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Mystique and anatomy: three stages in the screen representation of the penis

It dawned on me during the second season opener of Showtime’s The Affair. At one point, Josh Stamberg’s penis was somewhere in the upper right corner of my screen, limp and casual and stayed there for two, three seconds while its owner did something trivial; blurry, yes, but motionless, not merely flashed and shaky, as these things tended to be featured in mainstream narratives. And I felt a page had been turned.

Sucha a big deal for such a small detail

Penises are seen on TV a lot these days: think Spartacus, think Game of Thrones or True Blood. Production company executives will say that it is a way to deal with character and situation. When Damon Lindelof was asked about Chris Zylka’s bouncy full frontal in The Leftovers, he said it was about the character’s “vulnerability” and Stamberg’s in The Affair has been explained as something needed for the development of Maura Tierney’s character. Fair enough (and actually, it does work in that sense, as the whole scene is told from her point of view). But stopping there would be missing the point. The fact is that there used to be something that prevented penises to be presented on screen, particularly on TV. Now the old restraints may be still in place, but they’re not as rigid. It is one of the running themes of this blog that something has happened in the way we think about masculinity in the last twenty years, and given the way the hard penis was so central to fantasies of manhood, its representation as a soft protuberance may be a good way to think through the broader issue.

If at some point aliens reach earth and happen to go through 20th Century visual culture, in that portentous way aliens have to deal with information, they may wonder why there was so much fuss about that particular part of the male anatomy. Why art went through such lengths to conceal it, and why, when causally shown (remember the hysterical reactions to Mapplethorpe in the 80s) so much fuss was stirred. Then we would politely ask them to read (one of the things we learnt from Arrival is that aliens are good philologists) Susan Bordo’s influential work on the male body and on the significance of the penis and why it was deemed necessary or at least convenient to keep it from sight. For Bordo, writing in the 90s, there was a lot at stake in literal and metaphorical visualizations of the penis.

Readers with the slightest knowledge of psychoanalytic theory will promptly remind me that what has those consequences is the phallus, not the penis, and the phallus is a very different thing. Actually it’s not even a thing. It’s bigger than that, and a bigger deal culturally than the humble penis. Sure, but drawing from Bordo’s work again, even is the phallus is not the penis, one can’t argue they are completely unrelated: it is the penis that is fantasized, concealed, lied about, in the hope of safeguarding the phallus. Or it used to be, at any rate. This post is not on the legendary phallus, it is on its modest fleshly reflection. Phallic fantasies inform every gesture in every plot and therefore are broad and abstract, concrete penises however are concealed in specific ways. Or, again, used to be.

Just don’t: the secret parts.

Starting with the obvious: if we saw penises all the time, they would lose some of their mystery. The cultural weight attached to the phallus, its thundering resonances, are too much for any object to bear, and seldom will it live up to the expectations. The penis therefore earns cultural prestige particularly when invisible. And this was the default during nine decades in the movies. Nudity was one of the recurrent prohibitions in censorship codes (including the Hays code) and the most forbidden of all areas that were considered “nudity” was the male organ. Even if there were flashes of bare buttocks in the pre-Code years (Wings and Ben-Hur being notorious cases), even if woman’s breasts could be shown (the occasional nipple stands out in early musicals and Cecil B. DeMille epics), there are very few instances of penises before the late 1960s. For these remarks and henceforth, I am using Marvin Jones’s Movie Buff Checklist. Male Nudity in the Movies, a veritable Bible to research exposed body parts.

For many decades, certainly in Classical Hollywood, but also elsewhere, conventions of representation demanded the penis was not seen, not even suggested. In William Inge’s play Come Back Little Sheba, Doc Delaney tries to explain to his wife why the penis is often not represented in nude drawing, “It’s because, er, it changes” he says, but she’s unconvinced. Occasionally we could guess shapes through tight shorts (Ty Hardin’s in The Chapman Report), but this was exceptional. No matter how unremarkable the situation was, how asexual, the penis needed to stay hidden, unremarked and unremarkable. Think Tarzan, think guys having baths, think locker rooms: filmmakers bent backwards not to show the penis.

This was a break with earlier traditions of representation, for instance in classical sculpture and painting; and of course you could represent penises if you made it clear that your image was “anatomical” . But what did not matter in the painted image, did when it was a photograph that captured a specific person and it became one of the big taboos in the movies. Even notoriously taboo-breaking filmmakers (Kenneth Anger in Fireworks, Jean Genet in Un chant d’amour or, later, Pasolini or Almodóvar) were discreet about its visibility as if having to deal with penises was a chore, given their essential unpredictability. So, no wonder that when Monty Python wanted to be really shocking, threatening with showing penises would always work.

Bordo explains that, particularly as a young woman, you could go many years without glimpsing a single penis, real or in a picture, as they were very much “specialist” images. Which increased the mystique. Still, how do you deny it? And what does it do to the movies overall to be declared penis-free areas? What does it do to us as societies to be so weird about the penis, to endow it with such mystery? Penises were, after all, in people’s imaginations, and its invisibility in the movies did not mean they would be erased from fantasies: they became important without needing to be seen. Phallic metaphorics were very strong, even stronger than when the penis became more visible, and of course there were ways to convey masculinity and male sexuality, but the fact that you could not show something which, after all, was just a part of the anatomy of God’s greatest creation, introduced some contradictions which we still have not totally resolved as a culture.

Flashing it: the tease

Still, as censorship codes began relaxing, filmmakers, even in the mainstream, decided to break the taboo. I am not sure there was any kind of anti-phallic activism there: it was simply ticking the boxes on how anti prohibition one could be. It was the sexual revolution and so started the age of the tease. “The teased penis” as a cinematic motive shows a tension between two contradictory cultural impulses: the impulse to conceal the penis and the impulse to break down any restrictions and censorship. It is an odd compromise and it dominated the movies, with very few exceptions, between 1968 and the first decade of the 21st Century.

The fact that a penis belonged to a recognizable person was important and many flashers remained therefore anonymous. Somehow there was the implication that the penis said something about that person. So concerns on the side of the actors led to these matters not being discussed and it was always understandable that actors did not want to show too much even if, as in the case of Zylka or Stamberg, it contributed to the plot. Jones remarks that most glimpses in the early years were of actors who were not famous as stars would not risk the consequences of exposure. Big stars with well constructed macho personalities would be less inclined to allow comparisons with expected lengths and girths or with the viewers’ actual experiences.

Jones gives a number of conventional situations for the tease, and not surprisingly, the most frequent, along with showers and skinnydipping, was male humiliation: a male character, often young, had done something questionable or had tried too hard, and while naked his clothes were hidden and he had to be stark naked in front of others. Onlookers laughed, and so did we. We were asked to agree with the fact that that there is nothing worse for young males than exposure.

I have personal memories of a variation of the tease which Jones also mentions: the tease with a buildup. For a few years at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties it became fashionable to advertise penis exposure in film magazine, creating expectation. One of the famous cases was Rock Hudson in Embryo (1976), and as in other such cases, when one went to the movie there was very little to be see. Either because the star’s member was in shadows or because it was shown very briefly or from afar. The camera never lingered. This was certainly the case with the two key full frontals in Richard Gere’s early career, in American Gigolo and in Breathless. We knew the guy was naked and we caught a glimpse of it, but it was necessary to wait until DVD or Bluray to actually see very much. Not even in cases like Malcom McDowell, who went full frontal more often than almost anybody else during the age of the flash, did the camera really linger. The sight of the penis in those cases was either a joke or something exceptional, and maybe the result was to increase the mystique rather than the opposite.

This approach makes the image of the penis into a joke to be shared or an even greater mystery than its invisibility when it was surrounded with shadow or shrunk by distance. It prevented the penis from being naturalized or treated seriously. That had to wait.

Lingering gazes: The rise of the limp and motionless penis

Outside of pornography (or avant garde films like Flaming Creatures), there was only one exception, to my knowledge, to the coyness about the penis, and it was Joe Dallesandro. In three films funded by Andy Warhol’s Factory and directed by Paul Morrissey, his penis appears (mostly) limp, heavy, lazy, and the camera does not move away or use the situation for a joke. The effect was more naturalistic than sexual, and yet, it was so exceptional as to ignite sexual fantasies. According to Jones there is a bump in the display of male nudity around 1971, and this was the period when Dallessandro anatomy became an object for the lingering camera, but he also says it seemed like a fad and the frequency of penis display falls abruptly as the decade progresses. In Spain, gay director Eloy de la Iglesia was fond of showing José Luis Manzano’s limp penis. And of course we have lingering shots of penises in some films directed by Pasolini (one particular shot in Saló comes to mind, where a young guy sodomizes a priest and then audiences get to see it, although it could be prosthetic). But, crucially, these cases either belong to the fringes or mainstream cinema or were severly criticised and ridiculed by mainstream critics. It is, still, exceptional in cinematic representation, and one wonders why something so unusual has received such limited attention. After all, a lot of energy was put into concealing something, and when it is revealed do we have to pretend we didn’t really care?

When Boogie Nights, on the straight porn industry during the late seventies, was anounced and Mark Wahlberg set to star, of course questions were asked about whether the tools of the trade would be featured in a mainstream film. The result is some kind of watershed: the said tool remained conceal for the duration of the movie and at the very end Wahlberg in front of the mirror got something out of his crotch. It was a weird prosthetic thing, resembling some kind of sausage. The joke was on us: did we really expect Wahlberg’s casting had been made with that in mind? Did we really expect we would take a peek at Wahlberg’s constantly teased penis?

But there were signs of change offering an alternative, and the name of the signs was Ewan McGregor, a true descendant of Dallesandro, particularly since his performance in Peter Greenaway’ The Pillow Book (Greenaway consciously placed himself within painterly traditions unafraid of the penis and took to offer displays thanks to the willingness of his Dutch extras). A few years later, in Young Adam, there was one of the longest post-Dallesandro limp penis shots I remember: naturalistic, motionless, clear but totally casual, decidedly unerotic.

The floodgates were opened. Not suddenly, not everywhere. Mainstream films with gay characters (Gods and Monsters, Brokeback Mountain) remained coy, as if the idea was too “obvious”, but from the late 90s more and more actors seemed unafraid of exposure. And in general, penises were best appreciated in non erotic situations. Which actually may contribute much better to de-mystification. Then in the late 1990s the internet made accessing images of penises increasingly easy. Bordo’s young girl ignorant of penises now could get her fill. The movies kept on pretending penises were unimportant, but the fact is by the early 2010s many guys had images of their penises in their phones, and the amount of videos that show the previously mystified penis is, for someone of my generation, a bit alarming. Commercial TV and films are actually lagging behind in this general display and extreme coyness may soon be a bit ridiculous.

Of course I do not want to suggest the mystique of the penis is now over. Progress has been made on television, but cinema still associates penises and pornography, and the fact is that one can go through life without seeing very many. And there are many restrictions to the way penises are shown, even in Spartacus: it’s as if it still needed sensational contexts, strong alibies to appear. No, the visibility of the penis is still not completely naturalized and it is probably too early to say for sure whether the current situation constitutes a change or just a passing fad. Clearly, the conditions described by Bordo have changed, but the implications may stubbornly remain, one way or another. Finally, even if the penis becomes a popular object of representation, the phallus will find alternative ways to impose itself. Yet, the situation is intriguing and deserves some attention given the strong link between them for so many decades.

I said I would not bring in the phallus, but I am going to. In the end, the penis is unimportant without the fantasmatic support of the phallus, and we can’t think of them separately. We could still ask whether by making the penis everyday, something is happening. If life is rendered meaningless without the support of fantasy, then the question begs asking: what next? Maybe society would not be less patriarchal, but it certainly would have to articulate patriarchal power in different ways. Human beings can’t stand too much reality.

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