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Double standards in media?
August 4, 2009 9:59 PM   Subscribe

A question about acceptable body parts on TV, movies, etc. (explicit)

Is there a law that establishes what body parts can be show in mass media? How is it that we can see breasts, and sometimes even vaginas (I distinctly remember a couple of episodes of the Penn and Teller show with completely naked women, for no apparent reason, not to mention The Sopranos, etc.), but penises are completely inappropriate? Is it legally stated somewhere that male genitals aren't allowed on TV? (besides porn) and why on earth? I am talking about mainstream movies, TV shows, etc. I have never in my life seen a penis on any of them...except for the Borat movie, and they had them censored.

I know penises aren't "pretty", but still, isn't it...funny?
posted by Tarumba to Media & Arts (25 answers total)
 
You might want to read up on obscenity law. It's not funny at all, actually.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:04 PM on August 4, 2009


They can, and do, show penises on HBO or SHOWTIME. See for example Jason Segel's front and center naked peen in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall". So your premise is wrong right off the bat.
posted by Justinian at 10:08 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Likewise for a penis in Boogie Nights.
posted by mmascolino at 10:11 PM on August 4, 2009


Ok, CunningLinguist, but why is it obscene to show male genitalia, and not female genitalia?

Justinian, I think you know what I mean, just sit down one day and count how many times female "private parts" are shown, and compare it to the number of male privates you see. I tend to exaggerate my own statements, but the main idea remains.
posted by Tarumba at 10:11 PM on August 4, 2009


Because a penis is a genital, and a bush is not -- it's hair above or obscuring genitals. Obscenity laws (and the secret unpublished rules of the movie rating organization, the MPAA) tend to be written in terms of genitals.
posted by orthogonality at 10:20 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most of the people who do media programming are men, and therefore prefer to see idealized representations of naked women, which titillate them, rather than idealized images of naked men, which threaten them.

...is that the answer you were looking for?
posted by felix betachat at 10:21 PM on August 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


Is it legally stated somewhere that male genitals aren't allowed on TV?

There are several laws related to punishments the FCC can hand down to broadcast television for violating decency standards, but there's no official list kept anywhere that specifically says "No penises."

Decency standards are flexible things, determined by the FCC. For example, you can't generally show bare female breasts on broadcast television, but public access gets a pass, and there have been several television broadcasts that have gotten official and unofficial passes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:22 PM on August 4, 2009


Interesting...that is why a penis is indeed more "blatant" than anything else. But in the end, censoring or playing with the cameras in order not to show male genitalia to me is a definite double standard, and completely absurd, regardless of what the law is, because well, law is perfectible and therefore, can be wrong. By the way, I meant "funny" as in "unusual".
posted by Tarumba at 10:30 PM on August 4, 2009


I tend to exaggerate my own statements, but the main idea remains.

Your question seemed, to me, to be asking whether networks were allowed to show full female nudity but not allowed to show full male nudity. The answer is, mostly, no; depending on the network it is generally either allowed or disallowed.

If you're saying, well, hey isn't it weird that there are a lot more naked women than naked men in popular movies? And have you ever, you know, really looked at your hand? Well in that case: chatfiltery, but yes there is more female than male nudity in popular entertainment. Do you really need an explanation for why that is?

If so: MONEY.

Longer answer: Dudes don't like to see other men's junk and will in a lot of cases deliberately avoid things they know are going to show other men's junk. Women don't seem to have the same tendency with regard to seeing women's naughty bits while female naughty bits are an active draw for a lot of men. So if you show naked women you will attract a certain audience while if you show naked men you will repel a certain audience.
posted by Justinian at 10:35 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


IIRC there were several penises in The Wire.
posted by resiny at 10:47 PM on August 4, 2009


Thinking about indecency and obscenity laws is sort of out of place to the question.

No, there isn't any law that says that HBO or Cinemax can't show wieners. If a movie they're showing has wangs, they generally show the wangs. Just the other day I got an eyeful of William Petersen's peter, in all its semi-erect glory, in To Live and Die in LA. They're also not at all shy about showing a wide variety of penises in their Real Sex show.

Why aren't there more penises? Because HBO/Cinemax/etc, and the movie companies they get films from, are businesses first and foremost. And penises just aren't good businesses in the way that T&A is. At best, modern American consumers are vaguely indifferent to penises: sometimes they don't mind them, but no significant number are going to show up at the theater just to see, say, Ryan Reynolds' johnson. But put Halle Berry's tits on display, and you'll add significantly to your box office.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:47 PM on August 4, 2009


You see more penises than vaginas on TV — in fact I'd be surprised if, outside pay-per-view, you've seen any vaginas on TV, although you may have occasionally seen a mons veneris. And you've seen far more naked male breasts than female breasts.

In other words, the double standard is yours.
posted by nicwolff at 10:57 PM on August 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yes.. Female chests stick out a lot, but their genitals don't. Male chests don't stick out too much, but their genitals do. Funny indeed.

Anyway, I'm with orthogonality on this one. When is the last time you saw labia in a mainstream production of any kind?

You're looking for some treatise on sexual exploitation of women, and I'm sure somebody will provide it for you. It is rampant and obvious, after all. Looking at the rules (written or unwritten) about showing body parts isn't going to capture anything important about the problem though, because male bodies and female bodies are different.
posted by Chuckles at 11:16 PM on August 4, 2009


I'm pretty sure FCC rules only apply to broadcast media. It might apply to "basic" cable, but I'm not sure. The reason the FCC has jurisdiction over the airwaves is because they are public property, which licensees only hold licenses to.

On the other hand, if you run your own cables, then you can put out whatever you want, thanks to the first amendment. (Although you can be prosecuted for "obscenity" still, but that's very rare, and it has to be way over the top, the guy who imported the source material for "2 girls 1 cup")
posted by delmoi at 12:37 AM on August 5, 2009


Oh and lots of cable networks broadcast have their own standards for whatever reason. Marcy Wheeler said "Blowjob" on MSNBC the other day, and the hosts had to apologize (The quote was "Clinton got impeached for a blowjob"). MSNBC Is a cable net, so they don't actually have to censor themselves (unless the FCC rules apply to basic cable, again I'm not sure)
posted by delmoi at 12:39 AM on August 5, 2009


And really, the number of vaginas you'll see in mainstream movies and television shows is: almost none. And the number of penises? Almost none. It's just not done, outside of certain PPV channels, hard-R movies, and the very rare basic cable show.
posted by punishinglemur at 12:40 AM on August 5, 2009


Penises make appearances on British TV; I believe they can only be shown after 9 PM but they are there on regular BBC stations - it's not a cable thing.

And for the record, because the lack of fundamental understanding of female anatomy is irksome, it is very doubtful any of you have seen a vagina on television. Given that the vagina is an internal organ with an external orifice, to see a vagina requires a speculum (or a quite small camera.) Please reference the wikipedia entry for anatomy 101.

If the anatomical structure to which you are referring was covered (or could have been covered) in pubic hair, than you were gazing upon a vulva, or more specifically, a mons, often refered to as the pubis.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:42 AM on August 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


but why is it obscene to show male genitalia, and not female genitalia?

I've seen many, many more penises on cable TV and in movies than vaginas.

So I think your premise is flawed. Maybe you're looking for an imbalance that isn't there?
posted by rokusan at 2:12 AM on August 5, 2009


DarlingBri, the very same wikipedia entry that you link to has this as the very third sentence:

In common speech, the term "vagina" is often used to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally.

And that's obviously the context in which it's being used in this thread.
posted by rokusan at 2:13 AM on August 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


First of all, as delmoi noted, the FCC rules apply to broadcast, not to cable, which is why you can see nudity and hear words on cable that you would not hear on the networks.

Second, I believe that most if not all cable companies have developed their own set of standards, probably to forestall any idea by Washington that, hey, maybe we should allow the FCC to regulate them, too. They may have collaborated on those standards.

What I have observed suggests that the rule includes: no erections and no penetration of any orifice.

I did see an HBO starting off with rather enthusiastic blowjobs. I was amazed until I realized that the recipients were anatomically exaggerated rubber dolls.
posted by yclipse at 4:35 AM on August 5, 2009


First of all, as delmoi noted, the FCC rules apply to broadcast, not to cable, which is why you can see nudity and hear words on cable that you would not hear on the networks.

Second, I believe that most if not all cable companies have developed their own set of standards, probably to forestall any idea by Washington that, hey, maybe we should allow the FCC to regulate them, too.


This is correct. I also think that another important reason that cable networks often choose to follow broadcast indecency standards is because they fear loss of ad revenue if they became too racy.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:01 AM on August 5, 2009


I have never in my life seen a penis on any of them...except for the Borat movie, and they had them censored.

Also, not sure if this has to be said or not, but in the Borat film, the "censorship" of the genitalia was itself part of the joke.

(Or do you think Sasha Baron Cohen really has a 30 inch penis? Sexytime, indeed.)
posted by rokusan at 7:36 AM on August 5, 2009


There's a lot of speculating and surmising and assuming here. The US law and regs aren't hard to look up.

Here's a nice FCC faq, an FCC fact sheet on obscenity and indecency, a thorough discussion of indecency, the text of the 1978 "seven dirty words" Pacifica decision, April's update in the FCC v Fox ruling, and lots of links to news stories, analysis and more info about the current state of the law.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:47 AM on August 5, 2009


I am a fan of Penn & Teller's Bullshit, and I can assure you they've shown plenty of naked men. FWIW Penn always talks about how he can't advertise his show much because the title is profane.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:20 PM on August 5, 2009


I've seen WAY WAY WAY more penises on TV/cable/film than I've seen vaginas/vulvas/whatever. Way more. I've seen very few women naked from the waist-down on screen. Your premise seems flawed.
posted by ishotjr at 3:20 PM on August 5, 2009


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