Of course, it’s not the first time actors have bared more than their souls on film—who can forget the touchingly sexy image of Harvey Keitel literally going native in The Piano (he had already appeared naked the year before in 1992’s Bad Lieutenant)? Kevin Bacon did it in Wild Things, and for a time it seemed Ewan McGregor couldn’t keep his pants on.
Yet the sight of male genitalia in the movies or on TV still manages to cause a kind of embarrassed discomfort that bared breasts do not. Perhaps it’s because men were in Hollywood’s decision-making positions of power (hard to imagine John Wayne or Cary Grant being commanded to go commando). And what powerful man really wants to expose that most basic symbol of virility in its flaccid, floppy form? And who the heck wants to pay ten bucks to see that?
But in the age of Hillary, men may want to get used to the male member being objectified and thus robbed of its power—much the same way the naked female form has been used by men to strip women of their allure.
Indeed, with women continuing to take over roles of power—studio heads, screenwriters and directors—perhaps there will soon be a future where it won’t just be the female actresses worrying over nudity clauses. Ms. Mort, who is HBO’s first female show runner, said that her decision to show male nudity wasn’t an intentional strike for feminism.
“It wasn’t like I said, ‘Oh, we’ve looked at women’s bodies for so long, let’s look at men’s.’ But I would never for a moment hesitate to, in the interest of equality in every way, I would never show a woman and not a man,” she said. “A guy’s penis is the same as a woman’s breast or vagina. I don’t understand the difference in respect to showing something. But people really do freak out about the guys.”
But we know (have known, in fact, since preschool days) that men and women are different. If the female sex organ is, as Freud believed, a desirous yet terrifying place (with teeth!), what to do about the fact that male genitalia are often used as (to mix bodily metaphors for a moment) the butt of a joke? Audiences literally howled last year while watching the infamous Borat scene when Ken Davitian’s scrotum practically suffocated Sacha Baron Cohen during their naked wrestling match. Last Saturday Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg picked up an Emmy for their Saturday Night Live sketch/Internet sensation “Dick in a Box.” And on Sunday, Larry David ate a chocolate cake baked into the shape of a giant penis on this season’s premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm. If the male gaze is constantly longing for a flash of illicit female flesh, women’s counter-desire seems to be … a little bit different.
“I don’t know how you can walk around with those things,” said Elaine on Seinfeld, perhaps summing up for her entire gender some deep, basic confusion between the sexes.
In February The New York Times reported on the controversy raised when Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky won the prestigious children’s literature award, the Newbery Medal. Librarians were scandalized over the inclusion of the word “scrotum” (which is where a snake happens to bite a dog): “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.” Indeed.