‘Gone Girl,’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and the Uncritical Cult of the Celebrity Penis

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People, notably we of the painstakingly non-objectifying left-leaning media, seem to get candidly titillated at the prospect of the exposure of celebrity penis. Because of the peen’s dominance over so much cultural output, and the prominent spectacle of its desires therein, discussions of the peen seem protected from the forces that’d normally call out objectifying representation and objectifying media discourse; this is kind of, it turns out, a cloak of invisibility that hides us from ourselves.

Because, in fact, those of us whose careers entail analyzing the dehumanizing ways in which people tend to perceive, dismantle, and lust after female bodies tend to do just that with male bodies — at least, on the rare occasion when we’re greeted with onscreen peen. Of course, that rarity is one of the reasons we lose our composure over it.

Like the unveiling of an expensive sculpture, the exposure of peen in film is usually done, and observed, with a flair for the grandiose. A little before a film is released, either a publication or the star in question reveals the impending presentation of peen, after which the speculation begins. Will it really be there in the flesh? Or will it be a prosthetic, like that worn by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights? Or will we see a porn actor’s peen superimposed with elaborate software, as with the actors in Nymphomaniac? Will it be well lit, or will it be silhouetted? Will it have a decent amount of screen time? And, of course, there’s the question everyone’s afraid to ask: what state of arousal will the peen be in?

While the uninhibited discussion of filmic dick has always been out there, it seems to be surging of late, from the media coverage of Ben Affleck’s nude scene in Gone Girl to Jamie Dornan’s announcement in The Guardian that we won’t be seeing his in 50 Shades of Grey — a fact that seems to have disappointed entertainment bloggers everywhere. This, perhaps, seems the most vulgar: an actor says he won’t be doing any full-frontal scenes in a film, and the Internet collectively grunts in frustration, as though being denied something to which we were entitled.

Back when Ben Affleck’s dick (not the real dick, mind you, but the idea of the dick) cast a spell on everyone, Gawker posted an article, the entirety of which was devoted to trying to grasp the brief, perplexing vision of Ben Affleck’s member. The author’s friend, Nolan, who’s “probably more of a dick aficionado than [the author],” said:

I definitely saw length and girth…He’s a big guy, and from what I can tell, he’s got a big, circumcised dick. Give it a couple of weeks when it’s screen-shot-able. The proof will be in the pudding.

The author continued:

In the meantime, Nolan said Affleck’s dick reminded him of that of Samantha’s neighbor Dante (Gilles Marini) in the Sex and the City movie. So this, in our best estimate, is what Ben Affleck’s dick looks like:

(What followed was a photo of Marini’s dick).

Then, yesterday, Jezebel published the article, “Welp, ​Jamie Dornan’s Penis Will Not Be in Fifty Shades of Grey,” while The Independent had its own British take on the subject, with the subheading, “Audiences will not see the former underwear model’s ‘todger’ in the movie.” No one, at least in these generally progressive publications, would dare speak of a woman’s body this way. Nobody forgets that Gawker published a series of photographs of Renée Zellwegger’s face (“ready-mades,” as my coworker Jonathon described them, suggesting a Duchampian quality to the relative lack of accompanying editorializing Gawker did, which gave the photos a frighteningly submissive subjectivity and made them prone to merciless dissection). That alone rightfully upset the Internet — Gawker’s terseness seemed implicitly cruel.

Female bodies on film have, to an unspeakably heinous extent, been the object of male scrutiny since the beginning of cinema. They have been displayed by men, for men, and a one of the most reliable ways to become a successful woman in film has always been to submit oneself to such scrutiny. So there’s a good reason why progressive critics are now more cautious about discussing women’s bodies and than men’s bodies. The general elusiveness of the phallus in film — again, despite films’ tendency to kowtow to its urges — has thrown us into a weird, complicated relationship with the appendages, and the disrespected celebrities that happen to be attached to them. You know how beneath his sturdy, black plastic veneer — that veneer that became so synonymous with chilling evil and power — Darth Vader is just a sickly thumb of a man who you wouldn’t fear if you’d seen his true face early on in film? There’s something very similar to the way we crave and devour the rare sight of D in film.

To comment on a man’s body seems, very much, an act of protest, a minor victory. It takes the phallus, a symbol of hegemony, and turns it into a joke about length, girth, etc. It takes the unseen (for men so rarely appear naked because, after all, they’re catering to other men’s desires) signifier/enforcer of a culture that displays and polices the female body and belittles it. The penis seems to like to remain hidden, lest it becomes vulnerable to such belittlement. When it shows itself, it loses its power.

After all this time, does that not sound pretty ideal?

But here’s the other side: Why would we want seemingly fine people, respectable actors like Ben Affleck or Michael Fassbender or whoever else, to become the objects of, well, such objectification? We may not know them personally, but when actors do a nude scene, one can assume they’re not doing it to be perceived as a semi-pornographic object. The appearance of Fassbender’s dick in Shame — a dick that galumphs toward the camera, making itself wildly vulnerable to scrutiny — was key to a film that tried to understand corporeal tyranny over one’s emotional life. The shot established the dick as though it were a false thesis: it was the obvious culprit, but it was also, itself, just this absurd, pendulous thing.

The shot suggested that the answer to this character’s lack of emotional fulfillment and utter incompleteness lay somewhere more mysterious, harder to access — it asked us to confront our own, perhaps erroneous, ideas about the importance and the dominance of the phallus. This was a man whose life was, we’d say, literally being led by his dick, and this strange shot — whose resulting dominant discourse was “Michael Fassbender has a big penis” — was key in introducing this man’s sad existence, and in leading us to question whether he was being led by his dick, or if his dick was at the mercy of an increasingly alienating, sex-obsessed society. (Where was I going? Oh right. Michael Fassbender has a big peen.)

And I wonder, based on my own tendency to join in these frivolous conversations, if the political statement mentioned a few paragraphs ago — that of the scrutiny of the object that so often refuses to be scrutinized, but which so often is seen as the symbol of the way we scrutinize female body parts — might be wearing off, or might not be the most productive in general. Perhaps, I’ve been worrying, we’re just peen-crazy for the same purely sexual reasons men have, for so long, put women under their lecherous magnifying glass.

Recently, whenever I’ve lazily commented on Ben Affleck in the last few weeks, I haven’t been doing it with the notion that, as a gay man, I am exerting some weird power over cinematic heteronormativity (though maybe I’d hide behind this notion if called out for sounding lecherous). Rather, I am probably just being kind of gross. The fact that “peen” has done a lot of awful things to most of the world throughout the history of said world understandably gives us the idea of a go-ahead to objectify specific actors who are, for some reason, willing to present their own incidental symbols of mass destruction. But are we really fighting anything by simply using the vague idea of a fight as a veil for a language of pure objectification as a pure expression of lust? Have I just been catcalling Ben Affleck for the last few weeks, and should I probably stop? I’m thinking maybe I — we — should.

It’s one thing to love peen — but perhaps anyone who chooses to show their body onscreen should be given just a bit more respect, at least in public discourse: perhaps, on the rare occurrence of a peen in film, we should analyze why it’s there in the first place, what it’s doing for the film, and why it’s important for male nudity to become as normalized as female nudity, as some minor measure towards correcting a certain type of gender imbalance. We should similarly analyze why female nudity is there: if such analyses leads us to realize it’s gratuitous, which wouldn’t be surprising, it would again underscore the need to balance out the cinematic exhibition of naked bodies.

Is the best way to find this balance to treat men with the same disrespect with which they’ve treated women? Obviously the image of a sexual organ bears a lot of weight, it should be considered for its symbolic role in a narrative rather than for its physical girth. Or at least as well as its physical girth. There. Poof. The world is better.