, an amusement that used to be rooted in anger long before it morphed into cynicism. Nonetheless, I laughed a little at the recent headline.
Women’s nipples have been cancelled for ages, so it’s only fair male mammilla should follow suit. There’s not much difference between the little raised regions of tissue after all, and if one bare chest should be deemed offensive then equality dictates that so should all of them.
Then, dammit, I read the whole story, and it wasn’t any sort of funny at all. Now I’m just back to being angry.
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Auckland artist Oliver Cain’s social media was recently shut down following homophobic complaints about one of his works: a stylised painting of the chest of a man with blue skin and bright pink nipples.
The work was intended for an exhibition as part of Auckland’s Pride festival, though when Omicron saw many of the events cancelled, Cain went ahead with his own show, paying for a few sponsored Instagram posts to advertise it.
Because the exhibition had a light homoerotic theme, Cain chose what he thought was the safest painting to feature online “because I know how some people can be”. They were, and his account was blocked because he’d been posting offensive content.
“Compare that to all the other shirtless people on Facebook and Instagram, and it doesn’t really make sense,” he said.
His first appeal to reinstate his account was denied and a subsequent one ignored, though after Stuff ran a story he’s back up and running.
Until I read about Cain’s experience I foolishly thought the only inoffensive nipples were those belonging to men. Now I realise there’s a caveat: they have to belong to straight men.
Women’s nipples are objectionable regardless of the sexual orientation of their owners, of course. Instagram bans them, and only permitted videos and pictures of breastfeeding in 2014 following pressure from activists. Even in the offline art world, Kiwis have long displayed the same prudish aversion to the tiny little things.
Photographer Mariana Waculicz had a work banned from a 2017 exhibition for depicting a topless woman in a river, and that same year The NZ Woman’s Weekly refused to run a breast cancer awareness advertisement showing Aucklander Anete Smith topless after a mastectomy.
Smith’s reconstructed breasts and nipples were displayed in a gorgeous re-creation of Rubens’ painting Samson and Delilah, something the magazine’s editor said could be deemed inappropriate by readers. Instead, they ran an ad featuring a different woman who did not have nipples after her mastectomy.
It’s probably unsurprising I have a tale about the time a single nipple nearly got me cancelled.
While pregnant, I posed topless in a bath of milk for an exhibition about new and expectant parents, and the resulting image offended some viewers. The gallery owner demanded the picture be removed, the artist fought back, and the work remained displayed next to one of a newborn snuggled against his father’s naked chest. That was 21 years ago: look how far we’ve come.
The issue of cancelling nipples in art is about inequality, deep sexism, and perpetuating shame of our bodies. Gender and sexual orientation should have nothing to do with what makes nipples offensive, if indeed they ever are.
By the way, at that long-ago exhibition my young son stood before my photo and studied it silently for a very long time.
“That’s a pretty picture, Mum,” he said eventually, “I like your smile.”