Harvard's Peter Principle

On the inphallibility of the Ivy Leagues


The latest controversy at Harvard University involves a 9-foot-tall snow sculpture of male genitalia. The penis was constructed on the evening of February 11 in Tercentenary Theater, the site of Harvard's commencement exercises, by several members the Harvard men's crew team. A few hours later, it was torn down by two cardboard-tube-wielding women students who found the display offensive. Many students have denounced this as an act of vandalism and a blow to free speech. Meanwhile, the phallus-destroying vigilantes, Amy E. Keel and Mary C. Cardinale, have complained that they were verbally harassed and physically intimidated by a group of male students while dismantling the sculpture.

"A pox on both your houses" seems the most appropriate response to this debate.

While I don't consider myself a prude and have no wish to cover up the naughty parts of statues in museums, I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that a giant penis in anatomically correct detail does not belong in a public space. Indeed, one of its builders, crew captain Michael J. Skey, told The Harvard Crimson that people who felt the sculpture was obscene had every right to take it down. To frame this as a free-speech issue is rather frivolous. We're talking about a "junior high prank," as Skey put it, not an artistic or philosophical statement.

Too bad that the anti-phallus backlash at Harvard has been far more offensive than the phallus itself.

To Keel, Cardinale and their supporters, it turns out, the snow penis was nothing less than a symbolic act of misogynistic violence. Keel has called it "a structure put up to assert male dominance" as well as an "implied threat" to women. (In a charming display of respect for free speech, she has also castigated the Crimson for publishing an article which defended the sculpture by pointing out the positive significance of phallic imagery in many cultures.)

Some faculty members have echoed such sentiments. Women's Studies Lecturer Diane L. Rosenfeld lamented the public presence of "menacing reminders of women's sexual vulnerability," and identified the Washington Monument and missiles—no kidding!—as other public phallic symbols. But no one went quite as far as Wendy J. Murphy, an attorney and a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, who criticized the Harvard administration's inaction in a letter published in the Crimson on March 3.

Wrote Murphy, "What if students had built a snow sculpture of a Nazi swastika or the confederate flag? As a sculpture, a snow penis can't cause much direct harm, but it clearly serves as a powerful symbol of sexual dominance and gendered violence. Would Harvard's administration have been so deafeningly silent if students built a sculpture that symbolized race dominance or ethnic cleansing?"

Let me get this (no pun intended) straight. An erect penis is a symbol of sexual dominance and violence, comparable to the swastika and the confederate flag. Does this mean that sexual intercourse is comparable to the Holocaust, slavery, and ethnic cleansing?

A more shocking statement of hatred for maleness and male sexuality is hard to imagine.

Unfortunately, these silly and hateful comments are typical of the state of academic feminism today. And still feminists act surprised and outraged when feminism is perceived as silly and anti-male.

Indeed, in light of all this virulent anti-phallic rhetoric, I'd say that the real symbolic act of "gendered violence" was not the construction of the snow penis but its destruction.

The biggest irony, perhaps, is that celebrations of female sexuality, including female anatomy, are all the rage on college campuses today. The Vagina Monologues is probably the best-known example. At Pennsylvania State University in November 2000, two campus women's group organized a festival whose title included a crude slang term for female genitalia (a term the festival organizers wanted to reclaim as positive). Quite a few people were upset by the banner and the fliers advertising the festival; after a number of complaints, the campus police briefly took the banner down but put it back up after confirming that the event was sanctioned by the university.

What if it was male genitalia being celebrated? The response to the snow penis at Harvard is a good indication of what the likely reaction would have been.

Yes, the phallic sculpture was vulgar and indecent. But I'll take a little vulgarity over rampant gender-based bigotry any time.