Californication: Trouble in Body Guy Paradise
Peter Lehman / Arizona State University & Susan Hunt / Santa Monica College
In our forthcoming book, Body Guys in the Movies: Unmaking Love and Remaking Your Life we identify an important, pervasive narrative paradigm of the American and international cinema of the last three decades in which a body guy closely associated with the land or blue collar work awakens sexual desire in a woman married or engaged to an upper-class, highly educated professional man. To name just a few: 1988’s Two Moon Junction (written and directed by Zalman King) jump-starts the genre followed by Henry & June (1990), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), The Piano (1993), Legends of the Fall (1994), I.Q. (1994), Bridges of Madison County (1995), Antonia’s Line (1995), Box of Moonlight (1996), Lawn Dogs (1997), Titanic (1997), The Horse Whisperer (1998), The End of the Affair (1999), Fight Club (1999), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), The Notebook (2004), Asylum (2005), Fur (2006), and Lady Chatterley (2007). There has been at least one significant body guy film released per year for the last twenty years. Nevertheless the paradigm has gone unnoticed by film critics so not surprisingly its TV counterpart has also escaped critical notice. In Body Guys in the Movies, we link the rise of the “body guy” genre to the development of a new intense body culture taking place in America and many other parts of the world during the 80s and 90s and continuing into the new millennium and argue it is significant for two related reasons. The body culture and the genre are tied to an overvaluation of a certain kind of masculinity, male body, and male sexual performance and a simultaneous anti-intellectual, devaluation of the world of the mind and the intellect, which has a unique intensity within American culture and history.
In this battle between the big penis and the big brain, the magical, “big dick” wins handily and it is within this context that we turn to television and the Internet for our 3 short essays for Flow. We begin with the current Showtime hit series, Californication starring and executive-produced by David Duchovny who brings extra street cred to the role ala his association with Zalman King, one of the most prominent figures in the development of the body guy film genre and the creator and executive producer of the wildly successful TV series The Red Shoe Diaries starring Duchovny. The first two episodes of season 1 of Californication lay out the premise of the series in a manner that concisely encapsulates key issues of the body guy genre and its crisis at this particular moment in time. Hank (David Duchovny) epitomizes the writer as body guy, a variation of the man close to the land and blue-collar worker which includes Henry Miller in Henry and June and the Ralph Fiennes character in End of the Affair as well as related artist figures such as the Leonardo DiCaprio character in Titanic.
In keeping with the conventions of the body guy we are introduced to Hank as he is having sex. His performance is so remarkable that afterwards his partner remarks that she never has orgasms with her husband. Throughout the first two episodes, sex is everywhere for Hank since in keeping with the conventions of the genre he is not only better at it than other men, but women know it in an instant. He sleeps with the wife of the film director who adapted his novel. He goes to a book signing where he picks up a young woman and immediately we see them having sex. The same thing happens with a woman who simply pulls up next to him at a red light and tosses her phone number into his car or another whom he spots in a bar or even one whom he inadvertently offends at a dinner party. He exudes sex and sexual competence. When a friend asks Karen, Hank’s ex, about her current love life, we hear the following exchange: “And the sex with Bill? Is it good?” Karen dissembles with hesitation and lack of enthusiasm, “Yeah, it’s different, you know.” Episodes of Californication are only 30 minutes long but by the end of the first two we have seen him in sexual situations with 5 women. That averages out to a different woman every 12 minutes!
But all is not what it seems to be. There is trouble in body guy paradise. Karen, Hank’s longtime girlfriend and mother of his child, has left him and moved in with another man, almost unimaginable in the classic paradigm where the woman is frequently left longing for the body guy she has lost. Here Hank does the longing. And Mia, the young woman he picks up at the book signing, suddenly inexplicably punches him twice in the face as she rides him in the woman on top position and then interrupts their sex (figures 1 and 2). He later learns that she is only 16 years old and that she is the daughter of the man Karen is engaged to marry. Later in the first season he even learns that he did not seduce Mia; she seduced him!
The image of Mia punching him has a later rhyme when Hank makes love after dinner with the woman he offended. He is behind her in the doggie position and when she thrusts backward, she knocks him over and as he falls off the bed, he knocks a painting off the wall that topples down with him (figures 3 and 4). This image is a perfect metaphor for Hank’s sexuality in the series: he is the body guy thrown off balance by a changing world of sexuality which, despite his apparent success attracting women and performing, he does not understand and cannot master. Within the first two episodes of the series that world is characterized by 3 things: an opposition between L.A.(the body culture) and New York (the intellectual culture); a generational shift including a shift from books to blogging (much is made of Hank’s age); and a sexual shift where experienced, aggressive women act on their sexual desires rather than wait to have them ignited by the special powers of a gifted man (women pick him up, punch him, and fuck him out of bed).
Californication, like several recent films such as 9 Songs (2004) and Lie with Me (2005) point to a pivotal moment in the transformation of the body guy genre: he no longer awakens the woman’s sexuality and rescues her from a stifling relationship with a mind guy. Indeed he finds himself in a world with experienced women on the prowl who know just what they want (thank you very much) and have high performance expectations, tossing men aside who do not live up to those standards or when they are done with them. Whereas women once mourned the loss of the body guys men like Hank and the male lover in 9 Songs now romantically pine for their lost loves who have left them. Still the body guy and his magical penis and sexual performance retain their potency but the narrative no longer grants him the power to educate women about that. So once again, the more things change the more they stay the same. These women know what they want and it just happens to be what men have always wanted to give them.
1. Figure 1: Mia Punches Hank during Sex in Californication– Author Screenshot
2. Figure 2: David Duchovny as Hank in Californication– Author Screenshot
3. Figure 3: Hank in the Act- Author Screenshot
4. Figure 4: Figure 4: Hank Thrown off Balance – Author Screenshot
Please feel free to comment.
Very interesting column. I’m especially interested in the connections between masculinity and femininty/feminism and how they work to construct/contain one another.
Looking forward to the rest of your columns.
The affair between the Eva Longoria character and her hunky, younger gardener on Desperate Housewives is another example which would seem to bear out some aspects of your argument (particularly the Body Man as someone who longs, rather than is longer for). Is the Body Man a relative of the gardener in Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Looking forward to seeing the book when it comes out!
In our book, we trace the origins of the body guy to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We analyze Lawrence’s novel in detail in our first chapter and Pascal Ferran’s film Lady Chatterley in the last chapter. Throughout, we emphasize that the differing historical time periods inflect the gamekeeper/ gardener/man of the earth figure quite differently in the early and late 20th century and now in the first decade of the 21st century.
While I don’t disagree with the fact that Hank is a “body guy” isn’t he some what both mind and body? He is very intelligent and witty. He’s a writer. And while he now lives in LA, he clearly doesn’t think much of his surroundings, he prefers it in New York with the “intellectuals”. He’s also smart enough to realize that there is a different breed of women out there, ones he can’t just get with his magical penis. That’s why he is so desperate to get back with his ex. Hank is much more nuanced and layered than some one like Orlando Bloom in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.
I enjoyed your article but disagree with you on several points.
I think your concept of the “body guy” is irrelevant, especially given the examples you provided. What most movies you cited were all about was not so much the blue-collar/sexy-farmer fantasy but much more an issue about class. Of course, the stereotypical upper woman is in all those movies attracted by the “manual” man, but you oversimplify their desire when you talk about the opposition between “big brain” and “big penis”. Hence, the male characters that you call “body guy” are usually sensitive, genuinely clever guys, that always seem to be better, nicer and smarter than their upper-class rivals. The example of Titanic is a case in point. Far from being only bodies, those romantical characters are often here to teach the girl in question to open her eyes to people outside their class. More than a brain/penis confrontation those movies usually depict an lower/upper class one. It is too easy to think of blue collar male as the “hot” ones while the more educated, richer, white collar guys are inevitably the smart ones : most movies don’t make that mistake. ( Watch The Notebook, Fight Club or Legends of the Fall to understand my point better).
I also believe that the type of character that Hank Moody represents, ones that have great success with women but in the same time feel overpowered by them, are anything but new. Those archetypes can be found in Freud theories and in many many movies and TV show, and seeing Californication as an innovation in that matter is to me a mistake.
I found this article very interesting and refreshing.
Many times topics about how women’s bodies are represented in media are discussed but by taking on a different approach about how men’s bodies are viewed is just as intriguing. However, they end up relating back to each other since, even in Californication where a new sense of sexuality is represented, the woman is still the object. I did enjoy reading about the different types of male bodies and how Hank fits into the artist category.
Nevertheless, it makes me sad that a show like Californication, on a network like HBO where they have the opportunity to go more extreme than anybody else on television, still stoops to fit into the ideology that women are only objects to be looked at. Even a twist like a woman literally punching a guy in the face doesn’t break the barrier. Now I know that a show like Sex and the City does occasionally challenge that hegemony but there are just too many other aspects of the show ( the fashion, which sex scenario will Samantha end up in next?) that still bring the viewer’s gaze back to a woman’s body, for me to be pleased with it. Ultimately, I think the article is right in saying women are still put in their place by representing a man’s fantasy of conquering the vixen character, and I hoped for more.
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