Why Hollywood keeps the penis out of sight

Michelangelo Buonarroti’s The Pieta, The Pity, photographed by Aurelio Amendola.

Hollywood has a strange relationship with the penis. Or rather, Americans have a strange relationship with the penis. Peter Lehman summarizes it best: “In order to take narrative cinema’s powerfully ideal male body seriously, we must not see its literal truth.” In Running Scared: Masculinity and the representation of the male body (2001), Lehman points out that there are only a few reasons Hollywood films will show the penis: as cringe/a cruel joke (if it's small), as a phallic spectacle (usually shrouded), or as a melodramatic accent (such as on a dead body). And in those cases, the penis is usually fake! What’s the big deal? In this essay I’ll add to Lehmen to address three reasons why mainstream Hollywood films and prestige television do not and cannot show the penis, and in doing so, I hope to upset the “phallus-penis equation” discussed in film and psychoanalytic circles–this underlying principle upon which “hegemonic masculinity” and patriarchal power relations — “phallocentrism” — are founded. I conclude that censoring the penis in film and television actually harms society and, conversely, demystifying the penis by exposing it in film greatly benefits society on many levels.

Why exactly is that small, fleshy organ so charged with significance it has become “the last great taboo in our culture”? Hollywood is an overwhelmingly straight-male-dominated industry catering primarily to straight men, so the question can more specifically be, why are straight, North American male spectators so uncomfortable looking at a penis?

Obviously, many of these cinematic decisions are influenced by censorship laws — the display of the penis can immediately push a film into an NC-17 rating category, thereby reducing its ticket sales. But that does not answer the question as to why male full-frontal nudity is so taboo. We must look to the developmental, sociological, and psychological dimensions of the penis if we want a comprehensive answer.

Let’s do it. During my research, I found three irreducible issues surrounding men’s refusal to represent their penises in film: the male gaze, homophobia, and size anxiety, all of which relate to the “phallus” and phallocentric social power relations. Therefore I will begin my argument there, with the concept of the phallus.

The Phallus

The Rise of the Phallus aka “God’s Penis”

The Fall of The Penis

Susan Bordo tells a similar story. Up until the eighteenth century, there were not radically different “masculine” and “feminine” attitudes towards the body or its social display. Standards of elegance were largely the same for both sexes, since class privilege was more important than gender differences in distinguishing people. Everyone wore dresses and makeup. Also, as Foucault ably demonstrates in The History of Sexuality, modernity’s differentiation of the sexes is correlated with a newfound social obsession with sexuality. Never, it seems, had so much attention been focused on the body and its genitalia. As Dreyfus and Rabinow note, “sex became the object of a major investment of signification, of power, and of knowledge.” William Irwin Thompson lectures brilliantly on sexual repression and the “other Victorians,” remarking how repression is like pushing down on a spring.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, patriarchal power relations increased and caused masculinity to become clearly defined as “not-femininity.” Manliness was understood as bravery so that femininity was cowardice. Both femininity and homosexuality became classified as cultural “problems” which the normal, heterosexual male had to continually prove himself distinct from — an exhausting gender project.

“No phallus, no power. Know Phallus, know power.”

What this all means is that the absence of the penis in American media allows for an imaginary penis, or phallus, to take its place. This is dangerous since the phallus-penis equation is the basis for hegemonic masculinity and phallocentrism.

I am using Irigaray’s concept of phallocentrism because it not only refers to the “overvaluation of the penis,” but also the continuing “submersion of women’s autonomy in norms, ideals, and models devised by men.” Mirroring the “single-sex” version of the body, Irigaray notes also that phallocentrism treats the two sexes as if they are two variations of the one sex, “and, not surprisingly, positions women as man’s inferior, the ‘castrated sex’.” To repeat Peter Lehman’s argument, more public nudity will uncover that “all penises are inadequate to the phallus,” thus decentralizing phallic power in the male body and deconstructing the patriarchic, phallocentric social power relations that depend upon their equation. Lehman: “The phallus not only haunts the penis, but the penis haunts phallic authority, threatens its undoing.” Therefore, Susan Bordo argues:

“Patriarchal culture generally wants the penis out of sight.”

But not all Western “patriarchal” cultures hysterically avoid or regulate the spectacle of the penis. Lee Parpart, in her essay The Nation and the Nude, colonial masculinity and the spectacle of the male body in recent Canadian cinema (2001), makes a compelling argument for looking at national identity types as a major factor in how male bodies are represented in film. She compares Canada’s ability to portray naked men in film to The United State’s inability, concluding that countries who are more invested in a phallocentric “colonial” identity will keep their men’s penises out of sight. It’s a military thing. Canada, Switzerland, France, Holland — nations that “are not heavily invested in empowered nationhood and dominant masculinity” have less of a problem representing their men’s genitalia in film. Gary Needman points out that full-frontal male nudity is actually expected in French Cinema, which he says is a sign of their sexual maturity.

Sometimes Hollywood and prestige television does show the penis. However, Lee Parpart laments that Americans and Holywood may think they are ready to embrace “new scripts of masculinity” by exposing the penis in ways that “signal a distancing from patriarchal concepts of phallic power,” but often the penis turns out to be a safe, fake, or barely visible substitute, “rather than an image carrying any kind of potentially de-phallicizing, indexical relation to a bodily real.”

The Male Gaze

Charles Keil, associate professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto, found that when male nudity is allowed to enter the gaze, it is often when the character is gay, bisexual, or in some other way non-threatening to the straight white man. “Once a character’s sexuality is defined that way, it gives the filmmaker license to view him as more overtly sexualized, and perhaps as less obviously ‘masculine’, and therefore subject to a similar kind of visual logic applied to women.” Keil explains, “It’s almost as though by being gay, a character has entered a zone distinct from heterosexual male characters and then he can be shown in ways that women typically are.”

Homophobia

The irony is that hiding the penis helps eroticize it, because most people see the penis only in erotic contexts, such as during lovemaking or while watching pornography. Interestingly, Florence Dee Boodakian found that, unlike the male nude, the female nude can never reach the level of ‘bareness’ that the nude male can, and is thus never fully eroticized. Censoring the penis, in this way, not only perpetuates its eroticization but is a confession that the penis is indeed erotic, at least to the men concerned with its censorship.

Homophobia may be useful for phallocentric societies but it can be very dangerous for the physical well-being of men and women. For example, Andrea Dworkin (1981) provides a compelling argument that male homophobia relates directly to hypermasculinity and its resulting sexual violence against women.

Size Matters

Richard Dyer’s memorable words, “The penis isn’t a patch on the phallus,” reiterates how seeing the penis becomes a disappointment when the phallus is expected. Dyer concludes, “The limp penis can never match up to the mystique that has kept it hidden from view for the last couple of centuries.” The erect penis seems to fall even shorter to the mystique of the phallus than the flaccid one; it is even more heavily censored in American film. Amazon.com, for example, has a list of “mainstream movies” that show the male penis in both erect and flaccid states. The list is “intended for those people who claim there is not enough male nudity in mainstream movies,” and yet none of the movies mentioned in the list are mainstream movies. It begins with Ken Park (2002), which must be imported from abroad because it is not distributed in the United States, and the rest are all foreign and independent films.

In an attempt to cover all the bases and be as comprehensive as possible, I outlined the developmental, psychological, and sociological dynamics underlying men’s complex relationship with their penises and their representation in film. Maintaining the male gaze, homophobia, and anxiety about penis size all contribute to the penis being censored from Hollywood cinema. Within this triple layer of fearfulness, (all three related to phallocentrism and white settler colonialism), the easiest thing to do is just not show the penis.

Conclusion

Let’s bring our attention back to that which really matters: the children. Numerous studies indicate that nudity at home actually benefits children, and yet, due to its treatment in the family and the media, “virtually every American child over the age of five has already concluded that genitals are shameful and eroticism a clear ‘no-no’.”

The media communicates a certain set of values, and young people often turn to the media for answers about issues associated with their bodies and sexuality. Though sexual imagery and behavior are common in the media, (as evidenced in soap operas, movies, reality tv-shows, magazines, and music videos), it almost never displays full-frontal nudity. The media’s treatment of sexuality may seem more relaxed than ever, but rather than this being a sign of liberation, it is, as Elias says again and again, simply a sign that the civilizing process which keeps nudity out of sight has been, on the whole, secured. “It is a relaxation within the framework of an already established standard.” Full nudity, in particular male genitalia, is still completely taboo.

The problem is that children don’t see any genitals in their world, on television, in the news, or in movies, and this censorship confuses their own relationship with their bodies and others. Moreover, the genitals and bodies that they do see in their world are of those who are secure in the knowledge that theirs conform to current western standards. The rest are kept covered or are blacked out with censorship dots.

Scenes with penises in Hollywood films and prestige TV may be slowly emerging, but it is no surprise that the taboo of full-frontal male nudity still lingers on considering the phallocentric politics and American hegemonic masculinity which it perpetuates and follows from.

It is said that analyzing pleasure or beauty destroys it. That was the intention of this paper — to analyze, and therefore help destroy, phallocentrism and toxic, hegemonic, settler-colonial masculinity. I found that the more penises are hidden from view, the more the symbolic phallus can take their place and function as a support for hegemonic masculinity and phallocentric power relations.

Please contact me for a fully cited version of this essay.

Painter and Professor of Art