Viagra, Pfizer's diamond blue shaped pill for erectile difficulties, has spawned thousands of jokes - just check out the internet and you'll be amazed by the variety (from vaguely amusing to downright nasty). Greeting and birthday cards have also latched onto Viagramania ("Potent"). The idea of an erection on demand and/or an erection which won't let you down or, in fact, go down, has captured our popular imagination. Size is still an issue but the erect penis now seems to be the primary focus of humour. A decade ago penile size and erection jokes were popular but with the advent of Viagra in 1998 the number of Viagra jokes has increased exponentially. And the internet and greeting cards aren't the only sites to find Viagra jokes; talk show hosts of all varieties tell them (Jay Leno apparently told 944 Viagra jokes between 1998 and 2002) ("Potent"), presenters at the Oscars tell them (Whoopi Goldberg, for example), and all manner of television characters tell them (from Homer Simpson to Ben and Susan on My Family).
David Brinkley (head of Pfizer Inc.'s Team Viagra) expected Viagra might inspire some jokes. ("Potent") He thought they would help destigmatise erectile dysfunction and get people talking about it. But after a year of jokes he changed his mind and suggested that jokes are part of the effect that "turns guys off … Who's going to stand up and admit they have this condition that everybody's laughing at?"("Potent") It is not surprising, therefore, that Pfizer's advertisements for Viagra tell us that erectile dysfunction is not a joke. It is, in fact, portrayed as a serious medical condition which affects the health and happiness of millions of men and couples world wide. And Viagra is offered as the means to fix or cure this problem. Consider the following television ad for Viagra which ran in New Zealand in late 2001 - 2002:
The scene opens with a stand-up comedian telling jokes in a club. He is just finishing a joke and everyone is laughing. Then he says, "Seriously, I find it fascinating what people won't admit to. How many of you older guys usually wear glasses but aren't wearing them tonight? Hey pal, own up, you just drank your finger bowl."
The audience laughs.
The comedian continues, "Okay, who's thinning a bit on top? It's called middle age guys."
The audience laughs.
"Okay, here's one. How many of you guys have a problem getting an erection?"
The camera pans many uneasy faces.
The comedian fills the silence, "That's amazing because I read that nearly half of guys over 40 have that very problem. But hey, no one in this audience. Look's like I'm the only one." He raises his hand. Slowly other men in the audience also raise their hands. Then the punch line, "you see, with a bit of effort you can get them up."
Laughter and clapping follow.
The ad closes with a voice over of a picture of a Viagra tablet which tells us that erectile difficulties are a physical (medical) problem and the caption "you are not alone."
This ad is worth reflecting on in light of Brinkley's comment above. One could suggest that this ad was produced to "encourage" men to "stand up and admit they have this condition" (Brinkley) even though it continues to be the butt of jokes. The use of a stand-up comedian in a night club is an interesting way to address, and attempt to challenge, the Viagra-as-joke phenomenon. The ad sets up the 'problem,' both erectile dysfunction and erectile dysfunction-as-joke, and then offers a 'solution' (admitting you have erectile dysfunction ("ED" hereafter) which is a "serious medical condition" and is nothing to be ashamed of, and also not a joke, and then of course taking Viagra).
With the Viagra phenomenon we have what Andre Jansson (23) calls "commercial intertextuality," and Hirschman, Scott and Wells (48) refer to as media culture talking back to ads and vice versa. This involves a dialogue of sorts between texts promoting ED/Viagra-as-joke and those promoting ED/Viagra-as-not-joke. Let's consider an over simplified example: Pfizer produces and markets a pill for ED; popular cultural representations of Viagra-as-joke proliferate; documentaries like The Rise and Rise of Viagra present ED as a "serious medical problem"; Viagra jokes continue to proliferate on the internet and talk shows; Pfizer produces an ad set in a comedy club. In this realm of commercial intertextuality we have a fascinating struggle over meanings around the medicalization of male sexuality, masculinities and, one could add, the status of the erect penis.
In pre-Viagra days a penis that wouldn't rise to the occasion was considered a joke. A man who 'couldn't get it up' was not performing heteronormative masculinity adequately and was a potential object of humour. This humour stemmed from shame, inadequacy and fear. This was, therefore, something a man would not admit to (as represented in the comedy club ad). With Viagra, a solution to this 'condition' is available and this facilitates the re-instalment of erections, penetrative sex and, in theory, heteronormative masculinity. Yet the Viagra-assisted erection is also the object of jokes. Thus, it is joke material if a man 'can't get it up' and also joke material if he can! Why is performing heteronormative masculinity through producing an erection for penetrative sex such subject for humour? As stated earlier, Brinkley expected a few jokes, but can't understand why the jokes keep on coming.
Let's explore this by looking at the some jokes.
Did you hear the one about the new Viagra for computers? It turns your floppy disk into a hard drive.
Did you hear the one about Viagra coffee? One cup and you're up all night.
Did you hear the one about the 85 year old man in hospital who was given Viagra with his hot chocolate at night? The chocolate made him sleep and the Viagra stopped him rolling out of bed.
Like hundreds of other jokes the first one is about Viagra but not about a male erection. It does however allude to the process of transforming a "floppy" object into a "hard" object, which is what Viagra is meant to do for the male penis. The second joke refers to being "up all night," that is, an erection and/or being awake all night. And the third joke is about an erection but not penetrative sex. This is somewhat similar to a greeting card image of an erection of a dead man which won't allow the coffin lid to close. It seems to be the penis 'out of control' which underpins many of these jokes. Rather than an erection on demand or an erection which won't let you down - it is the erection which won't go down (or the out of control penis) which is the focus of humour.
Contemporary western thought is underpinned by binary oppositions or dualisms, for example, masculinity is aligned with rationality and the mind or, to put this another way, of being in control of/over the body (Bordo; Gatens). It is femininity which is associated with the body, with emotion and, in particular, the leaky, out of control body (See, for example, Shildrick.) Although erections are representative of (and central to) hegemonic masculinity (for example, the very notion of the phallus), it is the erection which is out of control or the excessive erection which seems to be spurring much of the humour in Viagra jokes. Presumably the Viagra penis remains erect after penetrative sex and/or bounces back up, and is therefore anomalous. This penis is no longer useful except as an object which draws attention to itself or as something which can be used for non-sexual purposes (for example, stopping someone falling out of bed). In both cases the Viagra penis makes a spectacle of itself and of the masculine norm of being in control and hidden (which is essential to the power of the phallus).
Although men do talk about the penis as having a 'mind of its own' with respect to 'rising to the occasion' in inappropriate situations (Potts), the Viagra-penis has a mind of its own in quite a different sense. Here it is the Viagra which is the 'mind' - the penis is both assisted to rise from, and prevented from returning to, a flaccid state. One could even say that Viagra has a 'mind-altering' effect on the penis, that is, it produces a kind of psychophallic rather that psychedelic effect. 1 Perhaps it is not just the body-penis out of control which is a source of humour, but also the out of control mind-penis. An interesting challenge to dualistic framings of male/mind/control and female/body/out of control indeed!
1. Thanks to Annie Potts (personal communication) for this insight.