Joe Camel, an X-rated smoke

Marjorie Garber

April 02, 1992|By Marjorie Garber

HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th' mass and 'tis -- like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale.

Polonius: Very like a whale.

The surgeon general, Dr. Antonia Novello, and the American Medical Association (AMA) have called for the removal of Joe Camel from billboards and printed ads because the Camel cigarette character with the long sleek snout is "too seductive for children."

Joe, according to an AMA study, is "twice as familiar to 3- and 6-year-olds as a box of Cheerios," is "as well known to 6-year-olds as Mickey Mouse" and has helped make Camels "the brand of choice among male children, 12 to 17 years old."

Seductive, familiar, the hands-down favorite of boys from 12 to 17. Wonder why? Take another look at Joe's savvy face.

Freud called it "displacement upward": the translation, in dreams or fantasies, of a taboo part of the body below the waist to a "safe" zone above the waist, often to the head or face.

Consider Medusa, whose head of snaky hair was, Freud suggested, a displacement upward of the young boy's fear of castration, engendered when he glimpsed "the female genitals, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother."

The multiplicity of snakes was both terrifying and reassuring, since they resembled and replaced the penis, "the absence of which is the cause of the horror."

Not convinced? Have another glance at Joe, featured in aggressively marketed display ads for The Hard Pack and, most recently, for a new R.J. Reynolds product, Camel Wides, "a thicker cigarette made to appeal to young men."

His long straight snout bulges above two pouchy folds as he stares insouciantly out at the viewer, a lighted cigarette hanging from his lips.

Look again. Any schoolchild can recognize this ribald caricature; only adults need to have it pointed out. Behold the emperor's new nose.

The nose is the commonest of phallic fetishes.

Freud's oddball friend Wilhelm Fliess developed a whole sexual psychology based on the supposed existence of a "nasal reflex neurosis" directly connected to the genitals.

More persuasively, from the ass-headed Bottom of "A midsummer Night's Dream" to "Cyrano de Bergerac" to "Pinocchio," the outsized or elongated nose has been a sign throughout popular literature of erection, of thinly veiled phallic boasting and of sexual anxiety, growing pains and sexual desire. (Bottom's name -- a pun on the weaver's "bottom" or thread spool -- is another good example of displacement upward from below.)

Nor is it a surprise to find Reynolds and its cartoonists aiming a product at a specific gender and sexuality.

Remember Dakota cigarettes, which were developed primarily to appeal to the "virile female" -- that apparently meant neither a corporate high-roller nor a butch lesbian but rather, according to the prospectus, "a woman with no education beyond high school," who watched "Rosanne" and evening soap operas and whose main aim was to spend her free time "with her boyfriend doing whatever he is doing."

Dakota was another Reynolds product, withdrawn from the test market before virile females could descend in droves on the local smoke shop.

Why was it withdrawn? Public outrage? But now the surgeon general and the AMA allege that, with the help of Joe Camel, Reynolds is making inroads, not among virile females, but among puerile males.

Sometimes, Freud supposedly admitted, a cigar is only a cigar.

But ask Groucho Marx about the potent combo of cigar, schnoz and roving eye.

If a cigarette is already itself a displacement upward of sex appeal, self-assurance and sexuality ("something to do with my hands"), then a cigarette-smoking cartoon character who looks like an amiable, animate phallus is offering the same message twice.

It's as plain as the nose on your face.

Marjorie Garber, professor of English at Harvard, is author of "Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety."

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