Naked, a film by Mike Leigh, can be viewed as an illustration of class conflict within a Thatcher and post-Thatcher Britain. The Conservative Party, dismantled an admittedly inefficient welfare state, but also dismantled a nation’s morality and beliefs, to replace it with shallow values where money and image were the top of the heap. After ten years of capitalist banality the already severely stratified classes in Britain were left more divided, more bitter, and for those at the bottom, less secure than ever before.
Thatcherism widened the class gap in Britain, and stirred up class loathing and resentment to unforeseen proportions. Naked rather neatly presents this class friction, and the differences and similarities between the "have" and "have-nots".
An aggressively capitalist system, such as the one encouraged by Thatcherism is dependent upon exploitation and contrived hatred. It is not a coincidence that sexism, racism and "classism" have reared their ugly head with a vengeance in the past fifteen years. The upper classes exploit the lower in pursuit of profit and sexist and racist policies are enacted in order to misdirect the anger of the working classes. While a white man is throwing bricks at an immigrant, he can’t be throwing them at his boss. If women are kept too busy trying to merely get hired in the workplace, they’ll be too grateful for the job to notice that they’re being paid twenty percent less than the men.
Jeremy, with his coy pseudonym, is the personification of the oppressive upper classes. He is abusive, misogynistic and a rapist. However, his prey is always outside of his class, of course. A good chap doesn’t attack his own class, they’re human beings and, to his mind, the waitress he picked up at a restaurant is not, nor was Sophie, nor, one suspects, were any women he may have victimized in his unspoken, ugly past. The working class exists to be exploited, in any way the upper class sees fit - not just in the workplace.
Johnny and Jeremy are frighteningly similar, despite the obvious differences of financial and social mobility. Johnny is a product of the urban, economically depressed north of England. He is violent and misogynistic, a stereotypical northerner, in a Briton’s eyes. But, also still within the type, he is resourceful and rather cunning.
Johnny’s part of England was the hardest hit by the negative effects of the policies of Thatcher’s Conservative Party. The cutting of benefits such as health care and unemployment and the privatization of national heavy industry, such as steel and oil, and complete dissolution of others, with the resulting job loss in the urbanized north was tantamount to a pink slip to every worker north of London, and Thatcher and her ilk neither disguised that fact nor apologized for it.
Poverty and extreme circumstance can change a man, but I suspect that even Margaret Thatcher cannot be blamed for Johnny’s behavior, but his cynicism and retreat into metaphysical, Sophistic arguments, such as the lecture on impending Armageddon that Johnny gave a complacent security guard, where the real world cannot intrude is a reaction to the bleakness of England. A person can’t get a job, can’t survive on the dole, and can’t walk on the streets safely, of course they are going to find something to retreat into.
Johnny would be the archetypical disaffected, self-educated worker. However, rather than illuminating the masses, or just working to change the system as the socialist predecessors of Thatcherism might prefer, Johnny, apparently intentionally, spreads as much discord as his equally vicious upper-class counterpart.
Jeremy is as happy as a pig in muck. From his cultivated image - complete with Porsche - and the somewhat artificial upper class accent favored by his kind, Jeremy is one of England’s own young urban professionals. Like their American counterparts, they grew fat through the economic and social climate fostered by the right wing during the eighties. This class was the only class to be coddled by Thatcherites. As long as they were creating lots of revenue for the government, they could get away with anything and Jeremy does.
Jeremy and his kind have replaced the decaying aristocracy and the top pig in the financial and social pile. They are rich and speak with the correct accent, and are therefore are treated deferentially by the Powers That Be. Both Johnny and Jeremy are rapists - the opening scene strongly suggests in on Johnny’s part - but if they were both brought up on charges, one of them would almost certainly walk away as easily as he did in the movie, and it ain’t Johnny. This is what Thatcherism has taught us, that with enough money and the right accent, for, of course, accent has always denoted class, you can get away with anything.
Jeremy’s treatment of women throughout the film is a classic example of how working class women have been treated for centuries. They are present for the upper class to use as they see fit, all too often as outlets for sexual "expression" (rape is hardly an expression of individuality) that would be considered unacceptable within one’s own class. Jeremy is seen once with a woman who is close to or of the same class as him, at dinner . She as a member of his class, is not impressed by anything he has to offer, does not fear the position his class gives him, as she has a similar position herself, and turns him down flat. She does not need to fear any reprisal, social or otherwise, as Jeremy is merely a contemporary, not her superior, and she knows it. However, the waitress he immediately picks up on, is vastly impressed by his car, his apartment, with the champagne she drinks, and is violently abused by him. He doesn’t care, she’s not human.
Both characters are more than physically abusive. Johnny is a master of verbal abuse, somewhat more erudite than Jeremy. Jeremy’s callous remark to Sophie "I hope I didn’t give you AIDS" after raping her, is a blunt instrument to Johnny’s precise, extended tirade against a complete stranger who allows him to come into her house and take a shower. In a struggle where usually they with the most money wins, the spoken and written word is one of the last weapons left to the oppressed.
But Johnny is in no position to engage in any verbal cut and thrust (or assault and battery) while Jeremy is imposing upon Louise, Sophie and Sandra. Actions, or threats, speak louder than words in the end. While a viewer may wish that Louise make good on her knife wielding gesture in the kitchen, for her to do so would be disastrous. The possibility may arise where the audience might feel a modicum of sympathy for Jeremy and therefore for the scumbag, rapine class he represents.
When the upper classes have managed to antagonize the lower to this extreme degree, the upper class is in danger. The lower classes may reach a point where they are willing to ignore their internal struggles, and band together against their oppressor. Louise was sufficiently galvanized not to give a damn about the fate of the lease to threaten Jeremy, the only form of expression open to her. She wouldn’t have been able to talk to him. To Jeremy, Louise and her class are little better than beasts of burden, and certainly not capable of having hurt feelings, well, none that can’t be cured with money.
Examining Naked as an example of the class struggle is well and good, but it begs the question of why was the film made? Why present the audience with a film that can be interpreted in the above light. It’s a question that is asked of all films, but is particularly difficult to answer when considering Mike Leigh’s particular method of film making. The screenplay was achieved only after long improvisational exercises by the actors, a time consuming, yet apparently rewarding practice. Through what admittedly little reading I have done on the film, mostly mainstream reviews and features of Mike Leigh himself, it seems that a deliberate statement on class wasn’t forefront in his mind during the evolution of this film None the less, it is still there. Is it to sensitize the audience to the class situation in Britain? I doubt it. Rather, I believe if the audience is being asked to become more aware to how the contemporary Briton has changed. Naked is an illustration of how individuals have been affected by over a decade of a government with policies that place more importance on what a person is, their net worth as tax revenue production units, rather than how the people are. Johnny’s cynicism, Jeremy’s brutality, Louise’s quiet resignation, Sophie’s neuroses and Sondra’s priggishness can be ascribed to the national attitude of the Conservative Party since 1979.