How prosthetic penises on shows like HBO’s ‘Minx’ reinforce existing stereotypes and taboos

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(THE CONVERSATION) Entertainment Weekly recently published an interview with actor Taylor Zakhar Perez, teasing the article with a headline about Perez “baring it all” as a nude model for a 1970s magazine at the center of the first episode of the HBO Max’s “outrageous” new show, “Minx.”

The real scandal, in my opinion, is not the promised nudity but the way in which it is distorted. Perez never appears fully naked in this episode. He wears a prosthetic penis.

As prosthetic penises have become more common in movies and on TV, I’ve watched publications eagerly documenting the trend with cheeky headlines: “The Power of the Dong: The Year the Penis Was Unleashed in Hollywood “, “How Sausage is Made: Inside Hollywood’s Prosthetic Penis Craze” and “Welcome to the Year of the Rooster”.

But to me, their increasing use and the way actors wielding them are misleadingly portrayed as participating in “full frontal nudity” often reinforce existing taboos under the guise of progressivism and gender equality.

What’s wrong with just showing the real thing?

No more than a disguise

I have been researching representations of penises and how they relate to masculinity since the publication in 1993 of my book “Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body”.

The media, it seems, has become fascinated with prosthetic penises while sidestepping the question of why filmmakers and actors avoid giving it all away.

“Minx” is set in the 1970s and tells the story of an activist who becomes the editor of an erotic feminist magazine that includes centerfolds of naked men. His partner in the business is a successful pornographer.

The premise seems ripe for the actors to appear in the flesh. And of course, the show’s early coverage plays into that element. “Minx,” according to a review by Deadline, uses nudity “to lessen the insidious shame associated with sexuality in all its forms. … [In the show] a penis is just a penis and a breast is just a breast.

But a prosthetic penis is not just a penis; it’s not even a penis.

The “Minx” pilot includes a one-minute scene in which approximately 18 bottomless men audition to appear in the centerfold, and flashes of their real penises are shown.

Although The New York Times praised the editing for its “unusual degree of realism,” I think it highlights how the show carefully regulates the depiction of penises.

None of the men in this brief scene are major characters. And the one who is finally chosen, embodied by Perez, wears a prosthesis, which is simply equivalent to a costume.

Exciting public relations

Additionally, on-screen fake phalluses often reflect cultural stereotypes.

In the 2015 film “The Overnight,” a character with a small prosthetic penis is comically obsessed with his size and sexual performance. As one prosthetic artist explained to Fast Company, “Filmmakers will always give more manly, manly characters a bigger penis and smaller penises are usually pretty much the gag factor.”

He added that he would welcome various real penises because they would make people “a bit more comfortable with sexuality” and break the “taboo” of showing the penis.

Culture writer Christina Izzo pokes fun at the popularity of prostheses, calling them a “cop.”

But Izzo is a lonely voice. Most news stories about prosthetic penises tend to cast them as progressive for allegedly providing a visual balance to female and feminist nudity to make actresses feel more comfortable on set.

I think the issues need to be separated. When intimacy consultants require the use of prosthetic penises in intimate sex scenes with body contact for the comfort of actresses, they play an extremely important role. However, many cases of frontal male nudity that I have analyzed do not involve any intimate sexual contact.

Eric Dane and Jacob Elordi are two of many “Euphoria” actors who supposedly wore prosthetic penises even as they hinted they had broken the taboo on showing penises.

It is impossible to verify most claims about the extent of the use of prosthetic penises on any show, and some actors refuse to answer the question. An “is it real or not” tease encourages speculation and has become its own form of advertising for shows and actors.

Carve meaning into something trivial

My research on sexuality and the male body shows that representations of the penis in the media influence cultural notions of sexuality and gender. Since the penis is such a powerful cultural symbol, people are bombarded with mixed messages trying to control its meaning.

For example, medicine reassures men that almost everyone is average. Pornography shows extremely large penises. Men with small penises are the butt of size jokes. Racist stereotypes suggest that men of certain races have large penises and are hypersexual, while others are undersexual with small ones.

Prosthetic penises are just another way to attach importance to the organ.

Of course, the truth is that penises don’t have fixed meanings. The first issue of Playgirl magazine, which featured true full-frontal male nudity, was published in 1973; it makes the use of prostheses in 2022 too prudish. Mature representations of real penises, diverse, without shame or special meaning, deserve much more media attention than prostheses.

That, to me, would be truly revolutionary.

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James C. Tibbs