Hung in America
Peter Lehman/Arizona State University & Susan Hunt / Santa Monica College
At the end of Season 1, Ray, the well-hung hero of Hung explicitly unites the penis and the American dream in voice-over, continuing the season-long metaphorical connection between his big penis and the collapse of the American economy. For this reason, the show is set in Detroit, Michigan, where things were once proudly made in America but which is now the site of an economic downturn, bordering on ruin. Cars might not be made in America the way they used to be but jocks are – well hung. In our two previous columns on this series for Flow, “Hanging by a Thread”1 and “Still Hanging,2 we have identified several tensions and contradictions within this project, which we will trace to their season conclusion here.
Two related contradictions dominate the series. The series presents itself as being about both Detroit’s economic woes and its hero’s penile abundance: loss and absence versus abundance and plenitude. The ostensible connection is simple: economic hard times drive Ray to be entrepreneurial and figure out how to cash in on his gift but this seems like little more than a pretext for the show’s premise: a woman pimping a well-hung man to other women who are looking for good sex. As if to indicate that they know which side their bread is buttered on, the producers have titled their show Hung not Recession and presumably the talk about the show around the proverbial office water cooler is about well-hung rather than unemployed men. Indeed, there is surprisingly little footage in the entire season that actually shows poverty, unemployment, shuttered factories, or abandoned neighborhoods. In brief, the series tries to tie Ray’s big penis to hard times, but ends up focusing on the good times that the big penis–and only the big penis–can bring. And this relates to the second contradiction.
In Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains, and Body Guys3 we identify a new body guy film genre that features a sexually gifted hero with a good sized penis and nearly magical sex style. These body guys awaken, arouse and fulfill the sexual desires of a beautiful woman who is initially involved with a boring, sexually incompetent mind guy. We explore the anti-intellectual aspects of the appeal of this genre which portrays the world of the mind and intellectual men as deadly dull while celebrating the penis and penetration sex as what contemporary women in the film audience need and want for their fulfillment. Hung gets caught in a contradictory attempt to both celebrate and critique Ray and his big penis and in so doing also depicts the world of the mind and of professional men as dull and boring and represents their bodies and sexual skills as mediocre or even incompetent in comparison to Ray’s.
In the next to last episode of the season (8/30/09), the pattern whereby women who have sex with Ray respond in ecstasy and remain under his spell achieves new heights when “Horny Patty” (figure 1), a co-worker in Tanya’s office, reports on her sexual encounter with Ray: “Having sex with that guy is like doing coke.
It’s expensive, but you really want it, so you buy it and you get this huge awesome rush. But then you come down from your high and you’re broke and you feel even lonelier and pathetic than you did before and you want to kill yourself.” Patty explicitly states what we have argued about the projects of this series and the body guy genre in general: sex with the body guy, linked to his large penis, is so exceptional that once a woman has had it, other men are just that — merely other men. They are not in the ballpark with the body guy who represents a once in a lifetime experience. Here the “awesome” experience is compared to a drug high so intense that if the woman cannot maintain her habit (the big dick), it is better to kill herself. Remarkably, in the midst of this paean of praise to Ray’s penis and performance, Tanya interrupts, remarking, “That’s a good thing, right? A huge awesome rush.”
In the same episode Lenore tells Tanya, “I could use a little Ray myself.” No one can forget him once they’ve had him. Why: “He’s got a big fat dick and he knows how to use it.” She is willing to pay a great deal of money for Ray, demonstrating that these are not empty words. Later in the episode, however, when we see them having sex, a contradictory moment occurs when Lenore informs Ray before he begins that, “Not all women can come from dick alone.” “I haven’t heard any complaints,” Ray confidently replies, without giving a moment’s thought to it. To which Lenore replies without missing a beat, “That you know of.” She then pays him additional money to include oral sex in their session, which she enjoys. Elsewhere she even remarks that women say that the preference for “tongue to dick” is 60 to 40 per cent. In these moments, the series acknowledges that even in its penis-centric notion of sex, not all women can achieve orgasm from the penis alone. The penis and penetration are still central, just not “alone.” But such moments work more like an inoculation than a true critique. Everything we have seen and continue to see suggests that Lenore, like all the other women, is indeed overwhelmed by Ray’s big penis and that his “big fat dick” is what her obsession with him rests upon. By acknowledging that not all women need just this, in effect, the show gets on with showing that all women need just this and they will be changed forever.
The centrality of the penis to a woman’s pleasure becomes even more explicit in the season finale, if such a thing is possible (9/13/09). Lenore has befriended Jessica and we see them getting massages together in a spa. Asking about Jessica’s love life with Ronnie, Lenore first inquires how often they have sex and then gets right to the point: “Your vagina is like a car battery, Jessica. You gotta keep it charged…How many times was he [Ronnie] inside you last week?” Again, we marvel at how the dialogue here makes explicit what is usually implicit in the body guy genre and elsewhere in this series. Even if one accepts the car battery metaphor of a woman needing to occasionally sexually “recharge” herself, why should such recharging be focused on having a penis in the vagina? One can imagine many ways that a woman could recharge her sexuality that has nothing to do with having a man penetrate her vagina. But that would require creativity, imagination, and the use of the mind rather than falling back on penetration and the big dick. Horrors! And like Patty in the previous episode, Lenore makes a clear distinction between Ray, who she has in mind for Jessica, and other men: “You need a professional. Someone who will fuck you so good you don’t care what your husband does or doesn’t do.” For Patty, Ray is coke with a high no other men can offer. For Lenore he is a professional who makes a husband so ordinary that how he fucks will be so minor league that what he does or doesn’t do is irrelevant. Ray is that professional and not just in the literal sense that he sells his services but in the accomplished sense that he “services” women like they have never been serviced before and like they never will be again.
Lenore’s insulting references to Ronnie relate to another key pattern we have traced throughout the series: the denigration of the mind guy – the successful professional men in the series whose careers and accomplishments rest on education and the work of the mind. All of them are seen as boring, domineering, unattractive, and most noticeably, sexually incompetent in comparison to Ray. If Ray is the professional, they are the amateurs. The predictable answer to Lenore’s question about the number of times Ronnie was “in” Jessica for the previous week is “zero.” Ray himself is befuddled at what Jessica sees in Ronnie and although she claims it is not just his money, after he loses his wealth, her interest in her former husband and high school sweetheart, Ray, intensifies. In a rhyming narrative development, one of Ronnie’s patients is a woman with whom he was a friend in high school. Clearly they are drawn to each other as they renew their relationship in his exam room. But whereas Ray and Jessica’s relationship is taken seriously, Ronnie’s attempt to reconnect with a high school classmate is portrayed condescendingly. She is a podiatrist, suggesting some kind of a match for a dermatologist. She also has an exaggerated “homely” quality, lacking feminine beauty much like Ronnie lacks masculine power and sexuality. Rather than celebrating departures from the norm, this scene depicts these doctors as inhabiting a goofy, childlike world where they are perfectly matched because of what they lack! Ronnie cannot fulfill a real woman but he stands a chance with this one. They are like rejects hopefully attracted to each other while the cheerleader/beauty queen and jock with the big dick are where the real action is.
Despite this strong affirmation of the well-hung body guy, Hung lays down the basis of a serious critique, one that at the conclusion of the first season may be a lost opportunity. Ray may thrill every woman he “services,” but the women who drool the most over him are all impaired or unappealing in some way. Horny Patty is unstable and prone to violent outbursts. Jemma (Episodes 5 to 8 ) is manipulative and vengeful. The beautiful yet vacuous Lenore borders on being repulsive with her arrogant, insensitive, mercenary ways and wanton materialist values.
The more incisive potential critique, however, rests upon Jessica’s position within the key opposition in the series: big dick versus big money. Both ends of the polarity are couched in terms of power. Lenore convinces Jessica to abandon the sale rack (figure 2) for high end clothing (figure 3).
When she witnesses Ronnie’s displeasure with the exorbitant costs, Lenore convinces Jessica to shout, “I have the power.” When Jessica says that Ronnie was not “inside her” at all the previous week, Lenore tells her she needs her “pussy” charged because if “the battery dies, you become weak.” But Jessica who left Ray for Ronnie is not empowered in either relationship: “Once I get what want, I forget why I really wanted it.” Both ends of the poles–big penis and big spender–are inadequate sources of power for Jessica and she is paralyzed between them; disillusioned instead of fulfilled.
Jessica’s entrapment implicitly reveals that both big penises for sexual satisfaction and capitalist consumerism are ideological constructions providing a pleasure that is ultimately hollow and ungratifying. Ray actually conflates his penis with the “American way,” a phrase also strongly linked to capitalism. Dominant sexual ideology can create a desire in women for big penises just like capitalist ideology can create a desire for an endless stream of products they don’t need. As sources of pleasure and fulfillment, the “charge” from the big penis may be just as fleeting and meaningless as “charging” stuff at the shopping mall. Indeed, Hung furthers this critique by making Ray and Jessica’s own children, who are appealing characters, reject both worlds that their parents inhabit. As Goths the kids shun materialist America, and as people who seem comfortable with their considerably overweight bodies they reject the body culture that their hung, jock father and beauty queen mother represent.
The series ends with Ray smugly and cluelessly celebrating how lucky he is to have a “dick and a dream” – the great American way, even as that dream is falling apart around him. But a new contradictory dichotomy also emerges as an apparent premise for the second season. To Tanya’s dismay, Lenore becomes a partner in Happiness Consultants bringing a business sense to Ray’s big dick and Tanya’s “strong sense of ethics.” The soulful brainy Tanya will compete with the unscrupulous beauty Lenore for the control of Ray’s product (figure 4).
The last thing we see is Tanya reading a self-help book on empowerment that she uses to kill a fly — her previous symbol of defeat. She then looks into the camera. Who will determine the ultimate meaning and value of the big dick? On the one hand, women seem to be vying for control of Ray’s big dick but, on the other hand, in doing so they demonstrate the powerful impact their contact with it has upon their lives. And Hollywood loves a good catfight.
1. Sneaky Ray
2. “Horny Patty”
3. The Sale Rack
4. High End Clothing
5. Jessica and Lenore fight for control of Ray’s “product”
Please feel free to comment.
- Lehman, Peter and Susan Hunt, “Hanging by a Thread.” Flow, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2009), flowjournal.org, Department of Radio, Television, and Film, University of Texas at Austin. [↩]
- Lehman, Peter and Susan Hunt, “Still Hanging.” Flow, Vol. 10, No. 6 (2009), flowjournal.org, Department of Radio, Television, and Film, University of Texas at Austin. [↩]
- Lehman, Peter and Susan Hunt. Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains, and Body Guys. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, forthcoming 2010). [↩]
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Dear Susan and Peter,
Thanks again for this interesting, insightful and real-time analysis of Hung, which I think you rightly point out is far more interesting at times for its contradictions than what it offers at the outset.
I wonder what (and if) the economic recovery (if it occurs) will affect the overall way that the story is told, and whether the second season arc will promise more of the same or perhaps something different.
Perhaps the subject of another series of columns?
Great stuff. Enjoy the read immensely.
Regarding the way the male “body guy” genre works in Hung, I cannot help but ask myself if a place like Detroit, with its blue-collar focus and manufacturing background is the only type of place this genre can work. While the appeal of the male penis might be somewhat universal (I am certain even wealthy Connecticut housewives would find themselves under Ray’s spell), how would this show be different either in a wealthier setting, or in a burgeoning economy, where service and high-paying technical jobs have risen anew? These economies favor beta-males, making them the new alpha males. Could Hung work if Ray was a nerdy, Bill Gates-like character?
The short answer is a “no” – there is still a distinctly American value on core physical strength – the notion that you have to be strong enough to pull yourself up by the bootstraps you’re so encouraged to use. This ties to sexual strength and virility – in a way, it remains, in an American economy defined by service employment, the last stand of the American working class. While the nerdy middle manager can take care of the female economically, only the “man’s man” can satisfy her most animal desires.
The future of Hung depends on an environment that privileges the American dream, the alpha male needing to make it on his own. As the American economy gradually improves in the wake of the recession, the use of Ray’s penis as his only source of income will become increasingly hard to fathom, and his need to seize back control of his own fate from the upper class will subside.