Last month, Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama cooked his penis, testicles, and scrotum, and served them to five paying customers. He promoted the exotic meal on Twitter, saying he’d cook his genitals to order for anyone who’d pay his price. And would you know, he found five willing people who paid $250 each. WTF? That was my initial reaction. I mean, isn’t the penis the most essential, and for some, the most erotic, part of the male body? Isn’t it a source of pleasure, creation, and identity? (Not the “don’t I know you from somewhere?” kind of I.d., by the way.) And this isn’t just a male thing either. Genitals are a source of knowing the self for women, too. To use a cultural reference, in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” the heroine Evelyn Couch desperately attends a self-help seminar where, in order to know the source of herself and her separateness, she’s instructed to straddle a mirror. Another WTF moment.
As I said, being appalled and in shock were my initial reactions to the article. Then I caught myself at this interesting point: the artist identifies as asexual, and his performance art was meant to show, if drastically, that he doesn’t identify with either sex. Suddenly, cutting off his genitals began to make some sense because they don’t “mean” much to him.
After some understanding set in, I began to recoil at my initial reaction, at my surprising adherence to strict sexual binaries, and at my own closed-mindedness to what other people do with their bodies. I support gender non-comformity. When the characters on Ally McBeal began to share a uni-sex or gender-neutral restroom, unmarked by male or female decals, I was all “Rock on!” (In fact, this year, the male and female signs marking the restrooms in my office building were taken off and replaced with signs of two figures standing side by side. MC is so progressive.)
Also, even though it can be an effort at times to say ‘he’ if a woman wants to be called he or ‘she’ if a man wants to be called she, I do it. I’m sensitive to the need to define the self in whatever way, and often that means in a sexual way. Also, these individuals’ ability to challenge strict Western gender binaries is admirable to me. And actually, as a gay man who sometimes wears a base to hide the shadow under the eyes and who walks a tiny dog on a purple-pink leash, some might say that I, too, exist in a sexual or gender gray area.
But as I said, there I was, reading the article, jaw on the floor, quickly appalled at Mao’s decision to cut off, garnish, and cook his cockadoodle-doo. Nevermind his message, this was extreme. I mean, would he miss them? Would you miss yours? Would I miss mine?
Clearly, I still have some work to do.
Many times I have shown my students the documentary “Middle Sexes,” (watchable at YouTube) which looks at societies that accept a third sex, and I marvel at some students’ quick disgust and at other students’ easy acceptance. It is a challenging film to watch but as one professor in the film notes, it’s someone else’s body, why should you be threatened? Another professor jokes that as soon as the testes descend into the scrotal sack, boys worry that because they dangle, they can be cut off.
Serving, I mean, SEVERING the genitals is not new, of course. We call it a sex change operation or gender reassignment surgery, and it happens all over the world. In India, since ancient times, the Hijras sacrifice their genitals to honor their mother goddess. One story adds that they became socially acceptable after Ram blessed them with the promise that they’d rule in the final stages of mankind. Are we there yet? In Thailand, an entire entertainment industry has been built around the thousands upon thousands of lady boys that blossom in their open society. And, in America, television programming has come a long way to include shows like “Transgeneration,” which follows college students preparing for their sex-change operations.
Genital mutilation is not new either. Think circumcision, the genital cutting of male minors. And what about penis and scrotum piercings that have names like the Prince Albert, frenum piercing, scrotal ladder (which is exactly as it sounds) and the list goes on. Let’s not forget about the meatus, please: meatotomy is the method of enlarging the opening of the urethra by splitting the glans. Picture Pacman.
So, I get it, nothing new here. Socially acceptable even in our society. People should be allowed to do with their bodies what they will and that includes piercings, splittings, and aligning sex with gender through surgery. Mao Sugiyama claims an asexual identity so removing his penis and not replacing it with a vagina can be called aligning his non-sex with his non-gender, I suppose. But he didn’t just do that. He cooked, seasoned, garnished, plated, and served his genitalia to paying customers who actually ate his dish, and called it art. That’s where my brain stops. I thought the Japanese were interesting when they started growing square watermelons just so they could fit better and save space in Japanese refrigerators. That I get, that I even kind of chuckle at. This dish right here is what I don’t know what to do with.
Maybe it’s that I think he’s really cute, and he’s deprived me of using my imagination to the fullest of my abilities, but I felt at odds with the story long before I ever saw his picture. Maybe it’s that people were actually willing to partake (cannibalism is not illegal in Japan, by the way), maybe I’m just one of those little boys afraid that someone will come up to me with a meat clever, or maybe I’m not yet advanced enough in thought or idea to understand how any of this makes sense and can be interpreted as art. Maybe I don’t need to understand any of it because it’s not my body, my tummy, or my money.
But what if it was? Even then, I’m not sure I’d know what to do. Maybe that’s what intimidates me. That someone else had the balls to not have them any longer and because he openly denied his given sex and gender, I, in my gender-neutral, I-see-the-world-through-a-Feminist-lens mindset have been forced to acknowledge how much being male actually matters to me after all. Maybe that’s it.
Talk about straddling a mirror.