Isn't He Lovely: Male Nudity, the Final Frontier

Cristen Conger
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Ryan Gosling with a white towel around his neck and a necklace on standing naked in front of Steve Carrell in Crazy Stupid LoveThe 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?

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22 Comments Have Been Posted


<p>White? I would associate that more to the fact that the majority of actors are white. If the industry accepted more people of different races as leads we would see them too. As far as a movie that immediately comes to mind which shows an African American nude: <strong> Jerry Maguire</strong>. I know that I've seen more, but that one in particular stands out in that the reporter drops her microphone and blocks viewing the penis of the black athlete when retrieving it, in what depicts a sense of shame and semi-attraction as described in your article about women's perception of the male body.</p>

What about Watchmen?

I think it deserves a mention. When the movie hit the theaters, I can remember a distinct buzz around the blogosphere about blue uncircumcised penis.

I do however find you post really interesting.

Heh, I definitely consider

Heh, I definitely consider blue a color. And I read an interview where the director said he put in extra penis shots in anticipation of the censors asking him to cut some.

Allow me a moment of geekery?

I think what's really interesting about Watchmen is the way Dr. Manhattan's nudity is totally normalized in both the film and the comic book. It's just there and everyone just accepts it. It's not overtly sexualized or used as a point of comedy. I just find that kinda cool. Certainly it was shocking for the audience but for the characters in the film it's just how Dr. Manhattan is.

Forgot about Watchmen!

Thanks for bringing up Watchmen, folks! It had obviously slipped my mind. I had forgotten how flustered critics were by the big, blue penis. Anthony Lane at the New Yorker (of all pubs) described Dr. Manhattan as "buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker." Oh my!

Hall Pass

Having suffered through watching Hall Pass with my eyes closed I may be mistaken, but if I recall the scene correctly the film attempted to address male penile myths by exploiting them in the scene where Owen Wilson falls asleep in the hot tub to be rescued by two naked men - a black man with a large member and a red headed white man with a small member. I think the scene was supposed to be comedic, I found it gratuitous.

Not that I disagree with the majority of your post, just had to note that a black penis was shown on film.


What I find equally disturbing (and which I'm writing about now in a chapter of the book I'm working on) is how many women have allowed themselves to be brainwashed to say, "Women's bodies are so much more beautiful. I don't want to see naked men. Their things hang there all funny. Ew."

These are the same women who are, by all accounts, heterosexual but who will squeal and clap at the thought of going to a strip club. Where WOMEN get naked.

There's some kind of nefarious plot afoot, probably started by men in Hollywood who didn't want their wives comparing the penises they see on screen to the penis they see under the blanket, to convince everyone that no one wants to see men naked.

Of course, I strongly disagree. Men are absolutely GORGEOUS. Give us more, more, more.

Totally agree

100, 000% agree with this post. I've had this exact conversation with a group of women who all looked at me like I was crazy for insisting I actually enjoyed seeing the naked male form. Similarly, i had this discussion with a group of male friends who said I was the first and only girl they'd heard to say she liked to see men naked. They asked other girls who they would rather see naked, me or one of the guys and all the girls asked automatically answered "her", indicating me. Now I don't know if this is because they're brainwashed to think the male body is unattractive or if they want to appear sexy and liberated and unihibited by finding pleasure in viewing the female form. I almost think it's women objectifying other women, much in the same way you mentioned girls wanting to go to strip clubs to see other women get naked. I think it's a desire to be accepted by men and it's more comfortable to jump on the objectifying band wagon than to stand up and say "No, I would like to see men naked" and be the only one in a crowd to say so.

I recall there being penises

I recall there being penises of color in Any Given Sunday - like in Jerry Maguire, in a locker room - and it would be interesting to look at that since the scene I remember revolves around Cameron Diaz being the owner of the team, and her character proving herself unflappable in a traditionally male role.

There WERE penii in the

There WERE penii in the locker room scene. A LOT of them, of various colors and *ahem* sizes. It made my friends and I just gape for a moment. One of them was like a friggin' ARM. It was like, "WHOA! I thought those were a myth!" Well, but overall, the movie was interesting.

Like an arm?

The black dude was semi hard and semi hung. But really, his wasn't so big. My wife didn't bat an eye at that thing because I am bigger. Mine is only 9 inches so I wouldn't call mine an arm but she thought nothing of the black dude with the 'average' cock as she called it. We fucked soon there after and I gave her every inch.

I don't know...

This article seems superficial in light of the number of movies that have full frontal male nudity in the past 10-15 years. As for "colored" penis, does blue count? God knows there was a GIANT blue penis just flailing around in The Watchmen for over half the movie. I don't think it's a "handling with kid gloves" or "cultural discomfiture." It's because it's relatively new in comparison to female nudity on screen, and directors are trying to figure out the boundaries. I mean, full frontal nudity for women didn't just blossom into existence overnight; it had awhile to perculate and spawn. Heck, just having a married couple in a bedroom with just ONE bed was a big WOW in the industry, and even swearing slowly had to find its boundaries. Furthermore, because of stereotyping and the sexualization of African-American men, they may not want to strip completely nude for the camera. So, I'm not sure that the reasons given above are necessarily true. They may not be FALSE, but certainly there's more to it than that.

Harvey Keitel

Don't forget Harvey Keitel's twofer in the 90s with The Piano and Bad Lieutenant, I suppose they could be considered outside of mainstream Hollywood, but I remember them being discussed at the time.

I had a full-circle moment

I had a full-circle moment reading this (FABULOUS) article today, since I had just watched LMFAO's "Sexy and I know it" video. Male nudity is totally used to some degree as comedic relief in here, and the video is definitely problematic in its treatment of women...but it is also kind of celebratory of the male figure (at times in a fat-positive way as well). Anywho, here's the link. I'd love to hear y'all's thoughts. Rock on!

Somewhat irrelevant art history tidbit

Interestingly enough, in ancient greek sculpture you'll find fully nude men everywhere, and the nude femaie wasn't sculpted until much later (and even then was controversial). Not only did the nude female come later but she was never fully nude, her genetalia, and sometimes her breasts were often covered by her hand some piece of cloth. However, though this treatment of male and female bodies were reversed from what we see now, there were some similarities -- scholars argue that the nude female statues were controversial and somewhat covered up because the female body in itself was seen as too overtly sexual, whereas the male nude was not implicitly sexual, or just sexy enough. So, it's interesting that while women's bodies were still potentially viewed as more intrinsically arousing the "cover up towel" went to women, whereas now men wear the towel. (I know this is a huge leap in time/cultural context, but I thought I'd share it anyway)


(sorry, in the first line that should be female)

And if you look at

And if you look at Michaelangelo's work, his female bodies were *very* masculine. and, the only reason why the whole fig leaf came about is because some Pope decided to chisel off the penises of the sculptures at the Vatican and replace them with plaster fig leaves. Somewhere in the Vatican vault, there is a catalogue of marble penises.

Not irrelevant at all!

Excellent point. And the shift makes sense since in ancient history, it was female sexuality -- not male sexuality -- that was perceived as so potent and (more importantly) uncontrollable.

um, can someone explain Six's

um, can someone explain Six's joke that naked men look like “half-decorated Christmas trees”??

because I'm a 26 year old woman and I've seen plenty of naked dudes, and I'm not getting the joke.
I guess my developed 26 year old brain doesn't get the humor.

If you're looking for an

If you're looking for an older example of full-frontal male nudity, there's always Graham Chapman in Monty Python's Life of Brian. And he does it in front of a full crowd, too! refreshing. Another refreshing. Another angry female who blatantly distorts the facts. Strabngely you ignore the "penile closeup" in Harold and Kumar and talk only about the "vulvular close-ups" in the VERY SAME MOVIE! Strange that I can only name TWO instances where the vulva has been shown in mainstream films in 40 years! Your article alone names four where male genitalia are prominently displayed. I can add at least a dozen more to the list.Add to the mix the copious amounts of male butts shown as is standard for EVERY romantic comedy, the sexism on display in movies like the Twilight series, and the displays of male nudity and objectification of men FAR OUTWEIGH the same for females over the previous decade and a half.

I would suggest if you truly want equality both in film and in real life, that women get off their high horse and start pressing for the exposure of female genitalia in equal amounts to male. Or better yet, here's a thought, why don't you press for HUMAN rights instead of FEMALE rights and demand Hollywood actually use some common sense and do away with the gratuitous nudity in general.

male nudity

To state that even cracking an art history book shows male nudity as taboo seems odd, as any visit to Europe will show.

When I was in Finland and Russian I was surprised at how many nude male statues there were. In St. Petersberg, there were all kinds of naked or nearly naked warriors and such made of bronze and stone.
It gave me the feeling that in the past the male body was not considered evil like it is now. I think American guys are under a lot of pressure to point out that we are not gay, so if there is a naked male we feel obligated to claim we are grossed out. However, notice that if there is a naked guy in a movie nobody looks away. Not that we are turned on by it but , notice everybody does look because it is rare and they are curious etc.

I saw a picture from the 30s of the auto show in LA and they had a big nude cutout of a guy, you would not see that today. So even in our recent history the nude male was not considered dirty like now, or taboo. We are going through a phase where men are viewed as potential rapists and sex offenders, or perverts, and therefore the nude figure is taboo. We have become sort of childish about it.

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