Why Hollywood keeps the penis out of sight

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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 phallus is traditionally a symbolic representation of the erect penis, however it cannot be reduced to the penis because it is also a symbol for fertility and power in general. The Indo-European roots of the word signify (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) “To blow, to swell: with derivative reference to various round objects and the notion of tumescent masculinity.” Lacan notes that the phallus can signify “the flow of life.” Therefore, the term ‘phallus’ is very ambiguous, oscillating between its role as ‘signifier’ and its role as a real (or imagined) penis. If you are thinking of a rock-hard monolith or obelisk when you hear “phallus,” that’s the idea.

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

A brief history of the rise of the phallus in the West is worth mentioning. As New York University’s Samual Slipp summarizes it (drawing from Joseph Campbell), around the time human civilization moved from horticultural modes of production into agrarian modes of production, the imagery of the great mother goddess was supplanted with that of a male god, and phallic symbols (such as Stonehenge, tombstones, and Christmas trees) became more important than yonic symbols of the womb. Along with the establishment of magical powers associated with the phallus (real and imagined), there appeared an accompanying change in society and gender roles. “Phallocentrism” gradually evolved, “and in time became the most common form of social organization throughout the world.” Interestingly, it seems that as the phallus, aka “God’s Penis,” gained visibility in society, man’s penis lost it. Let us now take a quick look at the gradual fall of the penis.

The Fall of The Penis

To begin with, we know that penises were not “off-limits” in ancient Greece; seeing them in public was common, and even feeling them was considered a sign of friendliness. Apparently, in some cases, it was rude not to! Grabbing a man’s penis was like a handshake. Such relaxed manners quickly disappeared in Europe. However, into the 12th century, Norbert Elias notes that it was common to see men and women in the streets running naked to their local public bathhouses. There was totally normal public nudity. Can you imagine? Due in part to the lack of medical knowledge pertaining to gender distinction, and different notions of public and private space, for a minute, nudity lied outside western codes of decency. (Doctors during this time were still using and teaching antiquity’s Galen orthodoxy that maintains a “single-sex” view of the two bodies. Women were simply cold, “underdeveloped” men whose penises never dropped. Luce Irigaray argues that Western social relations are still based on this single-sex view, which she marks “phallocentrism”).

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.”

Which brings us back to the phallus. The phallus, according to Lacan, is not the penis; It can signify the penis, but it can also signify power, vital life, or the ultimate “object” of desire. The phallus is “imaginary,” whereas the penis is “real.” The imaginary penis becomes a phallus, a status actual penises can never achieve. Central to my argument is Lacan’s notion that the phallus plays its role only when veiled. He gives the example of classical paintings that invoke the phallus by curiously depicting men without penises but with flowers or drapery just barely covering that area anyway. (See The Dangerous Maybe’s great summary of Lacan’s notion of the phallus).

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

The concept of “the gaze” is central to all film and is deeply influenced by phallocentrism. Within feminist literature, “the gaze” often refers to how, in cinema, heterosexual men possess “the gaze” and women are its “object.” This is one reason given for the disparity between female and male nudity in film. The controlling gaze in Hollywood cinema is almost always male, and this “male gaze” is objectifying, voyeuristic, eroticizing, and is considered a straight-male privilege. A Foucaultian analysis by Florance D. Bookadian concludes that veiling the penis from “the gaze” is directly connected to power relations in contemporary American culture. In order to keep their privileged position, the heterosexual man must keep his own body out of the “perific ring” of the female and homosexual male gaze. The naked female makes it to center stage, while “the overseer in the tower sits in his protective darkness.” This “overseer” can refer to a man in the story, or it can refer to the audience of the film. For example, In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), repeated emphasis is placed on the naked male body being looked at by characters within the story, while the audience of the film is denied the view. One reason for this denial, Lehman argues, is to protect a man’s sense of masculinity. As Philip Culbersrtson puts it, “To gaze at another man re-positions a straight man as a gay man, thereby shattering his fragile masculinity.” It is only through protecting masculinity from homosexuality that a phallic political power (such as America) can assure its own authority into the future.

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

Despite the lack of clinical evidence for psychoanalysis, contemporary film theory still heavily relies on Freud’s important work. According to Freud, all heterosexual men necessarily harbor a repressed homosexual component of their sexuality (but not all of them become paranoid as a result). During the “phallic phase,” a boy loves his penis, and want to see others. Moreover, Freud maintained that the boy’s “love affair with the penis” actually motivates all discovery, all research, and all science. However, the sight of another man’s penis can create a great deal of anxiety for homophobic men who may become disturbed at finding themselves fascinated by it or deriving pleasure from looking at it. A study done at the University of Georgia found that homophobic straight men get aroused much more often than non-homophobic straight men while looking at gay male porn.

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

Maintaining imaginary phallic power through controlling the gaze and perpetuating homophobia are not the only reasons the penis is kept out of Hollywood film and the media; men can also simply be ashamed of their penis size. After all, the penis is extremely important in a man’s identity, so much so that he sometimes identifies with it exclusively. In an article a few years ago, political theorist Mark Kingwell rationalized: “Guys don’t like to see penises in film because they are either too small (in travel mode) and therefore not worth all the fuss, or too big (in action mode) and so threatening to self-esteem.” Norbort Elias, in The Civilising Process, argues that every new level of civilization requires a new level of shame, and not surprisingly, in our current “Information Age” of civilization, American men have the “locker-room syndrome” where they “dissolve into panic about the size of their penis.” Americans are obsessed with penis size. The amount of “penis-size jokes” can be a sign of our culture’s anxiety about penis size. American men may fear that the representation of the penis gives women a basis for comparison and judgment and, although they have long engaged in such behavior toward women, the thought of the tables being turned on them is close to unbearable.

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

Is it surprising that what we call the United States today has had more problems with full-frontal male nudity than any other western culture? Last time I checked, U.S. public television stations are fined $275,000 every time they show an “offensive” male nude. American film distributors seem to censor the penis specifically. Sony Classics decided to cut all the scenes including Ewan McGregor’s penis for the US release of Young Adam (2003), although his naked body remains in the UK version. The film Sliver (1993) was originally shot with a great deal of full-frontal nudity of actor Alec Baldwin, but none of those scenes survived the final cut. And while all viewers of Stanly Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut(1999) were permitted to gaze at a dozen or more full-frontal nude female characters, Americans were denied access to all the scenes of full-frontal male nudity. Dark clothed figures were even digitally inserted into the American version to obscure the nude men.

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 Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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