HBO has pushed the envelope ever since it started airing programming. Many have embraced innovative shows such as “Six Feet Under,” “OZ,” “The Sopranos,” “Big Love” and “True Blood.” HBO’s latest offering, “Hung,” has many people whispering and wondering, as it explores the life of a divorced father turned male escort. Mirroring the real life experience of many sex workers, Ray Drecker, played by Thomas Jane, decides to sell his body after his world and his finances come tumbling down.
Ray finds himself living in a tent after his family home is destroyed in a fire. In a moment of desperation, he attends a business seminar where he is encouraged to think about what special talent or specific skill set he could offer the world. In what is presented as a revelation, though hardly surprising to any female viewer, Ray decides that his big penis is his one true gift. Wow, imagine the originality that it must take just to think about a penis — living in a world that is decidedly patriarchal and filled with phallic images.
In what is probably the show’s only creative twist, Ray forms a relationship with a woman who ultimately functions as his pimp for a percentage of his earnings. Gender dynamics do not often result in a woman exploiting a man’s sexuality and/or body for financial gain. Madams are not new to pop culture, but when they do appear in our discourse, it is often while in the role of pimping out young, conventionally attractive women to men of class privilege. Tanya, played by Jane Adams, not only seeks to profit from Ray’s large member, she also acts as his wise sage, demystifying womanhood for him.
Such is the Yoda-like quality of Tanya. Despite the fact that there is no monolithic woman, she is able to explain to Ray what each one of his clients wants from him. To be successful, Ray has to learn to combine his large penis with a supposedly female-centric fantasy. As you can see, challenging gender stereotypes ends when it comes to sex, because all heterosexual women supposedly want the illusion of romance and caring (as well as a large penis). Even though these clients are paying for sex, the idea that a woman cannot have unfettered, no-strings-attached intercourse must still be perpetuated in order to retain a gender binary.
Ray’s power resides in his large penis and his ability to have uncomplicated sex without forming any lasting attachments. The show starts with the premise of being subversive because even though prostitution is practiced by both sexes, it is still largely viewed as something engaged in solely by women. The fact that Ray has yet to engage in sex with men, who form the largest percentage of johns, is quite telling. Ray must retain his masculinity in order to keep the audience watching. To have him submit sexually to another man for the purposes of earning money would, for many viewers, prove problematic.
Ray tells his teenage son that he is fine with homosexuality after discovering that he likes to wear nail polish, yet his personal discomfort with the idea is very clear. Despite being in clearly strained financial circumstances, there isn’t any discussion of the possibility of Ray having homosexual sex. Ray seeks to earn money while affirming his own heterosexist masculinity. For him, pleasing women sexually is an affirmation of his prowess as a man, thereby once again defining sex as something that men do to women, rather than as a consensual act which two autonomous beings engage in together.
Unlike the way that female prostitutes are often portrayed by the media, Ray is not waiting for a princess in petticoats to save him from the horror that is his life (see “Pretty Woman” and “Milk Money”), nor is he constructed as a being filled with self-loathing. Such a self-assured sex worker could never be played by a female character because we understand all female sex workers to be either helpless victims or greedy sluts. They are not portrayed as sympathetic or redeemable because we have become invested socially in the concept of the Madonna/Whore complex, allowing men to control our sexual discourse to their advantage. Ray can be a male sex worker, performing paid erotic services for women, and still retain his dignity because men are never shamed for being sexual.
“Hung” is aptly named because it is about the ways in which a penis entitles one to exist as a person of agency even in situations that are understood to be “othering.” We don’t need to invest ourselves in the relationship with his children, his career, or his terrible living conditions because all we really need to know about Ray are the impressive proportions of his penis. “Hung,” like much of pop culture, is a celebration of the supposed glory found exclusively in the phallus. Been there, done that, nothing new to see here, folks.