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

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit