Why are there so few penises on television?

There's an insidious double standard in operation on the small screen - naked breasts abound, but we never get to see a man's sexy parts.

Let’s look at a couple of moments in recent influential film and television. The first moment is that bit in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007) when Ben (Seth Rogen) and his feckless housemates are engaged in “research” for the business they’re trying to get off the ground – an online database collecting the exact timings of occurrences of nudity in films. They later find out such a service already exists: Mr Skin, a real website and, as expected, “NSFW”.
 
The second moment comes in the first season of HBO’s fantasy drama series Game of Thrones. Littlefinger, “the pimp” (Aidan Gillen), delivers a monologue in which he explains his childhood and, by extension, his character. Throughout the lengthy scene, there are two naked women in the background, vocally having sex. On and on Littlefinger’s monologue goes, and on and on go the women. The TV writer Myles McNutt coined the term “sexposition” to describe such a device and I’ve found myself using it with gratitude (“Thank God this term now exists!”) and resignation (“Oh God, I can’t believe this term exists”).
 
These two moments say a few things about the state of sex on our screens. Breasts are a symbol, a signpost and a shorthand for all that is “sexy”. Breasts, sometimes useful for feeding children, are also secondary sex characteristics (the same as facial hair and Adam’s apples – and yet entirely different). Naked breasts are the universal bloodtype of the screen: show them and everyone gets it.
 
Most societies operate a “no naked breasts” rule in most public spaces, while granting men permission to go shirtless if they want: a man’s chest is not equal to a woman’s. It follows that the corresponding “sexy” part on a man would therefore be his penis, yes? Yes. So why are there so few penises on television?
 
I am not the first person to query this. Mhairi McFarlane’s hilarious essay on a blog called The Flick is my favourite piece on the subject, and recently the American comedy website CollegeHumor released a video, featuring four female comedians and entitled “HBO Should Show Dongs”, which asked the same question.
 
“Hi, HBO. It’s us – your female viewers,” they begin. “From the brothels of Game of Thrones, to the brothels of Boardwalk Empire, all the way to the . . . brothels of Deadwood. . .” says one woman, “. . . you’ve shown us a whole lot of boobies,” says another. “It’s time to even the score. We’re not saying ‘no more boobs’, we just think that you should show . . . dongs.”
 
Why don’t we get to see that many penises on screen, outside porn? I’d wager that, for all the usual arguments – penises are not “aesthetically pleasing”; they’re comical, unsexy; viewers don’t want to see them – the reason there’s such a dearth is that women’s sexuality, and how they express it, is still clothed in centuries-old fear and misunderstanding.
 
That and the fact that TV is still largely the domain of straight men making content for other straight men. It’s why in the HBO series Hung – specifically about a man with a large penis – we never even get to see it. And as for the “Women don’t want to look at that!” argument, I offer you two words: Magic Mike. The excitement caused by this 2012 movie about male strippers cannot be overstated. We spent more than $160m at the box office trying to see unclothed penises in Magic Mike – and even then, there weren’t any.
 
As the poet Bridget Minamore had it on Twitter, “Shout out patriarchy for forcing male objectification movies for straight women to be smart and well shot to get anywhere!” Sometimes we just want penises – no bells and whistles, and no plot. As Daniel Bergner tells us in his book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire: “More than anything, though, as an isolated, rigid phallus filled vaginal blood vessels and sent the red line of the plethysmograph high, niceties vanished, conventions cracked; female desire was, at base, nothing if not animal.”
 
The ladies of CollegeHumor nailed it with their proposal: “For every topless background extra, every actress that bares her bouncies but doesn’t even get a line, every minute we have to sit through this dumb double standard – you owe us an inch of Grade-A manmeat.” Seems fair. 
Bared breasts have been a regular feature of Game of Thrones. Image: HBO

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism