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Boobies, boobies, boobies: why can’t we stop talking about tits?

Amandla Stenberg’s response to a New York Times reviewer who called their new A24 slasher Bodies, Bodies, Bodies ‘a 95-minute advertisement for cleavage’ isn’t bullying – it’s a lighthearted but keen observation of how tired this talking point is

Eyes up here, it’s time to talk about tits on the timeline again. No, not in a “I licked her tit, or whatever” kind of way – I mean the drama between Amandla Stenberg and Lena Wilson, a New York Times writer who called the actor’s latest project, the A24 slasher Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, “a 95-minute advertisement for cleavage”. A comment that flew relatively under the radar when it was printed by the prestigious publication at the top of the month, Wilson’s decision to then post a private DM Stenberg sent her (“ur review was great, maybe if you had gotten ur eyes off my tits you could’ve watched the movie!”) and position it as “bullying” – carefully omitting what she had written first – ignited a social media storm that largely backfired on her. What had been intended as a jokey response to Wilson’s phrasing (which Stenberg admits she found “hilarious”) was earnestly interpreted, the ensuing fallout from an otherwise mild exchange of words exemplifying the same kind of bad faith behaviour skewered by the film. So apt in its life-imitates-art adaptation of the film’s key themes, the situation appeared almost like an off-beat PR move – but Wilson’s lack of self-awareness could not be written. Claiming to have less “social power” despite writing for an internationally-renowned news outlet, accusing Stenberg (who is also queer) of homophobia, and insidiously doubling down by implying they must be struggling with their mental health – Wilson’s actions show the shifting attitudes towards the critique of women in media; how we are presented, consumed, and commented on.

The problem is Wilson’s pithy quip is not the wired take it positions itself as. While pointing out that sexualisation is helpful where it is exploitative, accusing something of sexualisation where there is none enacts the very thing the observation attempts to critique. “I understand the angle,” Stenberg addresses in the explanation behind their direct message to Wilson. “The amount of commentary I have received on my boobs is so extreme,” they acknowledge, noting how it started in their teens, “I could literally be wearing a t-shirt and just because of the size of my boobs, there will be some sort of sexualisation or commentary on my chest.” As a woman also existing in the world, who went through puberty at the tender age of nine, I can attest to this pervasive and early realisation that your body is not your own, but something that others will ascribe their own interpretation to and pass judgement on. As female-presenting forms in a patriarchal world, experiencing sexualisation without agency is a banality of evil you learn in tandem with growing pains – a process that can really fuck you up. To go through this with the magnified scrutiny of public perception as a young actress in Hollywood doesn’t bear thinking about. Coming of age in a time where exposed expanses of washboard midriffs have come in, out, and back into fashion after a detour into BBL body supremacy, this generation is one that is both hyperaware and numb to the way women’s bodies are treated as trend cycles and the way their sexual worth acts as cultural currency. Imagine how tired we are? To simply point at its existence does nothing. This is, after all, the generation that rebranded the bimbo: playing up to stereotypical misogynistic views of attractive women as airheads with no substance and subverting these expectations with an underlying understanding of how society’s measures of intelligence are rooted in antiquated classist, patriarchal, racist and ableist ideals.

A similar playful facetiousness can be found in Stenberg’s DM, and Wilson’s defensiveness is unsurprising given her apparent immunity to the way this plays out in Bodies. Although entitled to her opinion of the film as “bloated with pompous irony”, her misinterpretation of a valid critique as a direct personal attack, and subsequent manipulation of the situation to position herself as a victim of “bullying” by someone of more “social power” than her reeks of the same kind of bad faith behaviour that the film satirises. Demonstrating a dizzying lack of self-awareness, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider Wilson’s aversion to this movie about “privileged prats” a by-product of her unwillingness to hold up an uncanny mirror to herself. Instead, her codified attempt to dismiss Stenberg’s point through personal accusations of homophobia and insinuations of their supposed mental instability illustrate the social commentary at work in Bodies to the point where a rewatch wouldn’t go amiss in learning where to apply these lessons from art into her own life.

Like the characters taken down one-by-one by their self-absorption, this IRL internet pile-on should serve as a wake-up call for Wilson and her inability to see critique as a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. Downplaying Stenberg’s intersectional experience as a nonbinary person who happens to have cleavage is to disregard the nuance that should be applied to lazy parallels between Bodies and the “glamorisation of youthful nihilism” by “teenage sex bombs” in A24 and HBO co-production Euphoria. Words that could be used to describe Billie Eilish’s graduation from baggy clothes into more figure-hugging fashion, our readiness to offer these judgements speaks to the casual, pervasive climate of sexualisation that kept Eilish hidden behind layers for so long – uncomfortable with the speculation revealing her body invited. As Black and femme, Stenberg’s burden is two-fold, shouldering the implications of society’s hypersexualisation of Black bodies alongside their observation of how, “In Hollywood, it’s not normalised to have boobs that are above an A or a B cup,” and the “unwarranted conversation about [their] chest” that follows. To quote a popular TikTok sound, “Am I showing off my boobs? Or do I just have boobs and exist?”

Subtextually suggesting A24 are complicit in “exploit[ing] young women in order to sensationalise them and make their media popular” with this comparison, Wilson’s review turns a blind eye to the provenance of the film as a female-directed indie, while devaluing legitimate concerns about the Sam Levinson’s leering lens on Euphoria. It also ignores the agency actors can have in decisions that are made. The suspected tank top behind the “95-minute advertisement for cleavage” was chosen by Stenberg and the costume designer to fit the character, and even Levinson’s Euphoria, with all the credible complaints against its creator, uses intimacy co-ordinators to create safer environments for the characters’ sexual exploration on screen. A show with more equal opportunities for nudity than most, it’s still female nudity that fans the flames of sensationalist headlines. Defending Cassie’s nude scenes, actress Sydney Sweeney cites her character’s all-too-familiar journey to understand herself outside of external physical validation. “She doesn’t know how to communicate without showing her body,” she says in a Variety interview, “that was a form of communication for her and she was never taught that you did not need that.” While the #MeToo movement was instrumental in identifying, calling out, and implementing more systemic regulations against abuse in the workplace, the black and white urge to view anything remotely sexual as exploitation sets the alarming precedent for the sanitisation of storytelling that betrays the layered complexity of these topics. A woman in possession of her own sexuality is not a threat to censor, just as bodies in bathing suits are not automatically projections of industry creepiness. 

Unlikely to “stomach the cost of [another] movie ticket” for Bodies, perhaps something can be learned from revisiting Jennifer’s Body instead, a film that Wilson ironically praises at the start of her TikTok “exposing” Stenberg’s DM. Critically and commercially panned at the time of its release, the 2009 horror starring Megan Fox at the height of her sex symbol years was a victim of crucial mismarketing and a total misunderstanding of the subject material. In their instinct to sell the film on the premise of “Megan Fox hot” execs missed the message at the heart of the film, encapsulated in the scene where (spoiler! Although it has been 13 years… ) Needy kills Jennifer. “My tit,” she exclaims as she’s stabbed through the chest, before Needy corrects her: “No, your heart.” For writer Diablo Cody, this is the exchange that serves as the culmination of her own personal ruminations on society, sexualisation, and navigating this as a woman who is both Needy (bookish, introverted), and Jennifer (confident, sexual) in her writing and as a former stripper. Everyone, including Jennifer herself, sexualises Jennifer, while her best friend Needy is able to see past this and mourn the loss of her heart – the teenage girl with hopes, dreams, and a life – destroyed by society’s relentless sexualisation of her.

With life bleeding into art and back again, Megan Fox’s treatment by the media – particularly at this point – was similarly unending, though there wasn’t the framework to articulate her grievances as there is now. To ascribe its appeal solely to this post-#MeToo reappraisal is reductive though – for teenage girls especially, the universal unifying themes of surveillance and judgement of women formed the basis of the film’s cult following for years. Awkwardly, Wilson is guilty of subjecting Stenberg to the same treatment more than a decade later in 2022. While Cody recalls the “critics were awful”, let Jennifer’s Body – and now Bodies, Bodies, Bodies – be exemplary of how the critic is not always right, and how the intended audience will always seek out the stories that resonate. Criticism can and should always be critiqued, added to, and built upon to include different intersections of perspective – and, unlike Chekov’s gun, sometimes a tit is just a tit. There’s no need to be a tit about it.