Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Genital theft goes to Hollywood: Another penis snatching update

On a plane recently I made the bad decision to pass the time with the film "It's Complicated." Meryl Streep leans on the coos and croissants of her Julia Child portrayal to this time incarnate a supremely irritating SoCal divorcée. I squirmed with embarrassment for the actors' sake, especially Alec Baldwin -- please, Alec, do us all a favor and return to 30 Rock, where you belong.

But the film does contain one noteworthy scene. Toward the end, Meryl and her gal pals are dishing about their lackluster sex lives when one bursts out the assertion that a lack of sex can cause a woman's vagina to close up. "It's true!" she insists, "I read about a case on the internet!" The others laugh, but the scene is ultimately ambivalent about the veracity of the tale, leaving viewers with the impression that whether or not it's true, it's a real fear for women of a certain age and status.

Though most of the African stories of disappearing genitals involve men, women can suffer the fate too. For women, it usually happens much like the actress said: the crotch becomes strangely sealed, like a Barbie doll, though in the African case lack of sex is not understood to be the precipitating factor.

Julien Bonhomme, in his book Les Voleurs de sexe: Anthropologie d'une rumeur africaine, argues that because the notion of the rumor carries such a negative social-epidemiological charge -- the rumor as social cancer -- the phenomenon of penis snatching is better understood as gossip, a major mode of communication in the African city. It's "radio troittoir" as the animating force of social life, in newspapers (Bonhomme's main source) as well as in curbside conversation, and penis snatching offers a prism through which to grasp that reality. I'm only a few chapters into the book so will save a full review for later. For the time being, I'll say that if nothing else, "It's Complicated" reminded me that gossip, even penis-snatching absurd gossip, is far from solely an African thing. Perhaps Bonhomme will have to write a sequel: Anthropologie d'une rumeur américaine.

(This is one of the things I love about anthropology: navigating and exploring difference and finding unexpected convergence amid the divergence.)

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