If, when you saw the title of this documentary, The Man With a Penis on His Arm (Channel 4), your first thought was: “Wait – like the mouse with the ear on its back? But a man and a penis and an arm? the answer is ineluctably: yes. Just like that.
Malcolm, now 45, lost his penis 12 years ago and has had a replacement growing on his arm and awaiting transplant for the past six. As he put it, he was “an ordinary man doing everything a normal man does”. He had a job, “a nice partner” and was living “a man’s life, bringing in the money, putting food on the table”. The arrival of a baby, he says, disrupted things – though we later find out that the death of his father, to whom Malcolm, after time in foster care, had grown very close, killed “the happy part of me” – and he ended up on the streets and addicted to drink and drugs.
An attempt to launch an abscess himself resulted in blood poisoning. His fingers and toes went black. So, too, he did his penis. “Then I went to the toilet and it fell off,” he says, matter-of-factly. The interviewer’s journalistic objectivity falls momentarily away. “Your…your penis fell off?” he says. “Gone,” says Malcolm, beginning to walk out of shot. “See already.”
There is no getting away from the fact that any documentary entitled The Man With a Penis on His Arm is going to invite moments of levity. It’s not that the narrator of Malcolm’s story, Paul McGann, does n’t do a fine job of neutrally delivering lines such as: “No one has ever spent as long living with a penis on his arm from him.” But if you, as a viewer, don’t feel the urge to side-eye someone and murmur: “You don’t say?” then … well, I would admire but also, in some profound way, mistrust you.
Ditto at moments such as the one where, his forearm appendage swinging free, Malcolm points out that it makes it hard to reach the back hob. It almost makes you proud to be British.
Still, it is the deep sadness of Malcolm’s tale – and the six years of waiting for his arm-penis to be relocated is only one part of it – that dominates. The pandemic added to the delay, but, presumably out of kindness to Malcolm, it is never made fully clear why he has had to wait so long for his operation. We are, however, given enough information to infer that his relationship with alcohol, and the difficulty of attending all the necessary appointments for surgery without support from friends who prove unreliable, are maybe something to do with it.
There are two other subjects in the film: Anik, born with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome, which resulted in an underdeveloped penis; and Lee, who was born without a penis and only obtained one through surgery at the age of 42.
Anik, too, has had his phalloplasty. We follow him as he undergoes yet another operation on his poor groin (his doctor does not recognize his face from him, Anik notes), this time to reposition the internal hydraulic equipment that will enable him to have erections.
There are many fascinating questions raised by all three stories, about masculinity, what it takes to be a man, what it means to be without a penis in a patriarchy and a phallocentric culture, but they are only rarely examined. Lee, for example, seems to have been born male but, in the absence of a penis, was raised as a girl (it’s unclear for how long, but for at least the first few years of his life). But, he says: “I knew I needed a penis from six or seven.”
What this might tell us about biological imperatives, maleness v masculinity is not explored, nor the complicating effects of abuse by his father “before I was five”. Anik, surrounded by a supportive family and seemingly possessed of a thoroughly optimistic spirit, took an overdose at 14 as the trials of puberty seemed insurmountable.
At a time when people are questioning like never before what it means to live in a male or female body, it seemed like a missed opportunity not to ask more from people with rare perspectives on the issues.
But it was, really, Malcolm’s story – which, thank God, has a happyish ending. His surgeon offers him a last chance and he takes it. His penis from him is now back where it belongs. He shows us the results, but it’s his brighter affect that tells us what we really need to know. He feels better. “Six years with a cock on me arm,” he says in wonder. “Something to tell the grandchildren, isn’t it?”