There’s a scene in the pilot episode of HBO’s Euphoria that is, pun intended, hard to shake off. A young girl named Jules (played by trans actor Hunter Schafer) giddily shows up to meet an older man she’d first contacted online. Stoic about the soulless life he leads in this small town, the unnamed older man (Cal, we later learn, played by Eric Dane) takes pleasure in ordering around the young nubile girl with pink-tinged long blonde hair. As he talks to her, the camera focuses on her face. Remaining standing, his face obscured by the camera’s framing, he begins to push his fingers into her mouth, asking her to open wider. The dreamy eeriness of the moment makes the shot that follows all the more jarring: As Jules (just in her underwear) remains seated on the bed in the background, we see the man putting a condom on his hardened penis. The frame keeps Jules in focus, allowing the full frontal nudity in front of us to remain in soft focus. Beyond the rarity of this image, there is a lot of weighted cultural baggage in this blurry shot of Dane’s (prosthetic) dick.
Many scenes in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, which premiered on June 16, seem intent on shocking its viewers. (And write-ups of the show were happy to harp on the drama’s provocativeness, noting the presence of “close to 30 penises” in one scene.) Euphoria is narrated by Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a 17-year-old who recently overdosed and is just returning home after a stint in rehab. Slowly introducing us to her various classmates (and their idiosyncratic histories, sexual and otherwise), Rue offers us a glimpse into a world where dick pics, sex tapes, stolen opioids, underage sex, and cam sessions are a quotidian part of the 21st-century high school experience. Priding itself on frankly depicting these various issues, the show manages to make provocative television that skirts (and at times treads over) the line of propriety. Its central guiding metaphor, as its title suggests, may be the pleasures and perils of drugs, but Euphoria is just as interested in frank depictions and discussions of its characters’ sex lives.
But on American television, even in 2019, full frontal male nudity — especially the kind that Euphoria so brazenly portrays — still feels like an affront. This is partly because of its continued novelty; cisgender male actors so seldom drop trou that when they do, the impact of said scenes is unintentionally excessive. But mostly this is because, over the years, audiences have been trained to expect such a sight only within the most violent of contexts. Euphoria is a perfect example — and a fascinating deconstruction — of this storied history, wherein the small screen’s recent obsession with depicting toxic masculinity has coincided with paradigm-shifting moments of onscreen male nudity.
Recent depictions of male full frontal nudity on TV on shows like FX’s American Gods and Netflix’s Easy — both of which showed erect penises no less — have tried to offset the male gaze that has long defined and controlled what kinds of naked bodies are meant to be seen (and lusted after) on the small screen. But Euphoria encourages us to reassess how the naked male body has been deployed within storylines about sexual abuse centered on dangerous men. Not intent on just parading dicks for our titillating pleasure or uncritically offering up scenes of sexual assault where male bodies command power by their mere presence, Euphoria asks us to question why it is that male full frontal nudity continues to so rattle and excite us.
For the past decade on television we’ve had role reversals that find powerful female characters lustfully assessing male characters’ naked bodies. This has been a corrective to decades of women being objectified by camera, characters, and audiences alike. Back in 2015 Kevin Bacon urged his fellow actors to #FreeTheBacon. “And by bacon, of course,” he clarified, “I mean your weiner, your balls and your butt.”
What we have gotten in the last decade, in a way in keeping with Bacon’s mock PSA plea, has been an attempt to make men objects rather than sole subjects of desire. A prime example of this was a Game of Thrones scene that even star Emilia Clarke had been “waiting for” as it differed from the many nude and sex scenes she’d done in a show that throughout its run had come under fire for its unequal use of female nudity. In the scene in question, Clarke’s character, Daenerys, savoring the power she has over Daario (Michiel Huisman), commands him to take off his clothes. As he undresses, offering viewers a close-up look at his naked butt, Daario grins bashfully.
And while Game of Thrones didn’t go so far as to show us a full frontal shot of Daario’s body here, the scene suggested a move toward finally embracing the kind of female gaze that’s slowly been giving us more penises on screen than ever before. Starz’s 2010 sword-and-sandal drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand paraded a fully naked Crixus (Manu Bennett) on many an occasion, but a steady long shot of his perfectly chiseled body came in a scene where he’d been proffered as a gift to Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), who lasciviously eyed him from afar.
Netflix’s Sense8, which aired from 2015 to 2018, broke new ground with plenty of orgy scenes that presented a fully fluid vision of human sexuality. But its most memorable moment of onscreen peen is when a fully naked Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) crashes an Indian wedding and gets the bride (the only one who can see him) to bashfully stare at his penis, and later admit, in between blushes, that she liked what she saw.
In keeping with its conceit of seeing artificial “hosts” (humanlike cyborgs) as objects, HBO’s Westworld also had plenty of nudity in its first season. But it is a scene in which Maeve (Thandie Newton), a now powerful and self-aware host, demands that her former coder and storyteller boss Lee (Simon Quarterman) strip in front of her that forcefully reverses the power imbalance that had existed between them. As a squirming Lee stands naked, in a wide shot that leaves nothing to the imagination, it is Maeve’s stony gaze that stresses just how novel this kind of male full frontal nudity was in a show that first garnered press for its “sexually explicit” casting contracts.
Without drawing such obvious attention to their use of male nudity, other recent shows have equally moved toward a television landscape that doesn’t shy away from showing more dick. A show like Shameless, which lives up to its title, even now in its 10th season, had fun with a nudist character (Zach McGowan’s Jody), while Togetherness was intent on what star and creator Mark Duplass dubs “balls equality” through its short-lived run back in 2015, making sure to show balls just as often as boobs. Even Starz’s Vida, whose queer point of view continued to come through in its sophomore season this year, particularly when it came to its lesbian sex scenes, has made a point of indifferently shooting male nudity, as it to further normalize it.
Similarly, HBO’s The Leftovers flirted both with the full erotic energy of its leading man Justin Theroux (entrancing when dressed in tight gray sweatpants) and his raw vulnerability (unavoidable when stripped naked, writhing out of a bathtub). But in its third and final season in 2017, the show gave audiences a scene of full frontal nudity that was, in comparison, quite unassuming and devoid of any sexual intimations. The fifth episode opens with an unnamed naval officer (played by Jack Bennett) stripping naked. Said ploy is part of his plan to murder the captain of the submarine he’s in, steal his nuclear launch key, and then use it to fire a nuke straight at an uninhabited island. The show privileged wide shots that allowed viewers to see Bennett’s slim and furry body as he runs toward the camera and later still as he stretches himself in a chamber to activate the nuke (a process that usually requires two people).
For creator Damon Lindelof, such a scene was part of a concerted effort to push the limits of what male nudity on television could do. “There’s an incredible disproportion between naked women and naked men on television,” he told TVLine at the time. “And if you’re going to do a show on HBO, which is one of the few places where you can do full frontal nudity, there’s no excuse not to show more dongs. I’m passionate about it.”
Alas, the reticence of Lindelof’s leading man meant audiences never did get to see Theroux’s dong. “Justin wants to leave something to the imagination,” Lindelof clarified, joking that while his “vanity plate is FFRNTL,” he’d “never ask an actor who is uncomfortable doing nudity to do nudity.” At a time when such scenes get screenshotted, GIF’d, and posted to any number of sites (including pornographic ones) under salacious headlines that rarely make a distinction between the actor in question and the character they’re playing, Theroux’s caution makes sense — even if it further highlights how much currency the sight of a dick on the small screen still has.
Yet those isolated scenes have done little to change our expectations of when and why dicks show up on our television screens. Just think of the way shows like HBO’s Rome (2005–07) and Starz’s Spartacus franchise (2010–13) called back ancient gladiatorial traditions, in which the muscled naked male body was first and always a weapon. The scenes of male full frontal nudity that so characterized those shows about the Roman empire were framed as historically accurate, giving us titillating scenes of sex and violence. But they still mostly bracketed such moments of disrobed male characters as violent in bedrooms and arenas alike.
Similarly, the then-groundbreaking scenes of male nudity on HBO’s 1997–2003 prison drama Oz (especially any and all featuring a beefy Chris Meloni) merely reinforced the conflation between violence and the male body. In fact, in a 2015 interview with Vulture that discussed the increasing wave of onscreen full frontals, Oz producer Tom Fontana that one scripted scene where convicted drug dealer Simon (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) would pull out his penis and “sort of use it like a ‘fuck you’ thing” was nixed after the actor suggested his character wouldn’t punctuate his aggression that way.
This is what makes the erect penis in Euphoria’s first episode (an oft-unimaginable vision in American television) all the more shocking. It makes visible what’s often left offscreen in the kind of scene that follows. The violence of the encounter between Jules (who has bruises on her thighs) and Cal (who pushes her down, gags her, and asks her to spit in his hand) is, but for the galling illegality of their age difference, a staple of 21st-century Peak TV. Whether within the confines of counterfactual dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale or stylish takes on the broadcast procedural like True Detective, The Fall, and The Killing — which themselves riff on shows like Law & Order: SVU — television is riddled with nauseating images of victims of sexual violence. More than mere recurring storytelling device, violence against women emerged as the de facto backdrop against which many of the more celebrated television shows of the 21st century have made their mark.
The unmasking of toxic masculinity that runs through these shows has worked in tandem with an unmasking of the masculine body. Euphoria’s juxtaposition of Cal’s imposing broad-shouldered body and Jules’ lithe build visually indexes what makes male full frontal nudity feel so aggressive. There’s an unmistakable power imbalance when seeing those two bodies side by side, with Cal’s dick so prominently displayed, a cocked gun of sorts that anticipated the violent scene that followed. The first season of Big Little Lies similarly deployed a semi-erect penis within the context of one of the many sexual assault scenes it staged between Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Attempting to fight him back when her husband doesn’t take no for an answer, Celeste used a tennis racket to swat away Perry’s penis, which audiences saw flopping out of his dress pants. The mix of power and vulnerability that such a moment of male nudity embodies is precisely what a show like Outlander hoped to upend when offering viewers a sight of the unerect penis of a would-be sexual assaulter who can’t get it up (and who earns the scorn of his would-be victim).
Therein lies, perhaps, one of the main reasons why male full frontal nudity continues to feel so striking — and why, perhaps, Euphoria’s so-called boundary-pushing storytelling caused a stir even before it had premiered. Actors’ reticence to bare it all, paired with the recency of such requests, has highlighted its scarcity as well as its value. As if anticipating such a debate, Euphoria’s second episode — which focuses almost entirely on Nate (Jacob Elordi), a star football player with an enviable rocking bod — makes a point of reminding us how we’re still culturally ingrained to avert our eyes from an exposed penis.
Nate has internalized the outward-facing toxic masculinity of his father — who, in a plot twist, turns out to be Cal. As Rue informs us in voiceover, at age 11 Nate had already found Cal’s stash of homemade sex tapes, which featured his father’s forceful sexual encounters with men and women alike. No doubt warping the young boy’s sense of self-worth as well as his budding sexual awakening, that pivotal moment is what turns Nate into a terrifying alpha male at his school.
Telling audiences just how much of a classic jock Nate is, Rue’s narration complicates that characterization when she shares one key way in which Nate feels himself at odds with accepted notions of American masculinity. Despite being part of the football team and loving the crowds as well as the pats on the back that come with such a kinship, we learn that he hates being in the locker room: “He hated how casual his teammates were about being naked,” Rue tells us as Nate walks through the locker room, with many penises on display (the Ringer officially tallied this as the scene with the most penises in American television). “How they'd talk to him with their dicks hanging out. He made a concerted effort to always maintain eye contact during these exchanges. Every now and then he'd forget, and accidentally catch a glimpse of someone's penis.”
Euphoria’s dick-riddled locker room scene removes the eroticism from most depictions of nudity. Its slow-motion close-ups and raucous group shots remind us that there are spaces in which men’s bodies are just that — bodies, not objects of lustful adoration or subjects of sexual aggression. It suggests that the only way to normalize nudity on the small screen is by slowly detaching it from — or not only attaching it to — sexual and/or violent situations.
As Nate, in a tank top and shorts, makes his way through the locker room, the camera pans across to see his teammates unabashedly enjoying themselves. They’re chatting and changing, showering and walking, gleefully unaware of their own nakedness. Once Rue mentions Nate sometimes catches a glimpse of one or two penises, the frame fills up with various close-ups of dicks of all shapes and sizes. As in Cal’s scene with Jules, we see few faces: The focus is on these appendages in all their flouncing beauty. At first sight, and given its juxtaposition to the moment when we see young Nate’s wide-eyed fascination with his father’s sex tapes, the locker room scene is an efficient way to openly interrogate this jock’s sexuality. Later, his illicit sexting relationship with Jules (where they talk openly about her transition) as well as his girlfriend’s discovery of the many dick pics he has on his phone make his aversion to his teammates’ dicks seem indicative of something else: “I think you're a fucking faggot just like your daddy,” Jules spouts at him when they finally meet.
But taken as a groundbreaking moment of small screen nudity, the locker room scene works also as a stand-in for the way the American television viewer understands the sight of a penis onscreen. Nate can’t help but associate male nudity with a lurking sense of gay panic, just as he cannot help but frame those glimpses of his teammates’ genitals within the onslaught of violently sexual videos he grew up watching on his father’s home office computer. Male nudity is, in his mind, inextricably linked to sex and violence, to lust and aggression. In this, Nate is no different than the audiences who have been taught to think of nudity in general, and male nudity in particular: We’re not used to seeing the naked male body devoid of its sexual or aggressive implications.
Euphoria forces us to reckon with how contemporary television remains all too prudish in its representation of the male anatomy. To that end, the third episode’s storyline about an older, obese man with a small penis who enjoys having women berate and humiliate him via Skype in exchange for money (and his own pleasure) moves us toward a broader understanding of how nudity is commodified once it’s filmed and publicized.
Even in its most sexualized moments, Euphoria wants audiences to reexamine the hold a dick has on our cultural imagination. It both reminds us of the violent history this particular body part has often had on television, while also making clear that sometimes, a dick is just a dick. ●
Manuel Betancourt is a New York City–based queer writer and a lapsed academic. He's a regular contributor to Remezcla, the film columnist at Electric Literature, and a monthly columnist at Catapult magazine (“Movie-Made Gay”). He's one of the coauthors of the graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom, a New York Times summer 2018 pick.