A silver-haired man with thick jowls receives a birthday present from his wife. Ripping the card open he sees its contents and shouts “Gray Power!” He and his wife chuckle as they contemplate the exciting and energized future that lays before them. To celebrate his fifty years, she has given him a gift certificate for monkey balls. Literally. His aging orbs will soon be surgically removed and replaced with a simian sack, guaranteeing beastial virility for years to come. After thumbing through the testicular upgrade catalogue, the birthday boy finally selects a designer model. “Oh yeah,” he gloats, “these blue balls will definitely impress the ladies when they fall out of my shorts at the gym.” I think we’ve all been there. Now what can this inspiring scenario teach us, darling readers? Well, when facing a midlife crisis, it is best to have a positive “can do” attitude, while embracing this mantra: “out with the old and in with the new species.”
“Oh FFG,” I imagine my bemused readers thinking, “You have quite an active fantasy life, not to mention an obsession with man parts.” Well yes, but I am not making this shit up. In 1920 a Russian doctor named Serge Voronoff transplanted thin slices of baboon and chimpanzee testicles into a human scrotum, hoping that the tissues would fuse to form a super man-monkey ball sack. The doctor’s efforts, described in his book Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925), were meant to improve aging men’s sex lives, memories, endurance, eye sight [WTF?], and longevity. At first the great doctor delivered the testicles of executed criminals to millionaire clients, but increasing demand soon forced him to use monkey bits, like the ones so carelessly flaunted above.
Medical practitioners have long benefitted from experimenting on prisoners, just as they have gleaned valuable knowledge from the injuries caused by wars and natural disasters, all occasions to learn more about the human body, its limitations, and capacities. Doctor Leo Stanley, chief surgeon at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California from 1913 to 1951, was potentially inspired by Doctor Voronoff, or perhaps he was simply riding the wave of early twentieth-century hormone hype. In any case, Doctor Leo performed testicular implants on hundreds of prisoners, transplanting the glands of executed inmates into older male convicts, most of them labelled “feeble minded” and none of them providing consent. A fan of eugenics, said Stanley believed that his surgeries would revitalize the aging men, with the beneficial side effect of controlling crime. Here’s where the good doctor loses me, for how on earth would replacing the dried furry coconuts of older criminals with the plump smooth mangos of younger criminals accomplish that goal? At the very least, Doctor Stanley knew that refreshed balls would prevent the “unfit” men from reproducing.
If these activities strike you as crazy, just consider the risks that people take today in the quest for eternal youth, paying dearly for surgeries, laser treatments, and injections of toxic substances into their faces. Now ask yourself the following question—and I want you to answer it honestly: If the monkey parts proven to keep you young suddenly went on sale, would you agree to have them transplanted into your body? If you shouted, “no, no never!” I have only one response: Liar. At least think about it while sipping on a Monkey Gland Cocktail, created in the 1920s by Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Back in those days, everyone wanted to be fueled by primate hormones, or, barring that, their pale red and deliciously shaken substitutes.
I first came across the popular craze for monkey balls while reading In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (2012), by Patricia Cohen. This book provides a rather light and fluffy [ie non-academic] chronological survey of conceptions of “middle age” since the nineteenth century when the idea was first invented. Like other life phases—think toddler, teenager, and the more recent “tween”—middle age is a relatively new category, primarily meant to sell age-specific consumer items. According to Cohen, age was not always a key marker of identity, with such events as marriage, parenthood, or illness shaping life stories instead. Before about 1850, people in their 40s and 50s were simply adults, often blessed with hard-won experience, wisdom, and financial security. Once factory-based practices of physical efficiency were embraced both within and outside of workplaces, however, the aging body began to seem weak and even useless. In contrast, the cult of youth grew ever stronger. By the 1970s psychologist Erik Erikson had redefined middle age in a slightly more positive fashion, including it as one of his “Eight Stages of Man,” and describing it as a time of change and increased brain activity. Still, middle age could be ambivalently linked with crisis, accompanied by heart disease and hormone loss. According to Daniel Levinson, another psychologist writing in the 1970s, a man approaching 40 not only had to face his mortality, but also “to deal with the disparity between what he is and what he dreamed of becoming.” I think we all know the shit storm that results when that happens.
Cohen outlines the various male responses to middle age. The first, most stereotypical one, involves aging men obessesing over their appearance, buying ridiculous motorized vehicles, and proving their virility by embarking on affairs with younger women. The second typical reaction involves men setting new life goals which are physically challenging, like running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or doing the Tough Mudder without drowning. The third standard response is perhaps the saddest one, for it features a willing stagnation. In this case, the aging man passively abandons his dreams as “not worth pursuing,” resigning himself to a life resembling that of a senior citizen already confined to the monotonous routine of a nursing home: for the most part he eats bland food while watching DVD after DVD, creating nothing but a deeper ass goove on the couch. I think you would agree with Doctors Voronoff and Stanley: this kind of man needs to grow a pair.
What about lady balls? As Cohen and other journalists make clear, the midlife crisis has been and remains primarily identified with men. This andro-focus occurred because women were of little interest to early male researchers (ie the usual “who gives a shit about the girls” scenario was in place). But with the increasing economic freedom of at least some women—mostly white and middle class—they too have been granted a midlife crisis, one that requires hormone replacements, boob jobs, trips to the spa, and various kinds of facial reconstruction. As far as I can tell, women respond to their supposed middle age in many ways, including the three standard ones outlined above. Most of my male as well as female friends have opted for door number two, striving to become better and learn more by taking risks and facing difficult, sometimes bizarre challenges. I think my “crisis” mostly partook of the second option, leading me to enter a figure competition as a form of academic research. I can attest—and here I hope that readers will respond with comments—that the demand for women to look young and sexy only increases over time, becoming quite an expensive burden that is difficult to refuse. I have by no means escaped its weighty clutches. Consider the following true story, which makes me only slightly ashamed. The other day I was contacted by a photographer who had been commissioned to take publicity photos of me for my new book, Defining the Modern Museum. “Do you have anything special in mind?” he asked, expecting to hear about venues and poses. “Yes,” I replied frankly, “I do not want to look old, ugly, or fat. Good luck with that.” Sorry shocked and appalled readers. I realize that as a smart and well informed feminist, I am supposed to embrace aging and sing “everyone is beautiful in their own way” while holding hands and swaying by the campfire. That would be, however, a giant fucking lie. While I am many things—petty, vengeful, arrogant—I am not a liar.
How are older women portrayed in the popular media today? Aside from those problematic Dove commercials, they are either gorgeous and successful, or invisible. Except for Betty White. That is quite a change from the early modern period, when female aging and ugliness were considered one and the same thing, as seen in the painting of the Monkey Duchess above. Could it be that these days ugliness is conflated with fatness instead of an elderly visage? What do you think? Please also consider the following dilemma that currently haunts my middle aged lady mind: is it harder work to appear to be young in order to attract the male gaze, or to be visibly frumpy and thus utterly ignored? Either way, the joke is on me.