So a tidbit that is circulating on the Internet these days holds the following gem:
“In the 1930s, men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way. In 1930, four men went topless to Coney Island and were arrested. In 1935, a flash mob of topless men descended upon Atlantic City, 42 of whom were arrested. Men fought and they were heard, changing not only laws but social consciousness. And by 1936, men’s bare chests were accepted as the norm.” (Sourced from here and reappearing on other stories, such as here.)
Now I have no opposition to the cause as specified but I do have a problem with history being twisted to support any cause, and in doing some solid research with Google Books and online I cannot find one reference to either the “flash mob in 1935” or to the four brave men arrested in 1930 for stomping around Coney Island bare chested.
What I did find though shows that this issue is, like anything, far more complicated than a simple link of “male nipples were bad up to 1930 and then there was mass protest and suddenly male nipples were cool! Go team woman and freeing nipples! Our struggle is the same!”
I did find links however to documented sources that indicate males were arrested as early as 1910 for “topless bathing” and that this regulation varied based on municipality and cultural norms of the region. At least one source commented that in the United States the west coast was very relaxed about men swimming topless on the beach while on the east coast people remained very restrictive on the practice. Histories of Coney Island show that up through the 1910s and 1920s there was a regular on-going battle between men swimming topless and local authorities arresting and fining them.
The collapse of this prohibition was very gradual, Ocean City, another famous resort, maintained and enforced a law against male topless bathing as late as 1939 and only fully abandoned it officially by 1945.
The other argument of the meme, that Clark Gable was the first to appear naked and manly, nipple all ablaze, on screen in 1934’s It Happened One Night is an argument more easily disproved. Gable, as seen above in all his sexy power, did indeed appear on screen sans a shirt in 1934, his movie was one of the last films released by Hollywood before the enforcement of the Hayes Code, which meant this was one of the last films seen for a while that would comfortably show off male half-nudity on camera.
This is an image from the film Tarzan the Ape Man which was released in 1932, a full two years before It Happened One Night and I would note for my readers that the male actor above is wearing no top and his man nipples are in full display for the viewing audiences pleasure. Yes this was an actual scene from the movie, yes it was distributed in the United States widely, and yes it did do well in theaters so quite a few people went to see it.
This image is also from the same 1932 film and that is a bare chested Tarzan counting Jane’s toes so he can learn the basics of counting. Yes the scene was included deliberately to be sexually provocative and yes, Hollywood fully intended to signal to the audience “His chest is bare, her feet are bare, and she is thinking Naughty Sexual Thoughts About Him.” At the end of the film Jane chooses to remain with Tarzan and spend time with him in his jungle kingdom and yes, Hollywood wanted you to realize they were totally going to do it together, often.
So please no one arguing that the above bare chested scene “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t displayed in a sexually provocative manner but instead was some sort of “detached wild man” moment. It wasn’t.
As I said above I don’t have a problem with women being allowed to go bare-chested if they wish, personally I think public decency laws should be written to be gender-neutral. However the laws in the 1930s (and before) weren’t written to be gender neutral, they were as sexist as modern laws prohibiting women showing off their nipples and allowing men to do so instead.
From what I’ve found the laws prohibiting male topless bathing were written to prohibit it in mixed company, meaning men just hanging out with men could be topless (and in some municipalities even swim naked if precautions were taken.) Those precautions, and the law in general, were written to prevent women from seeing bare male nipples as it was thought obscene to expose women to bare male chests. So these decency laws were written from a sexist perspective that women might be shocked or offended seeing bare-chested males, but had no problems with men seeing each other topless.
Which to my eye is even more sexist than the current laws we have, at least in its intention.
Fight the good cause if you wish, and believe me I support you men and women who want gender nipple equality, just please don’t twist history to bolster your argument.
P.S. – If you do find a source showing the famous 1930 four men arrested for nipple exposure in protest, that links to a reputable primary period source or a reputable secondary source citing that primary source, by all means share!
Sources: Wikipedia on Tarzan the Ape Man and It Happened One Night, entries in Coney Island by John S. Berman, The 1930s by William H. Young & Nancy K. Young, Life Magazine article on the subject in 1938 (which shows it didn’t all end by 1936), Ocean City: America’s Greatest Family Resort by Fud Miller & Fred Miller, Adam’s Naval: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man… by John F. Kasson, and Brooklyn Streetcars by the Branford Electric Railway Association