The hidden penis: on censorship, the female gaze and the queer eye

Memory can sometimes be a strange beast. While thinking about this piece, I suddenly remembered an article that Cath Elliot wrote on the Bad Sex in Literature award two years ago under the title, Flaccid prose and the first comment the article provoked:

flaccid is an unnecessary man-hating word to use in the title. I’m all for feminism, but not man-hating.

It struck me as odd why anyone, the commenter in particular, whom I assume to be a man, would find the word – just the word – offensive. For me, describing the unerotic depiction of literary sex, written mostly by men, as “flaccid” is an example of Elliot employing the English language at both her creative and acid best. But oozing from the depths of a corrupt imagination, the word “flaccid” is a probably used as an accusation of something else, something accused as man-hating and deeply un-feminist. Somehow a flaccid penis = an inactive, disappointing, poor-performing male-associated sexuality. Did the commenter think the word implied those things, too?

I’ve been thinking for some time about the neglect of the penis as an object of visual pleasure, and the censorship that deems the male genitalia as “overtly sexual”. My thoughts come from the frustration with the hypersexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, whatever shape and size they might be, as acceptable and even harmless. Representations of the penis, especially when erect however, have been treated with more sensitivity, perhaps more nervously, and have an aura of taboo. Though I have to admit it’s not fair to equate the erotic symbolisms invested within the representation of women’s breasts with the penis and say ‘heck, yeah’ to equal opportunity objectification, I think it’s more important to explore examples in film and media that prefer to maintain the double standard in the treatment of sexualised and dehumanised anatomies.

There are clearly double standards in the practice of objectification of bodies. Female nudity – full frontal or partial – has long been a tool to beautify and sex-up commodities, homes and gardens, film narratives, calendars, book covers, just about everything that it has become banal. The banalisation of women’s naked bodies makes the images of naked breasts on British TV after 9 pm no big deal, because female breasts are not considered pornographic. Erect penises, however, are. The censored video of Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’ on the American MTV channel is a case in point. The original video, termed the “hardcore XXX gay porn” version, depicts the singer singing into another man’s penis and naked women frolicking about. In the edited, “clean” version, the offending penis went out while the breasts stayed.

Could the heterosexual male’s fear of being aroused by the sight of an erect penis be an issue here? Because surely, erect penises have hardly made a mark in the cinematic world dominated by male moguls and directors. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane was apparently ground-breaking in the controversial sense when it became the first film to show an erect penis in a love scene. But to pass with an 18 certificate by the BBFC in 1976, Jarman altered the aspect ratio of the bottom half of the film to shrink the offending appendage to its erm, flaccid(?) state for the censors’ viewing. Things have changed little now, but the film nonetheless enjoys an uncensored version on British TV today, an artistically-rendered display of homoerotic affection on film, and 2 seconds worth of historical hullabaloo.

Chippendales in Las Vegas (source: Wikipedia)

The two examples above have been material made by and for gay men. Images made for a heterosexual audience however have often been stereotypically cheeky and comical (think Chippendales and The Full Monty) and not necessarily masturbation material. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note the similarities in the ways the male nude is represented for the straight female gaze – tanned, muscular, and exceedingly fit – with those usually made for the gay men’s gaze.

The nervous uncovering of men’s bodies for viewing pleasure has a lot to do with the psychoanalytic and consuming power of the gaze: when men expose their bodies (read: penis), their masculinity is put under intense scrutiny. Just as many women are insecure about their bodies, men are too. The insecurity that men feel about the size/shape of their penises and their sexual performance are perennial issues as old as the hills, but it has found its way to self-censorship in public discourse and the media unlike the insecurities many women have felt about their bodies in general – women’s insecurities attached to their notions of femininity and bodies have been exploited mercilessly.

An example of female exploitation reinforced by the hidden male sexuality/penis is particularly evident in Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok‘, a cinematic sex diary of a man’s sexual adventures with Thai sex workers. Although O’Rourke readily admits to the camera to being a client of one the sex workers, images of himself having sex with the sex workers are deliberately self-censored, keeping his sexuality and performance a secret. Here in the most exploitative of situations the power of the gaze is linked with the hidden penis; to watch is to exploit, being watched is to be exploited.

The penis is considered the “proof” of masculinity. But beyond that, across different cultures, it is valued as a symbol of mythic power and even seen as sacred. Exposing it for everyone to see, women and gay men alike, the penis risks devaluation not just of itself, but a man’s very notion of masculinity. It takes a man with a fragile identity to view himself this way of course, but it doesn’t help that we live in a homophobic society and in one that limits female arousal to six-packs and tight asses. So what now you ask? More naked men’s penises to empower the female gaze, and to deconstruct heterosexual masculinities and the meaning of the erect penis? I’m not exactly sure, but by pointing out the hidden-ness of the penis in our increasingly pornified media and popular culture is one way to start.

Race and sexuality in film workshop at Ladyfest Oxford (2009)

Hello all, I’m organising a workshop for Oxford’s Ladyfest where we’ll be discussing race and sexuality in film and media. If you happen to be in the area, please come!

Ever wondered why images of ethnic minority women in film and media are often reduced to stereotypes or simply pushed into the background to the point of invisibility? Find out why by joining a lively discussion on race, sexuality, and representation with feminist cinema enthusiasts and film studies tutors to understand better how racism and marginalisation operate and how they impact women today. Join or visit the Facebook group for information on other Ladyfest events.

Time and date: Tuesday, 19th May 2009, 17:00-19:00

Venue: St. John’s College, University of Oxford

Free refreshments will be provided.

Cinema of sexism: Misogyny in Malay films

Because woman did not fight back, man quickly took over the advantage and made her the scapegoat for all his vices and fears. […] He was intimidated by woman’s sexual desire, and so he invented the mutually exclusive virgin and whore. […] He was ashamed of growing old and ugly, and even more ashamed of being ashamed, and so he invented female vanity to exorcise and account for these fears.

Molly Haskell, excerpted from Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the movies

Haskell wrote her stinging review of sexism in film over thirty years ago but a similar scenario in current film-making still rings true: a male-dominated film industry will always make films that maintain the patriarchal heteronormative dynamic. And although she was talking about Hollywood film-making in general, negative cinematic representations of women can be found in mainstream Malaysian (read: Malay) cinema. If speaking in broad terms, it is perhaps the only form of representation accorded to Malaysian actresses.

From 1990’s onwards, burgeoning modernity (e.g. market-driven conspicuous consumption) and resurgent religiosity (i.e. Saudi-inspired interpretation of Islam) in the country became the conflicting forces that usually fought over the bodies of women. This resulted in a rather schizophrenic representation of the new NEP Malay (men and women) in film – full of capitalistic aspirations but rooted firmly in traditional, patriarchal orientations.

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Unexpected sexualities: the sexual limits and trangressions of Muslim women in film

A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)
Come into my parlour: A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)

Portrayals of liberal Muslim women in film is groundbreaking on many levels. In a time where the veil is a symbol of subjugation, films about Muslim women like ‘Caramel‘ (2007) by Nadine Labaki, with a narrative composed of universal themes like love and sex can stunningly shatter stereotypes. It is an anomaly amongst the more mainstream media imagery of women from Islamic countries; it revolves around a beauty salon in which its characters tackle issues of virginity before marriage (by way of hymen reconstruction), disappointed love, and even lesbianism. More commonly, the sexuality of Muslim women is a mystery. Often she is portrayed as sexless and submissive, covered from head to toe, even though in reality only a small proportion of Muslim women actually do so.

‘Caramel’ offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of Muslim women and that their lives can be no different from women living in more liberal societies. However, one can argue that Lebanon has a reputation of being more progressive than its regional neighbours, but their differences are often cosmetic. In ultra conservative post-revolution Iran, the subject of romantic love and even sex is carefully depicted; often symbolically and abstract– imbued with Persian philosophy, and flying white doves. Even the adoring gaze between lovers was deemed too hot for mullahs: the first love story to come after the revolution was about a pair of blind lovers! While the Muslim world constructs sex and womanhood around some well-defined limits, Western popular culture re-hashes over and over again the image of the belly dancer.

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