Saturday, May 24, 2014

Scary Men in Underpants

What delicate and vulnerable people we have become.

In February, a statue titled Sleepwalker, by artist Tony Matelli, was placed in a prominent spot on the campus of Wellesley College, a women's school.  Here is a picture.

It is a fiberglass rendering of a slight and slightly paunchy guy in underpants who is walking in his sleep.

I have not had a chance to see the thing in situ, but my guess is that if a real sleepwalking man were to awaken suddenly and and find himself wandering in his underwear on a women's college campus, he would feel frightened, embarrassed and quite eager to get the heck out of there.

But I seem to have missed something.  Wellesley students were horrified.

Shortly after the statue went up, students began circulating a petition.  It says this:

"This highly lifelike sculpture has, within a few hours of its outdoor installation, become a source of apprehension, fear and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community."

("Triggering," or causing upset, is a big topic for student activists these days.  There are people who want professors to issue "trigger warnings" before assigning material that may distress students.  Works ranging from  The Merchant of Venice to Mrs. Dalloway have been put forth as needing trigger warnings. )

But back to Wellesley.  In short order, more than 500 students signed the anti-statue petition, and recent reports said the number of signatures had increased to almost 1,000.

One student who signed the petition said, "It sort of feels like the big point here is that students' emotions to the statue are being pushed aside in favor of having a discussion about art."

Break out the smelling salts.  The Wellesley women are suffering cases of the vapors.  How dare a college put a discussion of art ahead of students' FEELINGS?

Fortunately, some of the grownups on campus are acting a little more, well, grown up.

The director of the campus museum said, "I love the idea of art escaping the museum and muddling the line between what we expect to be inside (art) and what we expect to be outside (life)."

Matelli's statue may not be revered hundreds of years from now, but it is scheduled to stay in its place on the Wellesley campus only until July.

Interestingly, vandals hurled yellow paint on Sleepwalking and several other statues a few days ago.

So much for high-minded discussions about art.

In fact, at the earlier levels of education, people also object to a man in underwear.  I speak, of course, of ------------  Captain Underpants.

A group of librarians, booksellers and avid readers keeps a list of efforts to remove certain books from the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

For the last two years, the most challenged book (actually a series) in the United States has been, of all things, Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey.

Here is a picture of Captain Underpants.

In real life, according to the books, he is a mean elementary school principal.

Here are George Beard and Harold Hutchins, fourth graders at the same school.
George and Harold are pranksters who make up stories in which they hypnotize the principal, transforming him into Captain Underpants, a caped crusader.  Other characters in the books are Dr. Diaper, the Talking Toilets and Bionic Booger Boy.

According to the Banned Book Week organization, people who don't like Captain Underpants lodge complaints ranging from "offensive language" to "unsuited for age group" to "violence."

Maybe these complainers would be happier if the books came in plain brown wrappers with trigger warnings for seven-year-old boys.

Another group, Common Sense Media, which reviews children's books, gave a rather sniffy report on the first book in the series, saying this:

"Parents need to know that this book is full of gross bathroom humor that many kids find fun.  It may be a good fit for reluctant readers," (aka boys) "but beware:  It's the start of a huge series, and if your kids get hooked, they might be stuck on gross-out humor for a while.  Cartoon-style pictures enhance over-the-top jokes and fast-paced action."

Common Sense gave Captain Underpants a grudging rating of three on a scale of five.  Parents and children were more generous, giving it a four.

To be fair, the target demo for Captain Underpants probably does not overlap that for Anne of Green Gables, whose readers are no doubt more likely to end up at Wellesley College.

But why should it?  The books are for young boys who, to the apparent distress of many adults, really dig potty humor.

More than 70 million Captain Underpants books have been sold, which I think is a good thing. I believe reading is good for children and even better if they enjoy the books they are consuming.

Sometimes it seems as if certain scolds are annoyed at the thought that somebody, somewhere, might be having a little fun.


One year after this post, the Sleepwalker moved to the popular Highline Park in Manhattan's Chelsea district, where his presence did not give offense and instead inspired cellphone pictures and selfies.


  1. I doubt those young ladies at Wellesley would like being compared to book banners. Brilliant.