In one of the many (many) startling scenes in the new HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, which debuted Sunday night, a young, attractive married couple sit side by side on a sofa, watching a boxing match on TV. The wife unbuckles her husband’s pants, and after some noisy kissing, she pulls away and says, “I want to see it.” She sees it and—holy cow—so do we.
Over the past few months, the breathy buzz on the show—about married and almost-married couples in various stages of intimacy-related despair and dishabille—has centered on the amount of its frank sexual content. And it was there all right—from minute two, when a man masturbates under the covers, to real-time full-monty couplings, to angelic, white-haired Jane Alexander kissing meaningfully down her husband’s graying chest. Throughout the hour, as bodies moved and eyefuls of flesh and bikini waxes flashed, it was still the sight of that erect penis being clinically manipulated into a graphic orgasm that prompted did-I-just-see-what-I-think-I-saw gapes from less action-packed couches nationwide.
“That scene … who knew that would be the most shocking?” said Tell Me You Love Me’s 47-year-old creator Cynthia Mort, a day after the show’s premiere. She insisted that when she wrote the pilot, she was not thinking about sackfuls of sex on the show. “I have to say, some of the guys [actors] were more squeamish than the women were about taking their clothes off. They’re not used to it. They’re not used to being exposed in every way,” she said. “One thing the show is doing, I hope, is giving guys a voice emotionally. You can’t do that unless you’re honest and authentic in every way. If that means showing them in bed nude … well, I don’t know a guy who has sex with his underwear on.”
But if a casual survey of initial male reaction to the show is any gauge, many men may not be so keen to be given a voice emotionally if it also means the male member is going to be on conspicuous, prime-time display. Just as the cinematic baring of female breasts led many women to compare themselves and despair, putting the male organ out their for public consumption may strike many men as disempowering, deflating and just plain icky.
“Male nudity—full-frontal nudity—has always been considered a lot more taboo than female nudity,” said Darren Star, executive producer of Sex and the City. “As far back as I can remember, there’s been a double standard between men and women. I think it’s time that men get equal time in terms of nudity.”
Ask and ye shall receive! Slowly but surely a seismic shift is occurring across the entertainment landscape: men are dropping trou, and penises and testicles are seemingly everywhere, flapping in the breeze. This year, major franchise players like Lord of the Rings’ and X-Men’s Sir Ian McKellen (“Gandalf’s Gonads!” cheered the British press) and Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe have continued the theater’s (always ahead of its cinematic cousin) tradition of disrobing on the stage. Three movies currently working the festival circuit, and pointing toward award-show glory, all offer an eyeful more than what we’re used to from established actors. There’s Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated Lust, Caution, which this week snagged top honors with the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival despite the film’s graphic sex and partial male nudity (compliments of famed Hong Kong star Tony Leung). Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, contains a scene of Emile Hirsch (certainly all grown up from his The Girl Next Door days) floating au natural down an Alaskan stream. And Viggo Mortensen heroically fights for his life wearing only his tattoos in one of the more gripping scenes in the David Cronenberg thriller Eastern Promises. One could be forgiven for wondering: Is the scrotum the new cleavage?
“David [Cronenberg] is great,” said Mr. Mortensen, via phone from the Toronto Film Festival. ”He said, ‘It’s got to be like this, if you’re okay with it. It’s uncomfortable, but it won’t be exploitative. It’s integral to the story and I will do my best to make you as comfortable as I can.’ And I knew that.” Mr. Mortensen’s ballsy moment takes place in a London bathhouse as his character, an enigmatic toughie rising through the ranks of a Russian mob family, is taken by surprise when attacked by two fully clothed men while wearing only a towel (which falls by the wayside during battle). The savage scene is made more poignant by the sight of Mr. Mortensen’s soft exposed parts; it’s an added layer of vulnerability that throws the brutality of physical violence into sharper focus. “[David Cronenberg] said, ‘You know, there’s this scene in a bathhouse, and there’s a towel, and I don’t know … in the script, all it says is that you’re attacked. How do you see that?’ And I said, ‘I think it should be as realistic as everything else and what everyone else does in this story. There’s no reason to make it look pretty, or conceal, or be vain about it. It should be as awkward and vulnerable and ugly as it needs to be.’
“It has gotten people’s attention because it’s unusual. And it’s also unusual to see it in such a straightforward manner,” Mr. Mortensen continued. “It’s not glamorized. I guess it’s not the most attractive of things to see … but it’s what it needed to be.”
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.
IT’S NOT AS IF IT’S HARD to find your fill of naked flesh. There are Web sites devoted to paparazzi snaps of nipple slips and underwear-less crotches stepping out of limos. “You can watch the Playboy channel and get that,” said Mr. Star. “It’s when you put nudity together with good storytelling and actors. That’s when it suddenly becomes taboo.
“Europeans have a totally different attitude about it,” he added. “I think the fact that we haven’t seen it in this country before is why it is so shocking when we do see it.” (He added that as far as he could recall, there was little if any frontal male nudity in Sex and the City.)
Many would argue that the real drama behind Tell Me You Love Me is not the sex, but what fuels (or deadens) it in an unhappy relationship: anger, frustration, desperation, and sometimes a little bit of hate. “I don’t think I could do an honest show if we closed our eyes in what I believe are people’s most intimate and complicated and painful moments,” Ms. Mort said. “If you’re not honest there, I think that hurts all the other attempts at honesty on the show. I never wanted to shy away. I always thought it stupid, I thought it was irritating—people are too savvy and too aware, to follow cutaways and sex under a blanket. Those dissolves? They’re so old-fashioned.”
It remains to be seen how people will respond to the show. “I like any show that tries to be entertaining and truthful and honest at the same time—which is what I think they’re attempting to do,” said Mr. Star.
As for Ms. Mort, she clearly has no problems foraging into places men—and women—haven’t gone before. “There is a moment of shock,” she admitted. “But I really believe it’s less about women having to do it, or men having to do it, but more that there is no reason any longer to not show what you need to show—male or female. Guys just have to get used it. That’s just the way it is.”