Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chill out. It's just a snow penis.

Quick.  Think of a fertility symbol.

Did you think of something like this?

Or like this?

 Rarely does someone think of something like this.   

At least, it is rare in the United States that someone thinks of an erect penis as a fertility symbol.  It seems that the female breast dominates the imagination in this regard.  (For instance, when one blogger decided to depict herself as a fertility figure, she chose close-up images of her chest.)  This preference is interesting in that female breasts nurture new life, but they do not produce it.  That happens further south.  But you probably knew that.  However, the breast becomes iconic of the female, and the female becomes iconic of fertility -- to nearly the entire exclusion of the male.

Yet, an erect penis is pretty much necessary if a baby is to be produced -- unless we are talking about one conceived in a medical lab or in the Republic's vast cloning factory in Kamino.  Americans love cute and cuddly babies, don't they?  So why do so many of Americans seem so disgusted by penises?

That reaction is evident in this news story from Lafayette, Indiana, where someone's snow sculpture penis attracted the displeasure of the neighbors.  They even called the police.  You can see the television news report here.

A boy is interviewed on camera about how upset he was by what he saw.  This is strange, since, I assume, he has a penis.  Does he close his eyes when he bathes each day to save himself from the repulsive sight of his own naughty bits?

A woman is interviewed who says she would not want her two-year-old son to see the snow penis.  This is strange, too, since, I assume, as a mother she has some familiarity with a penis -- unless she visited Kamino recently.  So she seems to hate the sign of an erect penis when the thing it signifies was instrumental in creating the young child she seeks to protect from it.

I am not saying I advocate porn on our playgrounds.  I think images have their time and place.  But I don't think a snow penis is horrific.  I don't think the image of a penis should attract such strong revulsion.  The people in the news report seem genuinely disgusted.  The boy looks like he is about to cry. 

It seems America is conflicted about the penis.

I like to think Nathaniel Hawthorne could have anticipated this.  When I teach the American literature survey course at my school, I have the students read "The Maypole of Merry Mount" (1851).  In this story, Hawthorne re-imagines an actual encounter between two communities in New England: the Puritans we are so familiar with and the followers of Thomas Morton.  Morton was a free-thinker and fun-lover, whom the Puritans arrested on more than one occasion and shipped back to England.  In his short story, Hawthorne writes: "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire."

The Puritans -- surprise -- represent "gloom."  He calls them "dismal wretches" who live to "hear sermons three hours long."  Morton's 17th century hippies represent "Jollity."  He calls them "mirthmakers of every sort."  Hawthorne's short story suggest the wrong side won.

The story ends with the Puritans invading a spring festival at Merry Mount and chopping down the Maypole.  Most students today do not know what a Maypole is, nor what it signifies.  It is a male fertility symbol.  It is at the heart of some springtime festivals in agrarian societies.  For the livestock to increase, the cows and sheep and pigs and goats need to be getting it on.  For human society to continue, the young couples need to be getting frisky too.  The Maypole dancing is a way to celebrate and encourage that procreation.  The rituals are like a dose of Viagra for Nature.

The theme for much of my survey course is "Who's Your Daddy?"  We read documents from American literature to better understand the evolution of American culture(s).  What came before us?  How are we similar to it?  How are we different?  If ideas are like DNA, what are the cultural genetics of American society?

Hawthorne was trying to understand how America had come to be what it was in 1851.  He saw it as a land dedicated to work, money, and severe morality -- to the detriment of happiness and love and more human pursuits.  The chopping down of the Maypole is the symbolic emasculation of the "mirthmakers."  Hawthorne is suggesting their beliefs were not passed on to the next generation because "gloom" had secured the "empire" of America.

At this point I switch gears with my students and shift into the present.  I ask them if American society is obsessed with sex.  They say yes.  Look at the movies.  Look at advertising.  Look at music videos.  Watch five minutes of Two and a Half Men.

If we are so obsessed with sex, I ask them, then why is the country also apparently afraid of the penis?   (Missy Elliott excepted.  I need to fit "Work It" into my class somehow.)  It seems some of that Puritan "gloom" has survived in the nation's cultural DNA.

Other cultures do not share this fear.  For proof of this I show the class images from the Festival of the Steel Phallus in Kawasaki, Japan (see the image above).  In the party, giant penises are paraded down the street.  People ride them.  People eat penis-shaped candy.  People wear penis-shaped hats.  Women who want to have a child visit the festival and straddle a metal penis to boost their babymakers.

The very thing the good people of Lafayette want removed, the good people of Kawasaki give a parade.  I think we could learn a few things from the Japanese.

I believe the Mirthmakers have rallied strongly since 1851 (see my posting on Jackass), but the Puritans are still in the game -- and they're not afraid to call the cops.


  1. Why are we so hard on hard-ons? In ancient Rome, Priapus (a gnomish figure with a disproportionatley large erection) was as common an icon as today's McDonald's golden arches, a symbol of fertility and prosperity. In fact, I think Toyota would sell more hybrids if they changed the name of their wussmobile, "Prius," to the more masculine, "Priapus." Oh well.

  2. Jonathan: Thanks for reading! And I will forward your product name suggestion to Toyota immediately!

  3. In a country where a hard man is so good to find, I would think the reaction would be positive. I wonder what would happen if there was a snow vagina...

  4. You'll be happy to know that in Cambodia, half the temples are monuments to the "Linga."

  5. There is an argument, applied at least to nudity in film, that the penis is less visible because it's more respected, more precious, more to be treated with reverence and dignity, than female bits.

    But perhaps male privilege depends on no-one noticing that the penis is not terribly impressive most of the time. It's just a dingle-dangle, after all.

  6. I'm sorry to lower the tone of the discussion, but the paragraphs about the celebrations in the town of Kawasaki reminded me of an old jingle for the motorcycle brand of the same name : "Kawasaki Lets the Good Times Roll."