There’s a long history of showing female nudity on screen, while avoiding doing the same with the male body. That’s been changing in recent years, with directors and audiences becoming a lot more comfortable with showing the naked male body on screen too – sort of. While female nudity on screen is boringly commonplace nowadays, the male body is still heavily regulated, and the use of prosthetics in male nude scenes are still standard practice – Testament to the biases and inequalities that surround on screen nudity.
Something weird happens when women refuse to go naked on screen: Men get upset. It’s as if their purchase of a cinema ticket or subscription to a streaming service entitles them to a free VIP strip show. Just look at the response Game of Thrones star, Emilia Clarke received when she refused to take on more nude scenes after the first season of the show. The star was told on later sets that if she refused to expose herself to audiences, she’d be “disappointing” them – as if they’re automatically entitled to seeing her breasts.
Clarke, speaking on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast, said that due to the pressure she felt on set and severe imposter syndrome she experienced in the early days of GoT, she agreed to do nude scenes despite feeling extremely uncomfortable. Her mind set at the time was “whatever I’m feeling is wrong; I’m gonna go cry in the bathroom, and then I’m gonna come back and we’re gonna do the scene—it’s gonna be completely fine”, but that it was a difficult experience. She also admits that the discussion surrounding her work on the show often focused on her being nude in front of the camera – which we can all admit it unfair considering her skill as an actress.
“The last time that I was naked on camera on [Game of Thrones] was a long time ago, and yet it is the only question that I ever get asked because I am a woman,” she said. “And it’s annoying as hell, and I’m sick and tired of it, because I did it for the character—I didn’t do it so some guy could check out my tits, for God’s sake.”
Male Nudity in film and TV
Female actors have been suffering this kind of pressure for decades. Its compounded by the fact that, like in Clarke’s case, actors are immediately typecast once they do shed their clothes on screen (something she actively fought back against). It would be reasonable to assume that as more and more men are revealing their bits to viewers, they’d have a little more sympathy for the cause.
According to Peter Lehman, there are a number of factors fuelling this increase in male on screen nudity – not least among them being the rise of online streaming platforms, which aren’t governed by the Motion Picture Association’s strict ratings system.
“According to the ratings – which still regulate theatre releases – penises can be shown in nonsexual situations, such as when they appear during a concentration camp scene in “Schindler’s List.” But if a scene involves sex and frontal male nudity, the actors have to be a certain distance apart,” states Lehman.
In addition, some filmmakers have been taking it upon themselves to even the playing field by writing scenes that depict men in the same way that women have been depicted throughout the history of film.
Even so, the pressure of having to expose oneself or risk “disappointing” fans is one that male actors don’t often have to experience –or rather, the pressures they do face are markedly different. Men are often not required to expose themselves at all, as many of the penises that have been popping up on screen don’t belong to the actors anyway – they’re prosthetic.
The Phallus Fallacy
A decade ago, Spartacus, hit our screens, bringing along with it some very lame and gratuitous blood effects and a whole bunch of nudity. The key difference between Spartacus and all the shows that came before it was that all of the many, many penises we had to endure were prosthetic. This kicked off a trend that has now become the norm. Sometimes filmmakers choose to skip using a prosthetic altogether and just make them digital.
According to Lehman, “in “Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II,” director Lars von Trier digitally replaced the actors’ penises with those from body doubles”. Regardless of whether they’re prosthetic or edited in later, all of these fake phalluses have one thing in common – size.
Using prosthetics or digital editing allows filmmakers complete control over the representation of male genitalia, and in doing so, only really serves to reinforce the obsession with size and toxic societal notions of masculinity. This should lead us all, as viewers, to question why the male body deserves such strict on screen policing while the female body can be exposed without a second thought, and also why viewers and filmmakers choose to cling to and reinforce archaic ideas of what it means to be a man.
“In the end, the use of prosthetics comes at the expense of the most mature thing filmmakers could do: show diverse, real penises in a manner that holds no special meaning for the character or plot,” Lehman writes.
“While Spartacus would lead you to believe otherwise, all gladiators did not have big penises. Nor did their penis size and shape have anything to do with their strength, power, masculinity or sexuality.”
In search of equality in on screen nudity
Essentially, there are two issues at play here. Women shouldn’t need to show their bodies if they don’t want to, for no viewer is entitled to it, and men shouldn’t have to feel that when they choose to show their genitals on screen that they need to be digitally replaced with those of a better-endowed body double.
The film industry will be able to claim that it’s truly made strides in this department when it starts accurately representing the human body as what it is, rather than as an aspirational, sexualised objects to be devoured by the (toxic) male gaze. As women come in different shapes and sizes, so do men, and pretending there’s something less than screen-worthy in that is reinforcing negative body images and stereotypes in all of us.
Furthermore, actresses should be appreciated for the skill they bring to a role, and not just the breasts they expose in it. In fact, they shouldn’t have to expose their breasts at all unless they feel entirely comfortable doing so. The penis holds no magical power that causes it to deserve more respect than the female body and thus be allowed to avoid being shown on camera.
Boobs are just boobs. Penises are just penises. Their owners should be able to choose how much (or how little) of them they show on screen. Filmmakers and viewers all need to stop awarding body parts some imaginary magical power. If you’re watching a show just for the nudity, you may as well just cancel your Netflix subscription and head on over the PornHub – you’ll waste less of your time on the interim scenes and plot.