The Phallus: Power and Vulnerability

In August 2022 David published a chapter in the masculinities stream of his research work, “The Phallus: Power and Vulnerability” co-authored with Caroline Ruddell of Brunel University, in the ground-breaking collection: Performing the Penis: Phalluses in 21st Century Cultures  edited by Meredith Jones and Evelyn Callahan. This book is the first collection that offers an overview and case studies around understandings and manifestations of penises and phalluses in the early twenty-first century. It examines how penises and phalluses are experienced and represented, drawing on examples from pornography, stripping, music video, film, surgery, and comedy. The penis—along with its twin the phallus—has been used to symbolise strength, fertility, and power but also bestiality, violence, and the ‘savage’. It has been worshipped, feared, and mocked. With contributing authors deploying conceptual frameworks based in philosophy, cultural studies, gender studies, affect theory, film theory, feminist theory, art theory, sociology, history, medical anthropology and media studies, this volume will appeal to a broad range of scholars and all who are interested in bodies, genitals, gender, and contemporary cultures.

David and Caroline’s chapter focuses upon the contemporary cultural significance of the image of the erect penis, aka the phallus. Historically, it appears in many forms, both attached to male figures and on its own, amongst the material culture of peoples all over the world. Without claiming that post-modern eyes can see the ancient phallus through premodern eyes, the chapter recounts some of these historical appearances and wonders whether decoupling the image of the phallus from the more recent colonial depiction of ‘savage man’ might prove liberating in a contemporary ‘post-gendered’ world. The authors explore specifically the idea that masculine power traditionally associated with the phallus can be destabilized through parody and the absurd, revealing—for example—the performance of Tom Cruise as motivational speaker Frank Mackey in the film Magnolia, as a contemporary depiction not far from that of the new Penis Cafés. The authors conclude that disarming the image of the phallus from its nineteenth- and twentieth-century associations is likely to prove both liberating and revealing, leading perhaps to a celebratory enjoyment that (at least some of) the premodern depictions may themselves have represented.


Kreps, D. and Ruddell, C., (2022) The Phallus: Power and Vulnerability. In: Meredith Jones and Evelyn Callahan, Performing the Penis: Phalluses in 21st Century Cultures  London: Routledge doi:10.4324/9781003108481-2

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