Sex & Relationships

The Anatomical Part Mysteriously Missing from 'Masters of Sex'

There is a big double-standard between the display of men and women's bodies.

Showtime's Masters of Sex (2013) wrapped up its sophomore season not with a cliffhanger but the theme of change: characters embarked on new romantic and parental relationships, scientific studies shifted almost exclusively from sex to sexual dysfunction, and a new president took office as JFK's inauguration filled everyone's black-and-white 1960s TV screens.

One thing about Masters of Sex's second season did not change: the double standard with which it portrays male and female bodies.

After 23 episodes, Masters of Sex finally showed viewers a penis. Well, sort of. In "One for the Money, Two for the Show" (2.11), gynecologist/sexologist Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) awakens with an erection. Masters throws back the covers to reveal a bulge in his blue boxers. The camera lingers on it for a few seconds before panning upward to the doctor's exasperated face.

For a show that centers so heavily on human sexuality and sex acts, it's odd that this is the first time we see a penis—or the guise of a penis, as Vulture relentlessly suspects in its review: "Who on the set of the show was responsible for the construction and rigging of Bill Masters' fake morning erection? Is it a costume piece, or is it something the props department puts together? And what's it made of, anyway?"

But perhaps stranger than our first semi penis-spotting is that a (heterosexual) woman creates and runs Masters of Sex. With that in mind, shouldn't we see a more balanced playing field here in terms of naked bodies? After all, Showtime has gone (flaccid) full-frontal before in Queer As Folk(2000-'05), Weeds(2005-'12), Shameless(2011-), and Gigolos(2011-).

Masters of Sex Has An Anatomy Problem, and Viewers Notice

Fans of Masters of Sex have noticed the lack of penises and the persistent double-standard that comes with showing men's and women's naked bodies onscreen, even on an almost-anything-goes cable network like Showtime.

Editor Meredith Frasier labels this Hollywood's anatomy problem, arguing that it's "woefully misogynistic" and at this rate, there will never be enough naked male actors to fill a Seth MacFarlane “We Saw Your Dick” number at the Oscars.

More specifically, fans question the constant display of Lizzy Caplan's naked body and wonder when her male counterparts will be shot similarly (Caplan plays Virginia Johnson, Masters' assistant and sexual partner). Writing in the comments section of a review of the show, one viewer remarks candidly, "If you're not going to go full-frontal with Sheen, then knock it off." Another writes that although the narrative displays a clear power-struggle between Masters and Johnson, with her often "revealing" herself to him, the double standard "is cringe-worthy and lopsided."

Some audience members seem hopeful that Masters of Sex will "eventually get around to full-frontal male nudity." After all, some say, "it seems like the kind of show that would do it." Even Lizzy Caplan comments optimistically about the issue: "Well, the men don't show their penises, but I'm hoping that we get to it."

Showrunner Michelle Ashford doesn't seem as confident. When asked about Masters of Sex's double standard, Ashford says she's mostly backed away from frontal male nudity "because it’s shown so rarely that to include it feels like it’s making a statement" and that would presumably "take viewers out of the drama."

While I call bullshit on that response, Ashford eventually gets to the meat of the issue: "Maybe I’m just a victim of the same kind of conditioning of Why do we never really see male nudity in movies or television?

Now, we're getting to the real reasons American popular culture fears the display of the penis.

No Penises in American Media, Please: Some Reasons

By the 1950s (incidentally when Masters of Sex takes place), America had adopted many of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories. Basics about human development and interaction were so commonplace during this time that even people who'd never visited analysts were aware of them. Since then, many of Freud's ideas have become passé. But those of us who study the media for a living still draw on a handful of them.

Scholar Peter Lehman identifies three reasons our culture finds it difficult to show the penis. First, representations of the penis, or phalluses, are so prevalent in our society that the real things, if revealed, will theoretically pale in comparison. Think about it: all the penis-shaped things man has created to signify awe, power and dominance—guns, bullets, skyscrapers, rockets, cannons, the Washington Monument (America's phallus!)—render an actual penis insignificant, even ludicrous. For this reason, in order to maintain its power and mystique, the penis ought to remain hidden.

A second reason American media shies away from showing full-frontal male nudity is that (white) heterosexual men, for whom most media content is created, do not want to give their female counterparts a basis by which to compare and/or judge them. Although some men have been evaluating women and their bodies for years (ahem, beauty pageants), "the thought of the tables being turned on the men is close to unbearable," Lehman explains. To this end, the penis mostly remains covered on film and television.

A third reason showrunners and filmmakers normally do not show the penis is that (white) heterosexual males, again the target audience of most cinema and television, unconsciously or consciously fear they may become fascinated by or derive pleasure from the penis before them onscreen. One way to curb this potential (and silly) homophobia is, once more, to keep the penis under wraps.

Hollywood also refuses to show penises, especially erect ones, to ensure it's not dabbling in pornography. Hardcore porn, after all, is where the large and supposedly impressive penis is always on display, asserting visually what women allegedly need and want. In our culture, for filmmakers and showrunners to include that in their work would imply they are creating pornography. So again, the penis generally remains hidden.

Isn't it time that cultural phallocentrism, man's fear of judgment, and one's presumed homophobia take a backseat to a truer representation of reality—or at least a reality based on two people like Masters and Johnson who dealt openly with sex and sexuality their entire adult lives?