Victoria Bateman is not the first to use nudity as a form of protest. Madeleine Ward (Theos) explores the history of naked dissent.
It’s been a rocky few weeks in the news, from Robert Peston’s assessment that No Deal is now the most likely outcome of the UK’s ongoing Brexit crisis, to warnings of an imminent “collapse of nature”. Set against stories like these, very little should now surprise us.
Enter Dr Victoria Bateman, the Cambridge economist who has responded to this bewildering political juncture with impressive clarity, by challenging Jacob Rees–Mogg to a naked Brexit debate. This is not the first time that Bateman has politicised her own unclothed body, or even the first time that she has done so in relation to the UK’s departure from the EU. In 2014, she commissioned a life–size naked portrait of herself, challenging society’s disproportionate sexualisation of the female form. In 2016, she attended a university meeting naked, specifically in protest at the result of the EU Referendum. And this week, having delivered an anti–Brexit lecture in the nude, she subsequently undressed during a radio interview with John Humphrys and invited Rees–Mogg to join her in a naked debate so that he might justify his views in person. She explained her protest as an expression of her belief that “Brexit leaves Britain naked” – and since these words were emblazoned across her unclothed body, she quite literally embodied the sentiment.
Humphrys’ own reaction was sceptical at best (“Why do you feel the need to take your clothes off? Isn’t it just exhibitionism?”). Elsewhere, Bateman’s Brexit protest has been judged inconsistent with her earlier insinuation that female nudity is ultimately a good thing. In response, Bateman insists that the symbolic use of her body in this manner only bolsters her earlier reflections on the female form. After all, isn’t the point that women should be encouraged to use their own bodies for intellectual and political self–expression, rather than sexual or maternal enslavement?
Her protest might be startling, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “just exhibitionism”. Rather, it is the latest manifestation of an ancient rhetorical tradition that long predates the 2016 referendum. It bears the most striking similarities to the prophetic nudity enacted by Quakers “going naked as a sign” in the mid–17th century. The world had turned upside down then, too. Even more so, in fact: a hugely bloody civil war had led to the execution of the king in 1649, and the period leading to the reinstatement of the monarchy in 1660 provoked several expressions of this religiously–motivated nudity. Thus, the Quaker William Simpson walked naked through several towns declaring, “as naked shall you be spiritually, as my body hath been temporally naked in many places in England”. Early Quakers believed that spiritual perfection was possible if one completely denied one’s own will in perfect obedience to God. Simpson understood himself to be surrendering even his body to divine agency so that it could take on new symbolic significance as prophetic communication. In this sense, he regarded himself as immune from the shame normally associated with bodily exposure – and this allowed shame to be redirected even more strongly against his opponents, in protest at the spiritual indecency of the age. As the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, elsewhere wrote of his detractors, “ye have had only… the sheepes cloathing, but have been naked of the life”.
William Simpson compared himself to Isaiah, who was similarly directed by God to “Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot to walk “naked and barefoot” for three years. This naked witness was also intended “as a sign and wonder”, as God simultaneously declared how his opponents would be “[led] away stripped and barefoot… with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame”. Both cases relied on the deep–seated association of physical exposure with shame, expressed most famously in the story of the Fall itself. As Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their shameful behaviour translated into a shameful awareness of their own embodiment. They made clothes and hid themselves from God.
Of course, Victoria Bateman’s protest emerges out of a vastly different culture. Neither does she claim to be a prophet. Nonetheless, her logic draws on the same subversion of the ordinary relationship between shame and nudity – and to this end, it can be understood as a secular, feminist reimagining of the Judeo–Christian prophetic tradition. The similarities are threefold. First, the naked individual in all cases claims a personal victory over shame. For Bateman, this is cast in terms of confidence and female self–realisation: she strongly emphasises that her nudity is an expression of freedom, and that it is therefore inherently liberating. In contrast, William Simpson’s victory arose of his complete denial of personal identity: he was primarily making a theological statement, not a political one.
Secondly, this victory is resented and rejected by those observing the demonstration. The early Quakers were accused of arrogant “shamelessness”, just as Bateman is accused of exhibitionism today.
Finally, and most importantly, despite having liberated themselves from personal shame, the naked individual does not reject the rhetoric of indignity outright. Instead, their own liberation is (paradoxically) exactly what enables them to “shame” their opponent even more strongly. In short, Bateman claims the moral high ground precisely by that same nakedness (her own) which she uses to condemn Jacob Rees–Mogg. It is surely condemnation in the starkest terms.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared on the Theos website.
Madeleine Ward joined Theos in October 2018. She is researching the relationship between social cohesion and the church, in partnership with the Free Churches Group. She holds a doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a conference, research and retreat centre in Philadelphia.
I see a parallel with Greta Thunberg. In both cases the individual breaks a taboo so that a political message will be noticed.