Peter Lehman, Arizona State University and Susan Hunt, Santa Monica College
On July 26th, the fourth episode of Hung aired on HBO, and on July 30th Variety reported that the series was renewed for another season. The president of HBO claims the show has “broken into the popular culture in a way we haven’t seen in a while”1 Our “real time” analysis of the series continues from our previous Flow column, “Hanging by a Thread.” Our hero is still hanging, but the series’ ideological project seems to be weaving the thread into a rope. We have identified a new film genre in which male characters we call “body guys” outshine “mind guys” in the sexual and romantic arenas, and they do this with a special gift: a vigorous penile-centered sexual performance with a good-sized penis. The scenario has found its way to television, epitomized by Hung’s protagonist, Ray Drecker.
First a few preliminaries. We have no knowledge of forthcoming episodes or plans for the series. We may, therefore, be pleasantly surprised. Indeed, it is of special interest to us that Alexander Payne is one of the executive producers of Hung and that he directed the pilot. In our forthcoming book, Body Guys in the Movies: Unmaking Love and Remaking Your Life, we carefully analyze Sideways (2004), written and directed by Payne. We argue that the film creatively explores the world of the mind guy and language as an erotic alternative to the usual celebration of the body guy, the penis, and penetration-centered sex. Oddly, at this point Hung seems the polar opposite.
The series goes out of its way to foreground the recession and current economic crisis in the United States, and many critics have taken the bait. Indeed, recently MSNBC’s “Countdown” began a story on the recession’s impact on television with clips from Hung. Our research suggests, however, that the narrative structure, characterizations, and thematic obsessions at the center of Hung have been developing for nearly 30 years and are much more about gender politics than current economics. For the past 30 years, as women have moved into virtually every occupation and broken many glass ceilings, films have visually and dramatically asserted the one thing our culture says they do not and cannot have: the penis. We did not see the recession coming, but we clearly foresaw a show devoted to the glories of a well-hung man. The series is honestly titled: it is about the big penis, not the big recession which is little more than a gimmick enabling the show’s premise that might otherwise outrage people. We go straight to the outrage: the big penis, the nerdy mind guys, and the women who, once they encounter that penis, can’t forget it. We limit our observations to episodes 1-4, which is all we have seen as of this writing.
The big penis impresses in every episode culminating in the final scene of episode 4. In episode 2, Lenore, a former co-worker of Tanya’s, tests Ray as a gigolo before agreeing to recommend him to her wealthy business clients. He passes with flying colors.
Lenore is beautiful and experienced so her seal of approval carries extra weight. Lenore demands a vigorous sexual performance, and Ray remarks that it’s lucky he’s an athlete, making explicit the highly physical nature of the body guy’s sex style. Beginning with the pilot, the series is built upon the assumption that size matters, meaning bigger is better for all women. Not one woman thus far prefers average penises let alone the unimaginable – smaller penises. In the pilot, we learn that both Ray’s ex-wife, Jessica, and his “pimp,” Tanya, are impressed with his big penis, and in the second episode when Tanya tells Lenore that Ray is “well endowed,” she replies, “Terrific!’ Good cock is hard to find.” This reaches a remarkable apex in episode 4 with Molly, a middle-aged client who tells Tanya that it is very important to her that the man she pays for be large, not even medium, and she cringes at the possibility of a small penis. We learn that her husband is small and a very poor lover who demands sex from her every morning.
In her words, he doesn’t have the “equipment” or the “talent.” At the end of episode 4, Molly tells Ray that she can’t go through with their planned sex. Ray interests her to the point that she finally says, “ I wouldn’t mind just looking at your penis.” When Ray asks if she wants to see it, she reaffirms so by replying, “That would make me happy.” He stands before her and drops his pants, rendering her awestruck at the mere sight of it. She remarks, “Changed my mind. You’re nothing like my husband, are you?” Ray confidently replies, “I doubt we have much in common.” Molly equates a small penis with inadequate sexual ability and a large one with the promise of sexual fulfillment to which Ray chimes in with full support. Molly then immediately embraces sex with him and the scene cuts so a shot of Ray walking away from the encounter with a mission accomplished look; they were right.
A related pattern further amplifies that for all women in the series bigger is better. Once a woman has had sex with Ray and experienced his large penis, she can’t get over it, try as she will. At the beginning of episode 3 we learn that Lenore has misled Tanya. At first, Lenore refuses to pay for Ray’s service, leading Tanya to believe she didn’t enjoy the experience. By the end of the episode, however, she has come around and recommended Ray to her business clients, one of whom is Molly. Ray is so well-hung and performs so well that even the duplicitous Lenore falls under his spell, to the point where we learn that she even stole his underwear to keep as a memento. In a variation on this theme, at the end of episode 3, Ray’s neighbor’s wife, Yael, is sexually attracted to him the instant they first meet. She misinterprets a fortune cookie Ray gives her as a sign of his interest, and in episode 4 she eyes him again as if she somehow “knows” about his extraordinary endowment before actually seeing it.
The way in which these women can’t escape Ray’s powerful, lingering effect relates directly to how the series represents successful professional men, be they lawyers, dentists, or entrepreneurial seminar instructors. Every one of them is emasculated, nerdy, overly aggressive, self-deprecating, or cowardly, and each episode adds to this pattern. In episode 4, Tanya goes on a date with Floyd, her business seminar instructor.
The HBO episode guide tellingly describes the date as “depressing,” and indeed Floyd may be a successful teacher and businessman but predictably he is a failure as a suitor, blathering on about how he, of course, can’t compete with the other men for a beautiful woman like Tanya. When he takes Tanya home, Ray stands outside waiting to talk with her. Floyd immediately thinks Ray and Tanya are involved, and that he cannot possibly compete. He hurries back to his car even though Tanya has invited him into her home. This pattern repeats in episode 4 when the two men pass each other jogging and stop to talk.
Floyd tells Ray to stay away from Tanya because he is a quitter, then runs off as quickly as he can, fearing Ray’s response. Ray’s neighbors, the Koontzs, supply a variation on this theme; Yael’s instant lusting after Ray implies her lawyer husband has not been satisfying her sexually.
Women and the mind guys (the upper-middle class male professionals whose career success is associated with advanced formal education and mental acumen) become either cheerleaders or foils for the well-hung body guy, Ray. Without them he would be, well…just well-hung. But several contradictions complicate the series. The sex scene in episode 2 inadvertently reveals that Ray’s big penis and pounding sexual performance do not bring him pleasure in and of themselves. Indeed he later complains to Tanya that it was “never-ending work” and that Lenore was constantly telling him what to do. In this instance, he is disempowered since his female pimp Tanya sets up the encounter with a woman she knows from a previous job and it is part of her business plan. In effect, Tanya is in the male position of the pimp. Lenore is likewise in the position of a traditional john, even telling Ray she is like a man, then ordering him to do exactly what she wants. Ray even has to report back to Tanya. The entire sequence of events makes clear that the veneration of the big penis and the highly athletic sexual performance centered upon it are integrally tied to power dynamics. If Ray does not control those dynamics his pleasure turns to never ending work.
And what about the women who limit their desire to and define their pleasure around such a penis and fixed notion of a good sexual performance? In episode 4, Tanya berates Ray for initially rejecting Molly since he is put off by her middle-aged, conventionally over-weight, unattractive body. Tanya tells Ray that he has a “pea-sized brain.” The series has been guilty of thus far portraying all the mind guys as unattractive but here Tanya characterizes the body guy’s mind that way and specifically in size terms like those used to venerate his penis: bigger is better. The normal insult within the genre is a term like “teenie weenie dick,” which Molly uses to express contempt for small penises. Now Tanya expresses momentary contempt for Ray’s small brain, as if that is much more significant than his big penis. Will the series explore these contradictions and untie or even cut the rope it is weaving from the thread? It is hard for us to see how it can at this point but… (to be continued).
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- Schneider, Michael. 2009. “HBO Announces Series Pickups.” Variety.com, July 30. [↩]