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Phallic Panic: Steve McQueen Puts Hollywood’s Double Standards to ‘Shame’



Steve McQueen’s sexually explicit Shame (read our review here), about a sex-addicted New Yorker who moves in with his wayward sister, could possibly become the latest movie to arouse the wrath of the MPAA. Dissection of the candid drama’s phallic episodes has dominated media coverage, usurping early critiques just as the film finds a US distributor and makes its Toronto International Film Festival debut. But, as stiff censorship relaxes, just how relevant is this debate to audiences?


With unclothed female forms the norm, box-office morality has always maintained a coy double standard when it comes to male nudity. A familiar argument – and one entrenched in much of our culture – is that there’s little to appreciate about the nude male physique. From an early age, we’re nurtured into adopting a perverse perspective – that the masculine form is awkward and undesirable, compared to a woman’s rounder, softer curves. Whereas for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the exposed male form was lovingly eulogized in marble, contemporary visual culture veils its modesty with a fig leaf of moral virtue. It’s worth remembering that, as with the statuesque figures of antiquity, what we’re discussing is a version of myth – and it continues to divide the boys against the girls.


In 2010, the MPAA conducted a study of moviegoers, determining that women and men attended cinemas in equal numbers. In a cash flow oriented community where stats and target demographics are king for powerbrokers, it seems strange that Hollywood continues to pander mainly to heterosexual male viewers. The MPAA’s findings point to the considerable, and largely untapped economic power of its female audiences – who don’t all want to spend their time in a theater seat watching recycled romcoms and “chick flicks” (the success of films like Bridesmaids and Salt reinforces this notion) – and might appreciate mature alternatives. Another severely under-targeted demographic is gay audiences – who may prefer their erotica wrought in flavors other than hetero and vanilla. While Hollywood likes to think of itself as cresting on the zeitgeist, riskier TV productions have laid bare its conservatism. Cable television has opportunistically staked a claim to explicit raunch, with hit shows like True Blood or Game of Thrones gratuitously undressing both sexes of their photogenic casts to popular acclaim. 



Of late, traditional taboos prohibiting male nudity are becoming notably flaccid – with comedies such as The Hangover Part II providing mainstream, but indecent exposure. Unlike the sensuous or angsty unzipping in dramas like The Dreamers, these flashes of phallus exist solely for the purpose of exploiting and mocking the discomfort of its male audience, or providing cheap laughs (see: the genital sight gags of Brüno, and most manchild/buddy comedies). Art house fare such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs lays bare the intercoupled dynamics of porn, art and erotica on the big screen, but big-budget studios have seldom countenanced this degree of candor. It’s only fairly recently that this trend is gradually beginning to pervade box office fare, with bankable A-list contenders like Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan disrobing for the likes of McQueen. Tellingly, little of the comment stimulated by the film seems to feature Mulligan – who also appears nude. Rather, it’s Fassbender’s “performance” that has whipped critics into a phallic panic.


While McQueen has a nearly sure thing with Shame due to the high praise of his directorial debut, Hunger, it still remains to be seen whether the old adage that no publicity is bad applies for this outing. Precedents suggest that, however dubious, moral wrangling over the virtues – or otherwise – of explicit content injects a money-shot into returns. Derek Cianfrance’s recent Blue Valentine debacle with the MPAA created an upset before the film’s NC-17 rating was overturned in favor of a more commercially viable R, yet bestowed much sought after buzz on a title that might otherwise have remained relatively unseen by mainstream audiences. Anyone with half an eye open could discern that the MPAA’s concerns about the allegedly “explicit” sex acts in Blue Valentine were unwarranted, since the scenes in question were executed with dramatic integrity, and compellingly relevant to a story surrounding the dissolution of a troubled marriage.


Where porn ends and art begins is a complex (and often illusory) judgment call, but, if current permissive trends continue, one of cinema’s last great taboos may be decisively on the wane. Is it too early to proclaim that the films of the future will be unabashedly naked? Recalling the brief mainstream popularity of porn in the early seventies, it’s wise to remember that a backlash from our moral guardians may never be too far away. No doubt the MPAA has further campaigns to wage, but as cameras become progressively candid, it seems that cinema’s latest cockfight has only just begun. 


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