Manhood? Or Penis-hood?

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Debbie and Laurie say:

Photographer Laura Dodsworth has completed a major project on penises (following a project she did on breasts). She calls the project, and accompanying book, Manhood: The Bare Reality, saying “One word for penis is manhood, so it seemed a perfect starting point to talk about being a man.”

Dodsworth did some admirable things for this project: she went looking for a wide variety of models, including trans men, men with micropenises, disabled men, and at least one strap-on. If you want to learn about the variety of penises, this is great. The Guardian article linked here includes interviews with several of the models, and the book probably has interviews with all of them.

This is a project we want to like. Familiar Men taught us both a lot about men and their penises, and the subject is under-explored, especially visually. But Dodsworth made two choices which deeply undercut the value of her work:
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First, she chose headless, and surprisingly bodiless, photography. Because all the men are standing in the same position, the same distance from the camera, with their hands in the same positions, the message is that the penis is the only differentiation, and thus the penis is the man. Anything else that might be of interest about each man is invisible, and thus unimportant. (Her breasts project is done in exactly the same format, equivalently making the breasts the only interesting thing about each woman.) In the same vein, she chose to make all the men nameless: not only no full names, but no first names, no initials, no handles, no aliases. Just their age, and the picture of their penis. Dodsworth succeeds in dehumanizing her models, reducing them to a single view; the interviews dispel this a little, but not enough.

Part of Dodsworth’s narrative about both of these projects is how brave these people were to have un-airbrushed pictures of their sexual organs shown in public. It’s always brave to tell your story; nonetheless, when we read these stories and the only visual context we are given is a picture of the penis that goes with the story, we lose track of the full humanity of the person behind the interview.
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Familiar Men exemplifies photographs of men of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and body types, showing their entire body and face to the world. In Laurie’s photography and our joint work, the penis is not the man. Where Dodsworth anonymizes, we strive to personalize.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the pointer!

Miley Cyrus: Dropping Your Baggage When It Gets in the Way

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Miley Cyrus with rainbow dreads

Debbie says:

I don’t know as much about hip-hop as I should (and Laurie, who does, isn’t available). And I’m by no means a spokesperson for most issues of cultural appropriation. In other words, the blind spots, flaws, and misapprehensions in this article are all mine.

That being said, I was struck by Jagger Blaec’s recounting and analysis of Miley Cyrus’ recent style changes, published at The Establishment.

I remember (who doesn’t?) when Cyrus threw herself into being the (next) white girl who got Black music.

In 2013, also in Billboard, Cyrus appeared to have reinvented herself with a hip-hop persona almost overnight. Earlier that year, she uploaded a video of herself twerking to a dirty south rapper J.Dash’s song, “Wop.” This was our first official introduction to the new “ratchet” Miley, and with this transformation, she was convinced that she had abandoned her pop-star image, enough so that she started being referred to in mainstream media as as “The White Nicki Minaj.”

When Minaj called out MTV for rewarding Cyrus for appropriating black culture and mocking the bodies of black women everywhere, rather than nominating Minaj, a black woman, Cyrus took an #allbodiesmatter stance. “There’s girls everywhere with this body type,” Cyrus told the New York Times, right before calling Nicki’s grievance just another “catfight.” It was Cyrus’s frightened response to the “angry black girl” trope, which included Minaj’s now-infamous question [“Miley, what’s good?“] that some believe put an end to Miley’s “thug life.”

Hmmm. Nicky Minaj or Miley Cyrus? Never seemed like a difficult question to me.

Nicki Minaj

Jagger Blaec is less interested in Cyrus’s hip-hop star days than in her new identity reboot.

Miley Cyrus today

Cyrus is really trying to put that image to bed — but she comes off as the typical colorblind white woman who still doesn’t seem to get how she’s been appropriating black culture over the last several years. She calls the fact that she was called out for using black women’s bodies as props “mind-boggling” and denies any wrongdoing in “taking advantage of black culture.” …

Her comments reek of respectability politics and seem heavily coded in racism, with her cherry-picking negative stereotypes from the genre she poached the first time she felt it was time to re-create herself.

Throughout the entire article, she goes to great lengths to disassociate herself from behaviors that can be coded as “urban,” and her repeated usage of the word “roots” seems synonymous with “white.” She even boasts about how she was inspired to reach beyond what she calls “outspoken liberals” to “cultivate country fans and red staters” (a phrase that could also be read to mean Trump supporters).

You think? You think the country’s (basically mythical) turn to the right and emboldened re-embracing of racism might have something to do with Cyrus’s makeover? Cynic!

Blaec clarified for me an aspect of cultural appropriation that’s rarely identified, and even more rarely examined. What’s more, this actually works as a reasonably accurate litmus test, though of course there are exceptions:

Can you give it up?

We call our histories “baggage” because we’re stuck with them, for worse and for better. Entertainment history is full of stories of artists who have worked like demons to disguise something about their history: their skin tone, their gender, their speech patterns. Some have certainly succeeded, so we usually don’t know who they are or what they paid for hiding their history. Many have failed, and we know something about the pain of their attempts to hide themselves and the danger of being discovered.

If you can change your mind, move in another direction, leave a specific set of cultural tropes and identification behind, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation. If you can’t give it up, if it will travel with you wherever you go, if your choice is to embrace it or deny/sidestep/downplay it, but you don’t get to discard it, that’s your culture. In some cases, it’s a culture that you don’t own but the world will thrust upon you; in other cases, it’s the life of your heart.

Stuff you can drop when it’s inconvenient is not “baggage,” it’s luxury goods. Miley Cyrus, and all cultural appropriators would be well advised to pay attention to the difference between what’s ours and what we borrow at whim … and who suffers as we impulsively pick up and put down our toys.