It was Adam Buxton, comedian and veteran podcaster, who made me start to think about this issue. He was interviewing Caitlin Moran when the subject came up.
“I must admit I do get a bit cross,” he opined gently (the delightful Mr Buxton’s opining is never not gentle) “when female comedians have, you know, this whole routine about men and it’s all urgh, yuck, disgusting penises, aren’t they so ugly, all wrinkled and brown, don’t put that thing near me, all that sort of stuff that’s meant to be funny. I get a bit defensive.”
Moran agreed with him. “Yes! It’s so not OK! In my house though,” she said, “it’s always me who’s being prim and uptight and saying ‘that’s not fair! A man wouldn’t dream of making a comic skit on how ugly a vagina is, that would be massively inappropriate!’ whereas my husband will be rolling on the floor, laughing and saying ‘come on though, penises ARE ugly, they’re AMUSING, this is a FUNNY JOKE’.”
It was a very short section of the podcast, and it was definitely lighthearted. And Moran’s point made perfect sense to me at first. We’ve spent decades trying to right the psychological wrongs that centuries of body- and slut-shaming have wrought on us as women.
Throughout our lives, exhaustingly, we’ve seen ourselves defined in men’s eyes by the size of our breasts or the colour of our hair or the reported tightness or looseness of our vaginas, our morals, our grip on a given situation. Only in very recent years has there even been the beginning of any public discussion of the fact that this objectification is not OK.
I write as a woman who, when I wore my first bra aged thirteen, was once stopped roughly in my tracks by the grasping fingers of a boy in my class who yanked me backwards by my bra’s elastic, twisting carelessly to see its size label through the thin, cheap fabric of my school shirt. “36B!” he shrieked. “36 is fat, and B is flat! You’re flat and fat! FLAT AND FAT!”. I was winded and I was humiliated and I haven’t ever forgotten it.
So, no. Of course it’s not OK to make men feel like that, even for a minute and even as part of a comedy routine. Humour at the expense of someone’s psychological comfort just isn’t funny.
Here’s the thing, though. Here’s what I thought, as I considered the matter further (whilst trying not to think too much about Dicks I Have Known, and keep it all intellectual and academic). The thing is, I realised, that this objectification of the penis was never instigated by women.
Men objectify their own penises. They want us to look at them. They’re always asking us to.
I got married before Tinder, Hinge and Bumble were mainstream — let’s face it, I got married before apps of any kind even existed— but I’ve got enough single friends and I’ve read enough to know that dick pics (flaccid; erect; halfway; whatever, but almost never shown with a face in view) are a daily or even hourly occurrence in a dating app’s online message exchange.
We don’t ask for pictures of penises. We don’t want pictures of penises. But we get them, in their unedited droves. We are literally being forced to look at men’s junk, all the time.
Funnily enough, I’ve yet to read about the commensurate scourge of unsolicited vagina pictures. This does not seem to be a well-known thing. Which makes me think that maybe it is not. (Upskirting is a thing though, and it’s widespread enough also to have been named a crime recently, so there’s that).
And even before mobile phone cameras took dick pics to the clamouring masses, men have always played fast and loose with their own appendages. At school there were, literally, dick-measuring competitions in the boys’ changing rooms (they used graph paper from the maths classroom, and that’s all I know and all I ever want to know).
The phrase “dick-swinging contest” didn’t come out of nowhere, did it? Shakespeare wrote about men’s obsession with their “pricks”. Men have always swaggered and manspread and invited us to look at them doing so. Have forcedus to look at them doing so. Have been proud of their ability to do so. Have invited us to look at, and comment on, their penises.
How can it become unacceptable only at the moment we cease to act hushed and awed and grateful, and start observing humorously the truth of the fact that penises do often look quite funny? (Particularly, let’s be honest, when they’re spookily disembodied in a dick pic).
Maybe, too, on some level this comes back to the old comedy trope of punching up vs. punching down. Speaking truth to power by making jokes at the expense of those who are more privileged or who are not marginalised — that’s funny. Joking at the expense of those whose voice can never be as loud, or who have always been oppressed — not funny.
Comedy is a traditionally male-dominated industry and we live in a traditionally male-dominated world. It would be difficult to argue, even in a world where minorities are beginning to be represented more in the world of comedy as a whole, that women are anything other than marginalised in our representation there.
So I think female comedians are probably allowed to make a few dick jokes while we wait for some equality to filter down a bit more. And I think I’ll forgive myself for laughing at them.
Sorry, Dr Buckles.