Is Ben Affleck’s penis really the great Gone Girl mystery of 2014? Is Justin Theroux’s “flopping” junk the key to “The Leftovers?” Yesterday a male colleague sent us an email, subject line: “NY media’s penis obsession.” What’s with it? We decided to explore.
Hillary Kelly: I have to be honest. When I see a link asking me to click through and check out the definitely-not-a-cell-phone that Jon Hamm is carrying in his pocket, I do it. First of all, he's Jon Hamm, so I'd look at photos of him picking his nose and get a little thrill. But there's also the fact that the penis has, for so long, been The Last Taboo of Human Anatomy. The Great Butt Battle of 2014 ensured that full-on shaking, clenching, jiggling butts are about as mainstream as cupcakes and sweatpants in public. Breasts have been falling out of clothes for decades, even centuries. And the tucked-away nature of the vagina means it's a little bit difficult to put on display—but nonetheless, the popularity of Playboy and Penthouse means that the vag and it's accompanying hair (or lack thereof) have been ogled and objectified for decades. I mean, once Gwyneth Paltrow has discussed the state of her pubic hair on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," it's pretty clear the topic is no longer verboten.
But good god there have been a lot of penises in the news lately. Gawker wants us to decide if this picture shows James Franco's plums and banana or not. New York magazine alone has published at least three pieces about the appearance Ben Affleck's member made in Gone Girl. Deadspin has an entire category called "Athlete Dong" that is ... exactly what it sounds like. But is it all just clickbait (a word I’ve come to loathe because it really just means “things people like”)? Or are we finally entering an age of gender parity where the gentleman's region will be as ogled as a lady's parts? Is that even a good thing?
Esther Breger: In the pre-YouTube (and YouPorn) era, there was a website with a movie database telling dudes where to find the all-important scenes with boobs. (Mr. Skin's motto: Fast-forwarding to the Good Parts, Since 1999!) The site is no longer serves the same necessary function, but the “How to See Ben Affleck’s Penis in Gone Girl” blog posts remind me of it.
Mostly these posts (and the Jon Hamm/Idris Elba paparazzi photo equivalents) are a product of how rare male full-frontal nudity is in movies and television. I mean, “Game of Thrones” made headlines last season when it showed a guy’s ass. Michael Sheen has never dropped trou for "Masters of Sex." HBO even aired two seasons of a show called “Hung,” whose premise was entirely based on the size of its protagonist’s member, without ever showing the penis in question. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we treat Ben Affleck’s penis as a unicorn of onscreen nudity. The subject is so rarely written about that it brings with it a frisson of transgression that it doesn’t wholly deserve, leading to, yes, clicks. As you said, it’s the next frontier.
HK: Let's face it, though, the penis isn't—in and of itself—sexy. I don't want to speak for all humans who are sexually interested in men, but the penis has never held sway as an aesthetic object in the way that say, boobs or butts have. (Maybe there's something about rounded anatomy versus pointed anatomy? But I digress...) While penises might prove intoxicating in the heat of the moment, I'd be hard-pressed to name more than one occasion in which a friend highlighted the beauty or perfection of a schlong that wasn't attached to a lover.
So you must be right, Esther, that the driving force behind why so many of us click and share these stories is because of scarcity. Supply and demand economics, if you will. As you explained above, for of all society's talk about girth and size and longevity, we don't actually see the penis all that much. You'd think the Viagra people would have created a whole meme surrounding it, but, nope.
But the aesthetic oddity of the appendage can't be the only thing keeping it, ahem, tucked out of sight. I don't know the full history of nudity in the public sphere, and I'm not certain if there was ever a time when art represented male genitalia as frequently as female parts (the Renaissance, perhaps?), but I'm starting to hope the penis craze can at least lead to some sort of equality on that front—either more penises for public display so that we become accustomed to them as just another part of the body, or less focus on women's genitalia.
EB: I think the best argument for whether this shameless male objectification is radical comes from “Broad City,” that lodestar of modern womanhood. See the amazing cold open of their season one finale, wherein Abbi and Ilana linger outside a pick-up basketball game to gaze at the men in revealing mesh shorts, guessing at their penis size. It ends with one of the basketball players approaching Abbi and Ilana to ask them to leave: “Hey ladies? Your staring is making some of the guys feel uncomfortable.” The two pervs shrug, then walk away.
There’s something a little thrilling about that—brazenly making men uncomfortable, and not really giving a fuck. Of course, When Jon Hamm complains about feeling objectified, I do feel bad, especially since Hamm seems like a decent, upstanding dude—but I don’t feel too bad. “I'm wearing pants, for fuck's sake. Lay off … When people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn't part of the deal,” he told Rolling Stone last year. He has a point, but for any women in Hollywood, that very much is part of the deal, like it or not. Hamm (and Fassbender, and Theroux, and Affleck) shouldn’t need to suffer as a societal object lesson, but I can’t get too worked up about it.
But then I remember D’Angelo, and the fascinating, sad Amy Wallace interview with him in GQ a couple years ago. The pressure of being objectified after his 1999 “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video was debilitating—he gained weight, left the industry, and didn’t work for ten years. His situation was more ab than penis-related, and is also wrapped up in the fraught history of the black male sexualized body, but his experience would hardly warrant a mention for any female pop star, for whom being treated as a sex object has always been part of the deal. So the radical gender reversal does have a dark side.
HK: I do recall how revolutionary that video felt (14 years ago!), but that may have been tainted by the fact that I was 16 years old and the boys I knew did not have bodies like that. But I had no idea about D'Angelo's subsequent problems. It would be easy to respond with a bit of schadenfreude: "Ha! So now men know what it's like to be ogled and objectified!" or "Well, he pretty much asked for it." But I'm tired of revenge feminism; it isn't how I, as a woman, want to see the world, and it isn't how I want the world to see women as a whole. I don't want Jon Hamm to deal with obnoxious penis-tracking Tumblr accounts any more than I wanted to see a countdown until the Olsen twins were "legal" (remember that gem?) or pervy up-skirt shots of young female celebs as they enter and exit cars. Certainly, D'Angelo put himself out there by penning a song whose lyrics were begging a woman to have sex with him and then filming his own hand sliding down towards his (seemingly) bare penis, but the slippery slope on that logic is dark and twisted and ugly.
Whoa. How did this conversation get so serious? It seems like it should be a little silly and lighthearted, yes? But there's something inherently creepy about the world gathering around their computer screens and delightedly screeching about the latest famous man to (gasp!) have a set of genitalia. It doesn't feel like parity or equality. It feels like childish gaping, and in cases like Hamm or Theroux, like a pretty weird pseudo-violation of privacy.
With that said, I embrace nudity in film and theatre—there's nothing less true-to-life than all those scenes where the woman is wearing a bra and the sheet is perfectly covering both parties while they get it on. So I vote yes to more of Ben Affleck's penis (or Hugh Jackman's or Benedict Cumberbatch's or Ian McKellen's or Seth Rogen's or ...) onscreen when the role calls for it. But enough "OMG A PENIS" posts. Yes, it's a penis. Half the population has them. They are occasionally visible through clothing (especially mesh shorts). Unless it's attached to someone I'm hopping into bed with, I'm not that jazzed.
EB: It seems we’re at more or less of an agreement. (Nice Ian McKellen shout-out, by the way.) As a TV critic, what I hope for is more nudity—male and female—that’s natural and de-fetishized and not a punchline. Because the corollary to the brazen ogling is the straight-male-inflected idea that the male genitalia is inherently goofy, which is not not true, but is also not the only truth. And so I’m actually pretty excited to sit down with The New Inquiry’s new Dick issue—the one thing both male and female bodies shouldn't fear is being over-theorized.