Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Virtue of a Small Penis

When I first went to Florence, I asked my sister in a museum why all the sculptures of naked men had such small penises. At this, her face screwed up with mischievous delight:
"Yours isn't any bigger!"
She was, of course, totally right. I was eight years old.

Poseidon (or Zeus) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Bronze, ca. 460 BC.

Two decades and one puberty spurt later, however, things stand a little differently. And while visiting Athens this month, my question from the 90's returned: How come these perfectly formed males sport such relatively modest members? 

Croatian Apoxyomenos, Bronze, 1st or 2nd c. BC.

After a little research, it turns out that the answer is the same as to any question regarding beauty and body cults: it's cultural. The Ancient Greeks quite simply considered small penises better than big ones. Back then, the ideal man possessed authority, intellect and reason. These were all considered unrelated to penis size. Instead, it was believed that a small penis would help a man not to become a victim of his lust (think poor Michael Fassbender in Shame). 

Shepherd pursued by a phallic Pan - Greek vase, Athenian red figure krater

Big penises, on the other hand, were associated with ugliness and foolishness, which is why only animals or half-animals (such as Satyrs) were depicted with them. The fertility god Priapus was cursed with a permanent massive erection. He was associated with donkeys, and so despised by the other gods that he was thrown off Mount Olympus. 

A Greek Terracotta figure of Priapus, ©Christie’s 2015

The playwright Aristophanes summarizes the Greeks' ideal of male beauty in his play Clouds (first performed in 423 BC.) when he says:

If you do these things I tell you, and bend your efforts to them, you will always have a shining breast, a bright skin, big shoulders, a minute tongue, a big rump and a small prick. But if you follow the practices of today, for a start you’ll have a pale skin, small shoulders, a skinny chest, a big tongue, a small rump, a big prick and a long-winded decree.” (Lines 1010 – 1019, emphasis mine)

This male ideal continued to be propagated by sculptors throughout the ages, from the Romans down to the Renaissance. 

Who would have thought? Sometimes there's nothing better than answering your own question. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


It may not feel like it, but winter is coming to an end. And this means: (Sun) bathing is nigh. In case you have forgotten what that looks like, here three examples from recent and not so recent history.

1 - Collier Schorr, Schwäbisch Gmünd (2007)
2 - Vintage photograph, anonymous
3 - Michiel Sweerts, Men bathing (1655)

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Mania around Moonlight

I first read about "Moonlight" in its New Yorker review last October. The unbeatably clever Hilton Als was smitten by the poetic story about a gay black teenager, and he evoked the key scenes so lovingly that it made me want to see the film more than any other in a long time. I wrote it down on my "to-see" list and never heard about it again.

Until this January. The streets of Paris were plastered with the poster - a serious and somehow vulnerable face daring anyone to look at it. I was so glad. Since when were double-minority (or triple? black, gay and poor) films in the mainstream? And since when do these kinds of films receive Academy Award nominations for Best Feature? 

So when I finally went to see it last night, the expectations were high. I sat down and held my breath, waiting for the magic. Patiently I let scene by scene pass, but little happened. The pace was slow. A silent traumatized boy passes from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, abused by bullies at school and his drugged mother at home. He finds comfort with a couple who pick him up out of kindness, and experiences a glimpse of love with a boy on the beach.

There are scenes that are beautifully done, and some throw up questions you may have never asked yourself - especially those concerning the fate of homosexuals and black identity in the most disadvantaged parts of America.

But ultimately, in its quest to be artistic, the film ends up being frustrating: The bullied child becomes a lonely drug-dealer who hardly knows who he is, and doesn't make an effort to find out. Ironically, the story becomes a little too much like its main character: silent, underdeveloped, and ultimately unresolved. There is a way to make all these things interesting and deep, but Moonlight doesn't manage that. Instead, it relies excessively on stylizations that make one think of Beyonce's Lemonade, with long self-conscious shots of Southern scenery. I so wish the film could have had the courage to go further, to actually tackle questions it throws up. Failing that, it would have been better to condense the 111 minutes to 30 without losing a gram of its meaning. But since this abridged version doesn't exist, I suggest you save your cinema fare and get the best of the film from Als' fantastic review.