A Short History of the Penis, Masculinity, and American Feminism

A Short History of the Penis, Masculinity, and American Feminism

If you haven’t heard of Claire Wyckoff, the San Francisco woman who copywrites by day for a global advertising firm and in her spare time maps runs that look like penises (or other stuff) around town using the NikePlus app, head over to her Tumblr right now. Seriously, right now. We’ll wait.

"Today's Run Was Hard," June 15, 2014. (Claire Wyckoff/Tumblr)
Today’s Run Was Hard,” June 15, 2014. (Claire Wyckoff/Tumblr)

Wyckoff appeared all over the interwebs and other media, including Vogue, CNN, and Perez Hilton. After a particularly thoughtful interview with Jessica Goldberg at ThinkProgress where she spoke candidly about feminism, the penis, and male power, Nursing Clio got in touch with Wyckoff to talk more about her art and the academic side of the dick.

Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of research on the role of the penis in the development of masculine ideals or feminist philosophy. Of course, Freud famously said that women had penis envy. And it’s a standard cultural stereotype that men like to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the most precious part of their anatomy. Historically, anatomists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries viewed penises and vaginas as physically similar, what historian Thomas Laqueur terms “the one-sex” model.1 If you look at drawings from Vesalius, you can hardly tell the two apart.

Reproductive organ illustrations by Vesalius and Vidus Vidius
(Left) “Vagina as penis,” from Vesalius, Fabrica, sixteenth century. (Right) “The vagina and uterus,” from Vidus Vidius, De anatome corporis humani, 1611. (Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, 82.)

In other words, women were simply lesser versions of men, complete with female forms of male anatomy, including the clitoris which was likened to a penis. But by the eighteenth century, people’s reproductive organs began to symbolize the major source of difference between the sexes. Epistemological notions of the body and its workings — accounts of the mechanics of conception for one — began to dictate ideas about female behavior and nature. Ultimately, this transformation in understanding of female and male bodies became the driving engine behind the development of “separate spheres.” Rather than a hierarchy, women and men orbited different worlds, which had major impacts on women’s political and social equality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The penis continues to loom large in modern culture today, and Wyckoff and her drawings ignited a major cultural nerve in early August. From Lorena Bobbitt jokes, Viagra commercials, Tumblrs dedicated solely to Jon Hamm’s private girth, or the HBO Series “Hung,” the dick is everywhere in modern culture. But it’s out there in a way that is fundamentally different than female genitalia. Thinking about the cultural significance of Wyckoff’s drawings gives us some insight into this divide.

As an artistic subject, penises run the gamut from bathroom graffiti to cultural relics to crochet. (cimorenegal/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)
As an artistic subject, penises run the gamut from bathroom graffiti to cultural relics to crochet. (cimorenegal/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Wyckoff has ably linked modern technology to art and capitalism through her use of the NikePlus app and managed to say something about the penis as both a commodity and an object. People look at her Instagram photos to laugh together about the silliness of the male anatomy. And while Jennifer Lawrence and Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies are mostly circulated in the darkest corners of creepy chat rooms, it’s a seemingly refreshing change to be able to unabashedly post a link to her penis drawings on one’s social media accounts. Because, hey, they’re just penises, and they’re funny! But her art also invites us to ask some critical questions. Why are artistic depictions of the penis comedic and non-threatening, when the social problems (rape, assault, patriarchy) stemming from the penis and its social capital are so problematic? Does it make it funnier if it’s a woman making fun of the penis? If so, why is that, in a world where female comedians are often ignored or reviled for being too “vulgar”?

Below Lauren Thompson and Wyckoff tackled these questions in several email exchanges to see if they could come to any grand conclusions about the cultural meaning of the penis. In full disclosure, the two women have known each other since the age of five, so their conversation was slightly less weird than it could have been.

Thompson: Hey, girl. So have you settled down yet from the craziness of your internet fame? Did Jimmy Fallon ever call you? I saw on Twitter you were trying to get him to publicize your dick runs.

Wyckoff: Settle down? I’ll never settle down. And no — no word from Jimmy. And no one hacked the nudes from my phone. So there’s obviously a conspiracy going on…

Thompson: Speaking of nudes, let’s talk genitals and Jennifer Lawrence. How do you read the difference between depictions of male and female genitalia?

Wyckoff: Oh wow. Well, I guess the female body is considered generally more aesthetically pleasing. The female body is also considered more “forbidden” and often covered, so seeing it in the buff is probably a little bit more like Christmas. Either way, human bodies are just weird. We all have the same junk. And it’s all pretty strange. But that’s probably also why we’re fascinated by it. Anatomically, I doubt our bodies have changed much in the last thousand years, but it doesn’t stop us from being fucking riveted by them and how they look. Or running pictures of them with Nike+ apps.

Thompson: One of the things I was intrigued by in your interview with ThinkProgress was your comment:

[gblockquote]People are asking why I don’t run a vagina. But dicks are funny. They’re funny to look at. They kind of look like elephants from the front. They get small when they’re cold. I have nothing on my body that, when I’m happy, it changes size …. I might need to find a psychologist to dive into the psychology of why penises are hilarious. I feel like at some level it also has to do with men and women and society. I wonder if there’s something funny about it in a predominately male-dominated society, maybe there’s some humor to making fun of the one or two things the patriarchy has that is humorous …. Inherently, I think there’s a little bit of humor in making fun of the one thing on the male body that’s strange. You make more money than me, I’m going to make fun of your dick.[/gblockquote]

As a historian, there were so many great things in that bit of the interview. Can you talk a little bit more about your particular stance on feminism? Your mom, for example, has always been active in feminist causes, particularly pro-choice work. Did that influence you growing up?

Western culture isn't alone in its focus on the penis. The Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, or "Festival of the Steel Phallus," occurs annually in Kawasaki, Japan. (tomiaruda/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)
Western culture isn’t alone in its focus on the penis. The Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, or “Festival of the Steel Phallus,” occurs annually in Kawasaki, Japan. (tomiaruda/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Wyckoff: I was raised by a damned strong lady. And, for a long while I thought being “feminist” meant drawing attention to a plight that didn’t exist. As in, if you say you’re feminist you’re telling people you needed a voice which, maybe, in my mind, you didn’t need. I feel a little differently now. I don’t need to march on Washington. But I do think that when people see Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kill it at hosting an awards show it’s worth pointing out that sex organs determine little more than what role you play in reproduction.

Thompson: Your mom’s cool with the penis runs, I know, but your dad was a little more wary. What’s been the general response from men about your drawings? Has anyone accused you of doing something “bad?”

Wyckoff: Men for the most part have laughed at the joke. They’ve actually found it funnier than a lot of women have. One night I went down the Internet rabbit hole and started reading obscure comments people were making. There was a lot of insinuation that I was horny, repressed, cock-obsessed … they probably aren’t wrong.

Thompson: How has working in advertising given you a unique perspective on making men the butt of the joke — or this time the penis of the joke, maybe? So often, it’s the infantalization or “shrewing” of the woman that’s considered funny, but lately, it seems as though it’s funnier to make fun of dudes, and your penis humor fits that. Thoughts?

Wyckoff: Advertisers and brands have long believed that women were a people who could only laugh at really insipid jokes. Or there was a fear of taking humor to an interesting place. And yeah — there was a thought that the only “safe” thing women could laugh at was the fact that men can’t cook or some shit. That’s infantilizing to both parties. I think making fun of men is a little topical because it represents a shift in what we can laugh at — it used to be that only men were joke-makers. But more than anything I think we’re enjoying the fact that we can finally talk about shit in an honest way. Dicks are funny. So are ovaries. I don’t care. Humans are funny. We all take shits.

"Louis XIV of France" (1701). (Hyacinthe Rigaud/Wikimedia Commons | Public domain)
“Louis XIV of France” (1701). (Hyacinthe Rigaud/Wikimedia Commons | Public domain)

Thompson: Indeed. And there’s been a lot of backlash about that too — Melissa McCarthy movies in particular have been assailed for being too scatological and vulgar. What’s up with that? Why is it okay for the guys from The Hangover to be weird and gross by any standard, but when women do it, it’s considered “groundbreaking” by some and disgusting by others?

Wyckoff: Well, women have long been taught to be demure and proper. To present an almost inhuman picture of ourselves. I think only recently has it become OK and even funny to be fucking honest about our needs, our bodies, our physical weirdness. I think it’s great. I think a new form of comedy has come about in recent years because there’s a whole arena of things that are now fair game. People who think it’s gross are those far-right folks who seem to think anything fun is against The Word of Christ. Don’t get me started.

Thompson: Ok, so I have to ask. This is a history blog after all. Whose historical penis would you like to run and why?

Wyckoff: Oh wow. Probably Louis XIV. He was such a queen. Or Joan of Arc. She had a pair for sure.


  1. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992). Return to text.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.

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