Monday, July 6, 2009

Penis Imagery Rears its Head again in Recent Movies/TV

Last May I wrote on my blog and in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about how images of penises were making their way into mainstream movies, mainly in ones by Judd Apatow, and how underlying this were a rise in male anxieties, hence the projection writ large of their penises on the big screen. I argued that we were seeing a transition from the "melodramatic" penis imagery of the 1990s, as coined by Professor Peter Lehman in his book "Running Scared," think of revelatory moments of penis imagery in "Boogie Nights" or "Madame Butterfly" to the casual revelation for laughs of the penis in movies like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Harold and Kumar".

I'd argue that a rise in male anxieties due to the recession are at the heart of this increase in "casual" penis imagery in film and TV. Compare the frank relevation of bits of the actor's penis in the ending shots of "The Hangover" with the playful opening "peekaboo" montage shots of the opening credits of The Austin Powers movie, when obstructions keep getting in the way of the audience seeing Austin's penis.

I haven't seen any press on "The Hangover" mention the closing scenes, which are actually images saved on a digital camera of the leads' forgotten bachelor night in Las Vegas that we, the audience, are "allowed" to see before the characters delete them. Thrown in the midst of those largely benign images are a few jarring shots of Zach Galifianakis, playing Alan, getting a blow job from an older woman, with the head of his penis visible in some.

This is a movie about a bachelor night that is, of course, solely told from a male point of view, so the assumption is that the movie is intended for "the male gaze," for a quasi-adolescent male audience ready to laugh at male hijinks. But the fact is that many women make up the audience of this film. So to have these images forced on you at the end felt, to me, like a bit like an act of aggression: I didn't really want to see this actor's penis!

It's interesting that nude imagery of women in films, especially comedic ones like this film, are always of beautiful women, whose bodies flaunt a high level of perfection, while in contrast, here we see the genitalia of a not highly attractive actor, an average-looking guy. These images actually felt aggressive, as if it's the male psyche asserting itself, forcing the audience (the females in the audience?) to take a look at this ordinary guy's penis, (as opposed to say, the privates of Brad Pitt.

There was another moment in the movie when a penis is played for laughs, without any aggression, when the actor of Asian descent hops out from the trunk of a car without clothes on and we see a mess of pubic hair, no penis at all.

More later--thoughts on the new HBO show "Hung."

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