Trendspotting: TV Goes Below the Belt

TV’s growing awareness of what’s in our pants isn’t just about titillation.

In April, Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and made an impassioned cry to “free the penis.” The women on the show — especially Clarke, who plays dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen — take off their clothes often enough, she argued; why shouldn’t the men? “I just feel like penises are so disgusting,” Corden responded. Clarke and the other two guests, Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, erupted in a chorus of protests. “You guys need to come to terms with your own body image,” Jacobson said.

It’s easy to joke about cable TV’s reliance on sex scenes to get the viewer’s blood pumping.When TV wants to titillate, it usually reaches for boobs and butts. But the medium’s growing awareness of what’s in the front of our pants isn’t just about arousal. The uptick in male full-frontal on TV has dovetailed with a trend towards depicting the female anatomy’s decidedly un-erotic functionality. We’re in the midst of a genital renaissance on television, in which more and more shows are demonstrating a genuine curiosity about our most intimate body parts and what it means for men and women to be exposed.

On television, the penis has been in the process of emancipation for at least a couple years, and often its appearance onscreen signals the kind of anxiety Jacobson read in Corden’s comment. The suggestion that more penises on TV would be “disgusting” is a window onto the gut-reaction reasoning of the male-dominated television industry that has likely led to the dearth of male nudity — while bare breasts continue to pop up on our screens like acne on the face of the 13-year-old boy at whom so much cable TV seems to be directed.

Just a few weeks after Clark’s Late Late Show appearance, Game of Thrones itself aired an episode in which an actor playing Joffrey Baratheon in a stage play exposes his penis, genital warts and all. It wasn’t the first time the series had shown full-frontal male nudity. We saw Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) penis (a whopping 16-inch prosthetic; he’s half giant, after all) and also Theon’s (Alfie Allen) in Season 1, not to mention a handful of bit players who have flashed their junk here and there, like the man who exposes himself to Cersei during her walk of shame in the Season 5 finale.

But the most recent instance of male nudity seemed engineered to appease the show’s critics, who have long complained about the copious amounts of hairless female body parts that waft into the frame willy-nilly. Did we really need to see this bit player’s ball sack up close? What purpose did that shot serve in the episode’s narrative? The nudity on Game of Thrones — male and female — rarely feels “necessary” or justified the way it does on other series.

A couple shots of male genitalia on HBO’s recently cancelled Vinyl felt similarly superfluous. We see a glimpse of Bobby Cannavale’s junk in an early episode, when his character steps out of the shower. Another scene in which Devon (Olivia Wilde) playfully photographs her nude paramour lying in bed, while she herself is clothed, felt like a rather pointed critique of the “male gaze.”

Neither instance serves much purpose for the story nor the characters — unlike the second season premiere of The Affair, which uses male full-frontal to illuminate both. Fresh off a separation from her husband of many years, who left her for a younger woman, Helen (Maura Tierney) has just slept with an old college friend, Max (Josh Stamberg). As Max rises from the bed in the swanky Manhattan hotel he’s just bought to order room service, we see his penis clearly in the background of the frame, with Helen’s face foregrounded.

Still naked, Max stands in front of the window, a king surveying his kingdom (“Good morning, city of dreams!”). Helen stays in bed, covering herself with a sheet. Helen married her first love; Max’s is the first new penis she’s seen in years, and she regards it not with desire or even disgust but a kind of bemused detachment. The scene emphasizes how unfamiliar and ultimately uncomfortable she is around Max compared to her husband, whom she still loves despite his infidelity.

In many cases, male exposure is a shorthand for vulnerability. In Outlander’s first season, the villain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies) is shown fully nude in a scene of attempted rape gone awry — his would-be victim laughs when she realizes he can’t get it up. Mark Duplass, the creator of Togetherness, stripped down for a scene in the show’s first season in which his wife (played by Melanie Lynskey) tries to shake up their sex life with some light domination. (As Duplass told Vulture: “If I’m asking Amanda Peet and Melanie Lynskey to be naked, I better be damn willing to do it myself.”) She orders her husband to strip, which he does, briefly baring his penis in the process. The use of nudity demonstrates the character’s commitment to exposing himself emotionally in order to make the marriage work.

The second season of The Leftovers contains two unrelated but functionally similar instances of male nudity. In one episode, Meg (a surprisingly terrifying Liv Tyler) rapes Tommy (Chris Zylka) a member of the cult she leads who’s infiltrated the group in order to convince people to leave. When Tommy’s discovered, the cult members capture him and tie him up before driving him to a remote area. There, Meg corners him in the back of a truck, wearing a long white dress, and, without saying a word, takes off his pants and straddles him while he protests. Before and after the rape, we see his exposed penis. In a later episode, another character (played by Christopher Eccleston) voluntarily shackles himself in a stockade in repentance. Before he does, he takes off all his clothes, and, like Mark Duplass on Togetherness, we see his penis briefly when he strips. And like Duplass, it was Eccleston himself who offered to strip for the scene, a worthy example of a man volunteering vulnerability.

On TV, however, it’s all too clear that women’s bodies are vulnerable, and, often, disposable. Compared to the dick uptick, female genitalia on the small screen is a trend that’s not as visually conspicuous. But in the past few years we’ve certainly been hearing about the female anatomy. From the teenage protagonist of the British series My Mad Fat Diary to the dick-joke antidote that is Inside Amy Schumer to Girls — which titled its second episode “Vagina Panic” — women on TV are mentioning their unmentionables with abandon. In many cases, when TV turns its focus to the female anatomy, the emphasis is on its practical, not sexual, use — as if to remind men that vaginas still exist when they’re not in them.

The BBC series Call the Midwife, about a group of nuns and nurses delivering babies in an impoverished section of London in the 1950, is quite literally centered on the organ through which most of us enter the world. While most TV shows would rather film conception than its messy consequence, Call the Midwife focuses on the often-harrowing experience of childbirth from a woman’s perspective.

Other shows call attention to the female anatomy more playfully. In the first season of Broad City, Ilana cops to stashing her weed up there, calling the vagina “nature’s pocket. It’s natural, and responsible.” The first episode of the third season opens with a time-lapsed montage of Ilana and Abbi in their respective bathrooms, partaking in all kinds of grooming rituals — including pubic hair removal. In the second season of Outlander, Claire (Catriona Balfe) takes advantage of her new Parisian amenities and gets herself the modern equivalent of a Brazilian. Later, in bed, her husband comments that Claire’s “honeypot” is no longer “thatched over.”

The protagonist of The Girlfriend Experience, Christine (Riley Keough) is a call girl, and we’re treated to plenty of shots of her naked body twisting around her clients. But like Christine, show is matter-of-fact about her job and the maintenance it requires. We see Christine getting a bikini wax, lying with her legs up in the stirrups at the gynecologist’s office, and on the toilet, inserting a tampon. In a Season 3 episode of Broad City, Ilana whips out a pair of “period pants,” complete with a big, red blotch on the rear, to avoid being probed by airport security guards. The fourth season of Orange is the New Black offers up a similar visual when Daya (Dascha Polanco) is in desperate need of a sanitary pad after recently giving birth.

In the pilot episode of the TBS comedy The Detour, a 12-year-old girl gets her period for the first time, and we’re in the bathroom with her when she realizes what’s happened. The scene is less graphic than a similar one from Mad Men’s fifth season in which young Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) gets her first period. When Sally peers down at her underwear and sees a red spot, the camera follows her gaze.

There’s a great episode of Sex and the City in which Samantha is shocked to find out that Charlotte’s never seen her own vagina. She encourages her to take a look, and later we see Charlotte in her bathroom, holding a hand mirror between her legs, her eyes wide with surprise. Television is beginning to take Samantha’s advice, too, treating what’s below the belt not with slobbering prurience or squeamishness but blunt inquisitiveness. If we’re too shy to take a mirror to our most private parts, TV’s determined to do it for us.