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The Penises in Minx vs. Pam & Tommy: A Tale of Two Gazes

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Debuting on Feb. 2, Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, about the theft of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape (and their love story that led up to it), seemed poised to be the most salacious show on TV this year for almost too many reasons to count. The fact that the real Pamela Anderson wanted nothing to do with the show made it impossible not to view the series as inherently exploitative, rehashing a story about someone who seems not to want their story re-told. The fact that Lee and Anderson’s real-life relationship ended in domestic abuse didn’t make it any easier to stomach the romantic retelling of their love. And then: there was the show’s penis obsession, from porn shoots to Tommy Lee’s much-discussed animatronic penis voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. Pam & Tommy isn’t the only recent show to dabble in full-frontal male nudity (Euphoria and And Just Like That definitely went there too), but it wasn’t until I saw HBO Max’s Minx and their perspective on showing penises that I realized why Pam & Tommy felt so empty and icky at its core, even with far less nudity than Minx. Where Pam & Tommy stubbornly upholds the male gaze of the system it claims to decry, the one that slut-shamed Anderson and cheered on Lee when their tape was first stolen and leaked in the 1990s, Minx genuinely, methodically subverts it.

It helps that, from the start, Minx is primarily concerned with the agency and pleasure of women (in a way that a show like Pam & Tommy, specifically about a woman’s humiliation and misery, could never be). The set up: struggling journalist Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond) tries and fails to pitch her feminist magazine (working title: The Matriarchy Awakens) at an industry fair when she is approached by porn mag proprietor Doug (Jake Johnson, oozing charisma, as per usual) who proposes that she couch her feminist rants in male centerfolds. Despite espousing feminist ideals in the age of free love, Joyce is prudish at her core and initially balks at Doug’s offer. When she eventually takes him up on it, Minx is born.

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Jake Johnson, Ophelia Lovibond in ‘Minx’ Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max.

Their first step is choosing a centerfold: And thus, the parade of penises begins. Model after model comes in to try out, and with them, we see penises march across the screen. Despite their nudity, no one at the casting call is viewed through a particularly sexualized lens —  in fact, I would argue that they’re treated as unseriously as possible, with one model even doing the “helicopter” to prove it (if you’re going to google it, please know it’s NSFW). Between the show’s casual, unceremonious approach to showing this body part and the sheer number of penises shown on screen, Minx engages in a kind of penis immersion therapy — and it works.

In what functions as a topic sentence for Minx, Joyce exclaims about the magazine: “Our penis is for political purposes. It’s about shifting power dynamics, and gender reparations.”

I’m loath to call the way the Minx handles male nudity a “female gaze” — a gender-essentialist alternative that ignores the fact that there are more than two genders, and that a male centerfold appeals to more than just women. But the way Minx deals with nudity and consent feels new and different from the expectation that naked people, and especially naked women, are there to be ogled — while Pam & Tommy does nothing but reinforce that idea.

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Lily James in ‘Pam & Tommy’ HULU.

I have written about how Tommy Lee’s animatronic penis got more lines, interiority, and perspective than the character of Pamela Anderson (Lily James) does in the beginning of the limited series. And while the later episodes offer us plenty of feminist monologues from Pam about how she has spent her career as a sex object, the camera nonetheless ogles Lily James’ prosthetic Pamela Anderson body just as much as the viewers they show downloading her sex tape at home. Both Pam and Tommy’s prosthetic body parts are impressive, to be sure, but every time James’s breastplate was on screen, I couldn’t help but be skeeved out. The show tells a story of a couple traumatized by millions looking at their naked bodies without their consent: How can it be a reparative or empowering gesture to recreate those body parts and film them again, even if it shows much more of Lee’s body than Anderson’s?

Both Pam & Tommy and Minx markedly decide to show more male nudity than female nudity, and both show the most of it upfront — after the initial centerfold casting, there’s a significant dip in penises in the remaining episodes of Minx. There are some, just as there are naked women walking around the studios of the porn conglomerate that publishes Minx, and it’s almost never included without it being central to a storyline: our debut centerfold is a fireman being harassed on the street by women, playing back a role reversal of Joyce’s earlier harassment, or a model is styled after Michaelangelo’s David to sell the idea that, by taking David off the pedestal and putting him in the eye line of his admirers, “we’ve made it okay to look.”

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Jake Johnson in ‘Minx’ Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max.

Minx displays a better understanding of consent and nudity as a commodity throughout than Pam & Tommy, a show that presented itself as a spotlight on the violations endured by Anderson and wound up being another look at how sexy and wild and in love this couple was — almost daring you to wish you could see their sex tape too. In reality, the theft of Lee and Anderson’s tape spawned a whole cottage industry of leaked nudes and revenge porn that’s only gotten worse in the digital age, and Pam & Tommy could barely even bring itself to condemn that beyond Gauthier not getting his cut. Minx, due in part to the subject matter but also to the stylistic and narrative choices around showing nudity, makes the point that consent is important and that nudity doesn’t always have to be about sex — more importantly, that agreeing to nudity doesn’t translate to agreeing to be a sex object used however voyeurs may see fit. Pam & Tommy was perfectly poised to make that point with its subject matter, and seems to try to with Anderson’s later deposition scene, but the way its characters are sexualized throughout makes it impossible for that point to truly stick.

'Minx' on HBO Max $9.99

Minx is streaming now on HBO Max. 

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