2012: The Year of the Penis

More actors are seen going commando and full-frontal: Is this a sign they're relinquishing their masculinity?

This may go down in history as the year the penis became omnipresent. A symbol of power since the Greco-Roman era, the phallus’s prowess in America’s post-fig leaf society has resided largely in its invisibility. But this year the penis suddenly became visible even when it wasn’t. Last month, from within his trousers, Jon Hamm’s bulge upstaged his campaign for Obama. In October, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg appeared turned on, in more ways than one, as he held a Hurricane Sandy press conference. And who can forget the Boner Rower whose Olympic bronze medal appeared to be crowned by a public happy ending? The recent swell in penises on the big screen has served to dismantle the symbolic power of the phallus and, in a time where reality and entertainment are blurred, it is little wonder that celebrities’ off-duty members are commanding our attention as much as Judd Apatow’s penile punch lines – and shedding their masculine mystique at the same time.

A year after the sex addiction film “Shame,” people are still talking about star Michael Fassbender’s member with actress Cameron Diaz most recently giggling about the actor’s “confidence” in the December issue of Elle U.K. She is the third actor to size up the Irish star based on what hangs between his legs. After winning a Golden Globe for “The Descendants” in January, George Clooney thanked his fellow nominee “for taking over the frontal nude responsibility that I had.” “Really, Michael, honestly, you can play golf like this with your hands behind your back,” he said. Then, in March, Charlize Theron joked about her “Prometheus” costar’s package once again at a Human Rights Campaign gala while accepting her Ally for Equality Award from him. “Your penis was a revelation,” she said. “I’m available to work with it any time.”

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Despite initially enjoying the attention, this year Fassbender appeared to be chafing under the objectification. In GQ’s June issue, in which the magazine called him a “full-frontal phenomenon,” the 35-year-old thespian expressed concern at being judged on his penis alone. “It’s fun to a point and after a certain point you worry that it kind of detracts from the movie,” he said. Despite well-endowed “True Blood” star Joe Manganiello, who may have flashed more than his chest muscles in “Magic Mike,” claiming earlier this year that “there’s no such thing as male objectification,” Julieanne Smolinski’s November 2011 article in GQ, “XXX Men,” seemed to side with Fassbender. “Since women are now finally allowed to make fart jokes (thank you, ‘Bridesmaids’!), studios must believe that it’s high time to start letting men play sex objects,” she wrote, adding that the rise in metrosexuality may have helped to smooth the transition.

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But back in 1990, in the New York Times article “Bodies Go Public: It’s Men’s Turn Now,” writer Lena Williams had a different explanation for the penis’s expanding presence in ‘80s pop culture – from crotch-focused Gap jeans ads to “Live’s” Regis Philbin discussing a kidney stone procedure involving his member. She pegged the rise in cock party conversation on sexually progressive youths, the ’80s “fitness craze” and “the influence of gay styles that celebrate the male physique,” not to mention more frank conversations about male health.

But frank conversation was one thing: The big question at the time was why actors were so rarely getting their frankfurters out for the cameras (Richard Gere’s revealing performance in 1980’s “American Gigolo” being an exception). In “Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture,” Peter Lehman theorized that penises have largely been kept off U.S. film screens for three reasons: to maintain the symbolic power of the phallus, to avoid judgment and because of homophobia. Or, as Barbara de Genevieve so eloquently put it in the magazine Camerawork in 1991, “To unveil the penis is to unveil the phallus is to unveil the social construction of masculinity. And that is a real taboo.”

When Hollywood members were given their close-ups, it was generally in two ways. “At one pole, we have the powerful, awesome spectacle of phallic masculinity, and at the other its vulnerable, pitiable, and frequently comic collapse,” wrote Lehman. With the release of “The Crying Game” in 1992, a third category, that of the melodramatic penis – “neither the phallic spectacle nor its pitiable and/or comic collapse” – set the stage for Fassbender’s balls out performance in “Shame” (despite his penis’s spectacular size, that was not the point of the film). But with it came the judgment that Lehman had predicted.

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One way around that judgment was for the actor to deride his dick. In her 2009 Slate article “The Limp Dick: Hollywood’s Latest Obsession,” TV critic (now at Salon) Willa Paskin claimed that art films like “The Crying Game” and “Boogie Nights” initially shocked viewers, but, once that wore off, filmgoers realized the flaccid penis “doesn’t convey power or eroticism” but instead “looks like a finger puppet.” She believed the naked wrestling scene in “Borat,” in which Sacha Baron Cohen (who has flashed us in every one of his movies) and his manager fight nude, “inaugurated a golden age in cock-related sight gags.” Sure enough, a year later, Judd Apatow inserted a gratuitous goolie shot into “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and vowed to “get a penis in every movie I do from now on.” In 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” he kept his promise, stripping a blubbering Jason Segel down to his birthday suit.

“Flaccid penises are more than just another body part to Apatow; they’re the perfect metaphor for his characters: sissy men and overgrown boys who willfully avoid growing up and pay for it with their inability to get it up,” Paskin wrote. “Erections are what men have — limp dicks belong to the stoners, virgins, and perpetual adolescents that populate (very charmingly) Apatow’s universe.”

In the March issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott lamented over what these flaccid funny men meant for the male gender. “It’s phallic authority that’s being displaced by all these actual penises, male power that’s being symbolically deflated,” he wrote, going so far as to claim their wilted wangs were “caution flags,” harbingers of a national loss of power. But his statement only betrays the sort of macho attitude that has kept penises out of the spotlight all these years while breasts and vaginas freely dance across our screens.

Now the phallus is even making its way onto the boob tube. Cable TV shows like STARZ’ “Spartacus” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” have all peddled their performers’ private parts. Not to mention music videos, which have moved off public television and onto the Internet, where actors like Shia LaBeouf can transform into nudists for the likes of Sigur Ros’ “Fjögur Píanó.” In fact, the Internet has become the chosen place for celebrity dick moves. Last year a slew of male stars like Chris Brown, Michael Stipe, Tito Ortiz and Anthony Weiner, as well as a number of athletes, “inadvertently” posted photos of their formerly private parts online. In November, Soulja Boy apologized for posting a photo of his little soldier on Tumblr.

Shia LaBeouf in Sigur Ros’ “Fjögur Píanó”

But this online striptease is not uniquely the realm of celebrities – the media has been running its own male celebrity pee-pee show since as far back as 2010. Gawker diverted attention away from Christina Hendricks’ breasts with “Jon Hamm’s Salami: A Photographic Investigation,” a feature including various photographs of what appeared to be the “Mad Men” star’s visible underwear-less member beneath a thin layer of pant material. In September, the discussion around his not-so-hidden ham heated up again after he was photographed showing a very curvaceous bulge while shopping in New York with his girlfriend (so perfect was the imprint that Gothamist questioned whether the photo was fake, only to conclude it wasn’t with a link to the Tumblr Jon Hamm’s Wang).

And Hamm isn’t the only male celebrity with a spotlight on his crotch. This summer, U.S. Olympic “Boner Rower” Henrik Rummel was forced to deny he was erect when someone on Reddit claimed he was “particularly excited” by his bronze medal win. Awl editor Choire Sicha responded to the controversy on Deadspin with a humorous demystification of male members titled “No, Boner Rower Does Not Have a Boner: A Gay Man’s Remedial Guide to Penises for Straight Guys,” which also happened to reference Roger Federer’s “magic bulge.” Another athlete who has not been particularly shy about showing off his clothed penis is soccer star David Beckham, who proudly shows off his ample bulge in his new H&M BodyWear ads.

Olympic Champ Henrik Rummel Questionably Erect at Medal Ceremony

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