Last year, we asked the question that’s been on the minds of countless red-blooded women and plenty of men: “Why Isn’t Idris Elba a Bigger Movie Star?” The piece explores what many of us have long known: Elba is talented, likable and, well, attractive—very attractive—so why isn’t his name on everyone’s lips?
The last few days should have served as some measure of validation for us Elba fans. For once, his name has dominated the news. But the reason he’s been a topic of conversation has left much to be desired, particularly if you’re someone who’s a fan of Elba’s impressive body of work and feels strongly about sexual objectification in media. Recent photos of a dapperly dressed Elba from the set of the London gangster film A Hundred Streets have led to wild speculation about his member, leading many Elba aficionados to believe that his DJ moniker, Big Driis, isn’t just a clever name. Gawker started things off with a bang with the not-so-subtle headline, “Is this Idris Elba’s Dick or What?” The photos quickly went viral, popping up on a number of gossip blogs.
Elba felt compelled to respond and tweeted the following:
His lighthearted reply led to more extensive coverage. The Huffington Post wrote, “PSA: That Bulge Is Not Actually Idris Elba's Penis.” E! Online blared, “Idris Elba Bulge Mystery Solved? Actor Responds After Photos Spark Fan Fervor.” while US Weekly wrote, “Idris Elba Jokes About On Set Crotch Pictures That Went Viral: ‘That Is a Mic Wire.’” Things apparently came full circle when Gawker chimed in with the corrective: “Idris Elba Confirms It Was Not a Dick or What.”
So, after toiling away for two decades, Elba has finally crossed over from critically acclaimed actor to bona fide tabloid fodder. But this is something none of us should feel good about. The reason? Because speculating about genitalia should not be considered a normal part of media coverage—not for a celebrity or anyone else. But for male celebrities, this has become par for the course. Speculation about Mad Men star Jon Hamm became so intense—that Gawker headline read, “Jon Hamm’s Penis Takes Its Owner Out for a Walk”—he was actually asked about it in a Rolling Stone profile. Hamm said of the chatter, “But it is a little rude. It just speaks to a broader freedom that people feel like they have—a prurience… They’re called ‘privates’ for a reason. I’m wearing pants, for fuck’s sake. Lay off. I mean, it’s not like I’m a fucking lead miner. There are harder jobs in the world. But when people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn’t part of the deal… But whatever. I guess it’s better than being called out for the opposite.”
In May, “Bulge” coverage reached such a fever pitch that Buzzfeed devoted an entire listicle to “The 21 Most Important Celebrity Bulges of All Time.” And just last month, a number of legitimate news outlets weighed in with the news that Liv Tyler was distracted by her The Leftovers co-star Justin Theroux’s moose knuckle. One of those outlets was Jezebel, a site that’s staked its reputation on calling out media and public figures for moments of unabashed sexism. So why isn’t anyone calling out all the bulge talk?
Just think for a moment how Jezebel, or frankly any reputable outlet, would have reacted if there were photos circulating accompanied by headlines speculating on the size of Cate Blanchett’s or Lupita Nyong’o’s nipples. Would we be laughing about it and expect her to address the matter in a light-hearted tweet? Or would we be outraged that a talented actress was being sexually objectified in such an extreme way?
The mounting “bulge” coverage is representative of one of society’s most enduring double standards. While women hold fewer leadership posts than men, and earn less in many professions, there is an equality tradeoff that appears to have become acceptable—at least in America. Men hold more institutional power, but have essentially been stripped of the right to complain about or expect support from the public when they are on the receiving end of disempowering treatment, particularly physically or sexually. Think I’m joking? Well, rumors that Tiger Woods may have been physically targeted by his then-wife for his numerous affairs inspired a Saturday Night Live sketch. By contrast, two ESPN personalities were recently suspended for comments perceived as dismissive of domestic violence against women, even though in at least one instance the personality in question was reportedly defending himself against his now spouse.
Ironically, Gawker previously published a piece challenging the racist and sexist implications of a conservative elected official commenting on the size of Michelle Obama’s backside. Yet here, the site is now leading the coverage of a black man’s genitalia. Somehow that’s been deemed acceptable and funny, but it shouldn’t be. Even in an age in which Kardashian Inc. is one of America’s most recognizable cultural brands, we as a culture and a country should be better than this.
And Idris Elba, who recently earned raves for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela, deserves better than this.