T’Aint Misbehaving

A great many of the mainstream reviews of Forgetting Sarah Marshall included references to Jason Segel’s nude scene at the beginning of the film, a lengthly sequence in which his character–aptly named Peter–stands naked while being dumped by his eponymous girlfriend. For the most part, Segel received praise for his performance, with the critics citing his bravery in appearing nude and revealing his penis.

Peter is not alone. A number of recent mainstream films have included full frontal male nudity: Borat, The Simpsons Movie, and Eastern Promises. While not entirely a new phenomenon, the sight of a penis in a Hollywood film still carries a great deal of shock value, as best exemplified by the wonderful sequence in The Simpsons Movie during which Bart’s penis is masked by a series of conveniently placed objects only to have these same objects cover up everything but his member.

What I find interesting is that this emphasis on the exposure of the penis masks a more controversial aspect in these films: the visibility or the threatened visibility of the anus. When I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the theater–with a fairly packed house–the audience did indeed laugh heartily at the sight of Segel’s character, standing naked with his limp penis dangling (what Peter Travers in Rolling Stone refered to as his “shriveled schlong”) as he attempted to convince his girlfriend not to leave him. The crowd reacted even more vociferously when Segel’s character turned his back to the audience and began to cry and bend over. At that point, people began to shout and the laughter took on a more intense quality.

The homoerotic qualities of these moments can be made safer for the audience by presenting them within the context of violence, either for comic effect in Borat or to heighten the sense of danger and vulnerability in Eastern Promises. Eastern Promises presents the more obvious example, with the fight taking place between a naked Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and two men in a bathhouse. As the men struggle, slicing each other with knifes, director David Cronenberg does not hesitate to choose angles that reveal not only Mortensen’s penis but his entire genital/anal region, including what is referred to in slang terms as the “t’aint.” This nudity seems radically different than say Harvey Keitel’s nude scene in The Piano or any number of “butt shots” of male stars.

In a further study, I would like to examine these scenes and the audience reaction to this more explicit level of male nudity, paying special attention to how these moments spill out of the films themselves and into other media texts (for example, the extended riffing on the naked fight scene in Borat at subsequent award shows).

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