After the hullabaloo over Euphoria’s frank-and-beans buffet, I get why men in Hollywood don’t want to show their penises.
I mean, yeah, duh, I get it in that way. But, after yet another round of phallus-induced hysteria surrounding the HBO drama series Euphoria, I get in a different way, too.
No wonder there’s such hesitation to show full-frontal nudity in film and television. Whether you’re the thesp whipping it out or the director responding to the decades of unequal-opportunity exasperation—fewer titties, more dongs!—you’re nearly suffocated by one-eyed snake scandal. Who would want to be a part of that?
The controversy started when, the week before Euphoria was set to premiere on HBO, The Hollywood Reporter ran an article with the headline, “HBO's Explicit ‘Euphoria’ Courts Controversy: How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much?”
The article chronicles several elements of the series, which stars Zendaya as a troubled high school student fresh out of rehab and struggling to maintain sobriety, that audiences might be shocked to see in a TV series about teenagers, including graphic sex, drugs, and violence. But it’s the first sentence of the article that aroused countless headlines and giggly social media posts: “30 penises in one episode?”
That’s so many penises! The internet had trouble comprehending it. Just dozens of dicks, hanging there for you to see. What would that do to a viewing public, confront them with that much peen?
What’s more, the Hollywood Reporter said that the original plan was for there to be even more penises in the scene. The original cut apparently had 80! I just passed out. Penises on my TV! On Sunday!! The holy day!!! That’s blasphemy against the Hollywood Bible, in which all men are meant to be genitalia-free Ken dolls who keep their pants on during sex while women strip down completely, as God intended.
In any case, the notorious penises scene finally aired Sunday night. And you know what? Meh.
Of course the scandal was overblown. It always is when it comes to this stuff, when it comes to the dick.
The scene was very obviously a gender-bending homage to the Carrie locker room scene. It was also very obvious commentary on the hysteria that surrounded the scene before it aired: our penis panic in comparison to breast complacency. You know, the double standard of it all. In that, the scene succeeds. Very much so!
It’s the trippy climax to a sequence examining football captain Nate’s (Jacob Elordi) evolution from scrawny, OCD pre-teen to aggro-masculine douchebag. Setting up what is clearly going to be some sort of crisis of masculine identity for Nate later in the series, Zendaya’s Rue explains in a voiceover that he hates going to the locker room after football games because it makes him uncomfortable how comfortable his teammates are with being naked. He tries to avert his eyes, Rue says, but once in a while he forgets and ends up catching a glimpse of a penis.
Throughout all of this, there are guys in various stages of nudity nonchalantly surrounding him, the camera training in on penises to prove a point when necessary. On face value, it shouldn’t be shocking: It is naked bodies in a locker room. Except that full-frontal nudity of any sort is by nature shocking, according to our norms. The episode’s director, Sam Levinson, uses that playfully and purposefully in the way he captures it.
The scene is, truthfully, a bit dizzying and exhilarating, just in the fact that we never see it: Oh wow, look at all those dicks. But it’s soon over, and the show continues. There are better things to talk about.
It’s annoying how this pearl-clutching sort of sensationalism drowns out the real elements about the project that merit debate.
In Euphoria, that’s the scene that shows Eric Dane with a (prosthetic) fully erect penis and then statutory raping a trans teen girl. It’s the bluntness with which it explores how pornography and digital culture have affected the sex lives of teenagers. It’s the fantastical violence. It’s the nudity, the revenge porn, the rape, the drug use, the edgy jokes.
It’s the debate that arises every time a series endeavors to capture the seedier elements of what it means to be a teenager at that moment, and does so with the slightest bit of inelegance and poke-the-bear mischief: How real should TV be? How much of this is shock value for shock value’s sake? Is it irresponsible?
Taking those larger questions aside and zeroing in on the nudity, the remarkable thing about Euphoria is that it is equal-opportunity. It is leering by nature—much of it happens in sex scenes or with characters taking nude selfies—but not entirely gratuitous. And the male actors, at least in the first few episodes, are exposed in equal measure to the women.
That should be, regardless of how you feel about Euphoria or the din of controversy surrounding the locker room scene, a good thing. But we still haven’t gotten to that place as a culture.
When Chris Pine went full-frontal for one scene that lasted not even two seconds and filmed from a blurry distance in Outlaw King last year, it was all that anyone would write, talk, or ask him about. Whatever the movie was about or how his performance fared in it was lost amid the flipping out over his nudity. Michael Fassbender gave the best performance of his career in Shame. To this day, any mention of the film boils down to a lame bro-y joke about his dick size.
There are obviously many instances in film and television where full-frontal nudity is flashed and the world moves on sans hysteria. But it’s one thing to call on Hollywood to “free the peen,” and another to point, stare, and obsess over it once they do.