This may go down in history as the year the penis became omnipresent. A symbol of power since the Greco-Roman era, the phallus’s prowess in America’s post-fig leaf society has resided largely in its invisibility. But this year the penis suddenly became visible even when it wasn’t. Last month, from within his trousers, Jon Hamm’s bulge upstaged his campaign for Obama. In October, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg appeared turned on, in more ways than one, as he held a Hurricane Sandy press conference. And who can forget the Boner Rower whose Olympic bronze medal appeared to be crowned by a public happy ending? The recent swell in penises on the big screen has served to dismantle the symbolic power of the phallus and, in a time where reality and entertainment are blurred, it is little wonder that celebrities’ off-duty members are commanding our attention as much as Judd Apatow’s penile punch lines – and shedding their masculine mystique at the same time.
A year after the sex addiction film “Shame,” people are still talking about star Michael Fassbender’s member with actress Cameron Diaz most recently giggling about the actor’s “confidence” in the December issue of Elle U.K. She is the third actor to size up the Irish star based on what hangs between his legs. After winning a Golden Globe for “The Descendants” in January, George Clooney thanked his fellow nominee “for taking over the frontal nude responsibility that I had.” “Really, Michael, honestly, you can play golf like this with your hands behind your back,” he said. Then, in March, Charlize Theron joked about her “Prometheus” costar’s package once again at a Human Rights Campaign gala while accepting her Ally for Equality Award from him. "Your penis was a revelation," she said. "I'm available to work with it any time."
Despite initially enjoying the attention, this year Fassbender appeared to be chafing under the objectification. In GQ's June issue, in which the magazine called him a "full-frontal phenomenon," the 35-year-old thespian expressed concern at being judged on his penis alone. "It’s fun to a point and after a certain point you worry that it kind of detracts from the movie," he said. Despite well-endowed “True Blood” star Joe Manganiello, who may have flashed more than his chest muscles in “Magic Mike,” claiming earlier this year that "there's no such thing as male objectification," Julieanne Smolinski’s November 2011 article in GQ, "XXX Men," seemed to side with Fassbender. “Since women are now finally allowed to make fart jokes (thank you, 'Bridesmaids'!), studios must believe that it's high time to start letting men play sex objects," she wrote, adding that the rise in metrosexuality may have helped to smooth the transition.
But back in 1990, in the New York Times article “Bodies Go Public: It’s Men’s Turn Now,” writer Lena Williams had a different explanation for the penis’s expanding presence in ‘80s pop culture – from crotch-focused Gap jeans ads to “Live’s” Regis Philbin discussing a kidney stone procedure involving his member. She pegged the rise in cock party conversation on sexually progressive youths, the '80s "fitness craze" and "the influence of gay styles that celebrate the male physique," not to mention more frank conversations about male health.
But frank conversation was one thing: The big question at the time was why actors were so rarely getting their frankfurters out for the cameras (Richard Gere’s revealing performance in 1980’s “American Gigolo” being an exception). In “Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture,” Peter Lehman theorized that penises have largely been kept off U.S. film screens for three reasons: to maintain the symbolic power of the phallus, to avoid judgment and because of homophobia. Or, as Barbara de Genevieve so eloquently put it in the magazine Camerawork in 1991, "To unveil the penis is to unveil the phallus is to unveil the social construction of masculinity. And that is a real taboo.”
When Hollywood members were given their close-ups, it was generally in two ways. "At one pole, we have the powerful, awesome spectacle of phallic masculinity, and at the other its vulnerable, pitiable, and frequently comic collapse," wrote Lehman. With the release of “The Crying Game” in 1992, a third category, that of the melodramatic penis – "neither the phallic spectacle nor its pitiable and/or comic collapse" – set the stage for Fassbender’s balls out performance in “Shame” (despite his penis’s spectacular size, that was not the point of the film). But with it came the judgment that Lehman had predicted.
One way around that judgment was for the actor to deride his dick. In her 2009 Slate article "The Limp Dick: Hollywood’s Latest Obsession," TV critic (now at Salon) Willa Paskin claimed that art films like "The Crying Game" and "Boogie Nights" initially shocked viewers, but, once that wore off, filmgoers realized the flaccid penis "doesn't convey power or eroticism" but instead "looks like a finger puppet." She believed the naked wrestling scene in "Borat," in which Sacha Baron Cohen (who has flashed us in every one of his movies) and his manager fight nude, "inaugurated a golden age in cock-related sight gags.” Sure enough, a year later, Judd Apatow inserted a gratuitous goolie shot into "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and vowed to "get a penis in every movie I do from now on." In 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” he kept his promise, stripping a blubbering Jason Segel down to his birthday suit.
"Flaccid penises are more than just another body part to Apatow; they’re the perfect metaphor for his characters: sissy men and overgrown boys who willfully avoid growing up and pay for it with their inability to get it up," Paskin wrote. "Erections are what men have — limp dicks belong to the stoners, virgins, and perpetual adolescents that populate (very charmingly) Apatow’s universe.”
In the March issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott lamented over what these flaccid funny men meant for the male gender. "It’s phallic authority that’s being displaced by all these actual penises, male power that’s being symbolically deflated," he wrote, going so far as to claim their wilted wangs were "caution flags," harbingers of a national loss of power. But his statement only betrays the sort of macho attitude that has kept penises out of the spotlight all these years while breasts and vaginas freely dance across our screens.
Now the phallus is even making its way onto the boob tube. Cable TV shows like STARZ’ "Spartacus" and HBO’s "Game of Thrones" and "True Blood" have all peddled their performers’ private parts. Not to mention music videos, which have moved off public television and onto the Internet, where actors like Shia LaBeouf can transform into nudists for the likes of Sigur Ros’ “Fjögur Píanó.” In fact, the Internet has become the chosen place for celebrity dick moves. Last year a slew of male stars like Chris Brown, Michael Stipe, Tito Ortiz and Anthony Weiner, as well as a number of athletes, “inadvertently” posted photos of their formerly private parts online. In November, Soulja Boy apologized for posting a photo of his little soldier on Tumblr.
But this online striptease is not uniquely the realm of celebrities – the media has been running its own male celebrity pee-pee show since as far back as 2010. Gawker diverted attention away from Christina Hendricks’ breasts with “Jon Hamm’s Salami: A Photographic Investigation,” a feature including various photographs of what appeared to be the “Mad Men” star’s visible underwear-less member beneath a thin layer of pant material. In September, the discussion around his not-so-hidden ham heated up again after he was photographed showing a very curvaceous bulge while shopping in New York with his girlfriend (so perfect was the imprint that Gothamist questioned whether the photo was fake, only to conclude it wasn’t with a link to the Tumblr Jon Hamm’s Wang).
And Hamm isn’t the only male celebrity with a spotlight on his crotch. This summer, U.S. Olympic “Boner Rower” Henrik Rummel was forced to deny he was erect when someone on Reddit claimed he was "particularly excited" by his bronze medal win. Awl editor Choire Sicha responded to the controversy on Deadspin with a humorous demystification of male members titled "No, Boner Rower Does Not Have a Boner: A Gay Man’s Remedial Guide to Penises for Straight Guys," which also happened to reference Roger Federer's "magic bulge." Another athlete who has not been particularly shy about showing off his clothed penis is soccer star David Beckham, who proudly shows off his ample bulge in his new H&M BodyWear ads.
And unlike in ancient Greece, where young men were protected from phallic scrutiny, these days male teen stars are also having their bulges analyzed. In an interview with London’s Capital FM, Justin Bieber called his fans "inappropriate" for nicknaming his hidden package "Jerry" (though there is no doubt they got the idea after he brought a pet snake to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2011 and named it Johnson).
Our men didn’t used to be this coy about their junk. Thousands of years ago they let it all hang out. The male member makes the odd appearance in Upper Paleolithic cave paintings (possibly for shamanistic purposes) meaning the phallus literally goes back to the Stone Age. In 2005, a dig at Germany’s Hohle Fels Cave turned up a 28,000-year-old life-size stone phallus. The BBC reported at the time that the sculpture was not only a “symbolic representation of male genitalia” that may have been used for sex but also served as a tool for carving.
Taking their cue from the prototypical vibrator, the Egyptians in 3,000 B.C. – and various other international cultures – turned the phallus into the go-to symbol for fertility. Around this time, several Gods showed up in hieroglyphics with erect penises, including the god of Earth, Geb, and the god of fertility, Min, who held his erect penis in his left hand and an agricultural flail in his right. In "A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis," David Friedman wrote that these well-endowed symbols offered Egyptians “a religious map of their universe." A variety of other cultures across the world represented their fertility deities with similarly priapic prowess, one of the more notable examples being Bhutan’s phallic paintings, which can still be seen in local villages. Erected in around the 15th century in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery near the former capital, Punakha, they honoured the sexually aggressive “fertility saint” Lama Drukpa Kunley and were said to drive away the evil eye.
But it was the Greeks who first saw beyond the penis’s procreative powers. According to art historian Kenneth Clark in “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form,” the culture whose male athletes performed in the nude was the first to turn the male body into an artistic “incarnation of energy” thanks to its “idealization of man.” And, in Greece, the ideal man had a dainty dick. As such, when it came to private parts, the archaic period’s ubiquitous kouroi (marble statues of young men) were unanimously given the shaft.
"A small penis is an index of modesty and subordination, an abjuration of sexual initiative or sexual rivalry, and the painters' adoption of the ideal youthful penis as the standard for men, heroes and gods is one item in their general tendency to 'youthen' everyone," wrote classical scholar Kenneth Dover in “Greek Homosexuality.”
Ah, youth! That time of blissful ignorance before the mature Greek man discovered, in the words of Dover, that his “penis was a weapon.” In Greek society, the grown man’s penis was not only ideal for siring children, it was equally known as a tool of rape. While Priapus, the god of fertility, and his perma-firm penis represented bounty it also acted as a threat. Statues of the gnome-like deity could be found in Greek gardens where he was, wrote Dover, "in a state of readiness to penetrate a thief of either sex.” Serving the same purpose was the "ithyphallic herm," which cropped up in the 6thcentury B.C. It was a square stone pillar with the god of boundaries Hermes' head on the top and an erect penis and genitals halfway down and stood at virtually every Athenian’s front door to protect the entrance (the Getty Museum claims doorways were sites of worship).
Despite the potential for sex assault, Romans believed the bigger the bulge the better. "A large penis was Roman power become flesh: it was respected, sometimes feared, and always coveted," Friedman wrote. Categorized as a phallocentric culture, ancient Rome used the phallus more as a protective symbol – generally against envy, which was said to bring bad luck to the envied – than as a threat. The state’s security lay in the hands of Vestal Virgins, literally, as they held tight the fascinum – the physical embodiment of the divine phallus, which appeared in the form of various cock-shaped charms and warded off envy. Ruins in Pompeii and Herculaneum unveiled a treasure trove of phallic paraphernalia including tintinnabula, aka polyphallic wind chimes, which were used for the same purpose as the fascinum. Then there was the bulla, a locket for young boys that contained a fascinum inside, which, according to Friedman, "signified the boy's status and power as a future man" and protected him from sexual overtures.
But there was no one to protect the phallus itself and when Christianity came to the Roman Empire in around the 4thcentury, the penis shrank away from sight. Christians brought with them shame and, as Friedman wrote, "no part of the body is more shameful than the penis." Now the only ones showing off their family jewels were Jesus (whose asexual phallus proved "lust can be conquered," according to Friedman), Adam and a string of sinners.
It took nine centuries for the penis to prop itself back up. Beginning in the 14thcentury, the Renaissance started to embrace classical culture again and, with it, minute members. But despite the beauty of Michelangelo’s “David,” no phallus was small enough for the Roman Catholic Church and in the 16thcentury, prudish religious officials started expurgating phallic artwork with fig leaves of various shapes and sizes. Masaccio’s 1425 painting “Expulsion From the Garden of Eden” had crude leaves painted on Adam and Eve while cast fig leaves were attached to statues like Michelangelo’s, so as not to offend the public.
Despite fig leaves sprouting up all over the place, phallic art continued to rear its ugly head right on through to the 20thcentury when the greenery was finally pruned. And despite the isolated controversy surrounding a rare potent piece of work – see photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s up-close and personal portraits of penises in the ‘80s, which were controversial less for their obscene subject matter and more for whether such obscenity should be publicly funded – in the realm of art, phalluses are no longer a power tool (though the Guerrilla Girls would no doubt pull out their “weenie count” and argue that this is because 76 percent of the nudes in the Met, for instance, are female).
And the theatrical phallus has followed suit, though it wasn’t until the swinging '60s that it swung free on stage and screen. “Hair,” a hippie musical in which the cast appeared in the buff, made nudity on the mainstream stage less of a hairy prospect, while the big screen was reportedly forever changed by the 1967 Swedish film "I Am Curious (Yellow)." The mockumentary about flower children included scenes of full-frontal male nudity and even dick kissing and landed in U.S. court, but was eventually released in 1969. "[It] helped to open the floodgates toward hard-core pornography that exhibited penetration and ejaculation, such as the X-rated Best Picture ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969), the porno chic ‘Deep Throat’ (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci's’ Last Tango in Paris’ (1972)," wrote film historian Tim Dirks on AMC’s film site.
In 2012, Wolcott’s argument that male power still resides in the sheathed phallus is an archaic one that undercuts man’s real value, which exists beyond his genitalia. If the clothed penis is “the invisible signifier of the phallus,” as he wrote in Vanity Fair, and the phallus represents masculinity, as de Genevieve wrote, being a man as we know it is dead and we’re all the better for it. Stripped free of the social construction of masculinity, American men of all shapes and sizes and lengths are now free to be the human beings they are without all that other junk in the way.