The Penis as Feminist Tool in 'Girls' and 'Top of the Lake'

Curator's Note

[NSFW] From Showtime’s “no limits" to HBO’s bada-bing to T&A on FX, female nudity distinguishes cable from network television. Male full-frontal, meanwhile, remains elusive throughout screen representation save porn, with the penis’s rare appearance confined to a polarized melodramatic/comic dichotomy that works to protect phallic authority and manage homophobia (Lehman, 2001) – a dichotomy challenged by series creators Lena Dunham and Jane Campion.

In Girls 1.6 (“The Return”), Dunham’s Hannah confronts father Tad (Peter Scolari) slumped fully flaccid on the bathroom tile after slipping in the shower mid-tryst with wife Loreen. Given its representational rarity and father-daughter discomfort, this penis shot may provoke a surprised gasp or laugh of commiseration, but ultimately it departs from indulging the symptomatic anxiety Lehman diagnoses: Tad is not the butt of a penis-size (or any) joke; his virility is not impugned; his character is sympathetic and relatable. Tad’s penis is, in Lehman’s formulation, non-melodramatic: neither inflating his patriarchal power nor robbing him of heteromasculinity. Much like Dunham’s own nudity in Girls works to de-fetishize and thus humanize women, this naturalistic rather than melodramatic/comic representation of the penis eradicates its phallic symbolism – a strategy more effective than leaving it veiled, where it retains the mystique of the unrepresented. 

Campion has long deployed female and male nudity equilaterally, in ways that reveal/reverse gendered dynamics of power and pleasure. Like Dunham, Campion shows un-idealized women’s bodies in utterly human moments (Winslet’s breakdown, crying and peeing, in Holy Smoke; communal al fresco bathing in Top of the Lake). Still more provocative is Campion’s regular unveiling of the penis. While Keitel’s in The Piano is surely the most discussed and problematic, consider the penis's appearances in In the Cut's uncut version: the first, a disembodied prosthetic in porn-style close-up, belongs to a killer being fellated by his next victim; the second, Mark Ruffalo’s, as he orally pleasures Meg Ryan then recounts post-coitally his sexual education by an older woman of color. Top of the Lake develops Campion’s feminist politics of the penis, showing just one: Johnno’s (Thomas M. Wright), the series’ only non-violent/perverse/misogynist male, during a pastoral interlude with reunited love Robin (Elisabeth Moss). That they are being filmed by thugs who leave Johnno slashed and bleeding signals the immediate threat of violence visited upon endeavors for equality, sexual and political, between men and women – chilling in a series about community-wide complicity in two girls’ rape.


Thanks so much for this... dare I call it suggestive... post. Examples of male nudity that fall into the melodramatic/comic opposition come immediately to mind: Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, as melodramatic as they come; Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, comic, even if the character is crying at the time. It's noteworthy that both the Girls and Top of the Lake examples involve physical vulnerability, a sense of the fragility of existing within a material body, that crosses gender lines. Any of us could collapse, be attacked, be photographed without our knowledge or consent. At least for the male viewer, female nudity is too easily seen as "other;" perhaps, in our deeply unequal world, only male nudity is able to bring viewers to an awareness of our shared physical vulnerability.

I love how you get to the ways nudity can be both banal and sexual - even in the same scene. Your post (And Vernon's comment above) got me thinking about how most full-frontal male nudity that exists in film and on television depicts vulnerability instead of virility. After seeing Gone Girl this past weekend and reading the Vulture article about how to see Affleck's penis, it made me think more about how full-frontal male nudity is used not to emasculate or masculate, but rather, to humanize - as you mention above.

I'm intrigued by the role genre plays in these different examples and how it helps guide our reading of male nudity. As a dramedy, Girls has the ability to provoke both laughter and sympathy during these kinds of awkward moments while Campion's use of male nudity is dramatic and adds to the story and ideology. I'm also remembering Judd Apatow's promise to include a penis in every film he makes from 2007 forward (which he hasn't fulfilled) and how part of that male comfort comes from it being shown in a comedic manner.

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