“You Can be Dead but You’re Never Really Dead:” Six Feet, Six Inches Under

Six Feet Under Promotional Image

Promotional Image from the First Season of Six Feet Under

We began our first column, “Californication:  Trouble in Body Guy Paradise” (Flow Vol. 9, No. 4) by identifying a new body guy hero in the movies and relating him to the anti-intellectual American body culture that grew out of the 1980s and 90s.  Not surprisingly, many television shows have engaged these same issues, and a similar body guy hero emerged during this time period.  Some TV shows like House and Medium are totally focused on mind/body issues while offering variants on the usual body guy heroes.   The brilliant, sexy Dr. House, with his limp and cane screaming out for a Freudian reading, sums it all up:  his bodily deficiency is tied to his genius—he’d trade it all in a minute to be a normal “body guy.”   In Medium, the gifted psychic of the title does her best “work” (so to speak) while sleeping.  Alison Dubois’s psychic visions come to her in her dreams, saving her the trouble of having to go to law school for example or work hard at being a detective like her colleague in the D.A.’s office, Detective Lee Scanlon.  These shows help lay bare our culture’s struggle to grant intelligence and the work of the mind a prominent and sexy place within the larger scheme of things.  Indeed, it is perhaps revealing that it is a beautiful woman (Patricia Arquette playing real life “psychic” Alison Dubois) who gets the visions; Lee Scanlon is out there working like a man.

Still from Six Feet Under

Jack and Sawyer from Lost

And indeed TV has its share of conventional body guy heroes, some of whom are pared against a mind guy ala the classic film genre paradigm. Lost pits Sawyer, a classic body guy outsider figure, against Jack Shephard, a classic doctor as body guy hero, in the fight for the love of a woman. (Doctors can gain body guy status because their profession literally involves bodies and “hands on” work—frequently surgery). Grey’s Anatomy has another classic doctor as body guy in Derek Shepherd, aka “McDreamy” who wins Meredith Grey’s love from a nerdy doctor.  He establishes his skills as a gifted lover in the pilot episode before either he or Grey know who the other is. Some shows, while being less overtly sexual, recapitulate the basic paradigm:  Prison Break contrasts the body guy criminal Lincoln Burrows with his sensitive, brilliant architect brother Michael Scofield. Battlestar Galactica has a conventional body guy hero in Lee Adama and a mind guy in Baltar, a very unusual figure in regards to sexuality issues.  Due in part to the narrative complexity of many episodes over several seasons, some of these TV shows create quite complex variations on the rather fixed, stable relationships in terms of sexuality and attractiveness of the mind guy-body guy dichotomy found in cinema.

Within this context we now examine the first two episodes of Six Feet Under (2001), suggesting how it lays out the dynamics of the series within some of the above parameters, much like we argued the opening two episodes of Californication did for that series.  The title Six Feet Under suggests a show about the body — the dead body.  And indeed it delivers on that promise but it also integrates the funeral home setting into its observations about life in 21st century American body culture of the living kind. And this is not unqualified good news for the body guy and his legendary penis.  Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) is a classic body guy in every regard.  He has rugged good looks and is a non-conformist living on the outskirts of society.  He dresses in jeans and has the scruffy looks of a working class man.   Rather than take his place in the family business, he “irresponsibly” leaves home and joins a counterculture.  His brother David (Michael C. Hall) becomes a mortician and works in the family business; he dresses in suits and has a prim and proper appearance (figure 1).

Still from Six Feet Under

Figure 1: Nate and David Fisher

The pilot begins with Nate’s return to Los Angeles for a family visit. We are introduced to Nate as he deplanes and says goodbye to Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), a traveler with whom he has struck up a conversation.  She is of course immediately sexually attracted to him as women are to body guys—she can tell that he would be a great fuck.  Minutes later we see them engaged in highly athletic, pounding intercourse on a counter in a janitor’s closet in the airport (figure 2).  This kind of pound, pound, pound sex that we call pound cubed in our forthcoming book, Body Guys in the Movies: Unmaking Love and Remaking Your Life is classic body guy sex.  The body guy sex style is penile and penetration-centered and body guys always perform above par, even when they are doing it with a new partner for the first time and in extraordinary circumstances. The context for this stellar sexual performance is as follows:  Nate and Brenda, who hardly know each other, have first time sex in a public place that is cramped and physically uncomfortable while in danger of being discovered by airport personnel and under the pressure of knowing that family members are late in coming to pick Nate up.  In this almost absurd setting, Brenda commands, “Shut up and fuck me,” then moans in pleasure as Nate does so and adds approvingly how “very good” he perfectly performs in the most imperfect of situations.  The very definition of the body guy and his magical penis!  Needless to say, Brenda is suitably impressed with Nate and pursues a relationship with him.

Still from Six Feet Under

Figure 2: Nate and Brenda having sex at the airport.

In the second episode Nate is sent to a pick up a body in a nursing home.  He lifts the head and another mortician takes the feet as they move the corpse from a bed to a gurney.  In the process, the man’s bed clothing opens, revealing an erection.  Nate is shocked and comments on it.  His helper, with a bemused look in his face, replies, “You can be dead but you’re never really dead.”   With the corpse in his hearse, Nate calls Brenda and meets her for coffee.  After hearing him relate the incident about the erection, she remarks in an erotically playful manner, “I don’t meet that many men with dead guys with hard-ons in their cars.”

Both the mortician and Brenda make light of the incident in a sexual manner, the former suggesting it gives mysterious life to a dead man and Brenda suggesting it is kinky and turns her on.  But the series suggests something else.  Wishful thinking to the contrary, when a man is dead, he is dead, and his penis is dead and useless — even if he was a body guy with that oh so impressive penis.  It did nothing to save him; it was powerless and this last gasp of spectacle and display does not point to the power of the penis/phallus to defy death and somehow live on but, rather, proves hollow and empty in its path.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall.  At the end of the series, Nate, the body guy, will be dead – really dead – in the prime of life due to a genetic deformity in his brain causing a stroke.  No one will think it is funny or sexy.  If episode one establishes the body guy in all his glory, episode two poses the shadow of death that awaits Nate over the course of the series, and this tension is played out over all five seasons.  There is something desperate in clinging on to a dead man’s erection as proof of anything, but as Peter Lehman has shown elsewhere, movies have in recent years become fascinated with images of the penis in death. Six Feet Under makes clear that at one and the same time this fascination is contradictory—on the one hand, it celebrates the seemingly impressive spectacle of the penis even in death, while on the other hand it reveals that no matter how “impressive” that display may be, it is utterly useless and powerless. The message to men is, “You, and your penis, really are dead.”

Image Credits:

1. Promotional Image from the First Season of Six Feet Under
2. Jack and Sawyer from Lost
3. Figure 1: Nate and David Fisher- Author Screenshot
4. Figure 2: Nate and Brenda having sex at the airport – Author Screenshot

Please feel free to comment.


  • Thanks to Peter and Susan for another interesting column.

    I’m especially interested in the juxtapositions of sex and death in the context of HBO. It brings to mind one of HBO’s latest offerings in True Blood which is also based around death, in this case in the form of the vampire, but is equally obsessed with sex. On the one hand, the insertion of sex can often seem gratuitious, simply present because it can be on HBO. Yet when presented alongside your analysis of the body guy, the excessive presentation of sex in context of the Vampire on True Blood may take on new meanings as a kind of reversal of Six Feet Under’s dead penis. True Blood may offer a way in which the man, but especically the man’s penis, need not really be dead. As Six Feet Under integrated the body guy and the dead guy in the final episodes with Nate’s death, True Blood is founded around that integration.

  • Interesting point, Mabel. Undead intercourse in *True Blood* is positioned as the utmost in sexual fulfillment…and the series’ “straightforward” body guy, Jason Stackhouse, is made all the more virile and sexually fit when he drinks “V” (vampire blood). Indeed, vampiric sex has long been portrayed along similar lines – the vampire either has centuries of experience and/or perfected physiques, senses, etc. that lead to sexual experiences of various outrageous ecstasies.

    But what do we make of the “non-body-guy-ness” of most of the vampires on *True Blood*? Or vampires in general — often portrayed as feminine or queer and thus up to something very different with their erect members?

  • I find shows focused on bodies/minds while incorporating a body guy that is sexually attractive to powerful women uniquely entertaining and popular. For example, in the hit T.V. show House mentioned earlier, House is portrayed as a body man, who’s mind is unavoidably attractive to beautiful doctors like Cameron. However, in this instance, the reason House is so attractive, also saves lives, making his body-man-ness useful and attractive. I find it interesting that this show was mentioned in the same context as Six Feet Under, where Nate’s attractiveness and sexual prowess is seemingly useless and ultimately unimportant in the long run. It is apparent that sex and the dead human body can stir curiosity and make television shows controversial and popular simultaneously.

  • This theory of sexuality through the male perspective reminds me of the ideas of Laura Mulvey’s The Gaze except with the male character. The idea of voyeurism is apparent because we see how many of lead male characters have that attraction because they are playing the typical male hero figure. The idea of fetishism is apparent within Six Feet Under because it brings up the sexual implications of dead people and that in turn, turns on the character of Brenda even more. Both these ideas appeal to Six Feet Under because the show uses the masculine hero as the main subject of the show in order to create that to-be-looked-at-ness quality as opposed to a female lead such as Marilyn Monroe and how she was the subject of voyeurism while singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Overall the both voyeurism and fetishism heavily relate to Six Feet Under and other shows that rely on the masculine heroes as sex objects.

  • Michelle Medina

    The article “You Can be Dead but You’re Never Really Dead” explore the idea of sexuality through television. Men are usually portrayed as attractive if they are in shape and have a good job such as a doctor or a lawyer. Men do not always have to have a good job, in some shows like “True Blood” the man is seen as more attractive once he drinks blood (vampire blood of course). Men get a powerful image of how to be attractive through television. The images can be controversial but seem to be very powerful in this era.

  • In this article, it was interesting to connect the turn around of the “Male Gaze” concept of how males view females as objects to the male being the object in the scenes. The body guy hero represents the ideal good looking and heroic guy that the media suggests and rather reinforces all woman to want. In the same time convincing the idea upon men to be this body guy hero as it has rewards with attracting woman, as seen apparent through most shows.
    A shift in idea has been somewhat made in moving away from just good looks to the mind and intelligence of the male as being the greater attractive factor. Such cases in House , Dr. House is a brilliant man but is not entirely a physical magnet to some woman. Keep in mind the media will almost always display attractive cast members for rating reasons, his limb reveals a physical defect and represents the non-good looking male. But yet, the mind leans forward over the body to win the race in the show. His mind becomes the attractive factor as it’s a life saving matter and making him a different body hero guy.

  • It was interesting to see the connection between the contemporary body guy hero and its effect on hit television programs. In this particular episode of Six Feet Under for example Nate in his stereotypical fashion, of course, “hits it off” with Brenda at the airport and then continues to show us how playing this archetype guides most of the program. It was also interesting to see the connection between death and the penis and how this has been gaining notability in the movie business lately. In the show House, the main character plays a similar role. Although slightly crippled, but saving lives at the same time allows House a sort of leniency to act in that body guy hero type role and without that much consequence.

  • The article discusses gender roles in television, specifically male roles. The idea of the body guy hero is an interesting one. They are most likely the men who seek out women as objects instead of as subjects. The article flips the notion of the male gaze upside down. The example from Six Feet Under of Nate as an object in Rachel Griffith’s eyes helps to illustrate this well. The way she basically demands for him to have sex with her is quite different then most television shows that would put the lead woman (Rachel Griffith’s Brenda) as the object Nate is trying to contain. Brenda is very much the opposite of the contained female so often displayed on Television. Another example of this would be Kate on Lost who is very much in charge of her own decisions in the love triangle between Jack and Sawyer. She is in no way contained. But her character falls back into the male gaze theory by relying on Jack to make the overall decisions for the group. She must always rely on his help and knowledge in the hopes of getting rescued.
    It is interesting that both shows used as examples have two male characters that are opposite heroes. I have noticed a lot of shows that use these two opposite archetypes: Prison Break, and most medical dramas. They provide a way to examine what our society holds as the most attractive or sexy, but it seems television works to create this instead of television representing what society holds to be true. It is the ongoing question or dilemma: does television reflect society or does society reflect television? Does our society hold the body guy of highest importance or is the mind guy our hero?

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