February 14, 2012

The Penis and Valentine’s Day: A Story of Disappointment

J. Bradley Blankenship observes that that both the penis and Valentine’s Day have a hard time living up to expectations.

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In honor of Valentine’s Day I thought I’d stray from the typical chocolates and candy and take a different perspective. It has been my observation that both the penis and Valentine’s Day have a hard time living up to expectations.


I think it’s safe to claim that in American culture there is some association between masculinity and the penis.  Some people even make jokes about men overcompensating for having a small penis by buying fast cars or larger houses to appear more masculine.

The interesting thing about masculinity is that we can argue that it is unattainable. Masculinity is defined by what it isn’t.  Actual characteristics of masculinity can be hard to name but the characteristics of what doesn’t make someone masculine are numerous. (The masculinity conversation is really interesting and deserves a more dedicated blog post. For today’s purposes, just work with me for a moment).

A Mythologized Ideal

Masculinity is what we call, a ‘mythologized ideal’. When I say mythologized, I mean, whatever it is that has been mythologized is like… a myth. The ‘idea’ of something has gotten a lot bigger and grander than the actual reality of it. In regards to masculinity, one theory is that our cultural definition of masculinity is larger than life. In fact, the expectation of masculinity is so daunting that it actually can’t be attained. As a result, masculinity is something that the person who is trying to be masculine is always trying to work for but can never quite achieve.

Masculinity and The Penis

I agree with other gender researchers that, like masculinity, the penis has also become mythologized. Can the penis ever live up to expectations? The reality of a penis just can’t live up to all the hype that our culture talks about. In an earlier distinguishing sex from gender blog, we acknowledged that most people’s primary distinction between male and female is with genitals: boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.

When we think of Masculinity, many people have this initial inclination to attribute the very masculine with a big penis.  This association simply isn’t the case. It’s a faulty connection.  On an everyday basis, we don’t get to look at everyone’s genitals to see if what they look like aligns with what we think they should like.  Therefore, we have no way of confirming that, the person you found masculine on the bus has a big penis. In fact, there’s no way to confirm that that person even had a penis!

With the absence of a penis to go on, we look at other characteristics. Does the person have big muscles? Does the person have facial hair? How is the person standing? What does the person sound like? We start building an image in our head and make subtle inferences about whether or not we consider that person masculine. For many people, a subconscious connection is then made between the masculinity being presented and the assumed penis size.

Unattainable Expectations

These sorts of connections and subconscious constructions are going on everyday. Our culture helps shape the connections we make through the various media we consume. When we internalize these ideals of what things should or should not be, we don’t only hold other people to them, we hold ourselves to the same unattainable expectations.

The reality is that these unattainable expectations then disappoint. We begin to hold ourselves as well as our romantic partners to these same unattainable expectations. Women are working to be thinner, prettier, and fitter while men are working to increase their muscle sizes, perfect their masculine stances, and obsess over how to make their penis bigger.  Ironically, the bigger the muscles get, the smaller the penis looks. This only contributes to more self-consciousness and preoccupation with penis size. These unattainable mythologized ideals have us obsessing with trying to be something that we aren’t.

The Mythologized Ideal of Valentine’s Day

This brings me to Valentine’s Day. The idea of Valentine’s Day has spun so far out of control in our society that if people aren’t feeling excluded for being single then they are freaking out over the ‘perfect’ Valentine’s gift.  The idea of Valentine’s Day has become mythologized. The ‘perfect’ valentine’s gift doesn’t exist! Like masculinity, Valentine’s Day has become a larger than life ideal. Like the penis, there seems to be a lot of hype about what Valentine’s Day should be and I seriously wonder if it can ever be attained.

Parting Thoughts

I’m not trying to suggest a ‘doom and gloom’ perspective. I don’t believe that both the penis and Valentine’s Day mean certain disappointment. What I am suggesting, however, is that we try to let go of all the baggage and cultural expectations around what we are told things ‘should’ be. Maybe if we weren’t preoccupied with trying to make things something that they aren’t, we would stop feeling inadequate. Both Valentine’s Day and the penis have the potential to be fun but because our culture has put so much pressure on them to be something that they aren’t, it’s easy to feel bad about ourselves because we didn’t live up to an unattainable ideal.