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

IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496