After more than 15 years since the debut of The Vagina Monologues -- Eve Ensler's oft staged play covering female experiences and perspectives on topics from love and sex to menstruation -- no penis has ever had a monologue. However, they are frequently called upon to act as puppets (see, for example, the masterful Puppetry of the Penis). The contrasting theatrical experience of the penis and the vagina highlights an interesting disparity: the penises role in the media is largely comedic; they are, if you will, the genital jester. This disparity is apparent throughout popular culture. Movies are replete with penis punch lines: from Ben Stiller's eye-watering caught-in-a-zipper scene in There's Something About Mary to the frozen-to-the-pole moment in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. This could be a matter of penile policy. Current MPAA regulations prevent the showing of erect penises in movies, thus leaving filmmakers who want to avoid the box-office death associated with an X-rating only one option for giving give the penis screen time: humor. But can you think of a laugh out loud movie moment involving a vagina? Although answering this question is unlikely to bag me a Nobel Prize, it is interesting to ask -- why are penises always cast in the comedy role?
Our willingness to laugh at penises extends beyond popular culture. In the world of risqué novelties so popular with bachelorette parties, there are endless examples of phallic party favors: penis hats, chocolate penises, and penis shaped mints. Penises even make their way into our pantries, with penis pasta and an endless array of penis shaped cookie cutters (after all, not all penises are cookie cutter). But Google vagina novelties and you get a very different array of goods: essentially sex toys and not a sign of a vagina shaped muffin tin. This could simply be a matter of anatomy. The simple shaft of a penis is far easier to replicate, and indeed put on a stick. In researching this article, several sources informed me that is was entirely possible to create a vagina-shaped cake using a range of variously shaped moulds. The DIY nature of this simultaneously highlights the more complicated vagina shape, and the fact that complete vagina-shaped cake tins are not readily available. But this doesn't explain why we are seemingly more willing to laugh at penises.
Chris Straayer, in his cinema studies text Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies suggests that the phallic shape has more cultural power than images of the actual penis. Comedy often involves creating situations in which traditional social norms and expectations are challenged. By showing men in situations in which their penises are put up for public viewing and fun-poking, movies are deriving fun through challenges to the traditional, cultural representations of the phallus as strong and powerful. These penises are also soft. Movies are literally deflating the penis, and male power, for comedy effect.
But understanding why we laugh at penises in popular culture also necessitates questioning why there is no comedic role for the vagina. Writing in Psychology Today, Naveed Saleh reports on the varied negative cultural representations of the vagina, which frame the vagina from vulnerable to dangerous. Saleh notes that there are ways to counter this negativity and the influence it may have on female self-esteem, through the promotion of positive images of the vagina (pointing to O'Keefe's flower paintings as a way to herald the vagina). In her text, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, Emma Rees notes that in our postmodern, porn-obsessed culture, vaginas appear to be everywhere, literally or symbolically but, crucially, they are as silenced as they are objectified. The vagina is so intrinsically linked to female sexuality, which so many societies have sought to control and suppress, that positive images of the vagina may risk breaking this control. But absent from each of these discussions is the notion of laughing at the vagina.
In 2007, movie director Judd Apatow announced "I'm gonna get a penis or a vagina in every movie I do from now on... It really makes me laugh in this day and age ... that anyone is troubled by seeing any part of the human body." By reframing the vagina in comedy, can we strip away notions of vulnerability and make female sexuality as palatable in popular culture as male sexuality? Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating we stop laughing at penises (they are quite ridiculous), but I do advocate for equal standing in comedy for the vagina. Just as we can deflate social notions of male power through comedic penile moments, perhaps we can destigmatize female sexuality by giving the vagina room to laugh. Or at least to be laughed at. A level genital playing field in comedy is a small, but important, step towards equality.
Follow Rob Stephenson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobStephenson74