Male sexuality as a representational system
The American penis once remained mostly hidden on-screen, even when female stars were totally naked. Now it’s everywhere—even starring in Shame—but this new boldness may be a flag of national surrender.
Despite Kevin Bacon’s flaunting-it shower exit in Wild Things, Harvey Keitel’s self-crucifying baring of body and soul in Bad Lieutenant (he would go full-frontal again in The Piano), and Bruce Willis’s erotic skinny-dip in the pool with Jane March in Color of Night, the American penis (long may it wag) has stayed a relative stranger on the movie screen.
Note: We’re talking about the real, warm-blooded item, not some prosthetic impostor, such as Mark Wahlberg’s porn-stud stocking stuffer in Boogie Nights, or, allegedly, Vincent Gallo’s ram horn in The Brown Bunny, which he fanatically grips as if it might come unglued. Until recently the organic penis has led a shy, shadowy life on-screen, seldom brought out and formally introduced to the guests. Directors play peekaboo with it, dodging an R rating or worse by deploying a variety of cute fig leaves, such as a hurriedly grabbed teddy bear as an emergency groin protector. Steam discreetly clouds it in the gym shower and sauna. Bedsheets are draped with the care of Saks window displays to shelter the little fella from view even as the actress in the scene goes total nudie. That’s what makes Michael Fassbender so exceptional in Steve McQueen’s Shame, where he portrays an orgasm addict (to quote the title of a Buzzcocks song) whose libido drills like a woodpecker on a staccato rampage. Fassbender emerges from the film with his mystique intact, enhanced. It doesn’t hurt that he unambiguously possesses the power tool for the job. At the very outset of the film Fassbender is presented full-frontal, his penis passing us as he crosses from one room to another and back again as a plain, plump fact of life. As the movie proceeds, his prick seems to be in the driver’s seat; on the prowl, it’s imbued with agency, latent power, pathological drive. Although shot in New York, Shame has a British director, which may spell the difference. In American film, the penis, finally poking out from its pup tent, remains mostly a comic prop, the little brother that insists on tagging along.
Although European and British stars seem more natural about cinematic nudity (Fassbender is Irish-German; France’s Gérard Depardieu trucked his earthy carcass through The Last Woman and 1900, among others), actors of any nationality and fame status are understandably wary of going completely commando. In his book Only Entertainment, professor of film studies Richard Dyer observed, “The limp penis can never match up to the mystique that has kept it hidden from view for the last couple of centuries,” and an actor’s mystique is part of his capital. It is where the unequal distribution of assets is most pronounced for certain types of comparison shoppers. Nature doesn’t deal out the same pickle size to every man, and no exercise routine will enlarge or tone it if the owner feels he’s been shortchanged. There is also the issue of shrinkage. It is the one part of an actor’s equipment that doesn’t answer to commands, instructions, suggestions, cajoling, or subtle fine-tuning; its range of expression is rather limited, its freedom of motion restricted. Except in hard-core porn, it can’t fully join in. Whether it’s the wrestling scene in Ken Russell’s adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed going Greco-Roman by the fireplace, or the bathhouse bashing in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, where an ultimate-fighter death match breaks out between Viggo Mortensen and a pair of heavy-duty enforcers, the pugilist’s penis always elicits concern—it looks so defenseless, an innocent bystander finding itself in a hostage showdown. No matter how bull-strong the late Oliver Reed was, no matter how topographically muscular Mortensen is, the male viewer is always apprehensively aware of how vulnerable the little guy is in a fight, the testicles even more at mercy, clenched or swaying like tiny twin punching bags—one hard tap and Hercules himself would fold in two, unless he were wearing a bronze cup. In comedy (think of the grotesque nude tussle in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat between Borat and his producer, that rippling clash of hair and blubber), that queasiness can be converted into farce, slapstick, the groaning punch line to a prank.
Which would explain why it is Hollywood’s reigning comedy auteur, the writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, who has been the great emancipator of the suppressed penis, unzipping the fly so that man can dangle free. In 2007, Apatow watched test audiences vote with their feet when a penis drooped behind John C. Reilly’s head in the country-music mockumentary Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It was a juxtaposition of gnarly knobs for which many were not prepared, Apatow conceded. “The original shot was way longer, where the penis is in close-up, and then one night we showed it to a test audience and 22 people walked out. I think we went too far with too much penis.” But he refused to be deterred. The exit stampede only stiffened Apatow’s resolve, making him more determined to rid the country of its fear of the fugitive organ, vowing, “I’m gonna get a penis in every movie I do from now on.” The next movie that Apatow produced, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, made good on this guarantee as the film’s lovelorn sap, played by Jason Segel, received the news that he was being dumped while standing naked, looking as awkward and ungainly as Big Bird shorn of feathers, a poultry prize. The frank display of Segel’s giblets for a shock laugh emboldened others. Since then penises have been flopping on-screen in carrot bunches. The Hangover Part II presented a variety assortment, with a special bonanza at the end credits. In Hall Pass, the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, appeared to be trying to overtake and outdo their emulators with amped-up scat gags (a bathroom detonation more graphic than Dumb and Dumber’s) and verbal ogling of hot babes, real sodbuster stuff. As if to raise the ante on the Apatow penis initiative, Hall Pass has a scene with two penises dropping in, looking like mismatched bookends. Owen Wilson, playing one of the beta males who embody John Updike’s perception of the American male as a failed boy, falls asleep in a health-club hot tub, panics, and thrashes around as if drowning. Crouching beside his body after he’s been pulled free from the shallow vortex are a black man and a white dude, both untoweled. The black man lowers a huge phallus that bends like a banana, its proximity to Wilson’s head so perturbing that he asks that his rescuer switch places with the one they call “Irish,” who, we see in a ricochet shot, is hung like a tadpole. Even when introducing once taboo dick humor into a mainstream comedy, filmmakers are unable to resist the hoariest racial/ethnic stereotypes. In guy-land cinema, every comedy advance seems to lead to another reversion, every bold stroke the eruption of an underlying anxiety.
Owen Wilson’s minor spaz at finding a supersize penis hovering over his head is the reflex flinch of a straight guy’s gay panic, gay panic being one of the prime drivers of Apatow-era comedy, typified by the “You know how I know you’re gay?” routine in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (boiled down from a 10-minute improvised riff on the set), the woozy hysteria of the Hangover movies (alcoholic blackouts being the classic memory remover for straight men waking up with a strange penis beside them), the hysterical, butt-buddy horseplay of the Jackass movies, and nearly everything Sacha Baron Cohen does (including his French racecar driver in Talladega Nights, who does a full-on lip-lock with Will Ferrell, whose own star vehicles are one long homoeroticized, spoofy tease, climaxing in the spandex Kama Sutra on ice of the male skating duo in Blades of Glory). Gay panic in comedies—which was played for funny discomfort in films such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, where Steve Martin and John Candy were forced to share a snug hotel bed—has become so self-conscious and winky-winky that it’s turned into a coy tic, a cozy shtick, the limp penis flashing the all-safe sign that, although your average Apatow or Farrelly primate may be flirting with “the gay” (as they say online), they’re not turned on: the bromance is strictly platonic. But there’s a deeper anxiety being tickled that doesn’t involve sexual qualms or identity. It’s become a commonplace in postmodern studies to speak of the clothed penis as the invisible signifier of the phallus. “In actuality, the penis (man’s hidden ‘nature’) cannot compare to the phallus (man’s cultural power),” writes Chris Straayer, the author of the cinema-studies text Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies. “Male sexuality, as a representational system, depends on displacing the penis with the phallus.” But the reverse is occurring. It’s phallic authority that’s being displaced by all these actual penises, male power that’s being symbolically deflated. And not just male power. I think these dopey penises are caution flags, symbolic indicators of a national power drop that encompasses politics, economics, education—the works. Now that we’re no longer king of the world, American self-confidence is undergoing its own shrinkage; no one believes in the Top Gun jockstrap bravado anymore, and the joshing attitude and shrugging posture our movies have adopted reflect a country and a culture that have lost their spunk and don’t feel like keeping up the pretense of swagger anymore. Tired, lazy, pooped, we’re pulling it out because we’re packing it in.