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The Penis Is This Year’s Breakout Performer, from ‘Pam & Tommy’ to ‘The Power of the Dog’

From "Pam and Tommy" to "Euphoria," "Succession” to “Nightmare Alley,” we are in a golden age for full-frontal male nudity on TV and film.

'Pam & Tommy' stil featuring Sebastian Stan shirtless in house(Photo by: Erin Simkin/Hulu)

“Pam & Tommy”

HULU

A decade ago, Sunday nights on HBO meant gruesome violence over a throne made of swords in a fictional kingdom filled with hot people. In between the violence and the dragons and the monologues (often at the same time), there was gratuitous female nudity that — like many things on “Game of Thrones” did little or nothing to serve the story. Now, Sunday nights on HBO mean dick pics accidentally sent to dad (not daddy), or quite literally, a bunch of dicks.

In addition to Roman Roy’s texting error on “Succession,” “Euphoria” has turned the penis into a recurring guest star. Other Sunday-night HBO shows that may have one, two, or more male sex organs include “The Righteous Gemstones and “The White Lotus,” which leads me to believe that “The Gilded Age” airs on Monday nights because it is dickless.

The penis has not made a comeback on TV and film; it’s more of a coming-of-age story. Call it a penis renaissance, or a penissance (so sorry about this). The difference? Women have long been naked on screen as sex objects and for easy titillation; naked men are much more rare and then used for a laugh, as the work of Judd Apatow and “Jackass” has shown us over and over again.

For all of the cultural energy that’s gone into penis envy, dick-swinging contests, and BDE, dicks on mainstream screens haven’t been shown as sexy, or even powerful; they were presented as something not meant to be seen. However inadvertently, that demeaned the attraction held by straight women, gay men, or anyone who is attracted to people with penises. The exception that proved the rule was Paul Schrader’s 1980 erotic thriller “American Gigolo,” in which Richard Gere had moments of full-frontal nudity that helped make the film a cultural sensation and Gere a star.

Today, we’re seeing Jane Campion generously feature full-frontal Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” in a scene that was significant to the story’s themes of sexuality and symbolized the sinister character’s mysterious nature. In “Nightmare Alley,” Bradley Cooper has a moment of full-frontal nudity when he takes a bath and fortuneteller Toni Collette slips her hand into the water.

THE POWER OF THE DOG: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021 Cross City Films Limited/Courtesy of Netflix

“The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

In Hulu’s Pam & Tommy,” Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) waltzes around his mansion wearing nothing but a banana hammock. His banana is distractingly large and framed as a focal point in every shot. Later, he has a conversation with his (prosthetic and animatronic) penis, voiced by Jason Manztoukas, because, well, who else would you hire to provide the voice for a penis? The scene is heightened and comedic, but it suggests that men have relationships with their bodies, and gives the Mantzoukas penis more screen time than most penises get in porn.

Constance Penley, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California Santa Barbara who specializes in film history and theory, feminist theory, and cultural studies, said that the porn industry has mocked Hollywood’s lack of sexuality for years in its porn satires like “Being Bad” and “Sex Machina.” It’s also created X-rated spoofs of practically every title in the MCU, a galaxy notorious for hiding any evidence that sex even exists.

“Porn has been commenting on Hollywood for a long time,” Penley said. “One of the things that I like about the porn parodies is that they send up Hollywood for the sex it won’t show and for substituting violence for the sex they can’t show.”

Pam & Tommy -- “The Master Beta" - Episode 104 -- Pam and Tommy resort to increasingly desperate measures to get their property back. Tommy (Sebastian Stan), shown. (Photo by: Erica Parise/Hulu)

“Pam & Tommy”

Hulu

She said sexual fan fiction performs a similar function. “[Fan fiction is] just trying to make the media that’s out there better, make it be all that it can be,” Penley said. “One of the things they do in rewriting the men in popular film and television is rewriting them as these non-homophobic, emotionally and sexually involved, erotic creatures.” (Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, who also gave the world Marvel’s first sort-of sex scene in “Eternals,” is also a fanfic author who has revealed her pseudonym.)

Another reason for the penissance may come down to the increasing demand for diverse stories and honest depictions of people of all races, sexualities, genders, and backgrounds. Rather than use genitalia as a sight gag, it’s an acknowledgment that these characters, like the audiences who watch them, are sexual beings. And those performances are supported by the introduction of intimacy coordinators, which makes the experience of filming nude scenes, prosthetic or no, safer for actors and crew alike.

As with any significant change, there will be moments of overkill. “Euphoria” is admirable in its efforts to subvert expectations, but it also tends to go a bit overboard. (One of its female stars told creator Sam Levinson to knock it off already.) And maybe that’s the biggest shift of all: Even if shows and movies get it wrong, this audience doesn’t reach for pitchforks. They quickly forgive and let the creators try again.

After all, the standards for vulgarity are forever changed. For much of the audience in 1980, Gere’s penis was likely the first they’d ever seen on a screen. Today, the odds of someone seeing an onscreen penis for the first time on HBO have shrunk considerably. The penises have not.

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