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New book sheds light on frontal male nudity in film

December 20, 2010

When Jack swept Rose off her feet in the 1997 blockbuster movie "Titanic" the audience swooned along with them. Who didn’t love how this penniless, working-class, sensitive artist saved the damsel in distress from a life of meaningless wealth with an arrogant man she never loved?

Jack, as played by Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, represents the new “body guy,” albeit the PG-13 version, pivotal in a genre that has emerged in film during the last 20 years.

Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at ASU, and Susan Hunt, film studies professor at Santa Monica and Pasadena City Colleges, discuss in their new book "Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains, and Body Guys" that this new hero expands upon the traditional working-class man of the earth, or bohemian artist, in a new way that takes on a particularly strong sexual connotation.

“Pivotal in the narrative is a defining moment when the body guy awakens and fulfills the sexuality of a beautiful, intelligent woman, who is most often engaged or married to an educated, upper-class, sexually incompetent man,” Lehman said. “The hero’s body, lovemaking style and penis – revealed through extensive male nudity – celebrate conformity to norms of masculinity and male sexuality.”

If you thought exposing men’s bodies was just equal opportunity made possible by the relaxing of film ratings, think again. According to the authors, the penis becomes exposed at a time that coincides with the backlash against feminism.

“This representation of male power is specifically tied to the women’s movement,” Lehman says. “Women had made tremendous advances in society and the workplace, and they were using their minds to advance in previously male territory. These films, that celebrate penile performance, tell women that no matter what they have achieved, the penis is one thing they can never have, but want and need for their fulfillment.”

In addition, he said, women can only access this power through a “special” man: “the body guy.” Simultaneously, these films denigrate the vital, creative, erotic world of the mind that is not “masculine.” Men who are intellectual in these films – and often wealthy – are consistently painted as sexually incompetent.

The body guy is often tied to the land or an urban blue-collar job. Filmic representations include the popular cowboy with his horses, or the urban rebel with his motorcycles or cars.

Lehman says the body guy theme relates a host of wide-ranging films, such as the 1994 film "Legends of the Fall," 1988 film "Two Moon Junction" and 1993 film "The Piano," to a literary tradition dating back to D.H. Lawrence’s "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" that featured, against the backdrop of Victorian repression, a virile gamekeeper opposed to an impotent, upper-class man with a war “wound.”

These films also were produced during an emerging body culture of our time when there was an emphasis on physical fitness, strict dieting and extreme sports. The male body as a symbol of sexual potency became exposed and objectified in a similar way as the female body.

Lehman and Hunt trace the 20th-century fascination with the penis back to Freud – “boys, having a fear of losing it, and girls, not having it, envying it.” By the middle of the century, medical scientists had jumped on board as they measured and tried to determine what “the normal penis” looked like. By the end of the century evolutionary psychologists linked size from yet another perspective with sexual performance and masculinity, and penis enlargement surgery emerged as a medical practice.

“To understand what drives this visual representation in film, one has to look at the interrelationship of science and culture,” Lehman says. “Before the explosion of these films, there was a phallic mystique; the penis was hidden – it was special. Now, there is a need to reaffirm something traditional about gender and the physical organ as the one thing that men have that women do not. Masculinity and male sexuality is tied to that and the body, at the expense of the mind.”