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‘Everybody screamed when they saw it!’ The sudden rise in penises on TV
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‘Everybody screamed when they saw it!’ The sudden rise in penises on TV

It’s not just winter that’s coming. This week’s episode of House of the Dragon featured not one but two penises: one mid-fellatio, the other post-coital. If original fantasy epic Game of Thrones became known for “sexposition” – advancing the plot against a backdrop of bare bodies – its prequel seems to be dealing in “dicksposition”.

Just past the midway mark of episode three, as a tipsy King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney) arrived at a King’s Landing brothel with his jeering entourage, he strolled past a sizeable erection in the process of receiving a blowjob. The bratty monarch didn’t seem to notice. Viewers certainly did.

When Aegon burst into a boudoir, he was gleeful to find his younger brother Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) cuddling naked with the brothel madam. Aegon proceeded to taunt his sibling in a poignant scene that clearly harked back to their childhoods. Aemond stood up, butt naked – even his trademark eye patch had been removed – and stormed out, sapphire eyeball glowering and royal sceptre swingeing.

“I almost forgot to bat an eyelid,” says BBC Radio 6 Music’s film and TV critic Rhianna Dhillon. “The BJ was rather explicit but it looked so obviously like a prosthetic that it took me out of it. But the moment with Prince Aemond was honest and vulnerable. An attempt at a show of power which instead softened the edges of a monstrous character.”

These are merely the latest explicit scenes in what seems to be, ahem, a sudden rise in penises on TV. On-screen members are having a moment and the Westeros franchise is leading the way. Game of Thrones had 134 breasts on-screen throughout its run, compared with seven penises. House of the Dragon is redressing the balance.

Dhillon agrees that the two shows use nakedness in contrasting ways. “There is so much fear and abuse associated with nudity in Game of Thrones,” she says. “Rape was a common plot line. The inequality of nudity became predictable, boring and gross to watch. In House of the Dragon, sex and nudity is more associated with pleasure. Often female pleasure, which is a relief! Twisted things still happen but there’s a trust between the viewer and the show which absolutely wasn’t there for Game of Thrones.”

TV drama has become a veritable sausage factory. In May, the finale of Netflix drama A Man in Full – based on Tom Wolfe’s novel and starring Jeff Daniels – saw creepy banker Raymond Peepgrass (Tom Pelphrey) drop his bedsheet to prove he’d just taken Viagra. The result made social media’s eyes water. Tory MP Alexander Stafford said it was “low-grade pornographic rubbish”. Mary Killen from Gogglebox joined the pearl-clutching, writing in the Spectator that such scenes “reduced us to no better than barnyard animals”.

For the past two years, in fact, hi-definition dicks have been coming thick and fast. In late 2023, the opening episode of cringe comedy The Curse riffed on anti-hero Asher (Nathan Fielder) having a micropenis. It lingered on him urinating and even showed him comparing sizes with his father-in-law. Families, eh? Meanwhile, Gen V – the spin-off from superhero satire The Boys – featured what creator Eric Kripke called “the cocksplosion”, when a female character spectacularly detonated a male member.

A scene from Euphoria. View image in fullscreen

In 2019, teen drama Euphoria had a boggling 30 penises on-screen during a locker room scene. (Still a substantial reduction on the 80 which were originally planned.) In 2022, the highlight of bio-drama Pam & Tommy was the animatronic talking todger belonging to Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan). It was described by showrunner Robert Siegel as “a fun and cuddly way to get away with extended male nudity”.

Oscar Isaac went full frontal in Scenes from a Marriage. So did Paul Mescal in Normal People; and we saw plenty of Asa Butterfield’s appendage in Sex Education. “We’re definitely seeing more penises on-screen,” says Dhillon. “We’re also being shown a spectrum in how they’re used – for comic effect in Pam & Tommy, for shock factor in The White Lotus and presumably for lusty teens in Euphoria. But it still doesn’t happen enough to pass without comment. Look at the furore Barry Keoghan caused in Saltburn.” Male nudity tends to hit headlines and go viral, whereas female flesh is taken for granted.

Part of the newfound phallic fascination is a tendency to go large. Size isn’t everything, but TV has entered into an arm’s race (or as one US blog put it, “a baby’s arms race”). In Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That …, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) knelt to give her husband, Harry (Evan Handler), an impromptu bathroom blowjob. Viewers spied what showrunner Michael Patrick King called Harry’s “substantial penis”. King admitted that on-set, “everybody screamed when they saw it”. Theo James described his prosthetic in The White Lotus as “ginormous … like she [makeup head Rebecca Hickey] stole it off a donkey in a field”.

The daddy of them all was the infamous shower scene in Netflix drama Sex/Life. A jealous husband followed his love rival to the gym to see what he was up against. In the changing rooms, the camera panned down to a whopper. It proved a PR masterstroke. Copious coverage was devoted to a “real or not?” debate about actor Adam Demos. On Celebrity Gogglebox, Jonathan Ross exclaimed: “It’s got its own postcode!”

Full-frontal female nudity has been broadcast for more than half a century. Breasts have since become normalised but male nudity lagged behind. A factor was undoubtedly UK obscenity laws, which prohibited erect penises on TV. It wasn’t until 2020 that one was broadcast as part of Channel 4 documentary Me and My Penis. Glimpses have otherwise been flaccid and fleeting.

In the era of prestige TV, US-made shows have exploited their artistic freedom. The 1990s rise of premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz was followed in the 21st century by streaming giants, none of which are as censor-fearing as traditional channels. Netflix is now regulated by the Dutch, Apple TV+ by the Irish – although that’s probably going to change when a UK Media Bill is passed by the
incoming UK government.

Adam Baxter, director of broadcasting standards at Ofcom, says the UK watchdog gets surprisingly few complaints about sex and nudity. Most tend to concern bullying on reality shows, soap opera plots, combative current affairs interviews or perceived lack of political impartiality on the news. At the time of writing, Ofcom had received a mere five complaints about scenes of a sexual nature in this week’s House of the Dragon.

“Nudity and sexual content are judged in the round on multiple criteria,” says Baxter. “Is it after the watershed? Were there warnings before the show? What are the audience expectations? Was it in the context of a dramatic narrative? We have a rich tradition of drama with potentially eye-opening sexual scenes. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem because it’s probably not for the primary purpose of sexual arousal, it’s in order to tell a fictional story. In general, audiences have noted a rise in the level of violence on TV but seem more tolerant of sexual content.”

When Russell T Davies made his “hardness scale” triptych – Cucumber, Banana and Tofu – in 2015, he argued there should be more male nudity on TV. Film-makers including Judd Apatow and Sam Levinson have also stated a desire to level the full-frontal playing field.

The dial has definitely moved. The influence of online pornography, the rise of streamers, advances in prosthetics and the introduction of intimacy coordinators have all contributed to this proliferation of peckers. Female show runners can also take credit since they tend to promote equality in other areas. The likes of Bridgerton’s Shonda Rhimes and Sex Education’s Laurie Nunn are helping to compensate for decades of domination by the male gaze.

“Having women in charge means the scales tip in the other direction,” says Dhillon. “Especially considering there appears to be much more trust around sex scenes now. As viewers, we feel much more comfortable with those scenes, knowing how much thought and choreography goes into them, with the actors’ safety at the forefront.”

Asa Butterfield in Sex EducationView image in fullscreen

Ita O’Brien is a leading intimacy coordinator who has worked on shows including Sex Education, Normal People, I May Destroy You and It’s a Sin. “Gender parity of nakedness is a positive shift,” she says. “The writers, show runners and directors I’ve worked with have been about 40% female, which is fantastic. One of the first things we discuss is how is it serving the storytelling or pushing the characters forward? Once those questions are asked, it’s very clear whether it’s gratuitous or not.”

Prosthetic genitalia is increasingly part of O’Brien’s work. “Prosthetics allow the actor to feel they are wearing a costume, which is less personally exposing. Makers of prosthetics are incredible in their artistry.” Prosthetic penises were once used mainly for exaggerated effect – remember Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights? Now they’ve become the norm, with experts estimating that 80%-90% of screen penises are now prosthetics. The next development O’Brien would like to see is more normalised, less glamorised intimacy.

“Let’s celebrate the beauty of our raw human form. Channel 4 dating show Naked Attraction is great for showing genitalia in all shapes and sizes. Realistic storytelling should be about joy, fun and celebration. Everyday sex with everyday bodies.” Has TV reached peak penis? Call us cocky, but we’re sure it can squeeze in a few more.

Source: theguardian.com