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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

newsflash: men have penises!

Shocking news from Hollywood! Individuals of the male half of the human species each apparently has an appendage of a sexual nature dangling between his legs. This breakthrough discovery has been made by the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as reported yesterday at the Internet Movie Database:

In the latest exhibition of taboo busting, Jason Segel, the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, will be seen totally naked in one scene in which his character is rejected by his girlfriend, played by Kristin Bell. Reporting on the scene, today’s (Wednesday) Los Angeles Times commented that the amount of full-frontal male nudity in the scene is “unprecedented” and that when the movie was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX last month, “every time Segel was shown au naturel, the totality of his package nearly brought the house down with laughter.”

</snark>

Now, sure, it’s true that men are nude onscreen far less frequently than women are, and that it’s high time for some parity in this, um, area. But that’s not what’s happening in Sarah Marshall. The scene referred to above is all about shocking the audience with Segel’s anatomy — which works, apparently, if even a hip Austin crowd can be completely unaware of what men look like naked. There’s nothing suprising or unusual about the nudity within the context of the scene: they’re in the privacy of his apartment, and the characters have been dating for five years, so presumably she’s so used to seeing him naked that it barely even registers with her. And in fact, the clear intent of the scene is to make the audience laugh at his nudity, even to the point of distraction from the characters’ conversation (which may be a good thing, because it could not be more dull).

So it’s not about busting taboos at all, but about using the fact of the taboo to get a cheap laugh. If Sarah Marshall wanted to bust taboos about male nudity, it wouldn’t have reduced it to a juvenile joke, which only reinforces the idea that there’s something naughty about it.

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  • t6

    *Story Time*

    I was probably 20 years old. I was in the Army and stationed in Germany. I had a German girlfriend and we were over at her apartment watching a crime show (that and soaps one of the best ways to learn a language I find). I grew up in San Francisco…so I fancied myself liberated and uninhibited. I’m queer and you know, hip.

    So we were watching TV. There was a couple in a bed. They had made love the night before, but now it was morning. The phone rang, and the fellow stood up and walked across the room to get it….and…he was naked. But full frontally naked. My jaw dropped open and I was shocked. My German girlfriend laughed and laughed and called me a prudish American. At that moment, I realized she was right. Of course the dude would be naked after having sex the night before. Of course he’d just walk across the room naked if the phone rang.

    Then I realized how absurd America truly is. After passionate love making on TV, people are somehow always clothed again…or they strange L-shaped sheets. Huge fines because of Janet Jackson’s nipple (never mind that many of the PG films I watched in the 1970s had naked breasts all over the place–including teen sex comedies)…trying to get huge fines because of the showing of a man’s butt (never mind that NYPD Blue did that so long ago).

    People talk about how we are getting more and more explicit in the media…but it seems to me the exact opposite. We are getting more and more prudish and juvenile about sex. I’m not advocation the exploitation or objectification of people…but we have an unhealthy 13-year-old-ness about sexuality that is destructive.

  • t6

    Oh Hey MAJ,

    I know you don’t review the video games so much, but I thought you’d be interested in hearing the results of a David Johnson poll given to gamers parents. The question: As a parent, which would you find most offensive in a video game?

    The results:
    37% A Man and Woman Having Sex
    27% Two Men Kissing
    26% A Graphically Severed Human Head
    10% Multiple uses of the F Word

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/83160-What-They-Play-Poll-Finds-Parents-Fear-Sex-in-Games

    What’s up with us as a culture?

  • MaryAnn

    We’re idiots, that’s what.

    they strange L-shaped sheets.

    Or the woman wearing her bra in bed. Like poor Tory on BSG last week. What’s up with that? I’m not going anywhere with you if you can’t even be bothered to get my bra off.

    I’m not advocation the exploitation or objectification of people…but we have an unhealthy 13-year-old-ness about sexuality that is destructive.

    Exactly. And the kind of ridiculousness that we see in *Sarah Marshall* is, ultimately, objectifying people, as if our genitalia were a punchline.

  • eugene

    That’s not true. The joke comes after: What really brought down the house at SXSW was the line “If I put my clothes on, it’s over.” Which is hilarious in context.

  • As open-minded (hopefully) parents of a 10-yo, we try not to make too much of a big deal about body parts or sex when seen in tv and movies. Luckily munchkin is still in “Eww” mode. :) We do try to limit it for right now, but we certainly don’t try to hide it.

    We’re more likely to pause the show when there is gratuitous violence, or gruesome fx after some kind of violence, and especially when there is verbal/emotional abuse taking place. I think the audio part of much of the violence is much worse than what is usually shown (and I don’t mean your slashers or horror films, I’m simply talking about tv shows.)

    We watch Torchwood on a regular basis, and instead of pausing the show whenever anyone is “snogging” or otherwise enjoying themselves in a carnal manner, we just explain it to munchkin, hetero, homo or otherwise (what WOULD alien be considered?) Yes, there is some sniggering, but I expect it of someone who’s 10. I just hope to teach him it’s normal, not to be afraid of it, and to be tolerant.

  • Pertinent question: how often do we see FEMALE genitalia onscreen? Breasts seem to be fine, but I have the impression that women’s privates are as taboo as men’s privates to Hollywood. Beyond art house fare like THE DREAMERS and LUST, CAUTION (and of course Julianne Moore’s infamous flash in SHORT CUTS), I don’t recall seeing any, really. Have I missed some along the line? I think I’d remember something like that.

    Not pushing any particular opinion here, just observing.

    And while I continue to disagree with M-A about Judd Apatow’s movies, she definitely has a point here: the penis stuff in SARAH MARSHALL is played solely for shock value. (And not such original shock value at that. They pulled the same trick with Kevin Bacon’s schlong in WILD THINGS, and that was a decade ago.)

  • MaryAnn

    how often do we see FEMALE genitalia onscreen

    Far more often than we do male. That said, it think it’s more fair to equate the nudity of female breasts with the nudity of male genitalia, both being unavoidable obvious sexual charactistics.

  • MaSch

    Hmm, if the nudity of female breasts equates the nudity of male penisses, then what equates the nudity of female genitalia?

  • amanohyo

    Now that’s the kind of SAT question that teenagers can really wrap their uh… brains around.

    And t6, you’re right, it’s ridiculous how parents go absolutely nuts over a nipple in a game, but have no problem with exploding heads, severed limbs, and oppressively sadistic behavior from supposed video game “heroes.”

    I mean, maybe this is against the law, and it’s probably one of the many reasons I’m not a parent, but if your child has internet access, you have to assume that they have seen *gasp* naked people *double gasp* having sex *triple gasp* “for real” by the time they hit high school. I’d just sit em’ down one day and use the corniest, most hilarious porn video I could find as a visual aid for the dreaded “talk.”

    But again, some people might claim that showing comic porn to my hypothetical teenaged children constitutes some kind of abuse. One thing’s for sure, they’ll damn well see enough penises so that full-frontal nudity jokes will have to be clever to get a laugh. This, I command!

  • t6

    MaSch — female genitalia is tricky…since it, according to bunches of feminist (and not so feminist) psychoanalysis, tends to be perceived as a lack. So unless you are showing some involved close ups in interesting angles, women’s bodies are seen by the patriarchal society as not having their own genitals…just having a lack of a penis. This is similar to the ways in which our sexist society tends to see women as not having a sex drive of their own. (Note: I do not advocate this line of thought…but I recognize that it does influence what is considered pornographic by our society).

    amanohyo–I think we are getting to the point were nakedness at all around your hypothetical teenaged children would constitute abuse. When I was a little, little kid, I was living with a bunch of hippies…and everyone was naked all the time. I shudder to think that that might be considered illegal now. Also, all those naked baby on a bearskin rug photos can count as child pornography now. Embarrasing when you are older? Yes. Child pornography? No. But the US is simultaneously profoundly repressed sexually, and one of the major centers of porn production. Go figure. Why, oh why were we founded by Puritans? All of our weird fixations on sex…from Clinton’s blowjob to Republican congressmen in bathrooms tapping their feet in a wide stance. While at the same time, many of our top TV shows are things like Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, CSI, Torture Fest 24…

    It makes me sad.

  • MaSch

    Hi there t6,

    sorry, I didn’t quite get your response in my direction. I already started to write a long-winded answer, but instead let me just say:

    My private parts are as private as any woman’s private parts!

    Of course, I know this is seen differently by the mainstream media and so …

    Oh, and your Puritan laws about child pornography (i.e. baby on the bearskin) are being exported to countries not founded by Puritans. Not the fault of the US but our own stupid populistic politicians.

    Well, but at least, I can make my parents’ life a living hell when these laws finally get here …

  • Phil Urich

    Err, with all due respect, I know where I live (and no it isn’t Europe) it’s technically legal for a woman to walk around with no clothes above her waist, although she’d definitely be the exception rather than the rule and the police here have a habit of ignoring the letter of the law to instead go with what they think is “right”….but I guess my point is, often under the law there is a large difference between public baring of breasts compared to public baring of genitalia. It’s also classified differently biologically; breasts are *secondary* sexual characteristics.

    To directly compare penises and breasts is misleading; the two simply don’t equate, although I’ll admit there’s the trouble that there just *isn’t* a direct equivalent with the male body, and furthermore the censors go so far that it’s black-and-white so any part of the body viewed as sexual is almost equally taboo in American/Canadian television.

    The bra thing, yeah, that has always just seemed unnatural; I can forgive people like the BSG producers for doing that because they obviously have to, but I cannot forgive the powers-that-be which enforce the climate which makes such decisions necessary.

    I’d also like to add to this “debate” (really, we all agree the censorship is stupid, arbitrary and influenced by traditional prejudices) the fact that, as far as I recall, there are prohibitions on showing the moment of orgasm, even if no nudity is shown. And that, I think, is the most ludicrous part of all, we’re allowed to see moments of embarrassment and ridicule, or more seriously moments of pain, anguish and death, but we’re barred from the positive flipside. As much as I admittedly like depressing television, heh, it shouldn’t be *mandated* to have to be relentlessly depressing and negative. That’s a travesty.

  • I’m still not certain we see women’s genitalia onscreen any more than we see men’s. M-A’s point about breasts is well-taken, though, and there’s no question that women’s bodies are exploited onscreen far more than men’s.

  • Spencer

    Believe it or not, MaryAnn, here is an Apatow fact we agree on: the nudity in FSM is in fact played for cheap vulgar laughs, and it certainly doesn’t even flow with the tone of the movie, which I was surprised to find was less raunchy (sans nudity) than 40, Knocked Up, or Superbad.

    Rob– I’m not judging; I’m just wanting an explanation b/c I’m confused: how is it exploitation when an actress signs a contract agreeing to bare breasts? To be sure, there is systemic exploitation going on, but the individual cases seem less clear.

    Amanohyo– Your response horrifically mangles the evidence. For one thing, the question was never nudity. Also, it is by no means a derivation from either the statistics quoted or experience that because parents who responded to a non-random survey rated sex higher than violence when considering objectionable content, that they “have no problem” with violence. For example, let’s say that on a Likert scale, the parents might rate sex as a 7 (highly objectionable), but violence as a 5: given the same proportions, this returns the result that 37% find sex more objectionable than violence in video games, BUT IN NO WAY MEANS THAT VIOLENCE IS NO BIG DEAL.

  • In and of itself, a woman baring her breasts onscreen isn’t necessarily exploitation at all. And as a red-blooded male, I have no issue with the presence of bare breasts in my entertainment. I was referring to more systematic exploitation, which I believe was M-A’s point when she compared women’s breasts to men’s penises.

    To clarify:

    1) I don’t believe there are demonstrably more shots of female genitalia than of male genitalia in American movies. If there’s strong evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it, but they both seem to be pretty taboo, regardless of gender.

    2) I think that says a lot about American prudishness and what we find unacceptable, especially since breasts and butts are flashed left and right.

    3) Although I believe that crotch shots rarely appear regardless of which gender is involved, that that doesn’t mean I believe that there is no sexism in Hollywood or that systematic exploitation of women in the movies doesn’t exist. Clearly it does, and clearly that’s not okay. But the dearth of pubic hair on American screens implies a form of censorship which runs a little deeper than mere sexism and I’m interested in hearing if other folks agree.

  • Spencer

    Then it seems we’re in agreement, Rob.

    One note: when you say that the absence of genitalia on-screen is evidence of censorship beyond mere sexism, I’m not sure what this means. Censorship I get– some official body (such as the MPAA) supressing otherwise unhindered artistic expression through exercising its official authority. However, one must realize that the MPAA system is complex and not entirely straightforward censorship.

    For example, the MPAA merely assigns (supposedly) standardized criteria to “grade” a movie based on its content so moviegoers will know what to expect with some degree of regularity and detail. The MPAA does not say, “You cannot put an extended penis shot here at all”; rather, it says, “If you do put an extended penis shot here, you will have an NC-17 rating.” Now, to my knowledge, Congress hasn’t passed any law assigning quotas to the number of NC-17 movies a studio can put out, nor have they levied fines against a studio for putting out more than that quota. As far as I am aware, there is nothing inherent to the MPAA which limits artistic expression.

    Now, studios on the other hand are not likely to finance and/or distribute such films except in rare circumstances. So is it censorship for a business which owns the artistic rights to a work to dictate the content of that work in such a way that it will best sell? In short, is it censorship for a private business to make a business decision about its product? These are much more cloudy waters, and at the least illustrate the muddled definition of the word “censorship.”

    So, before I truly understand what you mean I would need a definition of the word, an explanation of its application in this circumstance, and how it “goes beyond mere sexism.”

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not about explicit, overt censorship: it’s about how our fucked-up, prudish, puritan, violence-loving, sex-hating culture dictates “values” that force filmmakers to self-censor themselves in order to appeal to a wider audience. Sure, there are no laws against NC-17 movies, but our culture has created a situation in which most newspapers won’t advertise NC-17 movies, and most video chains won’t carry NC-17 DVDs, which naturally limits the audience a movie will get.

    My private parts are as private as any woman’s private parts!

    You may feel that way, but our culture does not: it acts as if a man’s private parts are MORE private than a woman’s.

  • Shadowen

    I would note that when Viggo Mortensen decided to just let it all out in Eastern Promises, no one was laughing.

    Because in that scene, he was fighting for his life. His nudity was symbolic of his vulnerability.

    As you note in your review of Sarah Marshall, it’s supposed to be funny. (Whether it is, of course, is a matter of taste.) Again, the nudity probably is meant to symbolize vulnerability, if I can get anal about details in a bloody Judd Apatow-ish flick. (As if being dumped wasn’t bad enough, he’s naked, too!) But because it’s a comedy, people are expected to laugh at the absurd, not be frightened or made uneasy by it. People will laugh if they think they’re supposed to, and convince themselves they think it’s funny.

    Studies have been done. Take snarky dialogue from a drama, or a comedy with no laugh track, and play it for people, and more people will laugh than if you play it straight.

  • MaryAnn

    Exactly, Shadowen. As I’ve said many times before, almost *anything* can work in a movie — it’s how it’s handled that makes it work, or doesn’t.

  • Not to get too analytical or graphic about this, but the ratings board differentiates a bit between pubic hair and actual genitals. Clerks II had Jason Mewes doing an imitation of Ted Levine’s tuck-under in Silence of the Lambs, and both of those movies were rated R. Fight Club had a 2-frame burst right at the end of male genitals (courtesy of Tyler Durden), and that movie also got an R. But in Forrest Gump, we got to see Tom Hank’s pubic hair, and that movie was rated PG-13. And in The Dreamers, Bertolucci showed quite a bit of Eva Green’s and Michael Pitt’s anatomy; that movie received an NC-17.

    The main thing we take from all of this is that the MPAA is notoriously subjective when it comes to ratings. Context seems to be a particularly large component of their process.

  • MaryAnn

    the ratings board differentiates a bit between pubic hair and actual genitals.

    Fuck the MPAA. They’re a huge part of the problem.

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