When I was nine years old, The Simpsons Movie came out, and I distinctly remember one scene early in the film.
You see, Homer and Bart are daring each other to do all sorts of crazy things, and Homer escalates the game by daring his son to skateboard across town with no clothes on. Bart initially refuses, but after some goading from his father, he decides to do it.
The scene that follows is reminiscent of The Simpsons in its golden era: there are a million jokes a minute, and most of them are pretty funny. Even as I try to watch this under the guise of a Very Serious™ critic, I can’t help but laugh at the gag of dozens of conveniently placed items hiding Bart’s penis from the imaginary camera, followed by the inexplicable hole in the fence and bushes.
Things go south for Bart as the police start chasing after him. (“Stop in the name of American squeamishness!” Chief Wiggum shouts.) And then, in what is a very on brand moment for the police officers on this show, they end up shooting a wheel off Bart’s skateboard. After Bart crashes into the window, they handcuff him to a pole and leave him there alone, naked in public, as Nelson laughs at him over and over again.
This would be an extremely traumatic moment for any kid, the stuff of nightmares, but it all plays out as a joke.
To be clear, this is not an anti-Simpsons think piece. I’m fully aware that this is a cartoon, where characters recover from extreme injuries or traumatic events at absurdly fast rates. The unrealistic callousness of the punishment Bart’s going through is a major part of what makes this scene funny.
And while this scene is important to the plot — it sets up the larger conflict between Bart and Homer — the actual trauma of the event is forgotten the moment Bart gets some clothes on. Getting handcuffed to a pole while completely nude is only important to Bart’s character arc in terms of how it makes him feel about his father.
I think a lot of guys could relate to Bart in this moment, though. We may not have been through anything quite so severe, but through the average boy’s childhood there are a lot moments of what would, in most cases, be considered sexual assault, but are instead passed off as harmless jokes. Boys give each other wedgies, they pants each other. They even do that thing called nut tapping, which is when you lightly, “playfully,” hit someone in the testicles for shits and giggles. (Do boys still do this? I know it was common in my school, but I hope it died off in the 2000s.)
I remember one summer day, about the same age I was when The Simpsons Movie came out, when I was in my friend’s pool with a bunch of other (all male) friends. I don’t remember what started it, but one friend jokingly shouted out, ‘Let’s take off Mike’s bathing suit!’ and then they actually went ahead and tried to do it.
For several minutes straight, they tried to pin me down and pull it off me as I struggled against them. I told them to stop, but they kept doing it. I tried not to show just how much this bothered me, but I can still remember that powerless, desperate feeling that came over me as I realized they were actually going to do it.
I could picture them throwing my bathing suit out of the pool and forcing me to step out naked to go get it. I could see them playing some fucked up game of Monkey in the Middle, where they’d throw my bathing suit to each other as I had to run back and forth to go get it. If that happened I’d probably start crying, and that would make it worse. It wasn’t until I was full-on screaming at them to stop that they actually stopped.
I should note that we kids were not alone. My friend’s mother was keeping watch from the back deck maybe twenty feet away. She could see and hear everything happening, but never stepped in. The most I heard from her was “alright boys, knock it off,” and that was only after I started screaming.
Male trauma as a punchline
After they stopped, things went back to normal. We went back to whatever game we’d been playing beforehand, and I never brought it up to them again. I was too embarrassed, honestly. I didn’t like to think of myself as the type of kid other kids did those things to.
The types of kids that kind of stuff happened to were kids like Martin, or Milhouse: you know, the nerds from The Simpsons who were frequently found hanging from a flagpole by their underpants.
This isn’t just a Simpsons thing too, of course. Growing up there were so many shows that gleefully celebrated the harassment of boys’ bodies.
There was that episode of Zoey 101, where Zoey and her friends get revenge on Logan by sneaking into the boy’s locker room while Logan’s taking a shower. (They’ve got the school news team with them, so they’re broadcasting this live to the whole school.) In order to get Logan to admit to starting a rumor about another student, they threaten to yank the shower curtain off so that his naked body is broadcasted on live TV. This is seen as a triumphant moment for Zoey, and we the audience are supposed to cheer as she threatens Logan into submission.
There was that episode of iCarly where the characters get revenge on Sam’s cheating boyfriend by giving him a hanging wedgie for multiple hours straight, all of it being filmed live to their thousands of viewers. The episode ends with him screaming out in pain over the canned audience laughter. We’re never made to feel bad for this guy. There is no question of whether our main characters are going too far, whether they’re crossing any lines here. The audience is asked to laugh at this guy’s public, painful humiliation.
But the worst example from my childhood still belongs to The Simpsons, in the 1996 episode, “22 Short Films About Springfield.”
In this episode, Nelson makes the mistake of laughing his signature ‘ha-ha!’ at a very tall man driving a very small car.
In response, the tall man gets out of his car and chases Nelson down. As punishment for his disrespect, the man makes Nelson walk down the street with his pants around his ankles, as everyone in town—seriously, everyone in town — points and laughs.
“Wave to the people!” the man taunts, and Nelson, in tears, is forced to wave to his crowd of tormentors. “Blow them kisses!” the man says, and Nelson’s forced to do that too.
Watching this the first time, I was afraid to mention to my friends watching it with me (who found it hysterical) just how gross I found this entire scene to be. Revisiting the scene today, I still feel disgusted by the whole thing. I mean, what the fuck was that? Nelson’s a bully, sure, but am I really supposed to be amused by a grown man doing something like that to a child?
Looking at the YouTube comments of the video, it appears I am. When most people watch this scene, they see it as a bully getting his rightful comeuppance. The sense of schadenfreude overcomes everything else.
In all these examples, be it Zoey 101 or iCarly or The Simpsons, I have always seemed to be alone in feeling bad for the characters being harmed.
Male Bodies as Punchlines
The general vibe I get from our society today is that while female nudity is considered to be sexy and/or taboo, male nudity is considered to be crass and funny. There’s a reason why so many teenage boys are drawing penises on their desks and bathroom stalls, not vaginas. Male nudity is funny, female nudity isn’t. That’s the basic idea, and it explains a lot.
With The Simpsons, it explains how the show mines so much humor out of the boys’ bodies. One episode has Bart accidentally mooning the flag when a donkey rips his pants and underwear off at a public event. Martin wears dozens of bathing suits at once in one episode as protection, and the other kids still take them all off him anyway. He, Martin and Milhouse are constantly getting wedgied or pantsed in public in ways that, after a while, start to feel strange.
This is why I actually felt kind of relieved when I was watching an episode with my brother when he said, unprompted, “How many times are they gonna show us Bart’s ass?”
Finally, I had some validation that yes, this was something the show did a lot, and no, I’m not the weird one for noticing.
I’ve brought this up with Simpsons fans a couple of times, and it has not gone over well. If you say something along the lines of ‘Don’t you think it’s a little weird how often they show Bart or the other boys naked?’ people usually accuse you of being a creep for noticing. Children’s bodies aren’t sexual, they say, so there’s nothing weird or sexual about this, and you’re being weird or sexual for suggesting there might be. But if that’s the case, then how come none of this ever happens to Lisa, or any of the other girls in their school?
The answer’s simple: because that would be weird, and creepy. I felt gross just typing that sentence out. The girls on this show are never sexually harassed in any comical way, because the writers know that the audience wouldn’t find it funny.
I’m not arguing that girls on The Simpsons should’ve been harassed more; I just wish the show had treated the boys’ bodies with slightly more dignity. If we agree that the mere idea of one of the girls getting a hanging wedgie is repulsive, then why are we so happy to laugh at the boys receiving that very treatment? Why is the idea of boys getting humiliated through their bodies so funny to us?
The generation gap
It’s also possible that my disgust with that scene is in part due to the time period I was born in. Sixty years ago, the disparity in how the male and female bodies were viewed were even more pronounced, in ways that might seem shocking from today’s standards.
It was fairly common, for instance, for American high schools to make it mandatory for boys to swim naked in gym class. From an article in Democrat and Chronicle:
“It may be inconceivable to anyone under 50, but nude swimming was standard for high school boys in Rochester and in many American cities and states until at least 1970.
The main reason cited was that that the fabric of swimsuits at the time would mess up the pool filters:
“Citing wool swimsuits as breeding grounds for bacteria, and their fibers as a danger to the pool’s filtration system…”
This whole argument falls apart when you remember that, for girls, swimsuits were absolutely mandatory. The issue of swimsuits destroying the pool filters apparently wasn’t a real problem when the girls were the ones wearing them.
This whole situation sounds horrifying. Most of middle school and high school took place in the early 2010s for me, and if one of the gym teachers ever tried to force the boys to get naked for any reason, they would’ve lost their job and probably get thrown in jail.
But I will admit that I can imagine some benefits of such a policy, even if I’m definitely glad they got rid of it. Accounts of the time period back up the idea that this policy led to boys being more comfortable in their bodies, with less insecurity about the size and shape of everything. Modern guys have a lot of anxiety and insecurity over their penis size, for instance, and I can’t help but think this would be less of a problem if they were exposed to more of them outside of porn.
In middle school and high school, I remember a lot of guys claiming they had an eight-inch, nine-inch penis. Nobody would ever admit to having anything below seven inches, despite how rare that is, and that led to perfectly normal guys thinking they were too small to ever satisfy anyone.
This also led to incidents like what happened to this poor kid in eighth grade at a summer pool party, when one of his male friends yanked his bathing suit down in front of a bunch of his classmates, male and female. This led to years of bullying over his “tiny penis,” despite the fact that everyone there — the guys at least, I’m not sure how much girls know about shrinkage — knew that a flaccid penis straight out of a cold pool is not at all indicative of a guy’s erect size. The guys all knew exactly how unfair they were being, but they went ahead and nicknamed him Baby Dick anyway.
As the years went by, nude swimming at school stopped being a thing, and we gradually transitioned to the system today where American high school students don’t even have to take showers. Whether this was due to a growing respect towards boys’ privacy, or due to a rise of homophobia in the backlash to the gay rights movement, it’s hard to say. As for naked swimming itself, the rise of co-ed gym classes was likely the biggest factor.
The generation gap explains a lot, though. It explains why old men are so comfortable walking around the locker room with nothing but flip flops on. I used to think people just got more comfortable with their bodies as they got older, but maybe these old men simply had their need for privacy stripped away from them long ago.
A male problem, created (mostly) by males
The big problem with talking about any kind of sexual assault or double standard towards men is that it so quickly turns into some kind of anti-feminist tirade. If you talk about it online, Men’s Rights Activists will come swarming in to derail the conversation into a rant about whatever some prominent controversial feminist said this week. The conversation can so easily turn into a men vs feminists debate.
This is unfortunate, because the first people to really impress on me the importance of treating male sexual assault victims seriously were feminists. When men would dismiss feminist critiques on gender roles, feminists would often respond with something like, “This negatively affects you too, you know.”
Because when we live in a world where guys are supposed to be ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ and ‘unemotional,’ that makes it harder for male victims of sexual assault to be treated seriously, and it makes male victims less likely to speak out.
A lot of men vent about how female victims of sexual assault are taken seriously but male victims aren’t. This bugs me for two reasons, the first being that female victims are still very often not taken seriously. The other issue is that this doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that the majority of female victims are attacked by men, whereas the majority of male victims are attacked by … also men. As the Fredonia support page for male survivors puts it:
Anyone, regardless of gender or gender identity, can sexually assault a man. However, most sexual assaults against men are committed by other men, who actually identify themselves as heterosexual. It’s important not to jump to the conclusion that man-against-man sexual assault only happens between men who are gay. Sexual assault is not about sexual desire or sexual orientation; it’s about violence, control, and humiliation.
This explains what that scene in The Simpsons with the tall man and Nelson was all about. It explains why, even if you judged it by a more old-fashioned idea that male nudity isn’t a big deal, the scene is still insidious.
There may not have been any sexual desire on part of the man, but he was using Nelson’s embarrassment over his body to assert control over him, to humiliate him in front of everyone. Even if the writers of the show came from a time where male nudity wasn’t as taboo, that doesn’t matter because the punishment Nelson’s going through isn’t about nudity. It’s about power and control, and Nelson being forced into a position where he has none of it. And because people are not supposed to take men and boys’ emotions seriously, we can find this horrific, mean-spirited scene funny.
And as much as there was a massive double standard in the way boys would have to swim in the pool without any swimsuit and girls wouldn’t, ultimately this was a policy created and enforced by men, not women. The same goes for a lot of the abuse I suffered and witnessed as a kid. Small dick jokes were pretty much always made by other guys, as was pantsing and wedgies and all the other little assaults on my body.
That’s not to say that women don’t contribute to this problem. There are plenty of female rapists out there, as well as women who will belittle guys for their bodies, touch them without their consent. The actual number of male victims of female perpetrators is likely under-counted, too, considering how unwilling guys are to take sexual harassment/assault against themselves seriously.
And we can see from newspaper clippings covering the debate around mandatory nude swimming in the ‘70s that women were definitely complicit in the mistreatment of boy’s bodies. When a high school boy asked advice columnist Ann Landers what to do about being forced to swim naked with his classmates, which he was uncomfortable doing, she responded like this:
Sometimes what people term an “invasion of privacy” is a cover-up for something else. I suspect this is true in your case. You need to talk to a school counselor and learn why you are so uptight about being seen naked, or more to the point, seeing other boys who are naked. If you look around you’ll find the vast majority of the guys who are showering are not the least bit self-conscious. Please, take my advice and see a counselor. It could make a big difference in your life. You have a problem, Son.
The idea that boys should be fine with something like this was so normalized in this woman’s head that when one boy voiced his discomfort she immediately assumed there was something wrong with him. Then she took it upon herself to shame him on a public forum.
And let’s not forget that of the examples in this essay of boys being victims of sexual harassment, two of them (iCarly and Zoey 101) featured female perpetrators. Sometimes these acts are framed as girl power, and that’s not okay either.
So although I’d say that most of the focus needs to be on changing the behaviors of other boys and men, ultimately in order to do that we need everyone, of all genders, to acknowledge that we need to show more respect towards boys’ bodily autonomy.
We have to recognize behaviors like giving wedgies and pantsing as what they actually are: sexual assault, not harmless fun. Until we do that, and until the media we consume reflects this attitude change as well, the casual violation of boys’ bodies is never going to stop.