Yay for Penises, But What About the Shadowy, Merkin-Covered Pop Culture Vulva?

These cameos tend to inspire a combination of gawking, locker room humor, and homophobic revulsion.

Yay for Penises, But What About the Shadowy, Merkin-Covered Pop Culture Vulva?

When HBO’s Euphoria premiered its 40 seconds of approximately 30 dicks in Episode 2, the world seemed to get a collective boner about it. From journalists to random people on Twitter, there was endless, inescapable talk of dicks, dicks, dicks. It was the sheer volume of peen, yes, but also the fact that it still feels novel to see a dick, let alone many dicks, in mainstream TV and movies. That is despite the fact that, according to some, it’s been on the rise in recent years. (Last night’s Euphoria episode featured yet another montage of dicks, including a micropenis.) These cameos tend to inspire a combination of gawking, locker room humor, and homophobic revulsion, but there’s also, unmistakably, sheer giddiness around the supposed re-balancing of Hollywood’s nudity scales. There’s the sense of finally, men are getting naked, too.

It was amid this recent dick-phoria that a friend alerted me to a Twitter account that was dedicatedly @-mentioning journalists who wrote favorably about penises in mainstream film and TV. That account led me down a rabbit hole to a handful of similar accounts, which used hashtags like #FreeTheV and #TIMETOSHOWVAGINALIP, and expressed outrage at the Euphoria frenzy due to “utterly fucking disgusting double standards” around on-screen nudity. In this version of reality, it was men who were routinely sexually objectified on screen. As one of these accounts, @Alexluvspussy, put it: “Name the shows and movies that show pussy. I could name hundreds that show male genitals. … Male objectification is more wide spread than female and males are shown full frontal, in pornographic ways women are not.” (He was responding to a woman who tweeted, “Euphoria treats a penis the way every single other hbo show treats every inch of a woman’s body and I’m here for it.”)

Zendaya Coleman’s character Rue gives a lecture on dick pics in Episode 3 of Euphoria Screenshot:HBO

I hate to say that a Twitter account with six followers and a tendency toward hyperbole about “hypocritical” feminists, despicable “modern women,” and leftist “agendas” got me thinking, but it got me thinking. It got me thinking about the many manifestations of men’s entitlement—and that I couldn’t recall having ever seen a vulva in a mainstream TV show or movie, although I could tell you about some dicks.

just how common are visible vulvas in mainstream entertainment?

As TV and film viewers, we have all in our lifetimes seen more instances of on-screen breasts than we could ever possibly remember or count. Below the belt, though, I could only remember fleeting, shadowy glimpses of women’s pubic hair. Certainly nothing like the vivid closeups on flopping dicks and dangling testicles in the Euphoria scene, which creator Sam Levinson describes as an homage to 1976’s Carrie. In that original scene, a few young women walk around naked with full bush on display, but there are, most definitely, no clitoral or labial close-ups. So just how common are visible vulvas in mainstream entertainment?

I put this question in an email to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the trade association that rates films, and was referred to a source who never got back to me, which is par for the course when making semi-serious journalistic inquiries about genitalia.

This ultimately led me to Mr. Skin and Mr. Man, twin sites—one featuring women, the other men—whose very raisons d’être are breathlessly cataloging clips of nudity from mainstream pop culture. The sites have 9,512 scenes labeled as showing (women’s) “bush” and 3,288 scenes showing “penis,” according to CEO Jim McBride. He clarifies, however, “In some ‘bush’ scenes you are not going to get a straight-on vulva shot. It could be partial visibility like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Maria Bello in A History of Violence.” There are only 346 scenes specifically tagged as showing labia—which he says requires that they be “very clear shots”—including Rosario Dawson in 2013’s Trance.

Now, this is not exactly scientific data: Both sites feature some content from outside of mainstream Hollywood, including clips from legendary porn films like Deep Throat. Regardless, McBride says that he’s seen a recent rise in on-screen dick in the mainstream, but that “penis sightings are still less common than vulva.” Only, though, if you equally count all those shadowy “bush” sightings.

All of which is to say: It’s hard to compare apples and oranges, or vulvas and penises, or vulvas and vulvas. Dicks can be fairly out there: protuberant, dangling. So can vulvas, to a differing degree. Taking a spin through Mr. Skin’s and Mr. Man’s compilation videos of A-list stars’ full-frontal scenes, there are anatomical disparities that account for much more visible peen. But there are also many more moments where directors seem intent on concealing vulvas with shadows and positioning, while nonchalantly displaying the well-lit dick. Take, for example, a close-up on a naked but heavily shadowed Scarlett Johansson’s nethers in Under the Skin compared to a sunlit Daniel Craig in Love is the Devil with his legs splayed open in a bathtub.

Penises are so often instead talked about as the equivalent on-screen counterpoint to breasts, which feels like a weird slight to vulvas.

Even the Mr. Skin playlist charmingly titled “Celebrity Labia Exposed” is full of shadows, or else glimpses of labia majora peaking out of underwear or shorts. That’s to say nothing of merkins, which are pubic hair wigs commonly used by women actors in Hollywood specifically to hide any protuberant bits. Pubic modesty curtains, if you will. Not too surprisingly, in many of the full-frontals highlighted by Mr. Man, the A-list actors seem groomed with the intent of better exposing the dick.

Penises are so often instead talked about as the equivalent on-screen counterpoint to breasts, which feels like a weird slight to vulvas. We act as though they are invisible, and maybe we want them to be, and maybe Hollywood makes them so.

Breasts, though? Mr. Skin has catalogued some 39,431 scenes. That’s nearly twelve times as many scenes as are tagged with “penis.” That’s not too surprising: A 2014 study found that women were three times more likely than men to appear nude in that year’s most popular Hollywood films. Women’s nudity is treated as the default, and men’s nudity the notable exception. In fact, in 2010 the MPAA introduced a “male nudity” warning without introducing the equivalent specification for women.

That could be why the Euphoria penises—in all their flaccid, desexualized, locker room glory—feel like a win, even if we haven’t really seen much on-screen vulva. We are just used to seeing so much more of women’s naked bodies on screen and, especially, in sexualized scenarios. As McBride put it, “Chances are that when a woman does a nude scene, it’s going to be in a ‘sexy’ context.” He added, “A lot of male frontal nudity we add to MrMan.com is played for laughs, like Jason Biggs in American Reunion, Adam Devine in Game Over Man, or Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” (In the latter case, Segel’s character is getting broken up with as he stands naked and reeling, and to absurd effect.)

Ultimately, the dick, vulva, bush, and breasts tallies don’t tell you anything about how, and in what contexts, these body parts are being depicted. On-screen representation isn’t as simple as an anatomical tit-for-tat (even if everyone could agree on which parts are equivalent).

Despite the relative rarity of penis cameos, they “tend to get a lot more press when they happen,” according to McBride. Chris Pine’s full frontal nude scene in Outlaw King is one such example (and here I must raise my hand guiltily). It got a ton of attention, but turned out to be a distant shot and hard to see,” he said. On the other hand, Rosamund Pike and Lady Gaga “went full frontal,” as McBride put it, in films last year “to not much hype.” Which might make you wonder if it’s less that Hollywood is bravely righting the nudity scales than that we’ve stopped even recognizing women’s nudity as remarkable. That is, as long as it’s in acceptably sexualized or titillating contexts, as opposed to, say, while breast feeding.

(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)

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