men, masculinities and gender politics

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The penis as toy... The vagina as so much more.

Recently I heard an interview on a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) radio program with one of the cast members of the travelling stage show “Puppetry of the Penis.” This is a show that involves naked men who take to the stage in order to do what they call “genital origami.” Working in the nude, they use the penis and scrotum to “perform” numerous shapes, include “the hamburger,” “the wrist watch,” “the snail,” and the “swollen thumb.” I must admit that I have not had a terribly strong desire to go see the show. As a young man I spent enough time in locker rooms to have seen enough inane penis play probably to last me a lifetime. (And those shows were always free!)

But while I have not seen these professional puppeteers doing their thing(s), I have explored their website, and I have seen video clips of the boys in action. What they do is good for a laugh, but I am not yet convinced that it is worth the price of a ticket.

What I have made the effort to see several times, on the other hand, is the brilliant Eve Ensler play “The Vagina Monologues.” Ensler interviewed 200 women and girls about their awareness of, their thoughts about, and their experiences with their vaginas. She fashioned these interviews into several brief vignettes. It has long been my sense of that “The Vagina Monologues” holds within it the possibility of significant social change while “Puppetry of the Penis” is not much more than just boys playing with their (attached) toys.

Hearing the radio interview with the “puppeteer” just confirmed this notion.

If you have not yet seen “The Vagina Monologues,” I urge you to do so! Like “Puppetry of the Penis,” the play is extremely funny. But unlike its far more simplistic male counterpart, the Ensler piece is also at times extremely poignant, horribly tragic, and immensely moving. It conveys a powerful message about the multiple meanings of the vagina in the lives of women. The puppetry show, on the other hand, is just about giggles. Penis as toy. Nothing more.

In our mother’s uterus, we are all initially sexually undifferentiated. For the first many weeks of life males and females are physically identical, and our genital development can go either way. (This is why, for example, men have nipples. We become “male” only after the nipples have already formed.) Not only are all fetuses identical sexually, but subsequent physical development as a female is actually the default pathway for the human fetus. What subsequently makes some of us male is the infusion of testosterone. If this exposure to this masculinising hormone does not occur, we will continue to develop as female.

Some people, of course, do not develop as either completely male or completely female but may enter the world as “intersex” – as a combination of both male and female.

But most of us will in fact differentiate into male and female. And what is in reality a relatively small difference between male babies and female babies at birth becomes a chasm as we grow up in a society that treats males and females as if we were extremely different... as if, as the wildly popular John Grey book series claims, we were from different planets! And throughout human history most societies have strongly distinguished between the social roles of men and the social roles of women – and the role of men has been elevated, while the role of women has been demeaned. And this fact comes across perhaps nowhere more clearly than when we consider how our genitals are conceptualized, manipulated, used, and abused.

Asked why he decided to become a member of the “Puppetry” cast, the puppeteer being interviewed replied: “I thought it was hilarious... It struck me as very childlike... there is an innocence about it.” While the Vagina Monologues also has a very funny section about how children refer to their vaginas, the stories Ensler collected also show that all too often there is nothing innocent about the lives of girls and women. Tragically, the vagina is often not treated as a joyful plaything, but rather as a target of abuse. Of violation. Of involuntary penetration. Of gang rape. Of horrific mutilation.

On the other hand, the penile puppeteer, when asked about his experience of being naked on stage, playing with his penis in front of the crowd, said: “You are in command, you are running the show. There is an empowerment [that happens]...There is a euphoric feeling almost.”

“Puppetry of the Penis” is presented as new and different because it features adult men playing with their genitals in public. But in reality there is nothing new or different about a man playing with his penis. Many (if not most) men are already rather proud of their penises – often inordinately so! It does not take much to “empower” a guy who is already pretty satisfied with his accoutrements!

But Ensler’s show truly is radical. It honours women – their sex lives, their survivorship and their recovery from sexual victimization – including the genocidal Bosnian rape camps. And it honours the amazing ability that the vagina has to serve as the route to new life and the regeneration of our species.

“The Vagina Monologues” is no mere puppet show. It is a complex and profound celebration of what it means to survive – and to thrive – as a woman in a male supremacist world that rarely misses a chance to demean and diminish women’s bodies, women’s genitals, and women’s very existence. Waving one’s penis at the crowd might be experienced as empowerment by certain men, but that is empowerment on an entirely individual level. “The Vagina Monologues,” on the other hand, promises empowerment for all women – for over half of the population of our planet.

And that is something that is worth buying a ticket for!