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.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa's Little Snitch

Would you like to make Christmas creepy?

Then get The Elf on a Shelf.

This is a book-doll combination that apparently has become popular in recent years, having sold 1.5 million sets since 2005.  (You can read more about it here.)  The book comes with an 8-inch-tall elf that parents are supposed to place in the house where their children can see.  Each night of the Christmas season they are supposed to move the elf to a different location while the kids sleep.  In the morning, the rugrats hunt down the elf's new location.

That sounds fun enough.  A holiday hide-and-seek.

But the idea is that each night the elf departs and goes to the North Pole to tell Santa Claus whether the kids have been naughty or nice.  Think of him as Santa's warrantless wiretap.

The idea is to convince the children of this nightly reporting, and so use the elf as a means to encourage good behavior.  He is like a surveillance camera that becomes part of the family.  (He sounds like he was invented in East Germany.)

The story I read mentioned children talking to the elf, and I can imagine them telling the elf to relay to Santa their Christmas present requests.  The elf does see Santa each night, after all.  What better way to keep the Fat Man up to date on the latest toys?  But I can easily imagine the children trying to persuade the elf to cancel that's night trip because of some misdeed that day.  Or perhaps the children try to bribe the elf to change his story, or to embellish the child's virtues. 

Elf on the Shelf strikes me as a kind of fetish.  People commonly use the word "fetish" to discuss an object  which a person becomes excessively attracted to or obsessed with, such as feet in high heels or Justin Beiber.  But in anthropological and religious circles, the term refers to an otherwise inanimate object that is believed to possess a life force or spiritual powers.

If I were a kid, I would probably hide the little narc.  Hide him in a boot at the back of the closet, so he couldn't see what I was doing.  Or stuff him in the cat box to teach him a lesson.  But then he would know I did that, and he would report me.

Each family is encouraged to name its elf, to make him (female elves are available) unique.  Some names are mundane or cute and others are irreverent.  One family named its elf "Buttface."  Don't you think that would backfire?  Don't you think the little dude would tell Santa about that?

I think Elf on the Shelf is actually kind of dangerous.

How long before Santa tires of hauling those lumps of coal around to give to naughty children?  How long before Santa has Buttface and his crew become enforcers, dishing out punishment on Christmas Eve while the children sleep?

I cannot help but imagine that possibility because I have been creeped out by dolls since Trilogy of Terror, a made-for-TV movie from 1975 that included the story of a murderous "Zuni fetish" doll chasing Karen Black around her home with a kitchen knife.  Oh, and a segment called "The Doll" (1971) from the first season of The Night Gallery, in which a British army officer is terrorized by his niece's doll.  Think of them as Chuckie's grandfathers.

Now, those two storylines smack of postcolonialism -- the revenge of the Third World in the form of a child's toy -- and I know we have not conquered the North Pole.  But since we seem determined to melt the polar ice cap, perhaps Santa will need these little minions for a pre-emptive strike.  Kill us before we can kill him.

So, if you have an Elf on the Shelf, I would sleep with one eye open.  And hide the cutlery.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Drunk Madonna with Anxious Cat

I went to the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena with my wife recently.  I saw a million different items for sale, but I bought just one thing: this greeting card.  One dollar.

It sat alone atop a pile of stray cards, calling to me.  It is hard to believe that I could spot this one item, bobbing in the ocean of things for sale at one of the largest flea markets in the United States -- 2,500 vendors, 25,000 visitors.  (Check out this cool Flickr photostream for some images of the event.)

But I spotted it, and immediately I could hear the Virgin Mary, a little tipsy on Christmas eggnog, hugging her cat.  (Her eyes suggest to me she has on a holiday buzz.) 

Whoozh a good kitty?  Whoozh a good kitty?  You're a good kitty!  Give momma a kish.

Meanwhile, the cat is plotting its escape.

I love it.

The back of the card reads: "The hand-carved linoleum-block illustrations of New England folk artist Daniel A. Waters have appeared frequently in Yankee magazine."  The card is from Indian Hill Press and is dated 2002.  Check out the website for the self-illustrated poetry books from Waters.  I like the title for Robert Frost's Answering Machine.

Inside the card are the words "Comfort and Joy."

Perhaps they should be "Southern Comfort and Joy."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jackass Mountain

It has been five years since Jack and Ennis took their cowboy hats off and got their groove on, and so Brokeback Mountain is getting a lot of attention recently.  For example, The Autry National Center, which is dedicated to the history, culture, and art of the American West,  put together a special event about the film, “Beyond Brokeback,” and a series of events, “Out West,” about gay cowboys, lesbian school marms, and bisexual outlaws.

Even Cosmopolitan magazine has taken note, in the December story titled “The New Trend That’s Turning Women On.”   It seems straight women got bent about hot guy-on-guy action in an episode of Full Blood and elsewhere.  According to Cosmo, these steamy dude interludes were made possible, in part, by Brokeback Mountain.  That movie from 2005 is credited with making it possible for Hollywood cinema to feature physical love between men.

I wholeheartedly approve of expanding our accepted expressions of love in real life and in cinema.  But I have a complaint.

What about Jackass: The Movie?

It was released three years before Brokeback Mountain, and it also celebrates the erotic attraction between men.   In fact, some critics have suggested it is incorrect to call Brokeback Mountain a homosexual love story.  They have said it is more accurately a bisexual love story, since Ennis and Jack have wives.  Meanwhile, Jackass: The Movie is all homo and no hetero.  There are just two women in the movie: Bam Margera’s mother and a kickboxing champion who demolishes Ryan Dunn in the ring.

Granted, there are no kisses, no sweet embraces, no emotional silences.  Instead, Johnny Knoxville and his compatriots clothe their homoerotic tendencies in more publicly accepted manifestations, such as attaching electronic muscle stimulators to their testicles and hiding Hot Wheels in their butts.

The public thought the movie was some twisted version of “Candid Camera” or human endurance tests – how long can Johnny tolerate a baby alligator biting his nipple?

But how can the film not be gay when we have Chris Pontius draping his arm around Steve-O, both standing in the roaring surf and wearing only thong Speedos, and Pontius telling the camera he needs to “rub one out”?  They then take an underwater camera beneath the waves and pretend to masturbate together with sea cucumbers standing in for their penises.  The audience laughs.  How outrageous!  How strange!   Little realizing they are watching two men share physical intimacies that could get them kicked out of the Army.

In two scenes Pontius rips off his track suit to reveal himself in a thong (again).  He begins to dance happily but suggestively with strangers in Japan: a sales clerk, a security guard, and a fortune teller on the street.  All men.

The film is filled with men, and there is not one scene of heterosexual desire in it.

In Jackass 3, we see the lads sitting on the floor in only their briefs and spreading their legs wide apart.  They take turns tossing a tennis ball at each other’s ‘nads. 

You may ask, “How is this homoerotic?  Sado-masochistic perhaps.  Middle school slapstick maybe.  But homoerotic?”

I think this and other stunts involve a process of erotic identification.  When one of the gang is hit in the nuts, of course he collapses and clutches his injured cojones.  But the others in the circle do the same, perhaps not to the same degree, but everyone winces, clutching his crotch.  And they all are laughing, even the person who just got whanged in the wang.  They all identify with the target.  Sex, after all, can be defined as a process by which people share their junk.  In this particular game, they vicariously share the experience of getting zapped in the crotch.

This circle of pain is also a circle of pleasure and can be understood as a kind of ritualized celebration of the male body.  Attacking the most vulnerable part of their bodies is a type of acknowledgement of its special status.  One could mistake the attack for a kind of self-loathing, but often culturally powerful narratives or religious rituals involve something important or sacred being threatened and then rescued; if it were not important, its threatened loss would not be of concern; if it were not important, its rescue would not be a relief.  Jackass rituals end with high-fives, pats on the back, handshakes – everything is OK at the end, nobody’s ‘nads are truly damaged, and everyone is a little bit closer for having shared the experience.

The homoerotic nature of this gets much more explicit elsewhere in the film.  In fact, it is rather beautiful.

Things have changed since 2002.  Chris Pontius’s penis in the first and second Jackass films was covered by either a thong bikini or a sock.  In Jackass 3, it is out in the open.

In this scene, Pontius is naked.  No thong.  No sock.  He is standing.  His eyes are closed.  He is smiling, ecstatically, blissfully.  In slow motion, he swings his hips.
Johnny Knoxville is crouched in front of him.  He slow-pitches a ping-pong ball toward Pontius, who then bats it with his penis.

Between them is Bam Margera.  When Pontius hits the ball, Margera lunges forward and tries to catch the ping-pong ball with his mouth.

All in slow motion.

As I said: beautiful.

Let’s see Ang Lee top that.

(The scene also mocks the need for censorship in the earlier films.  A "blackout" square initially covers Pontius's swinging penis, but it cannot keep up with the action and his dingaling is in view most of the scene.)

I realize that three dudes playing dickball is not the same as two cowboys making love.  But how ready is Hollywood to show homosexual romance AND a penis?  With this scene we have the penis and romance by a kind of sublimation.  The Freudian concept of sublimation involves a person taking a desire of which society disapproves and substituting it with an acceptable desire.  If Margera were to put Pontius’s penis in his mouth, society – Hollywood -- would  disapprove.  Substitute the penis with the ping-pong ball it swatted, and society sees slapstick rather than sodomy.  The American viewers think, again, that they are watching juvenile pranks, not knowing they are learning how to appreciate a lovingly recorded three-way.

I know the homoerotic potential for the Jackass movies is nothing new.  Knoxville and Steve-O have talked openly about it, and Knoxville’s production company is called Dickhouse and features a rainbow in its logo.  They are aware of this quality of the films, and they welcome the discussion.  Knoxville has said he is happy that John Waters called his crew “the gayest straight guys of all time.”  But this discussion has assumed that the films were “gay” simply because the guys were often nearly naked.  The discussions I had seen did not explain HOW they were gay.  And, believe me, there is much more in Jackass 3 than I have discussed here.  For instance, I could unpack the scene of Steve-O drinking a cup of Preston Lacy’s sweat....

Perhaps Jackass 3 is paving the way for more breakthroughs when Ang Lee makes Return to Brokeback Mountain.