Fragile Masculinity: The Westworld Penis
Who doesn’t love a good penis?
Wait, don’t answer that question: there’s probably some sort of shame in your answer, the same type of shame I’m feeling for writing this piece.
Not that penises themselves are shameful; it’s talking about them and showing them off that’s sort of frowned upon. Which is why it’s worth talking about this week’s episode of Westworld: I could call it an elephant in the room, but that implies that penises are elephants, and that would just be rude.
HBO, broadcasters and producers of Westworld, are no strangers to showing off the human body, always with the goal of summoning very different reactions. After all, they gave us Sex And The City, a show that had its fair share of female bodies and discussions about them (and yeah, they talked about dicks too.)
Oz got its penises out regularly in a pretty gay way, often playing with those aforementioned elements of shame and owning a body. I could be over-reading Oz in this case though, since I don’t think I ever caught a full episode: it aired when I was still in my teens (1997-2003, yeah, I’m old) and very much not sure of my own sexuality, though I hadn’t quite figured out why. It was mostly because I was gay and didn’t have any gay role models or explanations as to what being gay was like or all about.
In its own right, Oz was a show about men in a prison that got violent and gay (both the show and the men); if it made if to the mainstream TV channels I had access to, it was at an ungodly hour. My brain was definitely aware of the show, of the random nudity and the promise of more, but I was at a stage where I had no idea how to respond to that.
And even if I had watched the show, I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it or why.
By the time Game Of Thrones came around, both myself and HBO had started to play with penises in completely different fashions. I had become far more comfortable with my sexuality (living with a guy, married to him now…and people knew about it too!) The show lived in a world that wasn’t quite scared of penises anymore: if anything, Game Of Thrones used its penises as part of its shock value marketing , guaranteeing that post-game analysis and conversation for the water-cooler and social media alike.
Not that people were really talking about the penises on show: at least in conversations that I heard, the subject was usually the shocking deaths, betrayals and other such revelations.
It was (and for a show that isn’t finished yet, still is) a mainstay for Game Of Thrones to include one scene in each episode that triggers that sense of shock. And yes, sometimes that scene would involve male nudity in some form, from any randomly naked background extra to the overly body-confident and later dick-less Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) or the withered old body of Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter.)
The show has never been ashamed of nudity, but Game Of Thrones doesn’t always fetishise that nudity, treating some beats with a sense of pity or disgust applying to both male (Luwin) and female forms (Melisandre.) With that in mind, none of the show’s dick-shots have any true meaning to them: the appearance of genitals in this show typically highlights weaknesses or cocky confidence.
That said, Game Of Thrones has always been more willing to show naked women than men. Perhaps that is just marketing or a genre study by the producers. Maybe the production company have some limitations on how many dicks they can show in any given season.
Or maybe it’s because actors, and men, just aren’t quite comfortable enough with their body to get their dick out. Unlike women who might have fallen subject to the casting couch, men are better placed for saying “No.” (I’m not suggesting that all female nudity is forced, nor that men are unwilling to do nude scenes, but there are definite differences between how both are shown and treated.)
With that in mind, it came as some sort of surprise to see a very intentional penis in the first episode of Westworld‘s second season, even more surprising that said penis belonged to one of the show’s main characters (although it is a show with a lot of characters.) The show is so rich in characters and meaning that I won’t try to explain the reasons, but the scene features Thandie Newton’s character Maeve impolitely ordering Lee Sizemore (Simon Quartmean) to change his clothes.
Maeve’s show of power over Sizemore is both fascinating and jarring: as a Host, her character should be subject to his every whim and desire, and the first season of the show already established Maeve’s powerful growth in taking ownership of her body and being. Maeve choosing to show her (relatively) newly-found confidences and strengths over Sizemore is a curiously huge positive growth for her: that she uses that power over Sizemore, an authority figure, a creative figure, is all the more powerful.
The scene, like much of the show, plays on multiple levels, adding a curious meaning to the nudity that follows. Sizemore’s naked body is demanded and controlled by Maeve, his masculinity challenged at the same time asn she challenges his status as a leading member of the the park’s management and creative teams. Sizemore has, at least partially, created the characters that Maeve has been forced to play, but in this moment, he no longer has any power as a creator: in fact, he doesn’t have any power at all.
It helps, of course, that Sizemore has been played as something of a jerk whose ego suggests that his creativity makes him better than Hosts and other humans alike. Maeve pities and demeans him because he is not like her: he is a pitiful man in the eyes of this newly empowered woman, nothing but a former creator who has lost any power or control over the beings he has created. As Maeve orders him to strip, the scene comes across as her physically demeaning him, removing not only his power, but also his self-created confidence.
It’s a powerful scene: regardless of the humanity and cultures of either character, it is nonetheless a feminist moment, a woman showing and relishing her power and control over the male body. It is not often that popular culture will address the female gaze in such a fashion, and when it does, scenes like this become especially powerful.
This is not the only penis we’ve been seeing in popular culture of late, though I am aware that saying so might sound more than a bit…weird. Mainstream culture is becoming significantly less scared of penises, although they remain a pointed scene with significant meaning behind them, especially when compared to the gratuitous female nudity we usually get.
Male nudity is used to show weakness (or at least openness), for comedy purposes or a mixture of both. Such scenes don’t always involve an actual penis: some might use a prop or subtle camera angles to hide the offending article, but there is nonetheless an obvious sense of meaning, whether that’s in the pitiful emotional weakness of a Jason Segel’s nude-break up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Viggo Mortensen’s brutal fight scene in Eastern Promises that addresses and then undermines that weakness.
Both scenes, and many others like them, suggest that male nudity has meaning (of some unsubtle sort), but female characters (and the actors that play them) are rarely allowed to portray that same meaning: female nudity, usually only bare breasts, is used far too often for the gratuitous male gaze, especially in the world of teen-sex comedies like American Pie wherein there is no secondary meaning to the scene and the body on display, with most of these scenes there only to entice the characters and viewers alike.
And in showing the titillation of this moment, the male viewer is taught that he should react accordingly: as in American Pie and Jason Biggs’ embarrassing ‘pie’ moment, the male view should be confident enough in his penis to own it, but it should remain secret and private. On the other hand,the female form does not get that reaction: it is instead a source of obsession.
To repurpose and adapt an old phrase used regarding women and children alike, it appears that the penis should be unseen, but definitely heard about.
In the world of comedy, the penis is hilarious, both to look at and to talk about: the overly confident man can talk about his size and resilience (American Pie again) while the sexualised woman is allowed to talk about her own experiences and disappointments (Sex And The City.) Both conversations place a laughable focus on size and efficacy and in the Hollywood market wherein the penis is rarely shown, those conversations are rarely diverse: the penis is typically well-functioning or broken, and either satisfying in size or laughably small. There is no other conversation to be had in these worlds.
Such conversation about the male body is not limited to the penis, though. Mainstream movies are starting to have far greater opinions on the male body, topically because you are expected to be built-as-fuck. It seems fitting that any actor, regardless of gender, when facing appearing in any naked or semi-naked scene, would want to look their best and be confident in their body.
And yet there’s the knowledge wherein those scenes are controlled by a producer, and that body is ultimately being manipulated for marketing purposes.
I say this with the knowledge that our cinemas are overtly full of superhero movies at the moment, something we could describe as a genre in it’s own right, drawing from elements of action, comedy and thriller. All such sub-genres touch on the male body differently: action heroes are defined by their bodily strength; comedy laughs at the same body because of a socially awkward moment ; and horror really enjoys making any sort of sexuality a risk.
Superhero movies have developed to include all of these rules: both Marvel and DC comic-book movies have started to embrace a very predictable type that has fallen into the marketing process: assuming that only men will enjoy a superhero film, the movie requires something to appeal to the female viewer so both publishers and producers have entered a predictable process of including scenes wherein the male-hero is shirtless at some stage.
Those scenes fulfill the tropes above: even in the movies that lean more towards comedy, the comic book superhero’s shirtlessness is treated to show their strength (every single film), their comedic appeal (combine the female commentary from Kat Dennings in Thor with the prison showering in Guardians Of The Galaxy), and the risks these damned attractive men face (most of the movies include some scene wherein our hero takes his shirt off to tend to his wounds.)
Many of these scenes even include a female character who will acknowledge the male body, both in terms of the hero’s strength and that woman’s attraction to him. (There is even, on occasion, a camp male commentary that is allowed to accompany that, usually a straight character because of course any man commenting on another man’s body is gay and hilarious.) Such commentary suggests that, not only is the hero desirable because of his ability to, you know, be heroic, his body is sexually desirable simply because of his build.
It’s interesting that this build remains standardised through the Marvel franchise of movies in particular: our shirtless heroes are expected to have huge muscles, not much body hair and this build should still be visible through their clothing.
Except that this manipulation of body image feels so fake and forced that it becomes painfully aware of how controlled it is: Chris Evans (Captain America) is played by a hairy, tattooed otter I’ve fancied since Not Another Teen Movie, but his body is cleansed and muted for his superheroic identity. The same is true of Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt and perhaps most noticeably, Paul Rudd’s Ant Man, an actor who has never played that type of role.
But my issues with these men isn’t just their build, or the portrayal thereof: it’s their fake body hair, as if each has been waxed and shaven so as the idea of a naturally hairy man’s body is not threatening to the female viewer. It’s these characters’ confidence in their bodies, a confidence that they are not even aware of.
Arguably, despite reference to the female gaze, this world isn’t controlled by the female at all: it’s the male viewer, or more importantly, someone involved in the production whose masculinity is challenged when seeing another semi-naked man, a body that is intentionally portrayed in a way to make that man look and feel strong and powerful.
Are we, as men, so vein and awkward that we even find our superheroes sexually threatening and depowering?
Not all men, possibly not even a majority.
But there are definitely men out there who feel their masculinity is threatened by men with gym-born chests, body hair and a bigger dick than them.
Why those men are so busy looking and judging other men’s penises and bodies is a different question entirely.
Also published on Medium.