The first time I really paused to consider the naked male body happened circa age 9 while watching Blossom on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, where I ironically snuck in all of my parent-disapproved TV programming. I can’t remember what plot twist provoked it, but at some point, Six explains to Blossom that naked men look like “half-decorated Christmas trees.” Conjuring up an image of a Ken doll in a Santa hat, my sheltered developing brain didn’t get the humor. But I did get the feeling that whatever Six really meant about the unclothed penis, it wasn’t exactly complimentary. Boys naked, who wants to see that?
As anyone who has cracked an art history book (or a fashion magazine) can tell you, male nudity has rarely been praised and depicted to the fawning (and objectified) extent of its female counterpart. Cover up fellas, but ladies, leave the fig leaves at home! Hugo Schwyzer with The Good Men Project writes about the problematic effect of this longstanding dichotomy:
“We’re raised in a culture that both celebrates and pathologizes male “dirtiness”…But growing up with the right to be dirty goes hand-in-hand with the realization that many people find the male body repulsive.”
As a result, people often are far more comfortable with viewing female nudity than male nudity—and the resulting sexual arousal it might spur. Earlier this year, Sociological Images posted on Beth A. Eck’s study, “Men are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images,” in which she conducted a series of interviews to participants’ responses to looking at men and women au naturale. Seeing the male nudes sparked “lust mixed with guilt or shame” in women, possibly aware that the mere act of looking and judging was a masculine performance and therefore a social violation in a way. Also not surprising, men—presumably hetero—repeatedly denied any hints of male nudity-induced excitement. Hearkening back to the JBS underwear campaign I mentioned in the previous post, the guys generally fell back on the homophobic “no man wants to see another naked man” line.
Ever since Clark Gable shocked audiences by revealing his bare chest in 1934’s It Happened One Night, men on film have collectively disrobed as slowly as molasses. Sure, there was that homoerotic guy-on-guy nude wrestling scene in Women in Love, but that was the ’60s, right? Meanwhile, we barely bat an eyelash at the Harold and Kumar-esque vulvular close-ups and bra-less breasts that grace so many movies nowadays. Hollywood has begun to confront this final taboo moreso in the past decade, however—in fits and starts, that is.
In 2004, Colin Farrell got the industry buzzing about a full-frontal scene shot for A Home at the End of the World. Alas, the director axed it, claiming the famous penis distracted from the plot too much (although Farrell told Entertainment Weekly that “it ain’t nothing to f—in’ write home about.”). Vigo Mortenson’s nude fighting scene in 2007’s Eastern Promises revived the male nudity in Hollywood conversation, and since then, the penis has become a recurring punchline in comedies, including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Hall Pass, and Crazy, Stupid Love (although Ryan Gosling’s package is conveniently obscured by Steve Carrell’s head).
Finally, what do all of these penises have in common? That’s right: they’re white. Penises of color on camera? That’s about as rare as, say, an on-screen erection in a mainstream movie. Naked women in the heat of the moment? Sure, that’s fine to film. Male nudity though, when it isn’t used to get a laugh for its “half-decorated Christmas tree” folly, is still largely off-limits. That kid glove treatment is partially owed to male privilege, but our cultural discomfiture is also problematic, don’t you think?