The Public’s Perception of the Penis in Horror
What is it about dicks? Tallywackers, cocks, one-eyed snakes – I could go on, and since I’m here to talk about wieners and their use in horror films, I will. As a society, we have been trained to view the penis as controversial. There exists a double standard where penile nudity is scrutinized or even laughed at, which isn’t something that often befalls vaginal nudity. Luckily, the public’s perception of the penis is shifting, and penile nudity is not only becoming more commonplace in the horror genre, but it’s also being taken more seriously.
We’ve all been in a theater showing a film in which a character flashes their schlong on screen, haven’t we? The mere sight of a person’s equipment elicits giggles from the audience because, unfortunately, we live in a society that has made it so that knobs are inherently funny. It begins in health class in middle school – or not, depending on which part of the world you live in – and it continues into adulthood. Outside of pornography, people laugh at peckers. Any person with a vagina can run around completely nude with their genitalia fully in the frame in horror. Yet, when it comes to someone with a joystick, it’s usually shot in a way that hides said downstairs appendage. And in the rare instance that someone does show their stiffy on screen, it immediately becomes the talking point (or laughing stock) of the film.
When Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man came out in 2000, the discussions weren’t centering on the unnecessary rape scene or the slasher-y third act. No, the major talking point for people coming out of every Hollow Man screening was the infrared image of Kevin Bacon’s bacon. Never mind that those same audiences could have seen the damn thing sans CGI imagery in Wild Things two years prior. Just seeing a peter on-screen – even one you’ve already seen – was an event.
Hollow Man isn’t exactly considered “high art” in the horror world. Often viewed as, well, “hollow.” Critics found so little to like that it’s unsurprising that attention was focused on the more ridiculous elements of the film. Conversely, similar conversations would be had just two years later about Danny Boyle’s critically lauded outbreak thriller 28 Days Later. In that film, Cillian Murphy’s introductory scene showcases the actor’s uncircumcised ugly stick. It’s just a bizarre social phenomenon that people can walk away from a film as brilliant as 28 Days Later, but the final takeaway is “we saw that guy’s twig ‘n berries.”
Strangely, an extension that people are so proud of can simultaneously be the punchline of any film in which it makes an appearance. People with packages are so quick to boast about them, yet they’re also terrified to show them. What is it that keeps most from wanting to dangle their dongs in front of a camera? It’s almost as if they fear the audience will judgmentally scrutinize their love leg, metaphorically poking and prodding it as the witches did to that police officer in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. That thought process isn’t entirely without merit, but it’s a way of thinking that should be remedied.
It could be argued that there is a conspiracy in the people-with-a-phallus-dominated film industry. After all, too much peen on-screen (or too hard of a hard-on) gets a film slapped with an NC-17 rating. But show a vagina? An R is totally fine. What does that say about the vagina? That it’s somehow “less sacred” or “less offensive” than the peter? Obviously, neither is true, but it’s insulting to people with vaginas because the implication is that it’s not as worthy of being put on as high a pedestal as the pud. That needs to stop.
Of course, there is the issue of size. The argument seems to be that when it comes to vaginas, there’s nothing there to show, whereas people with fucksticks have something to lose by exposing themselves. That argument is problematic because it implies that the vagina is “nothing,” which isn’t true. People with trouser snakes are afraid of people assigning their self-worth with the size of their flaccid frankfurter. This is ironic, considering that A) the flaccid length of a lightsaber doesn’t really say anything about its erect length and B) there isn’t the same scrutiny given to people who show their breasts or vaginas. Are people with vaginas self-conscious about the size of their labia? The answer to that question doesn’t matter. Rather, it is assumed by people with whackers that they don’t or that it simply doesn’t matter because, again, there’s “nothing there.”
Even when we have someone with a meat pole going full-frontal, prosthetics (or CGI) are normally used. This is especially true if the quivering member is meant to be erect. A prosthetic was used for Willem Dafoe’s putz in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist because Dafoe’s own jolly Roger was seemingly so large that “everyone got confused when they saw it.” Luke Evans supposedly showed his dick in Ma, but he has yet to admit whether it was a prosthetic. Hell, we got an entire underwater nude lesbian ballet sequence in Alexandre Aja’s Piranha, but the one bit of meatsicle we saw was Jerry O’Connell’s severed appendage, which was a CGI creation and played for laughs.
And yet, the tide is seemingly turning. Full-frontal nudity of people with penises is becoming more commonplace, and it’s the horror genre that is spearheading the cause. Films like Hereditary, Under the Skin, and The Love Witch all have sequences of full-frontal penile nudity, albeit from side characters or extras. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor features a shot of a semi-erect elephant trunk. Ari Aster showed us Jack Reynor’s rod in Midsommar. This isn’t to say that penile nudity has become normalized, but we’re on the way there. After decades of classifying penile nudity as taboo, it’s time for a change. An unsheathing, so to speak, leveling the playing field when it comes to genital representation that’s long overdue. It’s 2020, after all.