Michael and Nudity? Examining Perceptions of Michael, Sexuality, and Exhibitionism

gorman2Yep, it seems just about every celebrity has “gone there” at some point, and Michael-for all his purported shyness-was no exception. When this semi nude photo from a 1987 Greg Gorman shoot surfaced recently, as part of Gorman’s recently opened exhibition in Germany, it caused quite a sensation in the MJ fan community, as well as some very polarizing reactions. Although most fans are always delighted with any images that celebrate Michael’s extraordinary beauty and sensuality, this one struck a bit of interesting discord, from accusations that it was a fake (it isn’t) to the arguments that Michael would never have posed for such a pic. Well, obviously he did, so there goes that argument. As to why it took this many years for the photo to surface, that may be another matter. It’s likely that Michael, who almost always demanded final say on these matters (and was as much of a noted perfectionist when it came to his looks and image as he was in regard to his music) wasn’t happy with the end product, and it may have been for much the same reason that he reportedly didn’t like the Bani shoots for the Invincible album.

Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.
Greg Gorman Posing At The Exhibition Where His Semi-nude of Michael Was Finally Displayed For The World To See.

Although I appreciate Michael’s physique as much as the next female fan, I am not overly fond of this photo, either. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the leg warmers (lol, whose idea were those, anyway!?) but the whole thing just smacks of 80’s cheesiness to me, like the models in those 80’s issues of Playgirl that I used to secretly buy and hide under my bed to keep my grandmother from finding them. Well, it was 1987, after all, and what fashion statement wasn’t complete in those days without leg warmers? However, I agree with the fans who have stated that Michael’s sensual appeal was probably much better captured in photographs such as those shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, Todd Gray, Lynn Goldsmith, and Herb Ritts (responsible for Michael’s smoldering “In The Closet” look). To that list, I think we could also add the sizzling Alan Watson pole shoots from 1999, which (even though fully clothed) were still some of the sexiest shots Michael ever did. Collectively, all of these photos indicate that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier .

Michael's Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that "less" isn't necessarily sexier.
Michael’s Sizzling Vanity Fair photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, proved that “less” isn’t necessarily sexier.

Nevertheless, since Michael did pose (and we can presume willingly) for the Gorman shoot, as well as all the others mentioned here-and did have the audacity to wear those infamous gold pants onstage that left practically nothing to imagination, I think it may be high time to examine what these images and choices can really tell us about Michael-how he viewed himself and his body (both as a work of art and as a sexually deified “object”), his particular brand of exhibitionism (which no performer can exist without to some degree) and to what extent some of these choices may have reflected his own sexual liberation during this time.

There persists an almost puritanical myth about Michael, sex, and how he viewed his body, as well as the idea of being perceived as a sexual “object” (if you will, for lack of a better word). This myth is commonly perpetuated even among some elements of the fan base, which invites a lot of fascinating and seemingly contradictory dualities. While fans may ogle and “aww” over sexy photos of Michael, many will also still insist that he was a puritanical angel, shy to the point of awkwardness over his body, who was often repulsed by the behavior of sex crazed fans. This is an idea that has been reinforced by a well circulated quote from Boteach Schmuley’s book:

“No, that’s crazy, like some of these singers who put bulges in their pants, that’s crazy.  I don’t understand that.  That’s like disgusting to me when they do stuff like that.  That’s embarrassing.  I don’t want nobody to even look at me down….like looking for that.  That would just embarrass me so bad, oh God.”
 
“When I think about it, I would never say this on TV, but if I went on stage thinking about what goes through women’s heads, I would never go out on stage.  If I was suddenly to start thinking about what they were thinking about….sex, or what I look like naked, then, oh God, that would be so embarrassing.  I could never go out.  That’s so horrible.” -Excerpted from The Michael Jackson Tapes. 
This is an interesting quote, partly because (as were all these recorded conversations with Schmuley that eventually made their way into the book) it was a frank and off the cuff, private conversation never intended for public consumption-in other words, this wasn’t the usually very carefully guarded Michael protecting an “image.” But by the same token, his own words here seem to belie many of the choices he willingly made, and certainly the onstage image he consciously presented as a sexualized performer. True, as he states, Michael never resorted to any of those hideous, cheesy tricks like stuffing his pants with socks-well, according to rumor, anyway, there was no need to, as his own assets were said to be quite sufficient in that department (and given the solid consistency of those stories, we have to assume there must be some truth to them).
The Famous Gold Pants Didn't Lie!
The Famous Gold Pants Didn’t Lie!
But I always found Michael’s protestations of total innocence on the matter (especially during the HIStory tour when he was willingly wearing those gold pants every night) a curiously charming-and at times tauntingly cruel-tactic. Sort of like the girl who goes out in a mini skirt, tight sweater and high heels, but then protests, “I don’t like guys drooling over me; I don’t like drawing attention to myself.” You get the picture. Michael was sending us a lot of mixed messages and signals, but to what extent he did so intentionally-and how much may have been mere wishful projection on the part of fans-remains a debatable issue. My personal belief is that Michael was much too smart to not realize exactly what he was doing,  the effect he was having, and why. He had perfected the coy power of creating sexual tension among his fanbase-knowing when to give it, when to draw back, and how to perpetuate the frustrations of an entire generation who were obsessed with the idea of him as some desirable, but utterly unattainable object of lust-and, for that matter, as to just how “unattainable” he really was remains a likewise debatable issue. All male rock and pop stars have their share of “groupie stories”-those rumors, whispers, and urban legends that get passed down, first by word of mouth, and eventually sometimes, even archived on websites where these women often enjoy posting about their conquests-and occasional horror stories-from the “good old days.” Michael has had his share of those stories as well-many of which may be fan fics, but nevertheless, there is a certain consistency to their details that lends, for me, at least, a degree of credibility. If you are curious about that sort of thing, there is a new website, Michael’s Human Nature that has compiled and archived many of these groupie stories and urban legends about Michael. The blog’s author does provide a disclaimer warning that the stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, they are certainly entertaining to read! And while I am not automatically prone to believe every groupie story about Michael that is circulated, I do find that at least a few offer some interesting consistencies in their details (making it at least somewhat plausible that they are all describing the same man in bed, who would have indulged in a fairly consistent pattern of acts with each woman-for example, the tendency to be quite loud and vocal; an apparent attraction for soft masochism; the preference for “doggie style” and an express skill for cunninlingus (a definite plus in the groupie world, where the #1 complaint is usually about selfish male musicians who demand head while giving nothing in return) and a few have offered up some interesting details that have only been confirmed in very recent years since his passing (even though many of these stories have circulated for years) such as the lack of circumcision and the clutter of his Neverland bedroom.
As tantalizingly fun  as the subject may be, however, my intent here isn’t to go off on a tangent about Michael’s offstage conquests, casual or otherwise. However, neither is it a totally irrelevant topic if we’re going to discuss Michael in terms of nudity, sexuality, how he viewed his body, and more importantly, the frustratingly contradictory perceptions he created among fans and critics alike. I don’t have to tell you that few, if any performers, have ever had every nuance of their sexuality scrutinized and psychologized to the degree that Michael Jackson has, nor has any other  performer ever  been pegged so diversely as everything from asexual and virginal (if we believe the popular mainstream media trope) to downright horn dog (according to the stories of some acquaintances), and every stop in between. Do you ever just want to say, “Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up?” Where do we begin to strip away, to deconstruct and reconstruct these myths? And perhaps the bigger question: Do we want to? For those fans who are fiercely protective of their “Michael was a saint” image, these questions remain something of a troubling paradox. Often, unwittingly, they are playing right into the mainstream narrative, which is (I believe) far more malicious in its purpose. Think about who is really most responsible for creating the myths of Michael as an asexual or virginal man-child. It certainly didn’t come from his legion of female fans. It didn’t come from his loyal following among African-Americans. Where does it spring? Not surprisingly, from white male writers who, due to the fact that they have monopolized the entertainment and music media for decades, have pretty much called the shots. In J. Randy Taraborelli’s book The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, Taraborelli helped plant the myth of a performer whose offstage views on girls, sex and romance were oddly at variance with his public image and onstage persona, based largely on an interview he conducted with Michael in August of 1977-a time when Michael was all of nineteen.
“I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy…but I don’t think that about myself. It’s all just fantasy, really. I like to make my fans happy so I might pose or dance in a way that makes them think I’m romantic. But really I guess I’m not that way.”-Excerpted from The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. 
 Michael further cemented this awkward, almost puritanical view of himself when he told Martin Bashir how he had “chickened out” of a romantic encounter with Tatum O’ Neal.  But while these kinds of quotes have often been circulated as “proof” that Michael must have been somehow either extremely backwards and puritanical in regard to sex, or else exhibiting some form of extreme sexual dysfunction, neither takes into account his age at the time of these reported events. For the most part, Michael made many of these statements as a teenager or, as in the case of the Tatum story, when looking back on a teenage event. If we compare those statements to some of the comments he made about girls as an even younger kid (say, about ten or so) a very different picture emerges, of an almost sexually precocious kid who giggled about women’s assets (“look at the hot cakes on her!” he would often joke when a well endowed girl walked past). These stories really do not sound unlike the adult Michael, who according to most friends, was openly flirtatious and usually didn’t miss an opportunity to comment on any t&a that caught his eye.
However, none of this is as totally inconsistent as it might sound. Michael evolved through many different stages in his life, from a cheerful and outgoing kid to a reticent, withdrawn, and seemingly troubled adolescent who became very self-conscious over his own growing body and the sometimes awkward changes that puberty wrought. Later, this extreme self consciousness would be exacerbated by some very real medical conditions, among them vitiligo and discoid lupus. But also, Michael reached a hard won maturity in his life, part of which was learning to accept and love his physical shell, what the poet Walt Whitman called “the body electric.” Whitman’s poem is rather long (as most of his works were) but I will quote here the part of the poem that I feel is most relevant to our discussion:
1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
2
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
 It is certainly interesting to compare this poem to Michael’s own similarly themed poem “I Am Beautiful” which, like Whitman’s poem, can be interpreted to be as much about a newfound sense of liberation and acceptance of his physical body as it is a celebration of spiritual rebirth and awakening:
12178_2
 “I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m Gorgeous
   God is for me, who can be
   against me?
   I’m Beautiful
   I’m a new person now
   Beautiful, knowing the
   secrets and Determined
   with fire to Move Mountains
   in all I do. Molding my own
   world.
   I’m Beautiful.
                                                                                        The old me is behind
                                                                                         I will march ahead anew”-
                                                                                         Michael Jackson.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that this poem was written within just a few years of the Gorman photo shoot, and also coincides with the entire, liberated awakening of self that seemed to permeate so much of his art and performance during that time. And much of this can be tied directly to his severing of ties with his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the gradual embracing of, what was for him, at least, much more liberated and enlightening creeds. For quite some time, the world had been aware that Michael was no longer the cute little boy who sang “ABC.” He had grown into an incredibly hot, sexy and sensual adult. But now, for the first time, he could freely indulge those fantasies without guilt (or at least without the oppressive fear of being defellowshipped).
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation
It Was A Metaphoric Shedding Of His Old Skin; A Newfound Sense of Sexual Liberation

To cut to the chase, I see much of what Michael was doing in this phase as a kind of metaphoric shedding of his old skin. And what better way to accomplish this-what better way to celebrate this newfound sense of self-then by posing nude (or nearly so, as the case may be).

Of course, this calls into question some of Michael’s other sometimes contradictory views and apparent double standards on sexuality and nudity (for example, some of his rather judgmental remarks about LaToya’s spread in Playboy). However, perhaps something to keep in perspective is that, while Michael obviously posed for the shoot, the photo was never made public during his lifetime. There must have been a reason for that, as well. And seeing as how Gorman is a photographer who takes great pride in his collection of celebrity photos that celebrate the male physique (and is now openly exhibiting this photo along with his celebrated semi-nudes of Keenau Reeves and others). I can pretty much guess that the decision to keep it hidden away must have been Michael’s, who probably had second thoughts about letting the photo go public.
However, my guess is that this reticence probably had more to do with dissatisfaction over the photo itself than any prurient reticence about his nudity. After all, we were going to be seeing a lot more of Michael in the very near future-literally, that is. So much so, in fact, that by the time of “You Are Not Alone” even many hardened critics were left blushing in awkward embarrassment. We might say that all of this seemed to stem from what became for Michael, during this era, an increasingly and overtly sexualized aspect of his performance. Whether it was the (for many critics at the time) puzzling mixture of auto eroticism, partial nudity  and violence that dominated the second half of the otherwise family friendly “Black or White” video, or the more romantic and classical eroticism of “You Are Not Alone” to the politically blatant exhibitionism of “They Don’t Care About Us” in which Michael finally allowed the world to see, for the first time, the ravages of vitiligo on his body (in all previous videos, any exposed area of his body had been heavily retouched and makeup used to conceal the splotchy effects of the disease). In each of these videos, his nudity or partial nudity was serving a very different purpose, but the one element in common is that, in each case, it was a purpose directly linked to that particular video’s aesthetic and artistic purpose. However, Michael’s tendency to combine eroticism and violence was certainly not lost on critics at the time, and even today it is an aspect of his art that many scholars, critics, and journalists tend to struggle uncomfortably with when attempting to interpret his work. To attempt to offer any such definitive interpretation would also, I think, be well beyond the scope of a single blog post. But it is certainly a relevant point in any discussion of Michael and nudity.
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity...And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
This Pic Cracked Me Up First Time I Ever Saw It! But On A More Serious Note, It Has Taken Us Nearly Two Hundred Years To Regain Our Comfort With Male Nudity…And For America That Comfort Is Still In Its Infancy
It may also be prurient to note that it was only with the ushering in of the Victorian era that male nudity became associated with feelings of repulsion and shame, or the with the sexist (and homophobic) view that only a female body was worthy of such adulation.  If we go back to the age of classical art in Greece or Rome, or to the art of the Renaissance, we see that the male body was often celebrated and glorified in art. But the Victorian era pretty much repressed any expression of sexuality at all, and by the time we emerged from that oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, homophobia had tainted the modern view of male sexuality. The pornography industry would become booming business, but it was a business that catered almost exclusively to the tastes of straight men, with women (straight or gay) and gay men being forced to seek obscure and underground alternatives to satisfy their own tastes.  The 1970’s and 80’s were a time in which both women and gay men began to openly assert their rights to “objectify” the male body in the same way that women’s bodies had been objectified for years. Along with this liberation came a proliferation of male sexuality and nudity, expressed both in the porn industry and in the arts, that had not been seen openly since the Renaissance days. In music, we saw the most blatant exploitation of this on MTV, which due to its visual appeal (at that time a novelty for the music industry) gave rise to a whole, new generation of objectified male sex symbols. This would include just about every hair metal band of the day, all of which routinely featured very pretty young males in heavy makeup who (as per the popular joke of the time, “all looked more like chicks than the groupies who pursued them”) and tight spandex pants intended to emphasize their (usually stuffed) bulging crotches. But it would also include the rise of “beefcake” performers like Bruce Springsteen (yes, he had been around for years, but had we ever really noticed just how tight his buns were in those jeans before the “Dancing in the Dark” video?). And to this category I would also add John Cougar Mellencamp’s blatantly sexualized solo dance in “Crumbling Down.”

Then there were the blatantly gender defying performers like Culture Club’s Boy George, and highly sexualized, “exotic” performers like Prince who would push those boundaries of male sexuality to their absolute limit.
And into this mix we have Michael Jackson, whom we had all watched grow up, but was now faced with the artistic dilemma of how to reinvent himself for this new, visual-oriented medium in which, male or female, sex appeal was the obvious driving factor.
Going back to the 1977 quote Michael reportedly said to Tarroborelli, I think Taraborelli may have have, indeed, missed a very important element of that quote in his rush to use it as some sort of proof that Michael had no interest in sex beyond the fantasy element of titillating his fans. “I think it’s fun that girls think I’m sexy” he had said, before adding that there was also a strong fantasy element to what he was doing-a fantasy element that he was fully willing to exploit. Even at nineteen, this does not sound like the words of a young man repulsed by being found sexy (at all!) but, rather, as one who found an element of thrill in it (even if it didn’t necessarily lead to any kind of consummation in the literal sense). Indeed, at the root of exhibitionism is the excitement and power one feels knowing that total strangers are being aroused by you. The word itself is a misunderstood term, often crudely defined merely as the act of exposing one’s genitals publicly for a sexual thrill. But in reality it is a much more complex term that encompasses many levels of both voyeurism and auto erotic fixation. It is a phenomenon known to many women and men in adult entertainment, who say it’s more than just the money that compels them to do what they do. It is also the empowerment and erotic thrill that comes with knowing they are being lusted after. And indeed, it is at the very heart of why sex has always been (and remains) at the forefront of many performers’ popular appeal-and why most of them so willingly exploit it.yana girl
So was Michael really the blushing man-child, shy to the point of awkwardness about his body? Different stories seem to both confirm and belie this myth. But as so many have pointed out, Michael did transform completely when onstage or in front of a camera. As Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, who witnessed his sizzling 2007 Ebony shoot, so aptly pointed out in their book Remember The Time,  he instantly transformed into “King of Pop mode” in front of a camera. And along with that transformation seemed to come an uncanny knack for turning on the “It” factor.
But this was the mature MJ who had presumably shed most of his youthful awkwardness and shyness. Supposedly.
However, an early story from photographer Lynn Goldsmith indicates that even at a very young age, Michael had no shyness about undressing for the camera (and, indeed, the youthful rooftop photos that resulted from that session are among some of his most sensual from this era). The emphasis in the below quote are mine:

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith worked for Michael for 8 years. Of this photoshoot with Michael Lynn says “We were in his hotel and it’s about 7’o clock, and that’s when the sun was setting and I said ‘You know Michael, up on the roof there’s m…agic light’ so he said ‘Magic light!’ so I said ‘Yeah, you wanna go up there?’ so he said ‘Yeah’ so we snuck out and and we went up to the roof and it was something that he did, Michael started taking his clothes off on the roof which I thought I would get into big trouble for, I mean, he didn’t completely undress but even just taking his shirt off, this is not, you know, a body builder and so you never really knew what he was thinking and that made photographing him very exciting, for me.”~Lynn Goldsmith Plum TV Interview. 1981 Boston

Below: Some of the tantalizing photos that came out of Lynn Goldsmith’s rooftop session and Michael’s impromptu “striptease“:

 

goldsmithgoldsmith2goldsmith3

Similar stories have been told by many other photographers who worked with Michael. Taken collectively, these stories do seem to undermine the popular narrative of Michael Jackson as someone who was awkwardly uncomfortable in his skin. Rather, they all point to just the opposite-that here was a young man who was completely comfortable in his skin, who was confident in his sexuality and the objectification of it, and didn’t seem to mind in the least who knew it-or who enjoyed it.

However, it also seems true that certain photographers could bring out this side of him better than others. This may not be surprising. Photography is, after all, a kind of art, and it takes a special kind of artist to really connect with his or her subject. Virtually every one who ever photographed Michael has commented on how photogenic he was, but there were a handful who seemed to really know how to tap into his inner eroticism and bring it to the forefront. And it may not be surprising that most of those photographers have been women or gay men, who seemed most innately able to capture the essence of Michael’s physical appeal.

Although the Gorman photo was never released in Michael’s lifetime, a much more familiar photo from Greg Gorman is the famous “tarantula photo” which features a profile view of Michael with a huge tarantula crawling across his face. He also shot the well known “face behind the lace veil” photo that Michael originally wanted as the cover of the Bad album.

gorman3

 

gorman4

Both photos exhibit a daring avante-garde appeal that was not common in many of the photos taken of Michael during this era, but which he would begin to experiment with much more brazen daring in the coming decades (with sometimes mixed results; while Michael seemed willing to experiment, his conservatism-and/or that of Sony’s- often won out, resulting in many intriguing photo shoots that were ultimately never used).

Alan Watson’s “pole dancer” shots for the Invincible album remain among my favorites, and some of these ultimately did end up being used for the album, though as with many photo shoots, what ended up being used was only a tiny fraction of what was actually shot. This site was one of the first to feature most of the entire photo shoot, and for years, it remained my most popular post (right up there with “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”). But far from simply finding them visually appealing, I’ve often been intrigued at the idea of why Michael did them in the first place, and could there be any symbolic statement to be attached to them?

The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.
The Dance Pole Is Traditionally Associated With Sexual Objectification-But Usually of Women. Here Michael Uses It To Make A Flirty and Empowering Statement For Male Sexuality.

Maybe an artistic statement about where he was at in this point of his life, and how he viewed his body and sex symbol status? This was, after all, the era from about 1999-2001, a time when the tabloids had really jumped on the “Michael Jackson looks like a freak” bandwagon. But as with practically every project from the 90’s and 2000’s, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to present himself in interesting visual ways that defied such easy labels or categorizations. Indeed, the same man who even as a youth had exhibited confidence in what was then a much more traditional brand of sex appeal was also many steps ahead of the game in his maturity, acutely aware that his current sexual appeal was even edgier and treading far more “taboo” or “forbidden” territory, even as he also seemed to willingly embrace the label of becoming the “beast” we had visualized. The rather bizarre dichotomy of this phenomenon (why women continued to swoon over Michael Jackson and why, for many, he became even sexier in maturity, while the media and tabloid press denounced him as a “freak”) is a subject that has been well hashed out, and more thoroughly, by myself and many other writers elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here except to say that it does add an interesting element to the Watson photos and others of this era like them. The dance pole, long the staple of female strippers and aerial performers (and only in more recent times becoming embraced by male strippers as well) has a long and erotic history, mostly for its phallic symbolic representation. Used for years as a symbol of objectifying the female body, it has also taken on a new status in recent times as a great equalizer for the objectivity of male and female sexuality, as well as an empowering symbol for both sexes who desire to exert control over their own objectification (for women, it can be a way of saying, “I enjoy being sexual and am the one in control” while for a man it can be a way of saying, “I am okay with being viewed as an object”-which in itself is also a powerful and liberating statement.

It is also interesting to look at how his depictions of himself, his body, and sexuality evolved in his short films and performances. We all know that the famous “crotch grab” became a well known part of his dance choreography, and the attempts to analyze what it might have possibly symbolized-if anything-could fill volumes. I have my own theories, which have been discussed in past posts, and indeed, just about every MJ critic and scholar has, at some point, added their own variations. Michael himself said it represented nothing more than a visceral reaction to the music (in an explanation reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s protestations that his controversial pelvic gyrations were just an innocent result of the music driving him). But if we go back and watch Elvis’s very blatant 1956 performance of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle show (before the performance was censored) we can see that this is no innocent, “aw shucks” act. Elvis was a smart cookie who knew exactly what he was doing-and the impact it would have.

Michael was essentially doing his own variant of this act, but as I had noted earlier, I think what became increasingly disturbing for many critics at the time was Michael’s apparent growing propensity for blending sexuality/eroticism with violence, largely because for them there was no apparent context in which to ground it. For many, this will instantly bring to mind the controversial Panther Dance sequence of “Black or White.”

It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.
It Was The Blending Of Eroticism and Violence That Many Critics Found Unsettling.

In reading Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson (a book I will be reviewing in its entirety in a few weeks when I have finished it) I did come across this interesting passage, which I had not heard before:

“Landis struggled on the set to contain MJ’s sexual expression. At one point, as Michael reached into his crotch, Landis yelled “Cut!” and told Michael to knock it off-this was a family production. Michael defied the instruction, instead unzipping his fly and reaching his hand further into his crotch. Landis stopped filming again and said he was uncomfortable with the move. They asked choreographer Vince Paterson for his opinion; he agreed with Landis. But Michael insisted on calling Gallin, his manager. ‘Sandy was a screaming queen. A very flamboyant homosexual,’ Landis said. ‘Sandy Gallin comes to the set, looks at the playback, and he goes, ‘Do it, Michael! Do it! Do it!’ During the editing process later, Landis says he cut the most objectionable crotch-grabbing images and ‘what’s in the finished piece, I thought was fine.'”-Excerpted from The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, p. 196.

Whoa! Now just imagine…we know how hot, steamy and controversial were the shots that made it into the video! Imagine, then, what must have been on the cutting room floor!

Susan Fast has written that it may have been much more than just the video’s combination of sex and violence that made so many uncomfortable, but rather, the fact that Michael seemed to be indulging in an explicitly kind of feminized auto eroticism, territory that had been for the most part expressly forbidden for male performers (even though it was quite common for women to engage in various forms of auto eroticism in the videos of the day). Just as he had broken down so many barriers in other ways, Michael was also eradicating many of these sexist barriers (what was “ok” and socially acceptable for women to do in videos vs. what was “ok” for a man) and he wasn’t simply slowly eroding those barriers, but screaming until those walls came crashing down, as surely as The Royal Arms Hotel sign in the video. In a single video, Michael brazenly simulated masturbation in front of the camera; he ripped the shirt clean off his body and splashed, in slow motion, into a puddle of water, in as symbolic an act of shedding skin as could possibly be imagined, all while slinging wet strands of hair about his face and screaming like a wild animal…yeah, that was pretty hot and erotic, no doubt. With no mistake.

"Daybreat" by Maxine Parrish
“Daybreat” by Maxfield Parrish

And even when Michael’s eroticism took a more romantic, classical turn, as in “You Are Not Alone” it was in many ways no less disconcerting. The concept of “You Are Not Alone” was taken from the painting “Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish, which featured two semi-nude female subjects in what appeared to be a classical Greek setting. I’ve always felt that the video was a kind of blatant answer to the critics who were dogging the MJ-LMP marriage as a fake; an attempt to show the world that this was a genuine, romantic relationship with real chemistry. (For the record, I never really understood all the critical dismissals of the video as “awkward”; Michael and Lisa’s scenes as they talk intimately and whisper seem to me charmingly endearing). If anything, this video would go down in history as the one in which Michael literally left nothing to imagination-yes, your eyes weren’t deceiving you; if you were watching closely, that really is a flash we get at the :18 mark, when the camera pans around his supine form to an above shot!

No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!
No, Ladies, Your Eyes Were Not Deceiving You!

Yep, that cheesecloth was hiked up pretty high, and no, there was nothing underneath there except Michael as nature made him! That was a pretty brazen shot, and to this day, debate remains as to why it was left in. Was it an accident that was simply never edited out? Some fans just wink it and call it Michael’s “gift” to his fans. Whatever the case may be, it has kept many sharp sighted fans delighted and happily rewinding that pan shot (not to mention being the subject of many gifs) for two decades. What may be more interesting is what we don’t see in that shot-Michael’s bare feet, which remain discreetly hidden beneath a piece of draped cloth. It was said that, for whatever reason, it was the one part of his body he was most self conscious about displaying, which might also explain why the leg warmers and socks stayed on in the Gorman photo.

2e14c988badeb63a6e26e68ad11c56daAnd, just as with the “Black or White” film, there was apparently even more of Michael that didn’t make it into the final cut, according to an article that appeared in The New York Daily News prior to the video’s premier:

“The King of Pop came this close to becoming the King of Porn. Computer whizzes scrambled to digitally alter a shot in Michael Jackson’s new video that shows the superstar floating naked in water. According to the Los Angeles Times, producers panicked after they discovered the scene from the video “You Are Not Alone” shows just a little too much of the 36-year-old singer. The offending anatomy was cut from the shot via computer magic, the paper said. The video, produced to promote Jackson’s latest album, “HIStory,” is due to premiere at 9:30 tonight simultaneously on ABC, MTV and BET. With typical modesty, the 30-minute special is called “Michael Jackson changes HIStory”-Helen Reddy.

This era also marked an increasingly exhibitionistic trend in his live performances, with costumes that were (I firmly believe) purposely designed to draw attention to his assets. The leotard thong of the Dangerous tour and the legendary gold pants of the HIStory tour were obviously intended to have exactly the effect that they had. These costume choices were purposely body conscious; a blatant statement of virility that seemed to match the overly sexualized, aggressive personas that the costumes matched (note that his clothing would usually change over the course of the performance, from these overtly masculine pieces to softer, flowing shirts and less revealing pants as he segued into the philanthropic numbers that usually closed the sets out).

Certainly the surfacing of the Gorman photo, just as with all of these other examples, raises a lot of questions-most notably, how do we (or can we) reconcile these images to the same guy who assured us he was so shy and embarrassed about these matters, who said he would be terrorized if he thought about what “goes through women’s heads” when he is onstage. The answer is that, barring any kind of overly simplified “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” split personality theory, we really can’t. The only thing we can ascertain is that Michael Jackson-like most of us-was an incredibly complex individual and an even more incredibly complex artist, who was always evolving and always looking for ways to push the envelope further. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Likewise, he was evolving in his own life, and I am convinced that many of these choices represented his personal journey toward freedom of sexual expression, acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and acceptance of his own, physical body as not only something beautiful, but as something that could be molded into great art.  It was a journey that encompassed both his own spiritual and physical awakening; a confidence that managed to bloom despite, or perhaps even as a result of, some very debilitating physical handicaps (vitiligo and discoid lupus). It was a personal metamorphosis that nevertheless. just like every single other aspect of his life, was played out on the world’s stage with all of us watching. And perhaps that, too, wasn’t entirely coincidental. Michael Jackson, following in the footsteps of every sex symbol before him (male or female) knew the power of sexual objectivity in selling his art. No doubt, he probably reaped at least some of the the benefits of exhibitionistic empowerment; after all, nothing is quite so titillating and intoxicating-and ultimately, perhaps, terrifying-as knowing that millions of people all over the world are fantasizing about you.

I think that, ultimately, Michael worked his way through all of these conflicted feelings in the only way he knew how-through his art.

21 thoughts on “Michael and Nudity? Examining Perceptions of Michael, Sexuality, and Exhibitionism”

  1. Hi, Raven, I think we have to consider there might be something else Michael wanted to tell the world about his skin. He wanted to know his skin with vitiligo marks, but somehow this is not released at that time. I appreciate his bravery.

    1. Yes, I agree he exhibited a lot of courage, especially to bare himself as he did in TDCAU with no concealing make-up or retouching of his splotches.

  2. In my opinion, Michael simply liked the photographer’s work and wanted to try something different. In respect to the possible reason why he did not use this photo in life, it may be because he has not found the right project.

    I think he knew what he was doing in relation to the use of sexuality in his performances. He told the rabbi that women were very direct in saying to him that they wanted to have sex with him. Therefore, it is obvious that he was aware of the effect he had on women and fans in general. He was obviously being modest with the rabbi because he was very shy, moreover the rabbi was a religious and very critical about the artist’s use of sex in pop culture (his remarks about Madonna’s sex book), so Michael acted in accordance with the expectation of the rabbi, in my opinion.

    I agree with the view that when Michael left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he began to express himself more sexually explicit. His movements were blatantly more sexual during Bad Tour, in addition to his wardrobe with all the buckles. Several reviews of the shows called attention to this fact, emphasizing the contrast with his shy public persona offstage. On the Dangerous Tour, Michael used those fencing inspired clothes that many people felt unconfortable about it at the time. At the time of HIStory tour was the culmination of his sexual exhibitionism, in my opinion, was his response to critics who made fun of his supposed lack of masculinity. At the time there were many jokes about his marriage to Lisa Marie, jokes about how she left him because he did not satisfy her in bed and many people could not understand why she left her husband for him. So I think he made a deliberate choice in using those revealing pants, after all, no one looking at those pants would say he was a white woman. And finally, at the time of Invincible, he was much more loose, even openly flirting with female fans during Invincible signing.

    1. You make excellent points. I think it is quite possible that by the 2000’s he had once again evolved to another level, one where he was even more comfortable with who he was and no longer feeling the need to “prove” something to the world. That kind of easy, flirtatious confidence really came through in his maturity. I have also heard speculation that fatherhood had changed him a lot by then, as well. In This Is It, for example, it looked as though he had pretty much retired the excessively revealing stage clothes and was going for a much more modest look (perhaps befitting not only a father but a mature man in his 50’s). Of course, he was also so thin by then that it was hard for anything to fit him snugly, anyway.

  3. Love this blog. I’m so glad you’ve addressed this topic! I see his sexual evolution as another example of Michael reclaiming his power and encouraging us to do the same. I’ve been looking more closely at “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (which he wrote) and how the lyrics link “the force” (Star Wars reference) to sexuality and also spirituality

    Lovely is the feeling now
    Fever, temperatures rising now
    Power is the force the vow
    That makes it happen, it asks no questions why
    So get closer
    To my body now
    Just love me
    Till you don’t know how…

    [Chorus]
    Keep on with the force don’t stop
    Don’t stop ’til you get enough…

    Lovely is the feeling now I won’t be complaining
    The force is love power

    Ultimately, this was where he went in life, expanding and exploring love’s power (including sexual power). Michael always seemed to drink in and be nourished by love. I suspect he got many long drinks at that well of sexual love and I hope it helped sustain him through all the challenges.

    1. Those lyrics also remind me of what an advanced songwriter he was at all of nineteen. It still holds up to anything he wrote in later years. Sadly, I haven’t had an opportunity yet to see the OTW documentary. We don’t get Showtime and I am a little leery of the streaming sites because our computers have gotten viruses from those in the past. But I have been reading nothing but raves about it on social media.

  4. Excellent article! I also mistook the Greg Gorman photo as a fake until you pointed out its authenticity. Now I am curious to see the rest of this exhibition.

  5. I think what MJ told the rabbi about being horrified and embarrassed about how women might have sexual thoughts of him should be taken with a grain of salt. While, yes, it was a more or less private conversation, but he knew he was being recorded and he also knew what kind of answers a man of religion like a rabbi would expect and IMO he just gave him those kind of answers. At least at certain parts of the conversation – here definitely. I also think we should take Michael’s prankster persona into account. I am not sure he was not having a laugh inside while acting oh so horrified about things like that. (Or maybe what he was REALLY saying was that he would be embarrassed if he had to resort to such desperate measures as stuffing socks there instead of having the real thing. Brag about something you really have, not something you don’t! LOL.)

    Like you said Michael wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what he was doing with some of those things like the Gold Pants and it was totally deliberate. I also remember a story from Michael Bush’s book where he explained why MJ would sometimes rip his T-shirts:

    “Some days it’ll be a little cut and others he’d rip it all the way down. ‘Girls want to see some cake,’ he’d explain.”

    So he knew full well what he was doing to his female fans and he enjoyed it. I am not buying the embarrassed act! LOL.

    1. I think that Michael was definitely quite comfortable in his skin-and confident in his sexuality-at least moreso than he is often given credit. But I am sure that also, as with any aspect of performance, he could also turn it “on” and “off” at will. There is a story about Marilyn Monroe in New York, as told by an eyewitness, who said that she was walking along a busy street disguised in a head scarf and glasses, and no one knew who she was. Om a dare, she said “Do you want to see me become “HER?” And then she took off the scarf and glasses, and instantly morphed into Marilyn Monroe, sex goddess. For Michael, I think it was the same principle. His onstage and on camera persona no doubt became a kind of extended and bigger alter ego version of himself. I think that kind of transformation has to involve some level of code switching, where the larger-than-life persona takes over (and along with that transformation, all of the confidence and sexual prowess that is a part of it).

      When I was writing this piece, I kept thinking back to a conversation with my mother when we were watching the Live at Bucharest DVD. As you know, that particular concert DVD is notorious for being as much about the fainting girls in the crowd as about Michael’s performance (some fans even complain that it is excessive and distracts from the performance because they spend so much time focusing on the reactions of these screaming, crying, and fainting girls). My mother said, “You know that kind of behavior is going to make any guy feel conceited.” Of course my initial, kneejerk reaction (typically, as a fan) was to say, “But Michael wasn’t like that.” Or was he? My mother may not be the most educated person in the world, but she has a lot of wisdom and intuition. And I think she raised an interesting point. Is ANY performer who has that kind of impact on the opposite sex totally immune to it? I think that to BE immune to it would certainly require a superhuman level of detachment that, quite frankly, I doubt anyone is strong enough to possess. At some level, Michael certainly knew the feelings he stirred, and even consciously played his part in stirring them. Unlike my mother, I wouldn’t use the term “conceited” but I do think it must give the performer a kind of empowerment which in itself can be quite erotically powerful, for there is no greater aphrodisiac than knowing that one is desired.

  6. Hate to say it, but I think a lot of the fainting was from the heat of standing in a standing-room only crowd, all packed together, and probably women being shorter than the men, they felt the squash and the heat more.

  7. I can see why Michael did not want Gormans photo released, it does nothing for him.
    Sometimes an idea looks good on the drawing table but the result is not. Michael was very photogenic, he did not need gimmicks. His best photos are the ones without bells and whistles.

    To dance in front of an audience the way Michael did takes 100% confidence. A dancers body is his instrument it can express whatever emotion drives it or v.v. and it is true that dancing can bring the dancer and the audience in extase (or fans into hysteria)
    Michaels moves became more sexually explicit and provocative in the 90s, but they were never unintentional and he was never shy or unaware of the effect. Not from when he was spinning inside their Gary home and at parties around , his Motown audition(imitating his idol who sang about ‘getting into it like a sexmachine’), through his J5 and Jacksons concerts, when they often performed shirtles in tightfitting silky pants (Jacky in gold pants ) and girls would jump on stage to touch him. ( and he would be conscious enough to take their phonenumbers ).
    And what better encouragement a 20 year old needs than to hear the love of his life telling him “I knew that you would be great, but I didnt know you would become so sexy “. That was all he needed to know to use /exploit “the gift’ to please and tease . Jehova Witness be damned.
    Michaels mother said that he BECAME shy and quiet (around Off the wall era), due to his fame , which means he was not shy before. But whatever shyness he might have had, it all went out of the window the moment he hit the stage.

    As for the YANA video how I see it. In the 90s R&B videos became more sensual and explicit. YANA is strictly R&B MJ style and fitted perfectly with the trend. But being Michael Jackon he took it to another level, gave it an artistic touch , and unlike other R&B videos that used stand-ins and actors, he featured himself and his wife. It was unexpected and people were shocked because it left nothing to the imagination . But since it was released the year after the Chandler case was settled it may have been a middlefinger to his accusers and the tabloids and to show them where his real interest lied.
    But as with the Gorman photo, for me less is more. I found him more intriguing when he was not trying , like in his spontaneous dancing on stage to Upside down with Diana Ross and the black and white photoshoot of the two of them where he holds her from behind.

  8. Recommended read om DWTE blog , conversation with a dancer /scholar on Michaels dance and choreography, titled ‘ Jackson and “Choreographic Versioning”.

  9. What’s curious about this Gorman photograph is that it looks as if Michael were sitting in a glass showcase—like a museum exhibit. Some of it may be that he looks like he’s “behind glass”—there’s a reflection on the surface of the glass of the framed photo itself. But there’s also the sense that he is sitting on some kind of built-in bench, against a gray wall: it looks like a cubbyhole of sorts.

    It’s interesting that people are perceiving this photograph as a portrait of Michael with a lot of bells and whistles and gimmicks. Throughout, he had a way of looking great in a variety of fanciful costumes, in various photo shoots: D’Artignan, a Renaissance-era king, a medieval knight, a nobleman in a red velvet jacket (Brett Livingstone-Strong’s “The Book,”)—-even a farm boy in overalls and checked shirt, with a chimp on his shoulders. Really, apart from the socks and leggings, he’s kind of close to his birthday suit here!

    Anyway, I like the photo. I regret he didn’t sit for more revealing portraits throughout his career! I don’t really see anything “tacky” about it—the leggings show the photographer’s subject to be of his era, but that’ll wear off as the decades pass and people forget what leggings were even for.

    I must say I hugely envy Lynn Goldsmith, on the roof of that building with Michael removing his shirt. If I were ever to write fan fiction, it’d be with myself in her place.

    “Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up?” I often ask that. Here’s a behind-the-scenes clip of “the making of Black or White,” where Michael, John Landis, one of the Russian-style dancers are playing “What’s My Line.”

    1. It’s hard to say since the only images we have of it have been these photos taken at the exhibit, where it is, of course, being displayed behind glass. I think that is why it seems to have that kind of distorted effect. But that is an interesting observation about it looking as though he is: 1. An object of display; and 2. Posing as if inside a cubbyhole. Interestingly enough, I didn’t make this connection until I read your comment, but I also thought of that childhood sketch he drew of himself for the HIStory album, the one where he is crouched into the corner of a wall as if cowering, with a microphone in hand:

      http://img3.rajce.idnes.cz/d0303/3/3010/3010730_dc3c078e593efb060b1fe066124bcafc/images/michael_jackson_childhood_drawing.jpg?ver=0

      It makes me wonder if there is any connection to be drawn between the two poses-one is a child who seems to be exhibiting fear and anger at being forced to perform; the other, an adult in a corner who is simultaneously exhibiting the idea of being in control (the nudity) but also, is obviously being exposed as an object and still seems to be exhibiting a state of discomfiture (the grimace which could indicate either sullen anger or fear).

      I still find the leg warmers a glaring distraction (lol) but you are probably right. Once they are taken out of their current context of 80’s cheesiness (which our generation naturally associates them with) they will be viewed quite differently.

  10. Raven, please forgive me for correcting you. I loved reading your take on Michael’s sexuality, but there is small error. The artist who painted “Daybreak” upon which he based the YANA short film is Maxfield Parrish … not Maxine. Your blog is always devoted to excellence and I thought you would want to know.

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