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The Penis Conundrum: The Hypocrisy Toward Male Nudity in Film

Written by: Melissa Muenz, Special to CC2K


ImageWhen I was in college I wrote a weekly movie review, which meant I saw a new release every week.  This meant that, inevitably, I saw a lot of crappy movies, one of which was 2007’s Beowulf.  Although this movie had a lot of laughable moments (Why does Beowulf yell his own name all the time?  Is he a Pokemon?), the one that sticks out for me is the scene where he fights Grendel.  Naked.  The scene showed Beowulf wielding his weapon, flying through the air, and of course, sending the shamed beast on his way.  But more impressive were the resources used by the filmmakers to shield Beowulf's penis: swords, rafters, shadows, cookware, victims—just about anything you can find in epic, literary poetry was creatively used to protect our eyes from Beowulf's dick.

ImageSomeone mentioned to me that this ridiculous scene was actually a literal adaptation from a line in the poem, but either way, it reminded me of a long held pet peeve I have.  It took me back to a year earlier, in 2006, when I saw movies like The Good Shepherd and Perfume: serious, R-rated movies, aimed at adults.  The former is a spy film directed by Robert De Niro about the roots of counterintelligence in the CIA.  Including scenes of fraternity-style hazing, extreme interrogation, and showering, there were at least three instances of male nudity where specific measures had to be taken to prevent any visual full-frontal action.  Steam in the shower, an object in the foreground, a fence post, or whatever was handy stuck awkwardly out in front of the space between Matt Damon's legs.  In Perfume, it was even worse.  The movie ends with a town-wide orgy.  The aerial shots show a whole mass of people writhing naked on the ground.  There are tits galore, but not a dick in sight.  I know, because I was looking.

While the critically acclaimed films of 2006 struck a nerve with me, my nitpicking about the lack of penises in film is not merely perverse in nature.  My desire to see a dick on the big screen is based in principle.  These were films meant for adults, and they presented audiences with naked men—and then went out of their way to censor the nudity.  Somebody behind the camera had to be saying "Yes, we can do this nude scene.  But hold on, what object can we use to obscure Matt Damon's penis?"  Because god forbid Americans over the age of 17 see a penis!  Let's be grown-ups here.  If that's the attitude film studios are taking about genitalia, then why even have a scene where Matt Damon showers? Why not just say, "Audiences can't handle naked men," and have that be the end of the story?

The answer is because Hollywood audiences like to feel scandalized, but only a little bit.  There's plenty of criticism surrounding how American film glorifies violence but uses censorship when it comes to sexuality.  Most mainstream filmgoers are OK with explosions, but nudity makes them uncomfortable.  But in many instances, they'll still let it slide.  While you're not likely to be seeing any dicks in the Oscar nominees anytime soon, you can still see most of a breast in a PG-13 horror film.  It's a confused standard based on rationing out bodies and gender.

ImageBut fortunately, we're moving forward—sort of.  Although they're certainly not getting any Oscar nods, movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and this year's Zack and Miri Make a Porno flash some male members.  They've successfully survived without getting their R-ratings bumped up to an NC-17, and they both did well critically, for the most part.

But of course, these successes in male nudity are unrelated to the absence of penises in adult films in some key ways.  In both of the aforementioned examples, the appearance of the dick is packaged as a joke.  While we can see tits galore in all kinds of contexts—tits in a sexy shower, tits as a joke, tits running away in fear—penises are generally flashed for comedic shock value only.  "Hah! Look, a dick!  I didn't expect that!  HAH!"

Perhaps it’s the male gaze behind the camera: ladies are sexy, men are funny buffoons (see: every sitcom, ever made, ever, for more examples of this).  But maybe the comedic presence of the penis will lead to bigger, better things.  Unfortunately, it seems as though the penis will have to be used mainly for inducing guffaws for now.  The shock value has yet to wear off.  But maybe, just maybe, when the visual dick joke becomes passé—which may take awhile, seeing as how we've yet to make it past spoken dick jokes—there can be hope.  Maybe the male member will eventually cease to be a novelty, and we can take it like we take the rest of a naked body: slightly arousing, but without it being a big deal.  And with any luck, we will love sex as much as we love violence in years to come.

Author: Melissa Muenz, Special to CC2K

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