A woman looks at a man’s penis and faints. That would be a glib way of describing what is undoubtedly my moment of the year in long-form television. But it’s so much more than that. It seems to contravene and subvert all that we’ve been told could be shown in popular audio-visual media. It is a man who is the subject of the three looks Laura Mulvey describes in her famous ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The parts of his body are not fetishized – the penis does not function as a phallus but as a penis and as a reminder of sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the woman looking — the male’s sexuality is not displaced but put at the forefront, the male can be the subject as well as the bearer of the look; though, as he does here, he might faint as it happens.
That moment in the fifth episode of Sense8, ‘Art is Like Religion’, seems to me to be both revolutionary and typical in a way that indicates a paradigm shift: after all the space-time continuum did not unravel, no coronaries were reported, it caused no more of a stir online than the usual lustful longings expressed in social media in relation to whatever semi-clothed pin-ups happen to be the flavour of the month . Male nudity on TV has become so commonplace that a headline of an article in Vulture by Maria Elena Fernandez tries to answer the question: ‘Why Full-Frontal Male Nudity was all over TV in 2015’.
As you can see in the clip above, the woman, Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae), is beautiful and fully clothed (and in India); the man, Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt), is naked, powerful, handsome (and in Berlin). They are, along with others, psychically connected. More than that, there’s clearly a sexual frisson between them. What interests me here though is that the whole scene is inflected with melodrama. She is about to get married to man who’s rich but whom she doesn’t love. Her parents have been very happy in their marriage, which was arranged, and see this as a love match. Traditionally, when a minister asks the congregation whether there is any lawful impediment to the wedding taking place; the accent has been on the law (i.e that one of them is previously married or contracted, that they are not who they say etc.), a lack of love has not in itself been seen as an impediment; sentiment has been secondary.
But here, as in all moments of high melodrama, what’s at stake is desire and the social structures that prohibit its fulfilment. As she takes the final of seven circles with her husband-to-be that will finalise the Hindu wedding, the sight of Wolfgang’s penis, disturbing as it is for her, is troubling not only because even in its fragile state it hints at a rollicking good time in bed but because it’s a reminder of her lack. But her lack here is presented not as a penis or as a phallus but as a life without love. And I think it’s that combination of melodrama – the wedding is stopped, she falls, the whole of her community rises up at the ceremony in shock and bewilderment at what’s happening—and a sly camp timing – the rhythm with which her eyes gaze down and the timing of the sudden cut to her fainting – that undercut whatever might have shocked: it’s moving, and funny; and making it so means that it’s not about cock, or mere fucking, or even the phallus as symbol of patriarchal power – it renders it about love and it’s lack; of a connection so strong that he also faints at the thought.
But let’s look at that again with a bit more context as to what precedes it. You can see that the scene as I’ve selected it above begins with Kala Dandeker (Tina Desae) entering the wedding ceremony with that nice husband-to-be of hers that she doesn’t love. The scene keeps intercutting between her face and the body of Wolfgang Godanow (Max Riemelt) and seems to cut first onto his body and then making sure that he doesn’t remain just a body by recurrently following that with shots of his face. She’s pictured surrounded by structures, strictures, traditions, all that community represents; all the powers society has to forbid, repress, deny, and damp-down individual desire. He’s alone, naked, swimming, possibly thinking of her.
Wedding vows express a yearning for how things should be. I often find them very moving. Certainly the Hindu ‘Seven Steps’ that Kala here exchanges with her husband-to-be are very much so: ‘ I take the first of seven steps that we may cherish each other..’ but then the camera cuts to Wolfgang instead of her husband. She continues ‘and promise that we will grow old together in mental and spiritual strength’ and again the camera cuts to Wofgang. She’s clearly vowing to the wrong person. Yet what the words express are important not just to Kala but to what the show is trying to express.
That Sense8 is trying to express a more complex, more inclusive, and more nuanced view of love is made clear as Kala walks the sixth of her seven steps with her husband-to-be. As her husband to be vows :’ I take the six of seven steps with you my wife-to-be, a promise of everlasting companionship…’ the camera cuts to a happy and loving gay couple sharing that companionship with a woman; on the line of ‘we shall share love, share the same tastes’ the camera cuts to a young man and a young woman, happy to be with each other; on the line ‘share the same food’ we get to see a middle-aged woman in Africa cooking for for her grown-up son and each sharing the joy in the other and in the food; on the line of ‘sign a vow, sign a statement’ the camera cuts to Korea and we see a woman giving up her liberty and the dog she loves out of duty to her father; on the line of ‘let us make a vow and share our strength’, the camera cuts to a transgender woman and her lesbian girlfriend entering their apartment which has just been ransacked; on the line, ‘we shall be of one mind’ we cut to Wofgang again; and again the camera first shows us his body then his face. The physical a part of the personal, the body AND the mind. This is the prelude to Kala fainting at the sight of Wolfgang’s cock.
The penis, the desire for it, what it might signify to someone in terms of carnal pleasure or indeed as part of love, is put in the context of a much deeper and wider understanding of what love is; one that encompasses food and pets; mothers and fathers; heterosexual, homosexual, trans; duty and feeling; the stomach and the heart as well as sexual organs; and indeed a much wider one, because all of these characters we are shown are connected, in ways that that the Series will continue to reveal.
Sense 8 is an extraordinary series, doing things I had not yet seen before — things that still feel transgressive in cinema — and with feeling and humour. It’s melodrama, it’s a little bit camp, it’s very sexy. But there’s a depth of ideas being dramatised here that is worth watching and thinking about. It’s an extraordinary sequence in an extraordinary series.