I can’t stop thinking about Brock Davis’s sculpture in this post. It is so suggestive of genitalia, as it was intended to be, but it isn’t actually shaped anything like any human genitals. It’s just a decorated aluminum can. And to me it equidistant between male and female, suggesting both, but neither predominantly; a clever trick. (Though I half expect my topologist friend Andrew to pop in and tell me I’m wrong, it’s actually closer to one or the other by some metric.) How did he do it?
I think the reason it works so well is that, rather than choose individual characteristics of specific genetalia, he took advantage of heuristics by which we recognize them in general. Flesh tone is an obvious one, with some bumps and texture for verisimilitude. Genitals are part of a body, and a band-aid is something we only apply to a body, so putting one on the can induces the viewer to think of it as a body part. A change of curvature is associated with a fringe of hair. An opening is limned in more reddish “tissue.” These non-gender-specific but related cues all applied to the same object make me look at it and think “sex organ,” despite it not being shaped like one.
I wonder what an analogous technique in prose would be. Favoring descriptive words that are associated with a specific object/class/thing, when that isn’t what you are describing? I read a story recently in which several characters were afraid of encountering a dog. They are worried that a dog could show up at any time, and when one of them says something the verb used is “yipped.” Is this an example of a similar trick? It seems like it would be a powerful tool to have, being able to suggest the presence of something to a reader without the need to actually have it there. What are other ways this is accomplished in fiction?