Friday, August 14, 2009

The Heroic Phallus

Yes, you heard me right. I'm blogging on the phallus. We've had a lot of great discussions about alpha males and heroic leads here, and really, it's all the same topic isn't it?

But I suppose first some clarification is in order. I am not blogging on the penis. A penis is a body part. The phallus is a symbol, as a Valentine heart represents ideas we associate with the real heart, but does not resemble one. According to Susan Bordo, the phallus is the penis that takes one's breath away, that conveys awe and majesty. An ideal, rather than a reality, and in a culture that startles at the word 'penis' in plain conversation, the phallus must lurk beneath the surface rather than walk in broad daylight. Rather than the carved renditions of ancient Rome, it is the 2010 Ford Mustang described as "a visual representation of raw power". It is the sleek and dangerous longsword, ever-erect -- never, ever soft. And, I would argue, it is the alpha hero.

After all, what is an alpha hero? He is the superior specimen among men, commanding, masterful. The hero that takes one's breath away. He exists in every genre of romance, and although in one story he may go through a whole box of condoms at a sitting, draw the bigger gun to kill a man in another, or just kiss the heroine's hand from atop a bareback stallion, he is still an alpha, and part of being alpha is being phallic.

Long ago (March), Janet blogged on heroes, with a link to Tami Cowden's Eight Hero Archetypes. Tami describes the Chief, the quintessential alpha hero, "born to lead, ... conquered his way to the top, ... tough, decisive, goal-oriented. He's used to being in charge, so he's going to make a command decision about what to do." This is a man inspiring awe and majesty. This is a man embodying the phallic idea. A friendly boy-next-door beta hero simply doesn’t awe us the same.

I'm sure none of us would argue men (or the vast majority) prize their manhood above all else. We don't talk about it directly, so the whole man comes to represent that phallic ideal, that promise of virility. To quote Bordo, "thinking that one's penis is smaller than it should be is not really about inches but 'about how men are trained by the world to see [themselves] as not enough.'" Cowden gives each of her archetypal heroes a 'trapped in a basement with unconscious heroine and ticking bomb' scenario, and the true alpha hero, she says, cannot make mistakes, but since he's trapped... he's made a mistake, so logically, he gets angry.

In making a mistake, the alpha hero’s phallic strength has been threatened, and the hero might now be dubbed 'not enough' ... or to put it simply, flaccid. The phallic ideal is always erect, never yielding. If the alpha hero shows weakness or ineptitude, it can threaten his phallic majesty, which the author needs to restore if she wants him to stay an alpha. So what does the alpha do? He gets angry, and thus asserts himself actively (gets angry) until he regains control of the situation.

But you might be saying, "Honestly Hayley, don't you think you're reading too much into this?" Well, yes and no, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

Really though, if your sexy alpha hero is trapped in a basement with the heroine and a bomb, what do you want to see? Do you want him to be assertive, maybe even aggressive, and show us he can take charge, or do you want him to flop on that old fold-out sofa and hang his head in his hands? If you said take charge, why? Because somehow the alpha hero just isn't as attractive when he's passive rather than helping the unconscious heroine? Exactly, he's soft, flaccid, and has thus lost the awe and majesty of the phallic ideal. Even though there's nothing sexual, and certainly nothing to do with body parts in Cowden's proposed scene, the alpha hero loses a sense of his virility, which he must recover.

The phallic ideal embodies virile majesty in a non-sexual context (in a sexual context, the real thing affirms itself just fine). We see it in the big guns of cop movies (and the resulting 'noisy cricket' gag in Men in Black), or Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, who tames Donas, the untamable 'devil' stallion. Not a gelding, not a mare, Jamie Fraser has a stallion between his thighs, and don't we know it, ladies? Even in a chaste, sweetheart romance, I bet you don't see many heroes riding placid geldings. In my own work-in-progress, without even planning for it, I gave the hero a longsword, and the antagonist a knife. I don't think anyone wonder who the superior man is. Knives don't inspire awe like a sword.

But as Freud said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and this is true. Not every fast car, shotgun, or powerful electric razor automatically becomes phallic. Sometimes that hero is taming a horse for plot reasons. Sometimes you have to give the man a gun, because he's a police officer for heaven's sake! "The proof," says Bordo, "is in the metaphors we use to describe them." War weapons are not always extensions of the soldier's penis, but then there is this description of the explosion at Nagasaki:
"...there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the size of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upward and then descending downward, a thousand geysers rolled into one."

I've read some steamy love scenes, but none have come as close to a lurid climax as this mushroom cloud. Regardless of heat level you're including in your romance, you will very likely wind up making suggestions about your hero's 'phallic' qualities. If you do it consciously, all the better.

The romance hero offers a unique type of phallic ideal, which Bordo mentions at the conclusion of her essay. Strength, majesty, and control, mixed with tenderness and mutual recognition -- romance novels celebrate the ideal phallus. Nowhere else, I think, could an alpha hero also bare his soul to the woman he loves, and still emerge a strong, unquestionably awe-inspiring figure. It is up to the author to handle this balance between the heroine’s man and the world’s man, and recognize when the phallus must assert itself. The phallus is a creature of cultural imagination, a symbol rather than a body part, and should an author choose, can be a potent tool for building an impressive alpha hero.

Quotes from: Bordo, Susan. "What is a Phallus?" The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private.


Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

Interesting post. I commend you. I have a somewhat different POV.

Real Alpha Males say things like: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And “Don’t get mad, get even.” You do not want to mess with these males.

No male wants an erection all the time. Except for one purpose, it just gets in the way.

A male in a locked room with a bomb and a heroine would best coolly disarm the bomb. Intelligence is also an aphrodisiac.

Would a bare-chested Fabio be less a man if he rode a mare onto the scene to rescue a heroine? Do you actually check the artwork to determine the gender of the horse?

Is there really a ‘there’ there?

To me a phallus is a symbol that only contains what the viewer brings to it. Indeed, it is like a mirror which shows us what is behind our own eyes.

Now if you want to talk about Georgia O'Keeffe’s paintings, there is a fertile ground for symbolism. : )


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Interesting topic. So you're equating "phallic" with virility, power, take-charge-ness (yes, I know that's not a real word)and all the other attributes of an alpha male. I like what you said about him being the heroine's man and the world's man and him balancing the two. We often talk aobut the heroine "taming" the alpha male, but it's more like he's "another man" with her. I think it's a better way of considering the change that love creates in the alpha man.

I also like what Vince said about intelligence. There is nothing sexier than a smart hero.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Vince, always glad to examine the various points of view on an issue like this. I'm working with Susan Bordo's article as a basis for my analysis, so it's certainly not an All The Time answer, but I think it's a very accurate way of looking at things.

The thing to keep in mind is, the concept of the phallus isn't sexual. As in, it's not about having an erection all the time, it's about the man who embodies a sense of awe and majesty, who is every inch a king among men. That's exactly what you're describing in your examples.

Alpha males who get even? Yep, you don't want to mess with them. They are impressive, perhaps even fear-inspiring (which rather reminds of of D.H. Lawrence's reactions of women viewing an erect penis before a love scene... always scared, darn ladies).

Erection all the time? Absolutely not. As I said in my post, this isn't about the actual penis, or the act of sex. Embodying the ideals of a symbolic heart doesn't have anything to do with the actual beating heart in your chest, the same as the symbolic phallus isn't a body part.

Disarming the bomb? Hot damn, that's definitely impressive and in charge. That's a man in no fear of losing his phallic presence. In Cowden's scenario though, the alpha gets angry, since not every hero knows how to disarm a bomb, so I was working from her example. If the alpha does get angry since he can't maintain the superiority you're talking about, I read it as a need to reassert that power and majesty, or else risk being accused of inferiority during that time of helplessness. Instead, bust down the door and he still 'looks like a man'.

All the best man-to-man insults feminize men, which essentially threatens that phallic presence. Again, when I say phallic, I don't mean penis, I mean symbolic awe and majesty indirectly referencing all those things we associate with the erect penis. Bordo compares it to a stag's antlers. Huge antlers would technically be unwieldy, but they're still a threat because they speak for the overall health and fitness of the animal. The same with men... a person isn't afraid what that man with the large penis could do to in a fight with it, but rather that it betokens some intangible combination of high testosterone, power, etc, so that we conclude that person's an exceptional male specimen. An impressive alpha hero could, of course, have a penis size completely unrelated to his phallic presence, but that presence suggests otherwise... and I think few romance authors would want to disappoint their readers with an 'only average' love scene.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Oh, and I meant to reply to the Fabio example and forgot to before I hit publish!

I'm glad you mentioned Fabio and the mare. That falls in the 'just a cigar' category (although I must admit a snickering moment at the initial thought.. and what do you think prompted that response, eh?) An alpha hero on a mare wouldn't necessarily be any less impressive, but if you stick your alpha on the stallion and the rival man on a placid mare, I would argue then you're making a commentary on the worth of these two male specimens. It's not automatically phallic, it depends on how the author chooses to use it. As I've been reading Outlander, I've found the descriptions about the fiery writhing beast Jamie sits astride certainly feel like they have some sexual innuendo, and of course Gabaldon confirms that in her following love scenes. On the other hand, the hero in my own wip rides a mare, and rather than a phallic reference, my intent with it is actually a sort of 'rival woman', creating a very different dynamic. It doesn't emasculate him, because there's nothing in the language I use to form that comparison. The language surrounding his sword, however, is a whole other ball of wax, and I'm sure people could read phallic innuendo into it. If a romance's hero goes on a trail ride and gets a mare for plot reasons, and feels embarrassed about it, then that's making a comparison, I'd say.

Sorry this reply wound up so long! I had a heck of a time trying to trim down the topic to fit a decent blog posts size, and it's a broad piece of theory to tackle. I hope this clarifies where I'm coming from a little, but certainly you're welcome to disagree :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Jana, you're right on the money. Essentially I feel that according to Bordo's concept of the symbolic phallus, alpha heroes, who are necessarily awe-inspiring and impressive, are pretty much perfect embodiments of that ideal. If they slip up, like in Cowden's example, they have to recover it.

I've had to work now and then with a moment in the story to make sure my hero still felt like the right character at the end of it, and I realize now it was likely because I was trying to harmonize vulnerability and a flawed record (they can't be perfect all the time!) with maintaining that takechargedness (love it) that was also part of the character.

I think these are the sort of things we pick up on subconsciously, like the sexual undertones you can read into a spurting bottle of coke in a commercial, and so if an author chooses to use them, she can keep one part of the reader's brain aware of that impressive alpha streak even while she brings him down to a vulnerable low to build things with the heroine.

Love Vince's mention of intelligence too. Alphas are so often physically or financially powerful.

Ban said...

"I've read some steamy love scenes, but none have come as close to a lurid climax as this mushroom cloud."
I about sprayed Dr. Pepper out my nose !!!
Great post Hayley - thanks so much for sharing some of the insights you've gotten out of your years of hard work :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Always glad to help cleanse your nasal passages, Ban ;) I've had this topic brewing for a while since the theory came up in one of my last courses. Been very much looking forward to raising it here.

Helena said...

Great post, Hayley. I find the analysis (based on the research you cited) fascinating, because we don't ordinarily break down our understanding of the alpha hero and his characteristics into such symbolic detail.

An example that occurred to me: regardless of who played the lead role, I think the James Bond character has perfectly portrayed the essence of the alpha male. What do you think?

I hope Janet comments on your post when she gets back on stream.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Absolutely Helena, James Bond in his various incarnations is always a scion of the alpha hero. He's got that reputation for sexual prowess, but I think even if you cut out the love scenes (or the implications of them), no one would ever wonder otherwise. It's like how Daniel Craig's Bond in Casino Royale smart-mouths his way through that movie's cringe-worthy torture scene. He remains rigid in that chair, defiant rather than giving in (you know.. beyond what the body can't help but do under that kind of pain), and so we still don't doubt his command, control, and virility. They also recover any threat to his virility marvelously in a conversation during recovery, with the line "That's because you know what I can do with my little finger." No one doubts he'll perform well in the next scene.

The Bordo article is really quite fascinating, and I barely scratched the surface of it here. A bit of further proof that the phallus idea is not the penis is her example in the essay of the movie G.I. Jane. Demi Moore is most certainly sans penis, but in her progression throughout the movie, she 'gets her phallus on' to the point of shouting the movie's iconic insult near the end.

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

I’ve reread your post and your comments and it’s all very thoughtful. It would help me if I knew how you would use this phallic symbolism in a romance. Would you actually create a symbol like a totem pole or obelisk?

I’m having a problem with this because I view a phallic symbol, (such as a male fertility fetish) as a symbol of life and procreation. I don’t see a sword (symbol of raw power and dominance) as having any relationship to the biological function or historical origin of the phallus. The ancient phallic statues I’ve seen were rather small men with exaggerated members and in no way were they a match for a Greek or Roman warrior.



Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, you're right, there's a gap between the phallus as a fertility symbol and the concept of the phallic ideal as Susan Bordo refers to it. Phallic worship in its old form isn't something I can speak on which a great deal of authority, but Bordo's argument essentially is that phallus worship has gone from actual carved objects and totems to subtler symbols (such as phallic-shaped objects like cigars) since Western culture is no longer comfortable having exaggerated, erect penises in the open anymore.

Bordo is essentially looking at the modern version of phallus worship in Western culture, which I've applied here to the romance hero. Modern culture doesn't emphasize the procreative aspects of the phallus as greatly, but rather views it as a symbol of masculine power (which I don't think anyone would argue). Since we can't have a phallus in plain sight anymore (and again, I'm talking symbols rather than body parts), our symbols have become more subtle. An object becomes a phallic symbol when its use (in terms of fiction, the language around it) references that phallic ideal, the sense of awe and majesty I mentioned at the beginning of my post. People advertise cars with "raw power" or as "every inch the king", and that language can equate the car with the man who buys it. If a man buys it, he is every inch a king among men, and earns that phallic majesty Bordo talks about.

So, in a romance novel, if I want to convey that my alpha hero is an impressive, superior male specimen (which may be necessary to reestablish him as an alpha after a demoralizing blow), I might choose to slip in such phallic symbols my reader can pick up on.. such as placing the 'surging power of a wild stallion' between his thighs when he rides. If I just described him riding a horse, it wouldn't be phallic, but something like surging power takes on a very different implication, something to be impressed by and in awe of, which is attributed to the man in control of that surging power.

Another comparison would be Bordo's example of a cigar, one of those classic modern-phallic images. She quotes an old cigar ad describing how smoking the cigar makes the man feel more confident, as though people are looking at him, and his voice seems deeper. In contrast, Bordo has strong associations with her father's smell of cigar smoke, but those feelings are of paternal affection, not veiled sexuality, so even though a cigar is phallic-shaped, in that context, it's not a phallic image.

In terms of a modern phallic ideal, a sword may not be procreative, but it's a damn impressive thing to see a strong, athletic man who can wield it in combat, and it's very obviously phallic shaped, to the point that sex scenes in historicals very often reference the thrusting of 'swords' into sheaths. The use of phallicized sword imagery outside of sex can imply the same sort of thing. I hope that clears it up a little :)

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

I think this has been very helpful. It seems that objects become modern phallic symbols in two ways: the object looks phallic and powerful men are associated with its use (like cigars) or the object looks phallic and is powerful in its own right (like a long barrel pistol).

I think it would have been better for another term to have been used when the modren use of 'phallic symbol' was coined. The old term ‘phallic symbol’ already had a long established meaning. The problem might have been that the word ‘phallic’ is almost the same in both Latin and Greek.

Well, I now have something else to look for in my reading.

Thanks for a very lively discussion.


Edie Ramer said...

This post gave me a lot to think about. As did Vince's comment. You've given me a lot to think about as I write my WIP. And with my husband, too.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, I think you're definitely right, a bit of a distinct term would be more helpful, especially in helping someone new to the concept understand that it's not the same as a penis (Bordo stresses this several times in her argument, to keep it clear). In its absence, perhaps we can keep it clear with capitalizations and lower case, for the Phallus and the phallus :p

As for Bordo's choice of the term, I can't really say much on her approach, but if you get a chance to read the article, I highly recommend it. It's a good read at a decent length, and breaks the idea down much clearer than I can do in a mere blog post. Thanks for the contributions Vince, I've enjoyed the discussion!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Edie, glad to see you stopped by! One of the things I really enjoyed about Bordo's article was the view of male expectations in society. It came out of a gender studies course at the end of my degree, and such courses often focus on the expectations forced on women. I was pleased to take a little time to look at the ideals men must attempt to measure up to as well. Also a nice glimpse into the psychology side to help with writing the opposite sex's point of view.

Karyn Good said...

So sorry I missed this discussion, Hayley. Fascinating topic! I hope you check back and see my response.

I thought of Chase while I was reading your post because he's just one big walking phallic smybol. He might not have a sword but he does drive a big black brute of a truck and as soon as Lily sees it she recognizes it for what it is!

Dorian, now he does carry a sword! And it's very much a part of him and he wears it strapped to his back. It represents who he is: strong, unbending and a leader. Another phallic symbol? Unquestionably!

I love writing alpha males, creating that ideal fictional man that oozes power, strength and the ability to protect (the feminist part of me is angrily protesting right now but it can't be denied because that's part of the fantasy), almost as much as I love bringing them down. Without the phallic smybols how are readers supposed to know they're alphas.

Good grief, I don't know if I'm even on topic anymore! Great post, Hayley. Made my brain hurt, which is a good thing!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, so glad you joined the discussion! Those are some fabulous examples. A big truck like that is perfect, and I love that Lily sees it for what it is. It reminds me of the trucks I see going around town with 'truck nuts' hanging off the back. It doesn't get more blatant than that, but that's sort of beyond the point of 'awe and majesty', isn't it? More snicker-worthy.

You've really summed up the great qualities in an alpha, but I don't think the feminist in you needs to cringe. I think if your ideal was to swoon at the helpless heroine being carried off by the alpha, sure, that might not be so proactive, but strength and protection doesn't automatically make a woman useless. Lily spots Chase's truck for what it is, so I doubt she'd just lie back and swoon. My feeling about the popularity of alpha men (they're sure what I enjoy writing, and what I married) isn't about domineering, it's about finding a worthy mate. Looking at it in sort of primal terms, I want someone strong, someone who can defend our territory from predators (or loiterings :p), protect a family, but I'm also not removing myself from those obligations. I want a match, an equal, someone worthy of me. I don't want a mate who'll tuck in his tail and wait for me to snarl off unwanted interlopers (I'm really getting carried away here, aren't I?) Instead, I want someone who'll be right there with me snarling. That's how I view the appeal of the alpha, someone who measures up. Sweet, funny betas just never did it the same for me, when I prefer to read a hero who pushes back.

Not sure if I wandered off topic there, but it's all relevant to heroes! And you're absolutely right Karyn, it's a lot of fun bringing down an alpha as well, isn't it?