More penises are appearing on TV and in film – but why are nearly all of them prosthetic?

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A scene from the film Color of Night. (Photo: Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
A scene from the film Color of Night. (Photo: Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

If you’ve noticed an uptick of male frontal nudity in TV and in movies in recent years, you’re onto something.

In 1993, I studied patterns of male nudity in my book Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. After the old Motion Picture Production Code was replaced by a new ratings system in 1968, frontal male nudity in Hollywood movies in certain contexts was permitted. Drive, He Said, directed by Jack Nicholson in 1971, was an early film to include such a scene, while Richard Gere’s nude scene in 1980’s American Gigolo helped to transform the young actor into an international sex symbol.

Yet female nudity remained far more common in movies, and there was no frontal male nudity on mainstream television as of 1993.

Since then, a lot has changed. Directors and audiences are becoming more and more comfortable showing male nudity.

But nowadays, while we’re much more likely to see penises in mainstream film and television, they’re seldom real. Prosthetic penises – once used for exaggerated effect – have become the norm.

To me, this says something about the unusual significance we continue to grant the penis, along with our cultural need to carefully regulate its representation. In a way, the use of prosthetic penises maintains a certain mystique about masculinity, preserving the power of the phallus.

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