I can still remember the first time I watched a sexy movie with my mother as an adult. She made one of those comments that stay with you forever: “Only the English let their fat old men walk around naked.” I looked over at her, shocked by her observation. Until that moment I hadn’t even thought my mother knew what a fat, old man looked like naked and, two, that she had a breadth of English movie knowledge large enough to make that remark. Well, before I could recover she followed that statement up with “I mean, you look at him laying there, all limp and unexcited, and you say to yourself ‘I never want to have sex. That doesn’t look fun at all.’”

And with that, I died on the spot.

The film in question was The Governess, starring Mini Driver as a, you guessed it, governess and Tom Wilikison as her employer and man she eventually begins an affair with. A movie so bland and forgettable I had to ask my mother before writing this if she could even remember that story or even what movie. Without missing a beat, she jumped right back on her soap box and reiterated her original statement, which still makes me both laugh and cringe. It also brings up an interesting point. Why is it so common for European films to feature realistic situations with full-frontal male nudity, whereas that remains one of the few light taboos in American cinema? And when it is featured it’s either for shock value or comedy.

Let’s face it; we all enjoy the human form. It’s sensual, enticing, alluring, all those fancy words and more. Seeing it in its many shapes and sizes has been de rigor in art for centuries, and there have been just as many presentations of male full nudes as female. But once cameras got involved, the naughty bits got just a little bit naughtier. They were shielded away, hidden from public view due to obscenity outcries in Victorian England and through the turn of the 20th Century in America. But quickly, the nude female form returned to European art, be it for lascivious or for artistic pursuits during the Modern era, and continued to appear in the American stag films put out by early filmmakers. People never stopped wanting to see the whole package, but it would take a few decades for it to appear in American studio films.

But, Europe, a continent dedicated to art and human condition, continued to push boundaries and explore sex in a way American filmmakers were prohibited from doing by our series of Codes and Ratings Systems. To them, the human form was not something foreign or scary, but in fact something common yet worth honoring, cherishing, and filming.

The 1960s were a turning point for European filmmaking. By then, individual governments had perfected their taxation system to allocate funds to filmmakers who produced films about their countrymen.  Fellini demystified sex, while still reveling in its kinkiness. He shied away from penis, however his films La Dolce Vita and Juliet of the Spirits speak so frankly about the male form it’s hard to remember neither feature it.

Eventually full-frontal male nudity appeared, most notably with Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love. The film was controversial for showing two fully naked men (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates) wrestling. The scene doesn’t contain any “pinning,” per say, however it was one of the first modern British films to open to flood gate to male nudity. Forty years later, the occurrence of male full-frontal nudity is not only common, but expected in films about love and sex.

Sadly, American male full-frontals are usually meant to shock or elicit giggles, when Europe seems to just shrug a shoulder? Actors like Ewan McGregor, whose peen appears in, Trainspotting, Velvet Goldmine, Pillow Book and Young Adam, and Geoffrey Rush (Quills) have yet to balk at showing there bits off casually, however every time an American does it there is either tons of controversy surrounding the act, such as Vincent Gallo in Brown Bunny or Bruce Willis in Color of Night, (and it’s always disappointing) or it’s Jason Segal getting broken up with at his most vulnerable in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

That latter example was a brave display, however the subtext is missed by half because the situation is just too goofy. Both Richard Gere (American Gigolo) and Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey) appear naked in American studio films with almost French-like casualness, however it’s still rare to see that in more than a handful of films a year. This is just ridiculous considering the amount of full-frontal nudity scenes actresses appear in just to garner attention from studios. As a woman I see no problem with visible bush in my films, I just wish the stigma surrounding male reciprocation wasn’t just so childish.

Let it all hang out with more Reel Sex


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