We are a culture that is simultaneously obsessed with sex while instilling a sense of shame and belief that our bodies are inherently “not good enough.” Remember Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in 2009—the shock and horror expressed by so many at the sight of a female breast on national television resulted in moralistic finger-pointing and efforts to make sure such exposure would never happen again.
As mentioned last week, advertisers take advantage of this by creating a sense of envy in each of us by portraying models that embody characteristics we find desirable. We compare ourselves to these models and find ourselves coming up short. Perhaps this is why we are addicted to sex scandals in the media: as uncomfortable, and even terrible, as it is for the people caught in the midst of a media blitz, it provides a sense of triumph for the rest of us: we can see that these people and these bodies we had previously (and perhaps somewhat unconsciously) cast as superior in our minds are truly no different than, and perhaps morally inferior to, us.
The danger, however, is one that is instilled in each of us from childhood. From anti-bullying talks and lessons many of us heard from parents, we know that the way to feel good about ourselves should never come at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, we see this happening time and time again, even showing up in the discussions and debates from presidential candidates. But even further than simply an underlying sense of shame and degradation, we see the roots of sexism and racism present in how these comments are both presented and interpreted.
Marco Rubio stated that Donald Trump has small hands and “you know what that means.” And, of course, many (if not most) of us do: small hands (or small feet) in some way indicates that a man has a small penis, and in this society, we have an underlying message that size=importance. And, of course, Trump took the bait and made sure everyone knew Rubio was wrong (“I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”).
There is a sentiment, perhaps unconscious but nonetheless real, among white men in particular that penis size has some bearing on their importance. The porn industry has played on this by objectifying and fetishizing the image of “big black men” with small, white women for years, promoting what began in our deep racialized past. Not only are comments such as these designed to humiliate and/or denigrate a person based on a barometer that has no bearing on fitness for high political office, but it is a sentiment predominantly perpetrated by white men because there are other assumptions rampant in this society that are directly related to the penis size of black men (and it has very little to do with holding high office). The racial double-standard is one that is easily overlooked, but must be discussed if it can ever be dismantled.
To our knowledge, no one has talked about the size of Barack Obama’s penis. That may be because he does not present as a “big Black buck” fresh off the plantation, but the loathing towards the President, expressed by so many people who consider themselves white, surely has some roots in this ugly mythology.
And of course, what does this equation mean in relation to the women who seek office, and those who seek to compete in corporate boardrooms and politics? If penis size=importance, then women are entirely left out of the discussion.
Or, if a woman is strong (e.g., Hillary Clinton), she can be seen as too much like a man, yet still held to different standards. She lacks a penis but she makes up for it by being “tough,” often seen as “strident,” meaning she is not soft and feminine (also see Freud and others on “penis envy”). Where a man is described as a “strong leader” or “innovative thinker,” women who display similar attributes are considered “control freaks” or often just considered “bitchy.” This further connects to a distinctly feminine bodily activity: menstruation.
Donald Trump, reacting to Megyn Kelly’s unwelcome questions, stated that she was “bleeding from her eyes… bleeding from her…wherever.” Clearly meant to insinuate that Ms. Kelly’s comments were the result of a hormone-induced menstrual cycle, it not only serves to put down Ms. Kelly, but also reaffirm the idea that women who are menstruating are not capable of having informed, logical discussions. Women are expected to be emotional… but not too emotional.
It is striking that, while men are evaluated about their “manhood” based on something they are ultimately expected to take pride in (their penis and penis size), women are judged based on something that they are supposed to hide and be ashamed of (menstruation). There have been outrages on social media platforms because photos of women- fully clothed- with spots of period blood on their pants were taken down as obscene (ironically, in a set of photographs designed to show the realities, struggles, and shame around menstruation).
The truth is, these attacks are not only irrelevant to the discussion of presidential candidates, but they are reinforcing social stigmas and prejudices. Furthermore, they are creating a model as leaders that says we should behave this way–that when someone disagrees with you, you should bully them and shame them about something that is not relevant to the topic at hand. Rather than modeling adult, professional methods of disagreement, we see our potential future leaders resorting to tactics that are being undermined in kindergarten, elementary, and high school classrooms where young people are being taught alternative models of behavior.
And our concern is that in both these cases and others, political discourse is sexualized without anyone actually have to use the word “sex.” These are examples of sexual innuendo which is rife in our culture.
The use of (often barely) coded language reveals an essential truth, namely that the only way we can talk openly, publicly about sex and certain body parts is through circumlocutions, indirection, and in many cases through anxious humor (Rubio’s remarks were met with nervous laughter from the crowd, according to news reports).
But it is no surprise to us that this sort of conversation is happening in public, since it clearly happens all the time in less public venues. The idea that hand/finger size correlates to penis size is pretty common, and there are many people who don’t think women can be trusted with challenging tasks because of their inability to be rational at least a few days each month.
Increasingly, what was once private, even taboo, is now becoming public. But there is a difference between ‘public” and being “open.” Most men and probably many women don’t know how to have easeful conversations about menstruation, and the entire culture is pretty much in denial publicly about male and female body parts “down there.”
This is true even as there is a trend on parts of cable television, and in film, to show penises, and as many continue to press for more women in leadership roles in business and government.
We are a society hung up on sex but afraid to admit it. And we surely are afraid to admit that we engage in all sorts of assumptions and judgments based on bodily appearance.
We must do better. Let’s engage in real discussion about bodies and sexuality in ways that don’t require someone else to be put down in order for us to feel empowered.