Why is the penis still hiding? Cinema has always reflected cultural values, so one would think that in our apparently liberated and open-minded society that there would be less of a bias of genitalia in film. However, there still exists a startling double standard in terms of what is shown on screen. Women’s bodies have always been on display, whether for artistic, pornographic, or more recently, advertising purposes, and this over-saturation within the media makes female nudity almost banal. Think of breasts. They’re everywhere, even in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters (maybe especially so). The female form is no longer restricted to daring art-house pieces; it is there for the taking, laid out to be looked at, criticised or lusted after. Male sexual organs are far less exposed.
There seems to be some uncertainty as to the specifics of penis censorship. The BBFC are rumoured to use the ‘Mull of Kintyre’ test to determine whether or not a penis can be shown. If the ‘angle of the dangle’ is higher than that of Kintyre as it is seen on the map of Scotland, then it must be omitted. Though this may not be wholly true, it still highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s unlikely that there would ever be a similar test regarding the size of a woman’s breasts.
So there may not be any concrete rules, but there is certainly a distinct lack of the penis, most prominently in Hollywood. A likely reason for this is that the industry is extremely male-dominated. There is said to be a five-to-one ratio of men working on films to women, meaning that most of the big decisions that get made in the process of filmmaking are usually made by men. This may not be surprising, as the identification of the ‘male gaze’ has been around for decades. It’s the idea that the ‘gaze’ of the camera serves heterosexual male interests; a voyeuristic tool that objectifies women’s bodies.
But we may ask, why does the penis still retain such an aura of taboo? It seems to be a question of power. Exposing the female body puts it in the position of scrutiny and therefore vulnerability. Having a penis on display means that masculinity is scrutinised in the same way; a risk best avoided in our patriarchal society.
There is also the issue of homophobia. Freud believed that all heterosexual men harbour a repressed homosexual desire which may come out in fear and anxiety. This idea connects to the repression of the penis in cinema, considering that there is still a high degree of homophobic tendencies in our society. Interestingly, a study from the University of Georgia revealed that homophobic men were aroused a lot more than non-homophobic men when shown gay porn. Could it be that the image of a penis stirs up unwanted urges? It is much easier for a man to be heterosexually certain when it is only women’s nudity served on the visual menu.
There have of course been recent cases where the penis has made an appearance in mainstream cinema. Michael Fassbender’s member caused quite a stir when it was unveiled in 2011’s Shame. Even though it had a largely positive response from the media (George Clooney famously compared it to a golf club at the Golden Globes), Fassbender was more angry than cocky about the attention. He claimed that it was a form of ‘sexual harassment’ to have it analysed and joked about all over the internet, and complained that it wouldn’t be acceptable to speak about an actress’s vagina so candidly. This is a fair point, however, he does not seem to realise the extent that female celebrities are criticised or drooled over on a daily basis. His outrage brings to light the media’s generally cold and callous attitude towards the celebrity body, and perhaps as a man he feels more inclined to defend his privacy, so rarely is it exposed in public.
It is difficult to know what direction should be taken, whether to increase censorship for both genders, and therefore abolish the double standard, or to have a more balanced display of nudity. For cinema to continue to be progressive and groundbreaking it seems that it must unzip its prejudices and set the phallus free.