The vagina used to be a conversational no no, that was until playwright and activist Eve Ensler’s long- running stage play The Vagina Monologues managed to wrench open the flood gates of discourse surrounding female genitalia. So what theatrical equivalent or global phenomena does the male appendage have to rival Ensler’s? Sadly it looks like the Puppetry of the Penis seems to be the only thing the long-suffering todger has got going for it.In case you haven’t already heard– the smash-hit production is on its way to the Cape Town Comedy festival in September , the performance entails two oafish Ozzie blokes taking to the stage and proceeding to contort their bits and pieces to resemble iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel tower, and subsequently for our local viewing displeasure– table-mountain. The news of Puppetry of the Penis’s arrival on South African shores has elicited outrage from concerned community members and political parties who are urging citizens to boycott the debauched production.
So just what is about the penis and its appearance in the public arena that gets us all hot and bothered? Personally, I’m not proposing more penis exposure in the press — it is after all an unsightly and unpredictable object, certainly not one most of us wish to find leaping out at them from the folds of their Sunday morning news paper. Still I own one, and owning one leads me to think I owe it some sort of an explanation, if not an apology.
Centuries ago, John Thomas certainly had a better rep. Visit any art museum or take any Greek history course and you’ll find that a man’s dangly bits were far less taboo than they appear so today with barely a Grecian urn or marble effigy that didn’t set out glorify the naked male form. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece used to feature male athletes competing against one another in the buff. Imagine then, the up and coming Beijing Olympics featuring participants in similar states of undress? Personally, I don’t quite know how I would feel watching a series of sportsmen hurdling, javelining and high-jumping with their tackle out.
Back in the day, the male nude was depicted as heroic, immortalised by the greats Da Vinci and Michelangelo. These day’s the masters ineffable talents seem to go largely unappreciated. On my last visit to Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence a few years back, his marble goods seemed to be the only item of interest to the giggling Japanese school girls , reduced to a veritable penis Paparazzi by the sight of it. In fact so desecrated has David’s appendage become, that his little friend –now wearing sunglasses and photo shopped smirk– is the only thing that seems to get a look in on postcards on sale outside the gallery.
Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that in ancient times, male nudity was a public and daily occurrence whereby society was yet to attach such significance and unwanted notoriety to it. For this reason, people could look on the penis more simplistically””viewing it as an insipid additional limb over the gruesome, semiotic emblem it has subsequently being reduced to.
The misrepresentation or lack of representation of the naked male form seems to have been bothering fashion icon Tom Ford, who recently headed up an issue of GQ Style in which he wrote an essay titled Masculinity Stripped Bare to accompany a photo shoot of ‘real’ naked men.
In his essay, Ford examines why the naked male body, and penis in particular, seems to provoke such widespread distress and shock, observing that when it comes to magazines– editors are only too happy to run ads featuring the artfully lit female nude, but baulk at an image of her male counterpart.
Apart from attempting to address the matter, Ford laments that despite his gallant efforts to ‘demystify’ the male nude, GQ would still not allow him to publish full- frontal shots of his male models.
The annual Cosmopolitan naked male celebrity calendar appears equally as prudish. The calendar boasts a range of popular sportsmen and entertainers with their loins ever so tastefully obscured by a foreground object or left lurking ominously in pubic shadows. More flesh it seems Cosmo readers are likely to find in glimpses of the notorious camp Staaldraad pics.
Of course the only industry unafraid to exploit the male’s member is that of the porn film– a medium whereby the willy is given free reign, inflated and flaunted as a vulgar joy stick with an insatiable appetite for luuurve. Similarly in popular culture and advertising ,male genitallia are implied by a garish set of phallic innuendos: launching rockets, trains hurtling through tunnels or towering sky-scrapers. With this as our definitive viewing context, it’s no wonder why so many of us find it so hard to take the sight of a willy seriously.
Furthermore psychoanalyst interpretations of myths and fairy tales seldom benifit the cause, alluding to the penis as the seductive serpent to taint Eve’s innocence or the nefarious wolf to bring a blush to red- riding hood’s pallid cheeks.
Ford goes on to suggest in his essay that the only way to correct such negative perceptions is by levelling the expectations placed on the female body with a male equivalent. “Imagine” he urges the reader, “if men’s outfits we made to show off their penises and as much as female dresses are made to draw attention to the breasts.” Imagine we do and the resulting imagery is frankly disturbing.
So what about the brave souls (sportsmen, models and actors) who have dared to put their appendage on the line and reveal all. How have they fared? What the evidence does present is a cross-continental split in thinking. Ford claims that when he has posed naked for shoots in the United States he has often received warnings that such actions are endangering both his credibility and reputation.
In the past American film actors like Richard Gere, Harvey Keitel, Leonardo DiCaprio have all dropped skants to varying reactions, while Tom Cruise– in a moment that many said propelled him into the big time and simultaneously sent teenage girl lurching for the pause button –offered a fleeting glimpse of his top gun in his debut film Risky Business. Kevin Bacon learnt the hard way, immortalising his bacon in the B-grade romp Wild Things to much detractive publicity while director Robert Zemeckis showed how handy- computer graphics can be in emasculating his titular warrior in last year’s animated film Beowulf. The scene in question, features the warrior Beowulf engaging in a naked gymnastic battle with rampaging monster and in the process coming across resembling a Ken Barbie complete with plastic mound for groin. One must bare in mind this is a PG film, and that the hero’s bits and pieces flapping around might detract from the struggle at hand, but at the same time let’s not forget the level of salacious detail (bordering on pornographic) accorded to Angelina Jolie’s C.G enhanced body- parts by the pimply animators of the same studio.
So it seems the penis in Hollywood’s splurge of summer Blockbuster fodder is unlikely to ever get a sincere look in and when it does ”“as was the case in Judd Apatow’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall’”“ its played strictly to amp up the cringe and giggle factor.
Europeans, in comparison to their American counterparts, seem far less perturbed with the naked male body, with French cinema over the years levelling the playing field by featuring male full-frontals as liberally as they do female ones.
In Britain, male thespians often resort to baring all in an attempt to to be taken more seriously as an actor. Such was the case with moppet Daniel Radcliffe , in an attempt to shake off the curse of Harry Spotter recently made an appearance on the West End in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, playing the disturbed teenager Alan Strang. Not only was it a role that aided Radcliffe in shrugging off those unwanted boy wizard connoctations but one that allowed him to show off to the world his post- pubescent manhood. Sadly such courage was to prove counter-active, with critics and audiences devoting most of their energy to discussing the size of Harry’s wand over Radcliffe’s stage talents –or lack thereof.
Perhaps no other man has been more fearless and brazen in immortalising his willy on celluloid than British film star Ewan MacGregor. MacGregor’s crown jewels ,it would be fair to say, have had more screen time then most Hollywood aspirants could ever dream of having in the entire careers. Such cameos have done little to hinder the actor’s meteoric rise to the top and many have speculated that it was from such additional exposure that he was eventually invited to handle a light sabre of a different sort in George Lucas Star Wars Prequels.
But it’s not just European actors who don’t seem to flinch when it comes to getting their kit off. The French rugby team for one, pose quite willing for an annual nudie calendar alongside fellow team mates. Surely a similar effort by the Springbok’s here in South Africa would be the cause of national outcry. So is it a cultural thing then? Do we equate seeing naked men differently according to our varying contexts and taboo’s.
Ford goes on to claim that we are mostly uncomfortable with male nudity because men have the simple fear that their dicks are not as big as the next guys. “In our society” he writes, “penis size is a metaphor for masculinity and virility. The unpredictability factor also goes along way in explaining men’s reluctance to reveal all, with the insecurity that comes with never knowing how your penis will look at any given situation.”
Of course in Africa (as with many parts of the world) the matter is less simple with the penis holding the inglorious track record of being the continents number one killer (depicted in health ad advertising campaigns as the smoking barrel of a gun.) carrying with it the stigma of HIV, teenage pregnancy and a whole menagerie of sexually transmitted diseases.
Perhaps our biggest problem as a society, is that we are unable to separate the malfunctioning male- brain from idle trouser snake. Men, then are their penis’s own worst enemy –woeful ambassadors for the long suffering organ, traitors who would far rather pass the buck onto their little friend then accept any of the responsibility themselves.
But the blame can’t be solely squared on our shoulders and again the media must be acknowledged in such a debate. It is here that Tom Ford’s GQ essay, although insightful seems largely contradictory. Surely no other figure in contemporary fashion and popular culture has better understood and exploited the allure of naked body in the use of print and television campaigns. Ford throughout his prolific career has used the lusty nude to frequently engorge his fashion houses bank account. That he is complaining then that we can no longer see the male body (or female body for that matter) as separate from such imagery– as an in corrupt and pure form of beauty– is precisely part of his own doing.