Television

Ace in the Hole

Now that prestige television has conquered the penis, it’s time we moved on to nature’s more concave offerings.

Two characters in the White Lotus in a swimming pool.
More! HBO

So Mike White has once again shown us some penises in White Lotus. Am I supposed to be impressed? At this point, a penis is as common of fodder for HBO as the family sitcom is for ABC. And for that I am grateful. I enjoy it all! But the appeal is starting to fade, and the shine of seeing a phallus on my Samsung 55-inch television during prime streaming hours is losing its charm. I want more. I want hole.

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Vulva, anus—either would be fine. It doesn’t even need to be a close-up. What matters instead is the implication, and the transgression that pushing our cultural boundaries on prestige TV can provide. White—who has won three Emmys for his incisive portrayal of class, race, and gender in White Lotus—is a writer we can trust to complete this task in a straightforward yet subtle way. It’s a duty we ought to encourage him to fulfill.

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Obscenity laws may well be holding him back from this. While there’s little in the way of formal rules and regulations prohibiting something like a labia from being shown outside of a medical or pornographic context, the Federal Communications Commission still cites Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 line “I know it when I see it” as a guidepost for what distinguishes obscenity. So, then, what makes flaccid penises a-OK while vagina—or butt—is nowhere to be found?

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It’s a matter of personal interpretation, but it’s also probably because many viewers are simply incapable of seeing hole as anything other than pornographic. A flaccid penis is a symbol of a lack of horniness, while a vagina or anus can still be perceived as erotic whether it’s aroused or not. We’re missing something in the way we interpret orifices, something that perhaps a broader visual presence in media could provide.

Despite this genitalia-related discrepancy, women appear nude on-screen far more often than men do. The roster of female celebrities on international nudity-in-film-and-TV catalog Mr. Skin is nearly three times the size of male celebrities on its sister site, Mr. Man. But when you narrow this down to genitalia specifically, a new dichotomy emerges. Though “bush” and “full frontal” still outnumber dicks, the former represents vulvas in an obscured form. Per Mr. Skin’s keyword searches, there are only 287 clips from film and television featuring labia and 173 featuring “vagina,” most of which come from niche erotic art films like Nymphomaniac or pornographic flicks that have been canonized as culturally significant, like Debbie Does Dallas. Meanwhile, on Mr. Man, there are 4,386 clips featuring penises. There are no instances of anuses, regardless of gender, that are not from pornography.

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Isn’t it time to change the story? If any network were going to do it, it would be HBO, home of the most dick shots of any show in history. In fact, it would even seem appropriate for hole to appear on a show like Euphoria, where it would quickly become absorbed by the broader stunt and spectacle of the series itself. On a show like White Lotus, however, hole would retain the power to mean something on its own. In the first season, Steve Zahn’s penis wasn’t just there for the fun of showing a penis but was instead integral to our understanding of his character and his anxieties. It was a symbol not just of his masculinity but also of the fragility of his sense of self as he aged, both as a father and as a husband. It served nothing in the way of sex appeal. Couldn’t hole, in whatever form, offer just as rich a symbolic narrative?

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How exactly a vulva or butt hole would accomplish this without getting flagged as obscene is a challenge I trust a writer like White could handle. White has already proved himself adept at handling sex scenes in ways that highlight the inherently bizarre nature of intimacy. The infamous ass-eating scene of White Lotus’ first season is a perfect example, but imagine how much more striking and human it would have been had we caught just the slightest glimpse of the ass itself (not to mention more inclusive of the many types of sex people have).

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One solution could be prostheses, though they’re clearly a cop-out. Earlier this year, I lamented that the majority of penises we’ve seen in mainstream shows and movies have been prosthetic. Zahn’s dick-out scene made somewhat of a stir, despite being fake. In Season 2, we saw penis once more on Theo James, who has since described the prosthetic used as looking as if it had been stolen “off a donkey in the field”—it was 9 inches long and 4 inches wide. Sebastian Stan’s talking penis in Pam & Tommy was fake, as was Taylor Zakhar Perez’s in Minx. I don’t love this—it implies that average-looking, real penises are not appropriate for public consumption—but maybe there’s something there. Maybe we can begin with prostheses, then work our way up to the real thing. We’ve got to start somewhere!

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I imagine that even with the use of prosthetics, the task of showing hole is still quite the ask for an actor. But what is the role of the actor if not a vessel through which norms can be defied and dogmas can be questioned? White Lotus’ showing hole of any variety would initiate a shift in how we perceive the body in media. The only reason it remains obscene is because we haven’t yet been asked to look at it any other way. Mr. White, won’t you please raise us the question?

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