21st: "Ate My Balls" ate my balls.

How one nutty meme took over cyberspace.

Published August 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in all the perfectly goddamn delightful garden of anxieties, castration anxiety is my favorite; it makes tough guys exquisitely jumpy and creatively oblique. Now, it can even be fun. Castration anxiety, in a particularly absurd yet seductive form, has generated a grand spontaneous meme on the Internet -- the Ate-My-Balls pages.

Proper memes should be contagious, and Ate-My-Balls is positively virulent. Everyone agrees that this meme/craze/phenomenon began with the Mr. T Ate My Balls page, which was intended by its creator, Nehan Patel, as no more than a mental giggle made manifest cybernetically. Balls began bouncing in the spring of 1996 when some rowdies knocked the glass out of the EXIT sign on Patel's dorm floor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They scratched the paint off the sign, wrote "Mr. T Ate My Balls" on it and replaced it.

One snicker led to another, and soon photos and literal cartoons of the cartoonish Mr. T were declaring his insistent passion for male gonads on a Web page. Tasteless? Sure. But I pity the fool who considers it more offensive than dadaist.

It's the unstoppable proliferation of Ate-My-Balls (AMB) pages that strikes most observers as "disturbing." The Yahoo! AMB listing (the very existence of which is mind-boggling) includes more than 230 sites at the time of this writing. There are at least a half dozen other straight lists of AMBs, including one in Japan. The most sumptuous launch pad to all places AMB, as well as a host of info about munched testicles, is the Ate My Balls! Mega-Page. All we can say about the Ate My Balls Web Ring is that the operator's parents don't know about his little project and he intends to keep it that way.

Ate-My-Balls is a thoroughly modern meme: As soon as anything is thrown up on the popular-culture screen, it's munching balls before you can do a hernia exam. There are already three Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield pages and three Beanie Babies pages. Although the mass media from the '60s onward are thoroughly picked over, there's isn't much in the way of "Louis XIV A Mangi My Balls" or "Prester John Explored My Balls." There is one about Colossal Olmec Heads, though. One chap went so far as to include pictures and unkind comments about (purportedly) actual fellow MIT students.

Of course, irony is the fuse that drives these genital flowerings: The less likely one is to be associated with gonad gourmandizing, the more certain one is to get an AMB site. Every rich, famous and ball-starved person qualifies as well. Sadly, among the AMB pages that have disappeared are "Elmo Ate My Balls" (the winner of a popularity contest on the Mega Page), "Bob Dole Ate My Balls" (only those who win elections go on to eat another day -- Clinton's is still around) and "Martha Stewart Baked My Balls" (she's too efficient to let that stay in sight for long).

Scrutinizing far too many AMB pages confirms that sheer idiocy and camp value can provoke cheap laughs even if true comedians remain rare as ever. And, sigh, there are a very few, very predictable, very unfunny homophobes who have picked up the obvious cues of AMB. The hee-hee racial tension lurking around the original Mr. T inspiration also stirs in the subconscious, unresolved. According to Aaron Yost of the AMB Mega Page, the AMB sites that draw the most hate mail are those that take on hot, sensitive headline topics like Heaven's Gate (two pages) and are encountered by accident by those who do not expect to find their topic engaged in a testicle festival.

For those who need to amuse the childish doofus within, I would recommend: Maggie Simpson AMB, with its imaginative graphics, Yoda AMB, with its aptly dumb story line, Balls Thou Shalt Be Consumeth, for inspirational blasphemy, Mother Teresa Prayed for My Balls, for irreverence-on-a-stick and Bill Gates Bought Our Balls, providing a whisper of bizarro political truth.

After rolling around like a corpse-crazed hound in the silliness of Ate-My-Balls, we should note that AMB is invariably cited as a prominent example of so-called Useless Pages on the Web. Besides the always mildly ugly invitation to make fun of other people's pathetic interests and putrid taste, the very definition of "useless" bandied about here seems narrow and smug. The whole Useless Pages index began with the discovery of one guy's complete list of his music collection. But instead of being useless, this list has a vivid personality, reflecting a gay/dance sensibility that's rarely given enough credence in conventional music culture. So it's an "I am" that's worth saying.

Finally, consider the Zen debunking of everyday notions of "useful" and "useless." If a tree with many knots is useless to build houses or a bull with a white spot on its forehead is useless to sacrifice to the spirits, who's to decide the "uselessness" -- people, or the tree and the bull? The non-people involved certainly consider those "defects" useful. When Ate-My-Balls pages are declared useless, it must be just the testicles talking.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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