When Donald Trump responded to Marco Rubio’s comment about his small hands being no indication of a problem elsewhere on his body, he invoked one of the most vulgar tropes about masculinity: That the size of the male genitals reflects an individual’s power. Like a pair of juvenile frat boys, Rubio and Trump quickly turned a debate for the most powerful job in the country, perhaps the world, into an equipment-measuring contest.
More recently, sculptor Joshua Monroe used the pseudonyms “INDECLINE” and “Ginger” to place five copies of a statue of a naked Donald Trump. The title of the piece was a clear reference to the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which a vain ruler is duped into walking around naked by two weavers who convince him that his new outfit can only be seen by people who are worthy to do so. Monroe named his statues “The Emperor has No Balls”; while the statue appears to be fairly realistic, if not generous, Trump’s genitals are embarrassingly small.
Whether or not Trump “deserves” this treatment is one discussion; whether or not this qualifies as art, as satire, or as a deep commentary on society in and of itself is another discussion. Those topics aside, though: What do these two incidents tell us about how our manhood continues to be tied to our “manhood”?
When they removed the statue in Union Square, New York City Parks issued a statement: “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.” Not one, not two, but three juvenile puns about the intended thesis of the statue. Rich Smith for The Stranger writes, “People … are going nuts over the nutless statue. … I got excited.” People rushed to pose with the statue and to point and laugh.
Meanwhile, critics questioned whether we would be so tolerant of an analogous statue of Hillary Clinton. Communally, we openly laugh at the concept of Donald Trump with diminished virility. The statue as a whole was taken as body-shaming, but most of his body is accurate and presented frankly. According to the Daily Beast, the artist was quick to claim that he had “no intent to fat-shame” Trump because he’s “not a skinny guy myself [sic].”
It would not be easy to make an analogous statue of Ms. Clinton because, in our culture, men’s bodies and women’s bodies are granted power in different ways. Female bodies are judged mainly by their ability to attract : Fat-shaming is rooted in the way that heavy bodies are not deemed attractive by current standards. While fat-shaming happens to men, it’s not nearly as widespread as it is with female victims.
Instead, male bodies are judged mainly by their ability to perform. Viagra ads play on this anxiety, as do various other ads for size enhancement products. Even articles that try to dispel the myth contain humorous comments or photos that are at best gentle taunts.
Meanwhile, cultural references to “thinking with the little head” exonerate the most reckless and juvenile behavior. For instance, in her book “Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World,” Lisa Bloom writes about President Bill Clinton, “I’ve noticed that for Democratic male politicians, the whoppers usually stem from thinking with the little head, no matter how smart the big head might be” (p.31). Further, suggestions are routinely made that guns are a proxy for that part of the male body: Men who need big guns or big trucks or big anything are overcompensating for a particularly small body part.
It is culturally damaging to the male psyche to tie so much power and significance into the magnitude and functioning of one body part. Many men have had the experience of being mocked or feeling insecure over the size of that body part, sometimes to the point of having suicidal thoughts. It’s the other side of rape culture: If a man’s worth is based on his sexual abilities, then a man can prove his worth through performance. If he can’t find a willing participant, he might well feel compelled to force the issue.
Women routinely complain about receiving unwanted “dick pics” over social media, presumably from men who think that that’s what women are looking for: “Here it is, what I have to offer, all I have to offer, all I think you care about.” The irony, of course, is that most women don’t want these at all; they do want to get to know men for their personalities. Men have mostly built up this myth that size equates to power and value by themselves.
It is clear to me that most men aren’t happy with the myth. We approach incidents like the Trump statues with the awkward giggling of a pre-teen. I can imagine the men who drafted the NYC Parks statement chuckling like schoolboys and trying to outdo themselves on the puerile puns. We’re not comfortable with the myth of localizing power to that one item, but we feel powerless to change it.
If we’re powerless, though, who can change it?
We’re precisely the ones who can change it, and the ones who need to change it. There is no “little head”; we think with the same brain as women. There is no mystical power: It’s a body part. It serves some natural functions. That’s it. Trump’s power or worth is not tied to his size; nor is any man’s.
Monroe cannot be directly blamed for using the myth to make a point: Painters and sculptors are limited by their medium, and routinely exploit cultural beliefs in service of their personal message. Like Trump and his xenophobia, Monroe is a product of his culture. Don’t blame the messenger, blame the society for creating a myth that would allow for such a visceral and unambiguous message.
Dismantling and rewriting the myth is not a trivial matter. It’s embedded in our language: “virile” comes from the Latin word for “man” (“vir”) and even the word “manhood” has become slang for the single body part. But if men are to evolve beyond the current juvenilia, it is necessary to attack the myth.
Let’s work together to make sure that messages like these are no longer meaningful.
More by author Paul Hartzer on The Good Men Project:
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Photo credit: Getty Images/Justin Sullivan