Recently, a group of guerilla street artists going by the name INDECLINE publicly shamed Donald Trump with nude, life-sized statues, which appeared in major cities around the U.S., including in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, and New York. The statues depicted a smug, veiny, and bloated Trump, imperiously crossing his hands over a lumpy, protruding gut. Aptly titled, “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the statue depicts Trump castrated, yet endowed with a tiny, shriveled penis. Tourists stopped to snap photos with The Donald. Some, only wanting a selfie, laughed at or jokingly groped Trump’s wee little pecker. Others shielded his penis from the camera, obviously embarrassed for him, but participating in the humiliation nonetheless. The story went viral and a quick Google image search returns mountains of permanent evidence of Trump’s public shaming, despite the fact that the statues have been removed from public display.
To be stripped in public is one of the oldest forms of cultural shaming, demoting the shamed’s position in the social order. Pop culture gives us many examples of this practice, from naked photo hackings to leaked celebrity sex tapes. Fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones will recall the season five finale, in which the Queen Mother, Cersei Lanister, is forced by the High Sparrow to walk naked, hair shorn, through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her (sexual) transgressions against the gods. The powerful scene, which appears in George R. R. Martin’s 2011 installation of the series, A Dance with Dragons, is not simply fabricated for dramatic purposes. Like other major elements in the series, Martin actually based the scene on historical precedent. Cersei’s walk of atonement was based on the 1483 public shaming of Elizabeth Shore, mistress to the British king, King Edward IV. Upon his death, the brother of and the successor to the throne, Richard III charged Shore with conspiracy and promiscuity. Shore was stripped to her undergarments and forced to walk through the streets of London before being sent to prison.
Nudity has been used historically as a form of public humiliation. Prisoners and slaves, for example, have been forced to go barefoot, have their heads shaved, or been stripped for public floggings. The naked or partially naked walk of shame, however, has been historically reserved for women and generally tied to sexual promiscuity. In medieval Europe, prostitutes and adulteresses, for example, might be forced to walk public streets while stripped to the waist, wearing only a sheet, or in some cases, completely nude. More recently, in 1944, women accused of collaborating with Nazis, or more specifically, of sleeping with Nazis, were paraded through the streets of Paris barefoot and heads shorn. Historically, the punishment of public shaming or humiliation offered atonement for sin or wrongdoing. The reputation of the atoned, however, was permanently marred, given that the one punished and “forgiven” would most likely have been financially or socially restricted from ever leaving the community in which she was found guilty. The naked walk of atonement did not simply punish a woman for wrongdoing. Rather, it communicated to a woman that she was lesser than she thought. Discussing Cersei’s walk, Martin explains: “It wasn’t a punishment ever inflicted on men. It was a punishment directed at women to break their pride. And Cersei is defined by her pride.” The admitted adulteress didn’t just do something wrong. She wasn’t simply guilty. Rather, she was something wrong and should feel ashamed for it.
“The walk,” as it has been called by Game of Thrones fans, calls our attention not only to the gendered and sexual specificity of the historical form of punishment, but also to the spectator’s participation in public humiliations. In a telling scene from season six, Cersei becomes a joke among a group of men in a pub when a man boasts of Cersei’s desire for him. According to him, during the course of the walk (in the midst of a public humiliation in which she was stripped, assaulted, and spit on, perhaps by the same men laughing about it now, mind you) she was overwhelmed with desire for the man’s big, irresistible dick. Her atonement does not relieve her from her sexual transgressions, but by making them and her naked body public, instead tie her more tightly to them. The public’s perception of Cersei’s royal power has shifted. She is now nothing more than a sexual object, lesser than other women who overcome it and men who are not guilty of it. She is put back in her “proper” place, beneath the gods and beneath the entire social order. However, it is foretold that she will exact her revenge on all who are implicated in her shaming when she hires Gregor Clegane, otherwise known as “The Mountain,” to kill the commoner who boasts of her desire for his member. Cersei will take her seat on the Iron Throne, despite us all. That’s the bit, of course, that is the stuff of fiction and not the way our world works.
Historical precedents in religious and secular practices may seem extreme to contemporary sensibilities, but they are not a thing of the past. Public humiliations have historically been delimited by the size of the communities in which they were a part. Though the naked walk of shame through public streets is no longer common practice, it remains, in the digital age, a powerful tool of social control that may be wielded by anyone and which anyone can join – impersonally, anonymously, thoughtlessly, and without consequences. In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Jon Ronson defines contemporary Internet culture as a shaming culture. Countless journalists, activists, and academics have confirmed that reality. The most consistent object of online shaming is, unsurprisingly, women, and the shaming is most often sexual, with rape threats, jokes about rape-ability and unrape-ability, and calls for rape, for example, considered justified punishment for just about any woman and according to anyone at all. The most striking similarity to the walk of shame is the prevalence, in Internet culture, of revenge porn, where a nude picture of a woman of a jilted lover or a woman who unfortunately had a digital picture of herself nude (however secure) or a woman with a headshot that could be digitally transposed on a naked body goes viral, inviting trolls to further shame her in chat rooms, social media, and direct messaging. Like the physical “walk” of shame, revenge porn is psychologically devastating and permanent. What is different is that the shaming itself never comes to end, unless you’re one of the very lucky few to have the wealth or influence to have the images removed from circulation somehow or at least enough Internet cred to push them to the bottom of a search. Digital shaming is, indeed, an effective form of social control, leading many women to unplug altogether.
The fact that naked shaming is historically a punishment reserved primarily for women and their sexual transgressions makes the stripping of a man in power an interesting act. The recent statues of Trump are not the only nude representations of contemporary political men in circulation. Prior to the appearance of “The Emperor Has No Balls,” Ilma Gore posted a painting of a naked Trump with a small penis to her Facebook page with the caption “My latest painting ‘Make America Great Again.’ Because no matter what is in your pants, you can still be a big prick.” Russian president Vladimir Putin was also depicted naked in a 2014 painting sent by Ukrainian artist Olga Oleynik to Foreign Policy. Oleynick also painted a similar portrait of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych. Oleynick depicts Putin with huge genitalia and Yanukovych’s, in contrast, as quite small in order to depict the power difference between the two leaders. Putin is not averse to circulating photos of himself partially exposed whilst hunting, fishing, riding horses or pursuing other masculine activities, making Oleynik’s portrayal of Putin smiling rather seductively and grasping a knee to his chest rather femininely, only to expose a giant flaccid penis an interesting contrast. What differs, of course, from the public shaming of women, is the power differential, represented by these leader’s penises. Nude representations of men with power, like Trump, seek to return them to their corporeality, to the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of bodies — that is, to categories culturally associated women, hence the castrating sentiments.
A spokesman for INDECLINE told the Washington Post that “[l]ike it or not, Trump is a larger-than-life figure in world culture at the moment… Looking back in history, that’s how those figures were memorialized and idolized in their time — with statues.” Interestingly, because nakedness can also symbolize power, it is also through naked statuary in particular that historical leaders sought to represent their power. In A Brief History of Nakedness, Philip Carr-Gomm examines the political significance of naked statuary from nude statues of David to a naked statue of Napolean and a fictional nude painting of Lyndon Johnson in the play Mrs. Wilson’s Diary. The time and placement of the statuary is key to its shifting meanings. For example, when Napolean commissioned the naked sculpture of himself, it was to convey power. Upon his defeat, the painting was given to Wellington, who placed the statue in his London home, signaling Napolean’s loss of power. The meanings of nakedness in relationship to politics and power can shift, signaling victory at one moment and defeat at another. Naked Trump, of course, radically differs from this history of naked men in power. It is not the political context of relations among men in war that determines the meaning of this statue. Quite the contrary. The statue is meaningful because it casts Trump outside the domain of men altogether. The group told Huffington Post: “We decided to depict Trump without his balls because we refuse to acknowledge that he is a man,” INDECLINE responded. “He is a small arrogant child and thus, has nothing in the way of testicles.”
INDECLINE’S conclusion that Trump “has nothing in the way of testicles” because of the premise that he is “a small arrogant child” is, of course, a logical fallacy. What they mean is that he lacks “balls.” Yet, the logical slip is revealing. Removing his testicles and casting him as a child is equivalent to casting him beyond the domain of men to that of both women and children, the traditional domain of the feminine. This isn’t the group’s first use of feminization to shame and disempower Trump. The group was also behind a “Rape Trump” mural on the U.S.-Mexico border. The mural features an angry, pontificating Trump with a red ball gag in his mouth and the directions to Trump Tower (in Spanish) from Tijuana. INDECLINE painted the mural in response to Trump’s infamously racist comments last summer when he accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers. The creative director for INDECLINE told Vice, “We don’t honestly expect anyone to crawl over the border and follow the instructions and find Trump and rape him, but we want to raise awareness [about the] horrible shit he said. Controversy works better than something subtle.” However, like their naked Trump statue, the mural gets its meaning only with reference to Trump’s being cast as a submissive, and the use of the term ‘rape’ alongside it, effectively turns Trump into “the bitch” — the one forced to play the role of a woman to one more powerful. It’s unfortunate that INDECLINE’s public critiques of a man notorious for his humiliating claims about women were accomplished only by continuing that humiliation. Inscribed within the INDECLINE logo in small, chaotic, non-linear script is a question: “Do you ever know where your thoughts come from?” – a fitting question indeed.