You might remember this bit by College Humor in 2013, focusing on one of the most glaring TV gaps of our days…
The claim of these comedians and viewers is as legitimate now as it was then, two years ago : HBO still doesn’t strip its actors as much as its actresses, and it’s not Game of Thrones‘ season 5 that’s gonna change anything about that. On the contrary, it has multiplied the most gratuitous opportunities to display and eroticize the bodies of female characters, between Myranda, who seems to have expressly been created by the writers for this purpose, Melisandre who decidedly doesn’t fear winter’s coming, or Tyene Sand, more skilled with her tits than with her daggers – which is regrettable knowing that the Sand Snakes are infinitely badass in the books. Of course, these secondary sexual characters – breasts – are not the only ones involved, and the show also has plenty of butts and female pubic areas to go by. But when it comes to being face to face with Daenerys’ naked toy boy, there’s no one left.
The occurrence of male genitals has always been scarce on screen, and this hasn’t changed even though TV and cinema have overall relaxed about sex. Of course, American productions are still way more uptight when it comes to the representation of eroticized flesh than they are about flesh being torn ; the criteria of the Motion Picture Association of America make a movie rated R for the slightest sneakiest peek of a nipple, while gunshots may multiply, as long as they’re not bloody, and still be witnessed by everyone aged 13 and over. Broadcast networks can show autopsies but have to juggle allusive dialogs and suggestive scenes whenever they want to imply their characters have a sex life. We can expect something quite different from cable television : it has much more leeway and indeed uses this opportunity to show lots of blood and boobs… But no penis. This phenomenon seems even more remarkable when, at last, a sequence dares. For example, I was struck by one particular moment of Sense8 : but why should a male full frontal surprise me so ? Well, simply because it was the first in my history of watching series, however long and extensive.
All my viewing habits flashed before my eyes : I could find here or there one or two furtive phalluses, one of the most worthy of being remembered being Eric’s* in True Blood, but most of the time it’s just a matter of seemingly accidental appearances, so quick it’s actually a struggle to make a screenshot that’s not blurry. Besides, these rare occurrences are far from being erotic or eroticized : this is not Jaime who you see stepping out of his bath naked, but Hodor*. On the other hand, and knowing that I watch lots of HBO and Showtime shows, I couldn’t possibly recall every actresses I’ve seen in far longer and far more lascivious nude scenes. This is a clear reminder and example of male gaze, a sexist principle described in 1975 by the critic Laura Mulvey. The heterosexual male perspective assumed in most of fiction is likelier to create icons and objects of desire than real female characters, and tends to stage fetishized female bodies.
But these sexist norms of representation are not enough on their own to banish male genitalia from pictures : there’s also a taboo. Dodging penises is actually a tradition we inherited from Freud’s theory of visible male organs against the invisible « dark continent » of women, a theory that is now highly criticized and basically proven invalid. The rise of prudish moral standards in the Western course of the 19th century has constrained sexuality and condemned lack of what is considered decency ; the most obviously sexual part of the human body, some protruding and longish member, had to be hidden and still seems somehow much more obscene and shocking than female private parts. This is quite ironic : while cocks are completely forbidden, breasts are being ordered out of Instagram, Facebook and most public places (yup, it’s still a debate in 2015 to know whether or not you have the right to breastfeed outdoors) because they’re irremediably eroticized by some societies, but they’re still pervasively displayed on screens for the same reason. Hence a taboo that is both prioritized and selective, which for example disavows erect penises even more than flaccid ones – probably because they remind us too much of the porn industry. HBO thus denied Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow the right to show Adam Driver’s organ in such a state, even though the channel had accepted the presence of a few drops of his sperm in another episode of Girls.
These sexist ways and this reluctance are all the more surprising coming from the cable channel, that we can find the only exception to the phallic omerta in its programming : Oz, which overflows with penises. The exclusively male nudity here is an hapax, but appears in the special context of a prison series, and is tinged with intimidation, if not danger. This is another anomaly, the revealing of a penis being more often than not nowadays a sign of vulnerability or abnormality. The lack of representation can then also be explained by its symbolic value : a naked man, in mainstream media, is practically never presented as attractive or even ordinary because our collective psyche tends to see this is as a weaker position, easily mocked and ridiculed – hence, often played for laughs in fiction. It’s intimacy that is unveiled with genitals and it doesn’t go too well with manly stereotypes. We can assume that actors themselves must be unwilling to appear like this, and when they do it readily… other issues might come up : how can we interpret Louis C.K.’s exhibitionist streak in Lucky Louie and Louie now that he has allegedly sexually harassed some female coworkers ?
The territory of penises has to be conquered again in pop culture because a difference of treatment between men and women is sexist, and because it risks, eventually, to build a false, incomplete and simplistic understanding of male sexuality. During her lecture at the Séries Mania festival, Iris Brey explained how some shows must have played an empowering and educational role for their female viewership. Women’s bodies have indeed started being under the spotlight for some rather masturbatory purposes, but this excess of attention has allowed modern and non-conformist creators like Lena Dunham, Jill Soloway (Transparent) or Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) to write and direct outside of the norm, to deconstruct clichés and to use sexuality to add to their stories and not only to their audiences. A trend such as this one now exists among male creators as well, the Duplass brothers promising « a set of balls for each set of tits » in Togetherness and Russell T. Davis dedicating three series to the organ itself – Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. He’s not « out to shock », he says to the Telegraph : « It’s only [seen as] rude because the rest of television is rather tame – it doesn’t actually talk about sex and our bodies and how we feel about them », lots of important and fascinating issues for the future. On its part, Starz chooses to objectify male bodies the same way as female bodies, and actors bare it all for an egalitarian eroticization in Black Sails, Outlander or Spartacus. Are you ready for the release of penises ?
* : Google is your friend and you’re a grown up.