You may have been puzzled this Monday morning on waking to see British actor Theo James trending on Twitter. Sure, season two of The White Lotus had premiered that day, but could he really have put in an Emmy-winning, zeitgeist-shifting performance in just one episode?
Well, no. While James’ performance is perfectly good, it is his penis that has got everyone talking. Or rather, not his penis. As far as everyone can tell, it’s a prosthetic.
The scene in question shows James’ genitals as he gets changed in the mirror behind a bemused Aubrey Plaza. It shocked viewers enough to get them tweeting, but not as much as it could have.
Because, in reality, we’ve probably already seen plenty of prosthetic penises already this year. The prop cock is in vogue, but why?
To begin with, it’s because so many of the penises we’ve been seeing on screen are erect. It’s a requirement, sometimes even a legal one, to use a prosthetic penis for any scenes where it needs to be seen as erect, because otherwise it is classified as porn.
“Let's be clear,” says Marci Liroff, an intimacy coordinator based in America, “the use of prosthetics is because in the US, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] requires by law that if we see an erect penis on screen, the production must use a prosthetic. Any time you see someone touch a penis, it is a prosthetic.”
Liroff adds, “Another reason a production uses a prosthetic is because it would be difficult for a performer to remain erect throughout a scene with the many camera angles that need to be shot.”
Earlier this year, we were shown the type of scene which would call for an erect prosthetic penis. The internet got itself all in a tither after Sex and the City spin-off And Just Like That revealed the penis of Charlotte’s husband, Harry Goldenblatt, during an intimate scene which saw them interrupted by their daughter Lily.
The (notably large) penis caused quite a stir, with showrunner Michael Patrick King having to later confirm it was a prosthetic to quell the furious gossiping.
They may have furious gossiping in common, but Theo James’ incident of flashing in The White Lotus, however, did not involve an erect penis. Neither did Eric Dane’s recent prosthetic penis scene in Euphoria, also on screens earlier this year, where he stumbled into the family home drunk and urinated on the floor.
However, this scene also required the use of a prosthetic because of the urine element — as Euphoria make-up department head Doniella Davy told Thrillist: “It's a tube running through the [prosthetic] penis itself, and it's being pumped out.” But Theo James had no erection and no urination, so what’s up?
It seems that prosthetics are increasingly being used to make actors more comforable during nude scenes, even when no “action” is required of the penis, as it were. I.e, it’s just there, being flaccid, à la Theo James in The White Lotus.
One of the most memorable recent examples of this is the flaccid penis seen on actor Adam Demos in Sex/Life, which instigated an worldwide-web-wide investigation into whether it was in fact real or not. A source confirmed to Newsweek that the large appendage was in fact a prosthetic, despite being flaccid in the scene.
And back in a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable interview in 2018, actor Matthew Rhys shared how he even got a say in the the size and shape of his prosthetic member for its appearance in HBO series Girls. Simply put: “A performer always has the option to request a prosthetic and there should be no shame involved in that,” Liroff says.
But Liroff’s view is more contentious than you might expect. Part of the reason everyone is so happy about all the prosthetic penis action we’ve been getting is because it brings on-screen nudity between men and women, which is historically weighted towards women, up to par — but does it, if the penis isn’t even real?
Many expressed their dismay on Twitter following James’ White Lotus scene, sharing how disappointed they would be if the penis was officially revealed to be a prosthetic. “Enough with the prosthetic dicks on television,” tweeted pop culture writer Evan Ross Katz. Another user replied to his tweet in agreement, commenting: “It’s so lame lol girls never wear fake boobs. The men should have to show real parts as well.”
This is the crux of the argument: actresses have had to endure full nude scenes for years, but only now we’re seeing penises on screen are people being offered a prosthetic replacment for their genitalia.
Enough with the prosthetic dicks on television.
— Ξvan Ross Katz (@evanrosskatz) October 31, 2022
Culture writer Christina Izzo famously described the prosthetic penis as a “cock-out cop-out,” explaining: “The reliance on prosthetic penises by male actors on TV, especially when their women counterparts are not afforded the same opportunity of bodily privacy or professional adaptability, means that any so-called progress is always going to be skin deep.”
But Liroff diagrees, indicating that actresses can reach equality in this sense by using a merkin (an artificial covering of hair for the pubic area, basically like a pubic wig) if they so choose. “For those with vulvas, some performers have requested a mirkin (a pubic wig) to avoid inadvertent exposure of the genitalia during nude or semi-nude scenes,” she says.
“The presence of the merkin protects the actor from inadvertently performing ‘full-frontal’ nudity which most studios/networks do not allow.” However, HBO is infamously not one of those networks, so showing penis or vagina is still on the table.
Whether we’ve reached nudity parity is up for debate — either way be prepared for the prosthetic penis to keep on coming.