What’s So Funny About a Naked Man?

John Cena’s ‘streaker manqué” routine at the Oscars was pretty funny. In an obvious setup, host Jimmy Kimmel asked, “Can you imagine if a nude man ran across the stage today?” upon which a seemingly undressed Mr. Cena popped his head out from behind the curtain to say, “I changed my mind, I don’t want to do the streaker bit.” When Mr. Kimmel reminded him that it was all for comedy, Mr. Cena replied with faux seriousness, “the male body is not a joke.”

But it was a joke. And soon, an entirely naked, and remarkably buff, Mr. Cena came onstage to introduce the Best Costume Design, nervously grasping the sealed Oscar envelope over his genitals, as a makeshift fig leaf. The audience howled as he inched along, hobbling sideways with painstaking little steps — trying to keep his envelope level and his private parts covered. Then, in a bit of television magic, he was draped in a toga-like, one-shouldered robe with a tasseled rope belt. Bit over, crowd delighted, and an obvious point made about the importance of costume.

The routine had deep roots in Academy history, harkening back to a famous episode at the 1974 Oscars, when a streaker interrupted the proceedings (just as the very refined David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor), but its relevance extends into the present day.

Humor happens when recognition meets surprise. We laugh when something routine suddenly transforms into something unexpected. An exactingly chiseled, naked male body onstage is only funny because it is unexpected — because, that is, it does not belong to a woman. Seeing a naked woman on stage at the Oscars could never be funny, simply because it’s the norm to see female bodies in various states of revealing dress on the red carpet, and in movies as well. The humor of Mr. Cena’s performance actually derived from how clearly it mirrored what the women are always doing — right down to the mincing, precarious steps.

We tune into the Oscars to see spectacular women in spectacular gowns. Those gowns are also intricately made framing devices for women’s bodies, which are usually vastly more visible than the men’s. Although there is now far more diversity of style and body type welcomed at these events, most of the fashion still spotlights breasts, buttocks and thighs.

There are oceans of gleaming, bare female flesh. Skirts are slit to the waist, necklines to the navel — sometimes both at the same time. Sometimes dresses are actually transparent. Both Florence Pugh (in a silver Del Core number) and Becky G wore peek-a-boo bustiers that freed the nipple visually. It is not always comfortable to wear such clothes. They require special undergarments, body tape, excellent posture and constant vigilance to avoid what’s come to be called a “wardrobe malfunction.” Women dressed like this are exactly as nervous as Mr. Cena was only pretending to be — and for far longer than the few minutes his gag lasted.

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