Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Reg Henry: Just grin and bear NYC’s topless

By Reg Henry

Robert Burck, who performs as the Naked Cowboy, wears a bra as he plies his trade in New York's Times Square. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says women posing nearly naked for photos in Times Square are breaking the law and undermining efforts to keep the tourist area family friendly. The women pose for photos with tourists in exchange for cash and often wear only body paint and a thong.
Robert Burck, who performs as the Naked Cowboy, wears a bra as he plies his trade in New York's Times Square. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says women posing nearly naked for photos in Times Square are breaking the law and undermining efforts to keep the tourist area family friendly. The women pose for photos with tourists in exchange for cash and often wear only body paint and a thong. Associated Press

Cole Porter’s Broadway musical “Anything Goes” memorably illustrated the problem of evolving societal standards and the futility of resistance.

“In olden days,” the signature song noted, “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now … anything goes.”

That was in 1934.

Since then, some people have been shocked that the goings-on have gone too far. Surely this fear couldn’t afflict New York City, the jaded metropolis that has seen it all? Yes, even there. The Big Apple, perhaps now the Big Bosom, has been roiled by old-fashioned moral outrage.

To those not abreast of the recent news, topless women covered in body paint – known as “desnudas,” Spanish for naked – have been parading around Times Square and pursuing tips by posing with tourists. They are competing with other curiosities who do the same, such as costumed characters and the well-known Naked Cowboy.

The new complaint is that the painted ladies are overly aggressive in their panhandling, but the real concern seems to be their breasts. Those rascally breasts are at it again.

Why, women just shouldn’t expose such things in Times Square, not since it has been scrubbed clean of its old squalor in the cause of making it family-friendly. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Most families have resident breasts and these are often deployed to feed infants, which is the actual biological purpose of breasts.

Breasts seem to hold a special horror for various moral guardians. The tabloid Daily News, not usually the preferred reading of the prim and proper, sounded the alarm posed by the desnudas. Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to the imagined threat by resorting to the bureaucrat’s time-honored stratagem – when in doubt, appoint a task force.

Lawyers are examining whether a legal brassiere can be devised to restrain the voluptuous behavior. Thanks to a New York State Court of Appeals ruling in 1992, women in New York are free to walk about as bare-chested as men, but not for commercial purposes.

The more the task force mulls this issue and the more lawyers debate whether a painted lady in the flesh is an art work in the same sense as a painted lady on canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more ridiculous this becomes.

Still, comic relief is needed. The news has been rotten – the stock market convulsed, July was the planet’s hottest month on record and even now a noxious mass of hot air has enveloped much of America (wait! – that’s Donald Trump). That a few colorful breasts in New York have caused official concern says something about misplaced American anxiety.

Good sense has gone bust. The irony is that as far as anything goes in Times Square, anything does not go. The women are topless, not bottomless, and while they do not wear much clothing, they do wear plenty of paint.

Besides, doesn’t the Naked Cowboy get tips? He too goes shirtless while strumming his guitar and keeping his own little herd of doggies corralled from public view. What’s good for the cowboy should be good for the desnuda girls.

In these modern times, America should start treating breasts as no more shocking than a glimpse of stocking. Women have them, they are not going away and they do not represent a public danger. On Sunday, topless women not seeking tips but the equal freedom to air their chests held events in New York and elsewhere. Men, the real problem, ogled unhelpfully.

Yet the same arguments raised against the desnudas and their amateur sisters were once used to keep women at the beach looking like sea-going Amish, although if any woman tried to swim in those head-to-toe costumes she risked drowning.

When years later the bikini finally came into the sunlight, the predictions of moral doom thundered like the surf. The breasts are coming! The breasts are coming! Hide the kiddies!

Nobody hides the kiddies today, although bikinis are often tiny. They are accepted because at least a wisp of material covers the female parts equally loved and dreaded. The difference between morality and depravity is an absurd game of inches.

Of course, a valid time-and-place argument can be made. For example, topless women should not go to church services, as there’s nothing worse than a bust falling accidentally into the collection plate. But at Times Square and beaches? Not out of place there.

If anything, the prurience factor is more likely to fall when breasts are liberated. Titillation – that respectable word wonderfully suited to exposing lustful tendencies – is subverted by commonplace acceptance. Let the moralists keep their shirts on.

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at rhenry@post-gazette.com

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