Ansel Pierce made his television debut sprawled on a toilet, his penis and testicles bared to the world.
Of course, he’d known what the role would entail when he auditioned for HBO’s hit teen drama Euphoria, which is famous for its boundary-pushing depictions of teen sex and drug use. After he landed the part, the first call he received from the production came from Mam Smith, the series’ intimacy coordinator. In her introductory conversation, Smith, who sees her role as being the “welcoming committee” for the performers she works with, briefs actors about what to expect when they arrive on set, and explains how their characters fit into the show’s broader story. Pierce’s character, Caleb, would appear in the second season’s premier, at the apex of an extended gag that found Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie trapped in a bathroom during a New Year’s Eve party.
Pierce’s character would enter the room while Cassie cowered in the tub. When she peeked around the shower curtain to find him sitting on the toilet, he’d deliver his lines: “Oh fuck, you’re really hot. But I’m still gonna take a shit—sorry.” It’s embarrassing and funny, and the humor is heightened by Pierce’s jarring nudity.
We’ve all got pornography delivery systems in our pocket, and access to more views of strangers’ bodies than prior generations could have ever imagined. And yet a nude scene in a mainstream film or TV show can still spark fascination, particularly if it features a penis, as male full-frontal has been among the most taboo varieties of body baring. The past year has been particularly flush with onscreen penises, in both film and television. From Hollywood underdogs in scrappy indies (Simon Rex in Red Rocket) to A-list stars in prestige dramas (Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley) from Cinemax-style TV raunch-fests (Sex/Life), to some of the most acclaimed new shows (White Lotus), penises are everywhere. The story of how we came to inhabit this bulgy media landscape is a story of the rise of premium channels and streaming platforms, behind-the-camera diversity—and maybe even of new ways of looking at masculinity.
Full-frontal nudity is old hat for Euphoria, which kicked off its run by famously showcasing 30 dicks in its second episode, and Pierce had considered the implications of appearing naked on screen before he submitted his (fully-clothed) audition tape. “With a lot of random little indie projects, I may have said, ‘No, I don’t know if I want to do nudity as my first thing,’” he said. But with Euphoria’s stacked cast and creative team, which includes writer-director Sam Levinson, star Zendaya, and producers Drake and Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris, Pierce decided to take the plunge. “The nudity didn’t even bother me at that point,” he said. “I was like, ‘You know what? I want a chance to work with these people.’”
Smith shepherded Pierce throughout the process. Intimacy coordinators, who work with productions to try to ensure that sex and nude scenes feel safe for all involved, have proliferated in the post-MeToo era. Now, HBO mandates that they be involved in any productions that feature sex or nudity.
“I think I see myself as an ambassador,” says Smith, who has been in the industry for decades and has 20 years experience as a stunt performer under her belt. She can understand the experiences of the performers who appear nude on a show like Euphoria, where many of the bodies bared belong to actors who play relatively minor roles on the series. As a stunt performer, she’s had to put her body on the line for action scenes, sometimes wearing little in the way of clothes. “I know what it feels like to not be sure if your top opened up and your breast was exposed,” says Smith, “or doing a stair fall, and they just see right into my crotch. I know that feeling.”
So, she tries to make actors like Pierce, whose character would become known to fans as “Toilet Guy,” feel comfortable. “You’re giving us such a special privilege, to be able to have your body and be able to use you to tell our story,” she said, “that I want to make sure that they feel like this is really important, and you’re a really strong part of this, and this is not a throwaway.” She also tries to make the job live up to Hollywood fantasies, introducing the bit players to stars like Zendaya or Hunter Schafer, “so that they can be like, okay, that was my dream come true.”
Throughout filming his scene, Pierce felt like “my hand was almost held every step of the way.” Nude scenes are filmed on a closed set, with monitors covered to prevent any passersby from catching a glimpse. Only a bare-bones crew is used, and Smith was on hand in case Pierce had any concerns. “I almost felt ironic about it afterwards, because they were so extensive to make me feel comfortable and make me feel like nobody was necessarily watching,” he said. “When you know, of course, in two months, the entire world is going to be watching.”
“The floodgates kind of opened with Oz,” Peter Lehman, Professor Emeritus in Film and Media Studies at ASU, told Jezebel. The series, which aired on HBO from 1997 to 2003 and took place in a men’s prison, was among the shows that helped to kickstart TV’s Golden Age. It also featured frequent male nudity, and its premium cable peers would follow suit. (Oz was executive produced by Barry Levinson, the father of Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson, which means that there’s perhaps no family that’s played a bigger role in mainstreaming the male full-frontal scene.)
Lehman is the author of Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. He explained to me that HBO could become the small-screen home of dicks and balls because, as the tagline goes, it’s not TV. The Federal Communications Commissions monitors broadcast TV and the Motion Picture Association of America assigns ratings to movies, but premium channels and the streaming services that would follow them are free from these restrictions. “So all the male nudity that you hear about,” said Lehman. “That can take place because it’s entirely up to the studios, and there’s no regulatory censorship body at work.”
As it’s become a staple of premium television, full-frontal, which was once often confined to art-house films and cheap gags in broad comedies like the American Pie movies, has also begun to appear more often in expensive, prestigious productions. After decades of seeing women’s bodies in every possible state of dress or undress, this could seem like the beginnings of parity. But the appearance of a penis or testicles is generally treated differently from when actresses bare all. Many genitals are showcased for laughs, as when Will Ferrell rubs his (fake) balls on John C. Reilly’s drum set in Step Brothers, or action sequences, as when Simon Rex makes a naked escape through a window and takes off running in Red Rocket.
In his 1956 book The Nude, British art historian Kenneth Clark drew a distinction between nakedness and nudity. Nakedness is the simple absence of clothing, but the nude, he wrote, represents, “the body re-formed.” We’re all naked as soon as we take off our clothes, but nudity is more intentional, and implies the presence of a viewer. As fellow critic John Berger put it, expanding on Clark’s definitions, “to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” Nakedness is unglamorous and honest, nudity is beautiful artifice. “Nudity,” Berger added, “is a form of dress.”
When a man is without clothes on camera, filmmakers are often aiming for the appearance of nakedness. Women, on the other hand, tend to be nude: passive, lovely, clearly posed. Jason Segel getting dumped by Kristen Bell in Forgetting Sarah Marshall—naked. Cillian Murphy, abandoned in a hospital after the zombie apocalypse in 28 Days Later—naked. Kate Winslet, posing like a French girl in Titanic—a nude from Leo’s perspective, and from the audience’s.
Richard Gere’s star-making appearance in 1980’s American Gigolo holds a place in full-frontal history for being one of the rare mainstream hit films of the era to show its lead actor’s penis. Yet while movie dicks are now thick on the ground, the film’s precise take on full-frontal still feels novel. In the movie, Gere rises from bed after a night of sex with Lauren Hutton’s character, standing in the light and shadow of a window. He’s been presented as an object of desire—she turned up at his apartment the night before, practically begging to pay him for sex. Now, she’s admiring his body, and allowing us to admire him from a shared vantage point. He’s not naked, he’s nude.
No matter how it’s framed, seeing a penis on screen still feels imbued with a touch of the transgressive—even when the member featured isn’t real. The MPAA may not be able to dish out NC-17 ratings to HBO, but SAG-AFTRA has its own nudity guidelines. Any penis that another character is shown interacting with is a prosthetic. (That gag from the recent episode of And Just Like That... in which Charlotte is poised to give her husband Harry a blowjob in the bathroom when their daughter barrels in? That’s a prosthetic.) When film and television makers have specific-looking genitals in mind for a character, as in Boogie Nights, which required that Mark Walhberg’s Dirk Diggler sport an incredibly large package, they may also use a fake dick. And of course, prosthetics can also be deployed simply to make performers more comfortable, circumventing insecurities and maintaining their privacy.
For its plastic penis needs, Hollywood sometimes turns to Academy Award-winning special effects make-up artist Matthew Mungle, who has created fake penises for projects including The Overnight and HBO’s The Deuce. When Mungle’s team is hired to make a penis, they begin the process by sculpting the genitals in clay. Then, a mold is made of the sculpture, and filled with silicone. When pulled from the mold, the silicone prosthetic is airbrushed to resemble living flesh, hair lace is added, and the whole contraption is worn over the actor’s real genitals. If made from a pre-existing mold, they can cost between $850 and $1200. If Mungle’s company makes a new penis from scratch, it can cost up to $5000.
To Mungle, prosthetics can serve as a way to free actors from self-consciousness. Wearing a fake penis rather than displaying his own allows an actor to “do his job, and not think about, ‘Oh is my penis okay, is it going to get erect?’” he says. “I think it relaxes their mind about, ‘Okay now, I can go ahead and act and not think about it.”
From his Austin-based shop, he sends penises out to unknown futures. (He does not ask that his creations are returned to him, for obvious reasons. “They ask me, ‘Do you want it back?’” said Mungle, “And I say, no no no, you keep it. You know, it’s been there… please keep it.”) The prosthetics may not necessarily even be used, as in the case of Red Rocket, Sean Baker’s story of a down and out pornstar, played by Simon Rex. Mungle made a prosthetic for the production, but Rex won’t say whether or not he wore it on screen.
Prosthetics for women often take the form of vulva-obscuring merkins, though breast plates, like the one Lily James wears to fill out Pamela Anderson’s red swimsuit in Hulu’s Pam and Tommy, are also sometimes used. Mungle created one for a performer in Oliver Stone’s 1993 war drama Heaven and Earth. The prosthetic was intended to offer the actor a layer of protection during a challenging rape scene. “We put the breast on so she would feel better,” said Mungle. “Of course, it’s very traumatic to film a scene like that anyway.”
Another notable moment in women’s genital prosthetics was Blue is the Warmest Color, which Mungle did not work on. The film outfitted its stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulo with fake vulvas for its infamous minutes-long, graphic, and un-choreographed sex scenes. Prosthetics alone were not enough to ensure the performers’ comfort in this case—director Abdellatif Kechiche, who was later accused of sexual assault, devoted 10 days to filming the scenes, an experience that Seydoux described as having left her “feeling like a prostitute.”
In a penis-saturated year for American cinema, one of the especially effective deployments of full-frontal nudity took place in Zola, A24’s based-on-a-true-story tale of frenemy sex workers who become embroiled in a trafficking plot. The film stars Taylor Paige and Riley Keough, and while they frequently appear in the states of partial undress that their jobs as a stripper and escort demand, the only unambiguous nudity in the film belongs to their clients. Instead of seeing Paige and Keough nude, Zola features a montage of the clients that Keough’s character sees over the course of a night of escorting. The audience sees them as the young woman does—as a parade of faces, bellies, and penises.
The movie’s director, Panamanian-American filmmaker Janicza Bravo, didn’t want to create a retread of familiar images of naked women. “I felt that there was already a pretty juicy catalog of images of naked women,” she said. “And I didn’t feel like I, Janicza Bravo, needed to contribute to what was a very healthy catalog.”
This wasn’t always going to be the case. Zola was originally slated to be directed by James Franco and written by two other white men, and its first script featured full female nudity in the early pages. When Franco left the project due to other commitments—this was before he was accused of sexual impropriety by students at the acting school he founded—Bravo was hired instead, and brought on Jeremy O. Harris, who is Black and gay, to co-write the script.
The ways in which the nudity in Zola evolved as the project left the hands of its original white male creative team might reflect broader industry changes that are delivering more naked men to our screens. Bridgerton intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot thinks that the rise in male full-frontal can be attributed to the increasingly diverse talent creating film and television. “I think it’s diversity in writers rooms,” she said. “From a Bridgerton perspective, the M.O. was that this is from a female gaze. And so it was positioned that way from the beginning.”
Bravo was aware of the afterlife that nude scenes can have for a performer. One of her friends, an actor, appeared nude for a project, and shortly after its release, search results for her name were populated with images of the scene, divorced of all artistic context and yet permanently attached to her. “Basically I felt like, when you searched for Zola and you searched any women inside of the movie, that there was never going to be a nude image of them, not under my guide.” This isn’t to say that her future work won’t ever contain naked women, she added, but within the context of Zola’s tale of sex work and sex trafficking, it didn’t feel like a fit for the project.
Bravo and her crew found it challenging to find actors who were both comfortable with nudity and who, unlike some of the strippers who were willing to take the job, had bodies that resembled those of everyday men. So they turned to a nudist colony local to the Florida-based production, and over one weekend Bravo had lengthy calls with potential performers in order to select actors who would work well for the scene. (One man was eliminated after he expressed attraction to Keough, who’d have been his partner in the scene had he been hired.)
If crafting a penis montage sounds a bit cavalier, that’s because it kind of is. It’s a technique deployed in both Zola and Euphoria, when Zendaya’s character Rue breaks the fourth wall to offer a guide to analyzing dick pics. In each scene, a penis fills the frame, divorced from its owner and shortly to be followed by another, equally anonymous dick. In each case, the montage technique suggests the disconnection the women feel from the men they’re interacting with. In Zola, Keough’s character is encountering these penises as part of her job as a sex worker. “It doesn’t have heat,” says Bravo. “It’s a job. You clock in and you clock out. You’re not supposed to be turned on by this. No part of our body should be wet or saturated or moisturized by this.” To Rue in Euphoria, dick picks are part of the ugly wallpaper of life—unsolicited, un-admired, unexceptional.
The fact that most full-frontal scenes feature male nakedness rather than male nudity means that they don’t usually feel sexy. This makes perfect sense within the worlds of Zola and Euphoria, but the broader pattern speaks to a visual pop culture awake to every erotic possibility associated with femininity but more squeamish when it comes to the sexual possibilities men can hold.
“There is something inherently delicious and sexy about a woman,” said Bravo, “At least within the type of programming inside of my head. A woman’s wrist could be delicious to me. And there isn’t that version of maleness that I can recall outside maybe of sculpture. Perhaps we’ll arrive there.”
She pointed out that one example of a more sexualized penis was present in, once again, a recent installment of Euphoria. The episode, which recounted the youthful romance between Eric Dane’s Cal and his best friend, depicted Cal taking in his friend’s body with a tender lust rarely seen in all of the show’s many dick sequences.
After filming his Euphoria scene, for which he says he did not use a prosthetic, Pierce’s feelings toggled from excitement over the role to trepidation at the thought of his coworkers, friends, and family members seeing him naked on TV. Despite those feelings, it’s gone over well—his family has been supportive, and the scene was a success that garnered social media buzz. Levinson and his team were so pleased with Pierce’s performance that his role was expanded, and he’s slated to appear again in an upcoming episode.
Online, his inbox is filled with messages, 80 percent of which “have been very objectified,” he said. He’s played along, walking viewers on TikTok through his colorful DMs. “Nice cock bro, nice balls bro,” he quotes his admirers. “I love that we’re throwing the ‘bro’ in there, just keeping it really friendly.” If he sold feet pics to all askers, he notes, he could probably earn enough money to buy a moped.
“I felt a lot of empathy because a woman who shows any amount of skin… she’s going to get a lot of those same messages,” he said. “For me personally, I decided it’s kind of my choice how I wanted to react to this. And so whether I feel objectified or not, I personally can chose to be like, ‘That’s funny.’ I’m not going to reply to it. It’s funny, I love it, I welcome the attention, but it’s not something that I need to engage with.” If the right role required it, Pierce would be willing to go nude on screen again.
The full-frontal hot streak of the last year seems unlikely to cool anytime soon—after all, we’ve still got three episodes of Euphoria left. The dick antics reach new highs in Pam & Tommy, which deploys an energetic animatronic for a scene where Sebastian Stan’s Tommy Lee talks to his penis, and the organ, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, talks back. As each penis scene follows the last, they all begin to feel a little less noteworthy. Sex and the City didn’t feature a single penis in its original six seasons; its spinoff included two in the same episode a few weeks ago, without even remotely breaking the internet.
Perhaps it’s all long overdue. As Lehman writes in Running Scared, “When a penis is hidden, it is centered. To show, write, or talk about the penis creates the potential to demystify it and thus decenter it.”
“If you can actually see it,” Lehman told me, “It’s in danger of people looking at it and saying, ‘What’s the big deal?’”