Escaping The Phallic Decade: The 2010s As Told Through Cinematic Handjobs

Updated: Mar 10

by Billie Walker

"If the 2010s were the era of phallus in film, one can only hope that the vulva will now take centre stage."
Emma Stone taking a self-guided tour in 'The Favourite' (2018 dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) (Still)

As the decade closed, my Twitter feed filled with film compilations of the 2010s. Amidst famous clips and best of lips, one retrospective tweet drew my attention more than the most. Anna Swanson asked:

‘Film twitter, what’s your favourite handjob scene of the decade?’

The comments section quickly filled with suggestions: Moonlight (2016), The Favourite (2018), The Master (2012), The To Do List (2013), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). At first, I felt these cinematic moments can’t have been regular enough to provoke a favourite; then, the many masturbatory moments came flooding back.


Turns out, handjob scenes have become as commonplace as forgetting whether you’ve picked up your keys on the way out of the house.


Reflecting on my own favourite films of the decade, it is not just how hand job scenes have become common. Rather, it is how these moments tie into a phallic theme. Her (2013), High Life (2018) and The Lighthouse (2019): masturbation happens in all. Joaquin Phoenix famously pleasures himself, albeit reluctantly, to a woman on his computer system asking him to ‘choke me with a dead cat’ in Her.


In Claire Denis’ High Life (2018), Dr Dibs’ mission to create human life onboard the spaceship seems more focused on human sexuality than the end product. The downfall of Ephraim Winslow is his complicated fascination with The Lighthouse, as well as his captain’s lobster.


Conversations surrounding the issue of men’s mental health have become commonplace in the last decade. Comedians and musicians speak openly about their issues with depression and charities such as CALM have been set up to support victims. The mask of masculinity has slipped. It is clear now that patriarchy makes victims of us all, and cinema of the last decade is reflective of masculinity’s fall.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her is the ultimate softboi. Lonely and pitiful, he searches for love on the internet whilst dismissing human connection. He refuses to acknowledge the part he plays in his divorce, as his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) confesses to him ‘you always wanted me to be this light, happy, bouncy, everything’s fine, LA wife and that’s just not me’.


But now the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit and it’s clear that he is at fault. Theodore manic-pixie-dream-girl’d Catherine, wanting the romantic ideal of loving a writer, but refusing to deal with the complex human emotions that come in any relationship. His ex jokes that now he’ll be able to have what he wants, ‘a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real’. Her claim is realised as Theodore - his relationship patterns rearing their ugly head - becomes distant as his AI shows real emotions of jealousy and desperation.


By dating someone without a body, Theodore undergoes a sort of virtual castration. Their relationship although having a sexual element is mainly based on an emotional communicative connection, enabling Theodore to examine the toxic masculine traits he inhabits and take responsibility for the damage done in past and present relationships.


The soft arm of the law


A film that perfectly incapsulates the prison of masculinity is Eggers' The Lighthouse (2019).


The lighthouse is a man-made phallus. Penetrating the sky it stands erect on a verge, rounded at its peak, with foaming waves crashing, splashing against its base spilling up against the shaft. The foam created from the discarded genitals from which Aphrodite was born. The lighthouse is a pillar of men, as it warns ships of the sea's power, saving them from perilous rocks and mighty waves, whilst urging them to continue on. A beacon of hubris, of man’s intervention with nature’s will.


The narrative revolves around the lighthouse. The two men’s madness hitting immense peaks and spiraling back down to the base. Circling each other, circling the same fears, same anger, the same releases of rage, camaraderie, and desire. The tension climbs and drops, up and down and up and down and round and round the spherical building, over and over again. When it is not present in the shot, there is almost always an object resembling the lighthouse, either the oil lamp on the table or in one shot Ephraim himself.

The Lighthouse (2019 - dir Robert Eggers) (Still)

Ephraim tries to ignore his lust for the captain by focusing his attention on other things, fantasising over mermaids and filling his head with paranoiac conspiratorial thoughts regarding Thomas. He wishes to leave the lighthouse, convincing himself that there exists an ominous force at work - bu it is his own nature Ephraim is desperately seeking to escape. It is the isolation of his life that forces him to see truths about himself which he cannot accept. His desire over his older companion does not fit with his ideas of masculinity and he cannot reconcile them. The ever-present lighthouse being both a symbol of phallic ideal and the desires he denies himself.


The Lighthouse rounds off a decade that highlights toxic masculinity and the internalised nature of patriarchal victimisation in men. There are others that do not centre the phallus at the core of their narrative but do feature a mocking of masculinity highlighting the era of their creation - such as The Handmaiden and The Favourite, which platform lesbian love, or the remake of Suspiria (2018) whose vulvic imagery is strong and sometimes downright crude. The witches laugh at the police officer’s soft flaccid genitals, the long arm of the law being no match for their vulvic power.

Suspiria (2018 dir. Luca Guadagnino) (Still)

Making monsters of men


Pompous aristocrat Harley - played by Nicholas Hoult in The Favourite - is the embodiment of white male privilege. He cannot understand the more subtle power plays going around the court and makes pathetic attempts to make political and social gains. Assuming throughout, due to his massive privilege that these weak grabs will be enough to get him what he believes he is entitled to. However, he’s distracted by himself, his own ego, humorously demonstrated by his absentminded rubbing of his cane during parliament.


The masculine manipulator of The Handmaiden (2016), Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), is similarly enthralled by phallic objects. Fujiwara moves his hand up and down a vase as he explains his plans for what he believes is a seduction, which is actually a manipulation for the Lady’s fortune. His motions are fast, purposeful demonstrating the threat of sexual violence.


It is a conscious act in comparison with the fop Harley’s. It is a demonstration of his power over the situation (or so he thinks). Harley is mostly harmless, whereas Count Fujiwara represents a much more aggressive form of masculinity. He meets an end befitting for a man who in life dominated with his genitalia, as the Uncle tortures him by cutting off his fingers and then plans to move onto another digit. Although the scene ends before this is enacted, the threat of castration is enough to satisfy the viewer.


The films illustrated above cross a wide range of genres, science fiction, period drama, and horror as well as a scope of eras, the not so far off future, Melvillian America, 18th century Britain, post-Nazi Germany and British-colonised Korea. The films use different techniques, humour, mockery, sincerity, threat and horror. But all reach the same criticism, that patriarchal domination makes monsters of men, whether they be weak and snivelling, or aggressors: the phallic torments us all. If the 2010s were the era of phallus in film, one can only hope that the vulva will take centre-stage now.

The Handmaiden (2016 dir. Chan-wook Park) (Still)

Billie Walker is a London-based writer who enjoys Campari based drinks as bitter as she is. There will always be a horror film on her laptop and feta in the fridge. She devours books as frequently as salty cheeses. See more of her work

The Radical Art Review is a non-profit cooperative platform fuelled purely by people power for those who think art holds the potential for social transformation. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream collectively of a better tomorrow.

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