The charmlessness of Utopia: Channel Four’s Naked Attraction


Illustration to a 1730 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia

Once, on a first date, I had an interesting exchange along the following lines: my date mentioned in passing a spreadsheet that she was using to track and rate her dates. I assumed she was joking, and said as much. But no, she insisted, she was being serious: she had an entire spreadsheet on which she calculated according to various categories how attractive a man was. I laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ Ms. Spreadsheet asked. ‘Because that’s not how attraction works’, I replied, ‘it’s not something that can be reduced to numbers. It’s not a science that can measure things; it’s a mystery, like the way the best poetry or the best art is a mystery.’ But she responded by telling me (a) that I was wrong, attraction is a science, no more, no less, and (b) that I was scoring quite well according to her Excel calculations. Ms. Spreadsheet was an enjoyable date.

Naked Attraction, Channel 4’s new dating show, purports to take this scientific approach to dating and reduce it right down to its basic, logical extreme; spreadsheets aren’t involved, but if they were they would contain categories such as ‘legs’, ‘penis’, ‘vagina’, ‘bottom’, ‘breasts’ and ‘face’. By dissecting humans down to their constituent and naked physical parts, it suggests that we can get closer to finding the real basis of attraction. The programme is rooted in two ideas: first, that attraction is a (literally) nakedly physical matter; second, that there is a core person or self beneath all the clothing, jewellery, small talk and movement we are socially obliged to display, that these are just so many ways of concealing who we essentially are. Both these ideas are fundamentally wrong.

The concept of the show is remarkably simple: six naked participants are gradually revealed before one clothed participant; the latter whittles the six down to two based on their physical attractiveness before joining the remaining two in full nudity and selecting which of the two to go on a date with. It sounds dull; in reality it is duller than it sounds. When the most exciting moments consist of brief bits of rubbish pop science (‘some scientists think that men with symmetrical faces have healthier sperm’—that sort of profundity) then you know that the concept is terrible. Many viewers will doubtless watch Naked Attraction in the hope that it is mildly sexy or erotic. All bar teenage boys will likely be disappointed; they will find more sexiness and eroticism if they turn over to BBC2 half way through to watch Newsnight (and no, I do not have a fetish about Newsnight).

The participants in Naked Attraction gamely try to justify the programme by using words such as ‘empowering’ or ‘new-found confidence’, and offer Twitter-size arguments that the show delves to the deeper core of dating. On the evidence of the first episode a rather different conclusion can be drawn. Naked Attraction is tedious, dispiriting superficiality. This is dating for the empty-headed consumer generation who think they are being edgy, bright and liberal but are in fact being boring, stupid and constrained. It is dating for those who do not understand sexuality and the erotic, who think that the dismal mechanics of pornography amount to erotica. At one point a participant is described as having a body like a figure from Botticelli—I suspect the person offering this comment was confused about her artists, since the body was nothing like a Botticellian figure but a lot like a Rubens nude—but the gulf between the eroticism of Botticelli (and Rubens) and Naked Attraction is immense. Tellingly, the Rubenesque/Botticellian participant was the first of the six to be rejected.

We can, however, find in the Renaissance an interesting historical and philosophical ancestor to Naked Attraction. In Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) there is the following account of a social custom among prospective brides and grooms on the fictional island:

When they’re thinking of getting married, they do something that seemed to us quite absurd, though they take it very seriously. The prospective bride, no matter whether she’s a spinster or a widow, is exhibited stark naked to the prospective bridegroom by a respectable married woman, and a suitable male chaperon shows the bridegroom naked to the bride. When we implied by our laughter that we thought it a silly system, they promptly turned the joke against us.

            ‘What we find so odd,’ they said, ‘is the silly way these things are arranged in other parts of the world. When you’re buying a horse, and there’s nothing at stake but a small sum of money, you take every possible precaution. The animal’s practically naked already, but you firmly refuse to buy until you’ve whipped off the saddle and all the rest of the harness, to make sure there aren’t any sores underneath. But when you’re choosing a wife, an article that for better or worse has got to last you a lifetime, you’re unbelievably careless. You don’t even bother to take it out of its wrappings. You judge the whole woman from a few square inches of face, which is all you can see of her, and then proceed to marry her—at the risk of finding her most disagreeable, when you see what she’s really like. (Thomas More, Utopia, trans. by Paul Turner (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 84)

Utopia is a description of an ideal society. If it really existed it would be the dullest and most oppressive place on earth. The Utopians have reduced everything to worthiness and reason; they set no store by gold and jewels; they see no point in fashion; they do not gamble; their leisure consists of improving pursuits such as mental games and study. Everyone is equal and no-one is idle: ‘There’s never any excuse for idleness. There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no secret meeting-places. Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.’ (p. 65) North Korea is probably the country that has come closest to realizing More’s utopian fantasy.

Naked Attraction is not, of course, the first step on the way to a nightmarish North Korean future. Judging from its first outing, my guess is that the only place Naked Attraction is heading towards is the long list of programmes that are so dire they never get a second series. I am confidently hopeful that this is the case. If I am wrong, if Naked Attraction actually resonates with viewers as a telling and zeitgeisty shows that reflects their own thoughts about dating, attraction and romance, then there may be grounds for some despair. For, if the show really does tap into our sexual and human values, what would it be telling us?

It would be telling us that imagination, subtlety, mystery, complexity and the erotic are on the way out. It reduces attraction to dreary talk about the shape of someone’s penis, the amount of body hair they have, or whether their nipples are good for flicking. (I guarantee that it is more exciting reading the previous sentence than watching these things being said on the programme.) It would be telling us that those keen on metrics—things that are measurable and quantifiable—are triumphing over those who prefer immeasurable qualities. But I’m confident that not even Ms. Spreadsheet, my former date, would have taken metrics to these extremes.

Above all, Naked Attraction would be telling us that many people have a fundamentally misconceived notion of the self. In normal dating, when clothes are worn and movements are observed and conversation is exchanged, we are telling interesting stories about ourselves. Naked Attraction is obsessed with the idea that all these things—clothes, movement, social interaction—are just so many ways of concealing who we really are, that beneath all the layers can be found the pure, true self. In fact, it is the other way round. The self is something we put on. We reveal ourselves through what we wear, the way we move, the things we talk about. There is no self beyond that; there is just an invariably quite dull lump of uninteresting physical matter.

Naked Attraction unwittingly confirms this truth: what makes the show so unsexy and unerotic is its fixation on nothing more than the naked body. It demonstrates that the truly erotic is to be found in the way we transform our dull bodies through movement and clothes, adornment and conversation. Sexiness is the way we all tell stories about ourselves through what we wear, do and say. Attraction is to charm each other through these stories. It is the absence of that which makes the unadorned nakedness of Naked Attraction so unattractive and charmless.

Wolf Hall Revisited

Wolf Hall Revisited (pdf file)

Attached to this post is a long review of Wolf Hall, both Hilary Mantel’s novel and the stage adaptation by Mike Poulton.

I’ve newolf-hall-mantelver been particularly drawn to the historical novel. But Mantel’s Wolf Hall clearly could not be ignored, not only due to the wide acclaim it received but also for the simple reason that her subject, Thomas Cromwell, is someone who figures large in the Tudor history courses I have taught. I was curious, if somewhat sceptical, whether the novel would have historical value: as an historian of sixteenth-century England, would Wolf Hall contribute in any way to my understanding of the period? Could it, as certain historical films do, approach the past in interesting ways that fall outside the traditional practices of historians? Inevitably a stage adaptation invites a view on why the original was adapted in the first place. Beyond that, similar questions can be asked about the historical merits of Poulton’s play.

My review attempts to address all these questions. Suffice to say, my responses to both novel and play were not what I had expected in advance.