Masculinity comics 1

[Proviso: this posting is mostly about cross-dressing, but it doesn’t pretend to be an essay on the very large number of forms and functions of cross-dressing, even in the modern U.S., much less in different sociocultural contexts around the world and throughout history.]

I’ve been accumulating comic strips having to do with boys and masculinity, in particular about what they’ve picked up about normatively masculine behavior and attitudes by the age of 8 or so: the age of the character Joe in the comic strip One Big Happy, who’s the older brother of Ruthie, age 6, who’s the central character of the strip. At the moment I have 5 strips (4 OBHs, plus a Zippy), covering a wide range of themes in normative masculinity for boys. To judge from the comics (and my recollections of boyhood), an 8-year-old has an extensive and pretty fine-grained command of the cultural norms of masculinity within his social group.

Example 1, the OBH of 4/16/21, on attitudes towards transvestism / cross-dressing:

(#1) The attitude here is that male cross-dressing — prancing around dressed in women’s clothing — is ridiculous, maybe pitiful, but in any case not compatible with ferocity, that is, symbolic masculinity ; this is one step in sophistication past the attitude that it’s against nature, therefore pathological and dangerous, though possibly usable as entertainment, in the theatre of ridicule

Two linguistic side issues here: the idiomatic slang says you, expressing disagreement with an interlocutor’s remark (from Joe, to Ruthie, in the last panel); and the 2pbfV cross-dress (a derivative of the synthetic compound cross-dressing). Before that, the background of the Boy Code.

The Boy Code (and normative masculinity more generally). From my 4/12/16 posting “On the brocabulary watch: brocialist”, on

Michael Kimmel’s Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Understanding the Critical Years Between 16 and 26 (2008), and in particular its chapter 3: ““Bros Before Hos”: The Guy Code”, which notes that the basic rules of masculinity – “the boy code” and “the guy code” – have scarcely changed at all for many decades; the first rule is that “masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine” (p. 45).

And the central precept of the first rule is No Sissy Stuff!: avoid anything that might suggest homosexuality. The most wounding insult to a young man is to call him a fag(got), and “That’s so gay” is a powerful put-down among adolescent boys.

But beyond that: avoid women as friends rather than sexual conquests; avoid “feminine” interests (like the arts), avoid empathetic rather than competitive interactions (men improve one another, make one another into better men, by challenging each other agonistically), etc.

Also avoid “Mama values” (at the risk of becoming a “Mama’s boy”): cleanness, neatness, respectfulness, “proper grammar”, no “dirty talk”, etc. – including these values as policed by female partners (standing in for Mama), who are seen as “ball-busters” or “castrating bitches” when they perform this role: women as emasculating.

[From p. 47 of the Kimmel book:]

One of the more startling things I found when I researched the history of the idea of masculinity in America for a previous book [Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1st ed. 1995)] was that men subscribe to these ideals not because they want to impress women, let alone any inner drive or desire to test themselves against some abstract standards. They do it because they want to be positively evaluated by other men. … Masculinity is largely a “homosocial” experience: performed for, and judged by, other men.

Men in groups tend to bond through aggressive displays, and to see women as a threat to their bonds, a combination of factors that can lead to extraordinary hostility towards women

In my own case, as a boy, I had close female friends, which many boys understood as my wanting to be like a girl or my wanting to be a girl or even my being a girl pretending to be a boy. I enjoyed imaginative play with girls and shrank from the aggressive rough play of boys, but I wasn’t a fem boy, nor did I take part in the games girls played in groups (hopscotch, jump-rope games, and the like). Nevertheless, my friendships with girls were one of the things that got me labeled as a fairy-boy and a queer; we didn’t have the terms gay or fag(got) in those long-ago days. (My first such female friend, starting when we were 6 and lasting through high school, died not long ago, to my great sorrow.)

In any case, I can vouch for the strength of this particular bit of the Boy Code in 8-year-old boys.

Note about Kimmel’s discussion: he recognizes that he’s talking about a normative masculine that is relative to particular sociocultural contexts — 20th-century North America etc. etc. — and that normative masculinity differs from place to place, time to time, social group to social group, and so on. He’s careful not to posit some sort of universal ideal masculinity against which all is judged.

The vocabulary of guys in dresses. From NOAD:

noun transvestite: a person who dresses in clothes primarily associated with the opposite sex (typically used of a man).

verb cross-dress: [no object] wear clothing typical of the opposite sex: a lot of men cross-dress | (as noun cross-dressing): entertainment has thrived on drag, cross-dressing, and androgyny.

From OED2’s entry on the combining form cross

cross-dressing  n. = transvestism n.
1911 E. Carpenter in Amer. Jrnl. Relig. Psychol. & Educ. July 228 Cross-dressing must be taken as a general indication of, and a cognate phenomenon to, homosexuality.
[other cites from 1928, 1950, 1971, and:]
1985 Times 21 Jan. 8/6 Androgynous clothing is a challenge to fixed concepts of femininity/masculinity, and once that demarcation line was established in Christian society, cross-dressing became subversive.

verb cross-dress: [as a back-formation] (intransitive) to dress in clothes of the opposite sex, as a transvestite.
1966 H. Benjamin Transsexual Phenomenon ii. 12 Men in whom the desire to cross-dress is often combined with other deviations.
1979 P. Ackroyd Dressing Up i. 27/2 When cross-dressed, the transvestite..‘achieves a completely emotional identification which is sexually abnormal but aesthetically correct’.
1984 Listener 12 July 7/3 She had never accepted his desire to cross-dress, regarding him as ‘perverted’ and ‘disgusting’.

The linguistic point: cross-dressing is a synthetic compound (the most common type: PRP-form nominal (that is, nominal in –ing); the verb to cross-dress is then derived from it by back-formation — so, a 2-part back-formed verb (2pbfV).

Meanwhile, the cites show the severe judgments that cross-dressing — which could in principle have been viewed simply as a practice that some people engage in for pleasure (perhaps intense pleasure), like, say, watching stockcar racing (an intensely pleasurable practice for some people, though totally baffling to me) — has aroused: that cross-dressing (especially by males) is against nature, pathological and dangerous, but maybe merely risible. It’s certainly contrary to the normative masculinity that Kimmel describes.

And I would imagine that most 8-year-old boys in our society would have that attitude firmly in place, as Joe seems to have.

The idiomatic slang (or slang stock expression) says you, as an alternative to so you say or  that’s what you say. From OED3 (June 2015; latest version published online March 2021) under the verb say:

P10. In phrases used conversationally as stock replies …
g. slang (originally U.S.). says you: used to express disagreement with or disbelief in a previous speaker’s remark. Also says who?: used to challenge a remark; ‘who says so?’. Also (as a retort to either of these remarks) says me, says I. Cf. sense A. 1c(b) [below]. Also sez who?, sez me, etc.: see sez v. [1927 Says you–Says I; 1931 and 1938 says who?; 1951 P. G. Wodehouse Old Reliable iv. 53 Says you, if I may use a homely phrase indicating doubt and uncertainty.]

[sense] A. 1c(b) transitive. In representations of colloquial speech used in reporting conversations, characterized by a variety of nonstandard features, such as the substitution of the third person singular present tense for either the past tense or the first and second person singular present tense, the widespread inversion of verb and subject when the verb precedes the quoted words, and repetition of the verb, as says Isays yousays I to myself says I, etc.

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