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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser