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A momentary glimpse of a woman’s breast in the nearly half-century-old film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, has a Denver suburb scrambling to revamp its indecency and lewdness statutes.
Parker plans to show the 1975 cult classic — which has long featured audience members dressing up in outlandish costumes and acting out parts of the film as it screens — at its arts center on Oct. 28. But because the Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center holds a liquor license, it cannot under town code show anything that is “lewd and indecent.”
“‘Lewd or indecent displays’ include the display of the female breast,” reads a memo from town staff to Parker’s elected leaders. “Thus, the definition of ‘lewd and indecent displays’… would prohibit the screening of a movie, such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which displays the female breast.”
The bawdy brouhaha over breast-baring in this bedroom community in Douglas County is just the latest flashpoint over the issue in Colorado, which took center stage a few years back after a federal appeals court ruled that Fort Collins could not ban women from going topless.
“Here, absent the preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs, and all women in Fort Collins, risk criminal sanctions for making a choice — to appear topless in public — that men may make scot-free,” the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its February 2019 opinion.
Several months after that ruling, a 20-year-old woman playing Frisbee topless was cited by Loveland police for indecent exposure after a neighbor complained. Arguing the summons was unconstitutional, (“I knew my rights, I told the officer I knew my rights — this is a topless state,” she said at the time) she challenged the city and received a $50,000 settlement for her troubles.
Parker cited the 2019 appeals court ruling in its decision to pursue changes to its indecency code. Town spokesman Andy Anderson said that upon reviewing its statutes, Parker realized it had various provisions “contrary to the federal court holding in the lawsuit filed against the City of Fort Collins finding that the city’s ordinance prohibiting female, but not male, toplessness was unconstitutional.”
Parker’s town council passed two ordinances on the topic on first reading last week and will cast a final vote on the measures next month. One of Parker’s measures proposes to make concepts of “nudity or state of nudity,” or “semi-nudity,” gender-neutral by using “upper-body breast or chest area of any person,” in lieu of breast.
It’s a change that Denver civil rights lawyer David Lane, who represented the two Fort Collins women in federal court as part of the “Free the Nipple” movement that arose a decade ago, said is a long time in coming.
“Every municipality has a certain number of ancient ridiculous laws on the books so it doesn’t surprise me that old-time Parker believed breasts were ‘lewd,’ Lane said.
Michaele Ferguson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in feminist theory and feminist politics, said the controversy over breasts has deep roots in the United States. Many of the lewdness standards on the books today were crafted in the middle of the last century and “don’t reflect decency standards today.”
“In American culture, we have a lot of confusion about the female breast,” she said. “It is something that is a symbol of sexuality and of motherhood.”
That confusion manifests in societal disenchantment over breast-feeding in public, Ferguson said, even though it’s a natural and utilitarian function devoid of eroticism or sexual titillation. The conversation gets supercharged, she said, when the focus falls on the nipple itself.
“We’re not that worried about baring part of the female breast, but we are when the nipple comes out,” Ferguson said.
A number of Hollywood luminaries, like Kylie Jenner, Florence Pugh and Mylie Cyrus, have called attention to the issue by appearing on red carpets or in social media photos exposing their nipples as a form of protest or an act of defiance.
But for many Americans, it’s a matter of propriety and respect for others. Earlier this month, two women entered a University of Utah football game topless, adorned only in body paint. They eventually covered up at the request of authorities, but the incident prompted Youtube influencer Melea Johnson, a mother of two who was at the game, to voice her frustration.
“Is this literally what our world is coming to?!” she wrote on Instagram. “We can’t even go to a family-friendly college football game without our kids & family being exposed to nudity??”
Patti Britton, a California-based clinical sexologist who co-founded SexCoachU.com, said the issue of body display has been complicated in recent years by the rise in gender identity assertions that obscure the long-held binary understanding of sex.
“There’s a tension around language dealing with sexual identity,” she said. “It’s a strange time.”
Britton said some of the disputes that bubble up over breast-baring can be deescalated if people take note of where and in front of who they are disrobing — male or female.
“What is legal, what is acceptable, what is appropriate?” she said. “I think there’s a difference between going to a football game with children in attendance and buying a ticket by choice to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
The issue will likely not die down any time soon. Lane, the attorney, said the nation remains a patchwork of laws around breast display.
“The 10th Circuit has freed the nipple but other courts around the country have firmly caged it,” he said. “The 7th Circuit in Chicago has imprisoned the nipple as has the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Normally circuit splits and divisions among state and federal courts result in the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in and resolving things, but they have thus far steadfastly avoided the raging nipple wars.”
As to whether Parker’s new laws, if approved, will unleash a torrent of topless fare at its events center, the town spokesman said don’t count on it.
“The current 2022-2023 season for Parker Arts has been published and is available for public review,” Anderson said. “We do not expect any changes in Parker Arts’ approach to programming if these ordinances are approved.”
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