When Jason Segel treated us to a glimpse of his impressive manhood in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it seemed to herald a new age of nude equality. Finally, we would see penises and scrotums in all their glory on par with the ubiquitous female breasts, butts and vulvas that flood the screen.
Alas, that didn’t happen. Segel’s dangling member was not enough to kill the patriarchy and penises remain in short supply. Subscription networks like HBO and Showtime are allowed to show more flesh and toss f-bombs more freely than their basic cable counterparts and they take every advantage—with women. On shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld, we’re treated to a long parade of naked female bodies.
The male gaze is real and it wants to see women ravished and exposed. Nevertheless, the past few years have seen an upsurge in phallic television.
Given its rarity, the presence of a penis in a scene is almost always striking. But that presence comes in a plethora of forms. Here are some recent examples of full-frontal male nudity, ranging from the ridiculous to the somber but all with meaning.
In The Leftovers’ third and final season episode “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” features a ludicrous penis shot: a seaman streaking down the corridor of a nuclear submarine. It’s not the most erotic of dick flashings but that’s not the point.
The show has a history of using male nudity to illustrate vulnerability. Christopher Eccleston bared all before volunteering for the stockades in the season two episode “No Room at The Inn.” A sobering full frontal scene occurs in “Off Ramp,” when Chris Zylka’s character Tom Garvey is abducted and sexually assaulted. The show uses nudity to add depth to its narratives and characters. As Zylka told Inverse, “if it serves a purpose to the story, it serves a purpose to the story.”
Game of Thrones
Ah, Game of Thrones. A veritable cornucopia of fleshy bits. Boobs, vulvas, butts — the show is rife with female exposure. The nude scenes range from orgies that serve little to no purpose beyond arousing the horny camera guy to plot-driven fully nude shots of female leads like Daenerys Targaryen. Male genitalia is in shorter supply, but is not absent.
One of the most memorable penis scenes involves a giant penis—literally. Way back in season one we are treated to the giant Hodor’s enormous phallus, befitting his monstrous overall size. It was a prosthetic glued to his pubic hair, so technically we don’t see Kristian Nairn’s own endowment. It’s on the list anyway, because the point is to see male genitalia, not actor-specific genitalia. Additionally, it’s a thoroughly non-erotic scene and that in itself is noteworthy. Our genitalia doesn’t disappear when we aren’t using it, after all.
In a short, easy-to-miss scene, behavioral specialist Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) is fixing one of the androids. He’s a large, muscled black man and we get a brief glimpse of his package as he stands in a medical lab. Although Hughes throws a few innuendos his way, about his “talents” going to waste, it’s a largely non-erotic scene.
There’s valid debate about the worthiness of this scene, however. While it is a man, not a woman, being objectified (quite literally, as he is a machine, not actually a human), he is a black man being objectified by a white woman. There is a long history of dehumanizing and sexualizing black men and this scene can be read that way. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonik wrote that while the scene is a “fleeting divergence from the woman-as-violated-hosts, men-as-horny-guests paradigm,” the scene itself is “frustratingly reductive.”
A fair point, though there is a difference between exploitation and exploration. There is a way to portray sexual assault that is sensitive and instructive and in that same vein, there is a way to portray objectification as it intersects with both gender and race.
This show went full frontal in the premiere. Recently estranged Helen (Maura Tierney) is depressed at the post-coital sight of Max (Josh Stamberg) in the nude. Show creator Sarah Treem told Buzzfeed “we felt the nudity was appropriate for where she was in that scene and that it would be an important thing about having sex with somebody new; there’s new genitalia you have to contend with and it can sometimes throw you.”
Quite a novel way to depict the tumultuous emotions coming out of a breakup.
True to its name, Shameless is shameless about its genital exposure. Zach McGowan, who plays Jody, was giddy at the thought of flashing his package for the world. McGowan agreed to the scene it because it made sense for the character, a sex addict and nudist.
Shameless does a good job of showcasing whimsical-yet-meaningful male nudity. One method of de-stigmatizing nudity in general and male exposure specifically is to make it the most casual thing you can do. It’s not a thing if you don’t make it a thing.
McGowan told the Huffington Post that what we see is indeed his, not a sock or prosthetic. On the subject of feeling self-conscious, McGowan just said “What’s going through your mind is ‘it’s cold in here!’” The director even said he could “give it a little slap” if he wanted to. So thoughtful.