Peter Farrelly has yet to apologize for misrepresenting the life and character of the late musician and composer Don Shirley in his cheeseball racism drama Green Book. But the director has said sorry for a prior offense: flashing his dick as a “joke.”
The mea culpa followed the resurfacing of two 1998 interviews in which Farrelly and his brother Bobby — the pair then known for the lowbrow, gross-out comedies Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary — explained how they’d teamed up to fool unsuspecting people into looking at Peter’s dick “easily 500 times.” They’d even done it to actress Cameron Diaz the first time they met her. As writer Anna Silman noted in The Cut, which first reprinted these excerpts, “it’s notable how Farrelly’s behavior is treated like a cute running prank instead of egregious sexual misconduct, illustrating just how much things have changed in the past two decades.”
This bros-will-be-bros attitude toward such a graphic “prank” affirms that pulling your dick out to shock and amuse was never an unusual practice. Men seem to regard their equipment as inherently hilarious, a punchline in itself. “It’s not like I make a habit of just whipping it out and saying, ‘Hey! Look! My cock!’” Farrelly insisted 20 years ago, going on to describe the elaborate setups that led to the unveiling. But that’s exactly what he was doing. No matter the specific ruse, it always hinged on an unsuspecting party being made to see genitals they had no intention of looking at.
In that way, the Farrelly boys anticipated one of the 21st century’s great digital horrors: the unsolicited dick pic.
The reaction is the point, with Here it is! the unspoken declaration. The same could be said of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tendency to twirl his cock around at any colleague unfortunate enough to be in a Capitol bathroom with him, or a maneuver practiced by the British artist Damien Hirst: He was known to “pull a bit of his testicles through a small hole in his trousers and ask passing women to help him remove the chewing gum that was stuck to him.” The “sat in gum” gambit also appeared in a 2011 episode of the dude-centric sitcom The League, with guest star Will Forte using it to horrify women in bars. “This was from real life,” the show’s co-creator later explained. “My college roommate Scott Thomas and his friend Dave Jaros went on a trip to Europe, and Dave just loved sitting in gum.” Again, an almost instinctual exhibitionism.
Why the persistence of the trope? At the base level, it’s all ego.
If a man enjoys being the center of attention — positive or negative — then it stands to reason that he’ll like his privates, the physical manifestation of his masculinity, to steal the focus of a room, if only for a split second. And although this would count as sexual harassment in many contexts, the act itself can be decidedly uneroticized. When I queried the r/AskMen subreddit about this, most of the replies invoked a homosocial camaraderie.
“We did it all the time in the military,” one commenter wrote. “When you’re on a deployment, you have to get creative in breaking up the monotony. We once had a whole SOF team flash the ISR predator” — i.e., a surveillance drone.
Another reported: “We did this on my high school soccer team sometimes. It wasn’t that big a deal to me. We all laughed at each other.”
A third said, “My friends still whip out their dick for fun when they’re drunk.” This feels of a piece with the penis-showing game featured in the 2005 movie Waiting, where the bored male staff of an Applebee’s-type restaurant compete by revealing their packages in elaborate ways, then kick and berate the unwilling witness with anti-gay slurs. It’s meant to be offensive, yet… affectionate?
A romantic attachment is no obstacle to this dynamic, either. One redditor admitted that “every single man I’ve been in a serious relationship with” has done this to them, and not as misguided foreplay. “It always seemed like they wanted me to laugh, but that didn’t feel right, and I knew it wasn’t a sex thing, like I have no idea the reaction they were after lol… and after the 300th time my husband swung his cock around in my face, I still didn’t know what to do.” Perhaps a simple acknowledgement is what he was after.
In any case, the number of venues where a surprise wang may be tolerated is certainly shrinking.
When I asked the students of r/college if it was a common sight on campus these days — mentioning that my own college experience in the mid-aughts included lots of public nudity — I got a single disapproving reply: “Flashing your penis was typical college behavior 12 years ago? Yikes.” And it makes sense. Even group streaking through the quad, which I viewed as a harmless bonding activity back then, is probably more fraught if the newest Supreme Court Justice stands accused of shoving his penis in a woman’s face when they were at Yale together. Today, #MeToo voices decry not only the normalization of sexual assault but the boys’ club mentality that enables it.
Will we ever reach the end of self-exposure-as-humor? More likely it’ll find new avenues as the old ones close. Nobody actually took their penis out to honor a dead gorilla, but the phrase “dicks out for Harambe” was a colossal meme in 2016. The men of the film industry may get better at keeping it in their pants between takes, yet full-frontal nude shots of male actors have become regular laugh prompts in comedies, from Sideways to Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Blockers. Meanwhile, the dude groups apt to turn cock-drops into ritualized sport, whether soldiers in a barracks or a bunch of frat boys, have little incentive to give it up, especially with booze on hand to fuel their antics.
With the right boundaries, however, this could pose the best-case scenario: Men restricted to flashing other men who are already in on the joke — and ready to flash right back.