Yesterday, my son and I were in San Francisco, and it seemed that every bus that passed us sported a colorful ad with three anthropomorphic cartoon penises dressed in clothes.
The “Healthy Penis” campaign, warning the public about the dangers of syphilis, has been around for several years now, on buses, in print, and on television. I’m sure few people in SF give these mobile billboards a second thought. However, to a 12-year-old, they’re absolutely hilarious.
The first one he saw was out the car window. He said, “did you see that bus? I think it had penises on it.”
“Thankfully, I missed it,” I said. (I’ve seen the bus ads before, but hoped this would be the last of the conversation. Being a parent teaches you nothing, if not how to downplay and drop a topic.)
“Maybe we’ll see it again,” he said.
“Oh my god, mom. Those ARE penises!” he said, as we sat in the window of a favorite taqueria and one of the buses stopped at the corner directly in front of us. “That’s got to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
He was laughing so hard he was holding his sides.
There was a web address in the ad: www.healthypenis.org.
“When we get home, we’ve got to look that up,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what’s there.”
“Sex ed information,” I said.
I explained to him what syphilis is, and why people need to be concerned about it. He’s no stranger to hearing about sexually transmitted diseases because I used to work for an HIV/AIDS organization.
“Still,” he said. “The website’s got to be funny.”
I found myself thinking about the cultural acceptance of penises as funny and sort of friendly. They are often talked about as a “little man,” having the potential to become the third, or fourth, personality in a relationship. I’ve heard that some men name theirs. The stage show, Puppetry of the Penis – in which two men manipulate their own genitals into silly shapes on stage – is about to have a return engagement in New York.
I’ve only known one woman who named her vagina. She volunteered to me, one day over lunch, that she called hers “Brenda”. This was so much more than I wanted to know about her.
The Healthy Penis ads made me think of a film clip from my youth. In the 1970s, there was a brief trend of making movies that had no plot, they were simply a series of skits, and usually in bad taste. The Groove Tube, which made fun of American television, was released in 1974, before I was old enough to see it. But it was later rerun in a local theater in a double feature with another skit film, Kentucky Fried Movie. I probably still wasn’t old enough to see either of them, but back in the olden days, theater owners didn’t care like they do now.
I soon discovered that one of the highlights of The Groove Tube, was Safety Sam, a talking penis.
While wildly scandalous when the movie was released, I had no problem letting my son watch Safety Sam. In fact, he found the skit about Brown 25 (“another product from Uranus”) much funnier.
I’ve never run across a public ad campaign with a cartoon of female genitalia.
I’ve seen some pretty satin and velvet vulva/vagina hand puppets, but they’re mostly intended for education.
Even in this clip from The Tyra Banks Show, which made television history by dedicating an hour of national television exposure to vaginas, the puppet isn’t playful so much as way to help women be less afraid of their own parts. In fact, I found the whole conversation annoying because of how it’s predicated in an assumption of misunderstanding and mystery (with hints of shame).
Almost every person in the world born with two X chromosomes has some form of female genitalia. It’s embarrassing that an hour of daytime television would be dedicated to explaining where our parts are and how they work, in the simplest terms.
Can you imagine a similar televised discussion of penises?
I doubt it.
We have so much historic and cultural exposure to penises, through everything from stage shows to national days of celebration (Japan’s Penis Day is March 15), that there’s apparently nothing left to do besides turn them into cartoon characters and give them their own FaceBook pages, which HealthyPenis.org has done.
I think that we need more cultural exposure to vulvas and vaginas, and a good place to start woud be a happy, playful, talking vagina.