The world of Danish children’s television is not for the prudish. Kids who turn on the tube in Denmark might be greeted by gratuitous flatulence, cursing, casual nudity, or cross-dressing puppets. One show centers on a pipe-smoking pirate who wallops ninjas and flirts with Satanism. In another, an audience of 11-to-13-year-olds asks probing questions about the bodies of adults who disrobe before them. As Christian Groes, an anthropologist at Denmark’s Roskilde University, told me, Danish children’s television is not unlike an LSD trip: “Everything is possible in that universe,” he said, loosely quoting a friend, “and people won’t complain about it.”
But people did complain when the Danes debuted a kids’ animated series in January featuring a protagonist with an absurdly long, prehensile penis.
The show, which is produced by DR, the same Danish production company responsible for the pirate and strip-down shows, was written for 4-to-8-year-olds. It centers on the eponymous John Dillermand, a mustachioed Claymation character whose last name translates roughly to “penis man.” (In Danish, diller is a silly, cheeky bit of phallic slang, the equivalent of pee-pee, willy, or weiner in English.) Gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a retractable phallus that seems capable of extending at least 20 times the length of his body, Dillermand must navigate life alongside his über-ostentatious junk, which at times has a mind of its own. His schlong graffities walls, digs up gardens, lassos a moving caravan, and even coils itself into a bobbing, seaworthy boat—not always with Dillermand’s permission.
Scandalized viewerscriticizedDillermand as inappropriate, tone-deaf, and a jarring choice on the heels of the country’s growing #MeToo movement. But the series’s creators, and many bemused fans, defended it as a subversive comedy that has served up opportunities for parents to have frank and unsqueamish conversations about anatomy with their kids.
“The series is about being true to one’s self,” Morten Skov Hansen, the head of DR Ramasjang, the company’s kids’ channel, told me in an email. “It’s as desexualized as it can possibly get.”
While I don’t speak Danish, the tone of John Dillermand is not easily lost in translation: The show isn’t about sex. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions, and the awkward realities of inhabiting a human body. But in every minute of the Dillermand jaunt, there’s also a reminder that male bodies are still allowed freedoms that female ones are not.
John Dillermand is, in some ways, a throwback to the man-children who have dominated kids’ TV across continents and decades. Dillermand, who is middle-aged, lives with his remarkably spry great-grandmother (oldemor, in Danish), and retains the worldview of a young boy. He is clad inexplicably in a red-and-white striped swimsuit (which graciously accommodates his elongating appendage, because a nude penis would have been a bridge too far), and occasionally a pom-pommed beanie. A character reminiscent of Mr. Bean or Inspector Gadget, he lacks street smarts and maturity, and innocently sees the world as his playground.
Were Dillermand typically endowed, he might be merely bumbling or pitiable. But his giant penis—billed in the show’s theme song as the largest in the world—won’t allow him to languish in anonymity. A manifestation of his id, his pecker acts of its own accord. It’s sassy. It’s hedonistic. It’s got an appetite (for food, mostly), and isn’t afraid to buck social norms to sate it.
This tension between man and member drives the show’s zany plot. After Dillermand’s penis plucks an ice-cream cone from a child’s hand and flings it onto a stoplight, Dillermand must redirect traffic and set the situation right. When the diller nearly drowns several kids, John wrangles it into a makeshift propeller to airlift the children to safety. Dillermand’s penis wields weapons with abandon—a dagger, a chain saw, a rifle. It provokes animals and bullies children. It steals. It commits acts of violence. It even terrifies Santa Claus (who mistakes the penis for a snake) so badly that he tumbles down a chimney and injures himself.
Dillermand has enough self-awareness to occasionally bemoan the shenanigans of his wayward penis, pulling his hat over his face and groaning, “Ugh, that dumb diller.” It’s often Oldemor who must remind her man-child great-grandson to pak den væk—put it away!—when Dillermand’s diller runs amok. “What will the neighbors think?” she screeches. But Dillermand always comes through in the end, picking up a lesson or two about conscientiousness along the way.
In the months since its premiere, John Dillermand has accumulated a veritable cavalry of tiny fans. Anne Sofie Pleidrup, who lives with her husband, her son, 6, and her daughter, 7, in Denmark, told me that her entire family has been enjoying the show. Both her children are creeping up to the age when anatomical differences are starting to fascinate them, and she was delighted that “they found the same punch lines funny.”
Dillermand embodies a child’s view of the human body: strange, impossible, invincible, hilarious. He validates the idea that the diller is okay for kids to discuss. Children have parroted the show’s theme song to their parents, requested Dillermand-themed cakes, and packed superlong penises onto snowmen. “It’s removing some of the stigma about talking about a penis—it’s just a body part,” Eileen Crehan, a sex-education researcher at Tufts University, told me. With a squint, one could imagine Dillermand’s genitals as an extra-long arm or leg. By Danish standards, Dillermand is actually “fairly mild,” Andreas Lieberoth, an educational psychologist at Aarhus University, told me. He and many other experts I spoke with shrugged the series off as no big deal—just the latest in a long line of edgy or bodily brazen Danish shows.
The show's success could also be read as a testament to Denmark’s progressive approach to sexuality and autonomy in general. Sex education has been a requirement in Danish elementary schools since 1970 (a year after the country became the world’s first Western nation to legalize pornographic imagery). It's hard to imagine Dillermand sitting well in countries with a more fraught approach to sex, such as the United States, where “we sexualize everything,” Hilary Reno, a sexual-health expert at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. But in Denmark—where people boast of their frisind, a free-spirited, open-minded approach to life—kids begin discussing love, sexuality, relationships, and consent as early as kindergarten, learning while young that their bodies are things to be acknowledged, not repressed.
Perhaps in this context, a penis does not have to be a sexual device—especially when viewed through the eyes of a 4-year-old. “It’s a good message for bodies in general,” Kathryn Macapagal, a sexual-health researcher and clinical psychologist at Northwestern University, told me. “Your body gets you into trouble, but it can also do lots of amazing things.” Dillermand himself learns this lesson: After trying to barter his penis away at a flea market, he ultimately accepts and embraces his misbehaving pecker, hijinks and all.
Yet despite its candy striping, John Dillermand’s penis is, in the end, still a penis. The diller acts as if morally bankrupt; it is recklessness incarnate. It threatens, perhaps even overtly, to absolve men of responsibility. “To me, this penis is out of control,” Crehan said. Despite its lighthearted tone, John Dillermand—a show about men, dreamed up by men—reinforces the bottom line about male sexuality: It’s so uncontrollable, it can demand its own television series.
Some of the trouble can be traced back to the pure creep factor of the main character. Dillermand, despite his apparent age, is jobless and friendless. He piddles the day away on the front lawn, playing pranks or practicing badminton with his only willing athletic partner, who is—surprise!—his own penis. While Oldemor urges him to rub elbows with doctors and lawyers, Dillermand manages to befriend only a lonely young boy, with whom he filches candy from a shop.
And Dillermand himself is not completely sexless. In one episode, he nurses an obvious crush on his thankfully age-appropriate neighbor Yvonne. His penis, by and large, behaves itself. But the character’s desires evoke the discomfiting possibility of an unwelcome advance nonetheless.
Groes, the gender scholar, worries that the diller’s presenceis so commanding that it actually distracts from the rest of the show’s content. When Groes’s 8-year-old son watched the show, “he didn’t get it,” Groes told me. “Because the attention was on something else, which was funnier, stranger, and weirder.”
At its worst, Dillermand, inadvertently or not, threatens to reinforce the same “locker-room tendencies” the Western world has hoped to move away from, Groes told me. “It’s probably the most classic stereotype you can come up with: a man having certain abilities because he has a big penis.” Dillermand’s life revolves around the power of his appendage. The show ultimately glorifies the consequences of an uninhibited penis, rather than grappling with them. Dillermand’s predicament, Groes said, is a “classic macho claim: ‘I can’t control my penis.’”
DR, the company behind the show, has argued that Dillermand and his penis could have "easily" been swapped out for a female-bodied character. And yet, on one point, every person I spoke with agreed: Reimagined with a biologically female lead, John Dillermand would not have worked. Even in Denmark, vaginas and vulvas aren’t considered innocent or endearing enough to delight young minds. Diller jokes are embedded in the cultural zeitgeist; the word itself is emblematic of contrarian playfulness and parody. But the Danes I talked with told me that the impish female counterpart of the word diller does not exist.
“There is still shame with talking about women’s genitalia in public spaces,” Crehan said. An especially large vagina might be labeled as a signal of looseness and corruption—a dangerous “weapon” used to exert undue influence over others.
The idea of a massive, magical vulva taking the place of Dillermand’s penis is difficult to even envision. In the days after the show premiered, the Danish internet overflowed with memes flaunting female versions of Dillermand, some sporting the appropriately gigantic genital accoutrement, or a tangle of unspooling breasts. But “would people receive it the same way with a vulva or vagina reaching out to grab a kid’s ice-cream cone? I don’t think so,” Macapagal told me. From there, the possibilities start to spiral: Would Carol’s clitoris have been celebrated for taming a lion? Would audiences have laughed to see Vicky’s vulva stabbed, smashed, or electrocuted?
This imbalance is a reminder of the dominance of masculinity, Groes said. Although the sexuality of the penis can be toggled on and off, female genitalia occupy a cultural space with decidedly less dynamic range. The sexuality of women is still taboo enough that it is most easily ignored; when it is offered a modest fraction of the spotlight typically reserved for men, it is excoriated for its audacity. While the nuanced lore of the penis thrives, female genitals are struggling to shed their “hypersexualized” identity, says Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive-health-equity researcher at the University of Minnesota.
In John Dillermand, the female presence is so starkly absent that one cannot help but confront the reasons it has been erased. The show isn’t uncomfortable because it’s so radical to make a children’s series about a penis, but because it’s decidedly not.