Masculinity comics 2

[Proviso: this posting is about, among other things, ritual insult — a kind of verbal play-fighting — but it doesn’t pretend to be an essay on the very large number of forms and functions of ritual insults (and, more generally, play-fighting), even in the modern U.S., much less in different  sociocultural contexts around the world and throughout history.]

Today, example 2 in a series of comics on masculinity for boys, a One Big Happy from the past (6/27/09):

(#1) Ruthie heaps formulaic insults on her brother Joe (including the kid insults stupid head, monkey face, and nachos for brains — poopy head, a stand-in for the stronger shit for brains, would be the classic kid insult) until she hits on something he really cares about

Background from yesterday’s posting “Masculinity comics 1”:

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), overing 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.

Then example 1, the OBH of 4/16/21, on attitudes towards transvestism / cross-dressing, plus introductory material on the Boy Code (and normative masculinity more generally), from my 4/12/16 posting “On the brocabulary watch: brocialist”.

Kids slinging insults. I don’t know the literature on this — and I’m in no position to do a search for it — but anecdotally it seems clear that young children in our culture learn fairly early to sling sincere insults and also to lie; I don’t know when they put the two together to hurl false accusations. Separately, they pick up certain kinds of physical play aggression, especially chase games; and, at least among boys, wrestling with one another. All this eventually knits together to allow verbal play aggression, which can be a very tricky business, easily sliding from playfulness (itself serving several possible functions) into an attack masquerading as playfulness and on to frank genuine aggression, aimed at domination, humiliation, the infliction of pain, and the like.

Kids can practice verbal play aggression, without veering into genuine hurt, if they have available some verbal formulas that are fully conventionalized as playful only: this is the beauty of expressions like poopy-head.

[Lexical note: poopy-head seems not to be in any of the serious slang dictionaries; but in Urban Dictionary, this entry:

A poopy head is something little kids call each other when they’re angry. It means they have shit for brains, therefore they are idiots. Bobby, you poopy head, u spelled CAT wrong! (by Hannah Banana 4/1/04)]

Formulaic ritual insults like poopy-head can be used without risk for the full range of functions of ritual insults: but in

— expressing affection, closeness (we’re such good friends that I can call you poopy-head and you can call me stinky-feet);

— projecting a critique of power (from the less powerful against the more powerful: younger against older, girl against boy, protected against protector, weaker against stronger; in these situations, the more powerful will often choose not to respond in kind but to deflect the critique, for example, by a display of indifference, as in #1);

— or, in accordance with the Boy Code, providing a toughening-up ordeal, in which a boy learns (in a controlled situation) to “take it like a man” and “give as good as he gets”, in preparation for a lifetime of genuinely aggressive competition with other males

Toughening-up will move boys in a male band from the formulaic to powerful (but situationally tricky) insults like bastard, fuckface, dumbass, little-dick, and even faggot — insults that are are intended to provoke the target to respond in kind (or to exhibit heroic contemptuous endurance — nothing can rattle me, you fucks), just as physical aggression is intended to provoke what amount to controlled fights, in which the winner demonstrates his power and the loser his valor, and the two become the best of friends thereafter.

Apparent actual aggression. In our culture, people engage in apparently aggressive teasing, “kidding”, “playing a joke on” others, pranking them, etc. which can be intended as playful, covertly aggressive, or frankly attacking. They also use verbal insults in all these ways. There are even lines of insult greeting cards — quite a few of them — whose actual use is very unclear to me.

For example, a few card sentiments available on Redbubble:

I noticed you’re not yourself today. I really like it.

You’re a piece of shit!

[accompanying a Christmas mistletoe illustration] Stick it up your arse.

Life is short and so is your penis. [I am a little-dicked old man nearing the end of his life, so if you value our friendship, don’t send me this one.]

And this wonderful POP (phrasal overlap portmanteau):


Classic ritual insults. The literature on ritual insults is extremely heavily focused on one set of practices and its variants. From Wikipedia:

The Dozens is a game of spoken words between two contestants, common in black communities of the United States, where participants insult each other until one gives up. It is customary for the Dozens to be played in front of an audience of bystanders, who encourage the participants to reply with increasingly egregious insults in order to heighten the tension and, consequently, make the contest more interesting to watch.

Playing the Dozens is also known [under a great variety of names] … while the insults themselves are known as “snaps”.

Comments in the game focus on the opposite player’s intelligence, appearance, competency, social status, and financial situation. Disparaging remarks about the other player’s family members are common, especially about mothers (“yo’ mama…”).

… According to sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland, the game is almost exclusive to African Americans; other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously. Its popularity is higher among low-income, urban communities but also found in middle class and rural settings. Both men and women participate, but the game is more commonly played among men.

Note that this is a public contestation, with an audience — quite unlike the situation in #1 and most everyday uses of ritual insults in our culture.

Labov’s  classic discussion of the Dozens maintained that it was generally easy to distinguish ritual insults from real ones, but others have disputed this. Tyrone Rivers, in Ritual Insults among Middle School Students: Causing Harm or Passing Time? (M.Sci. in Educational Psychology thesis, UIUC, 2012), studying “roasting” (the Dozens) among 6th and 7th grade African American males in a Midwestern school, concluded (p. 2) that:

Although there are benefits [for the participants in the events] to roasting, the line between roasting and bullying is almost non-existent.

A final note on the significance of the Dozens to American culture is the role of “snaps” in the performances of drag queens, through the influence of African American drag queens.

Throwing like a girl. In #1, when Ruthie play-insults Joe by saying that he throws like a girl, that really hits him where he lives: he sees it as a real insult, and insists she take the calumny back. In his view, it’s a direct strike at his masculinity.

There’s a long story here, but here’s a nice wrap-up by James Fallows, in the 8/96 issue of The Atlantic magazine, “Throwing Like a Girl: Throwing style is not determined by biology — anyone can learn to throw like an athlete”:

The implication of Braden’s analysis is that throwing is a perfectly natural action (millions and millions of people can do it), but not at all innate. A successful throw involves an intricate series of actions coordinated among muscle groups, as each link of the chain is timed to interact with the next. Like bike riding or skating, it can be learned by anyone — male or female. No one starts out knowing how to ride a bike or throw a ball. Everyone has to learn.

Readers who are happy with their throwing skills can prove this to themselves in about two seconds. If you are right-handed, pick up a ball with your left hand and throw it. Unless you are ambidextrous or have some other odd advantage, you will throw it “like a girl.” The problem is not that your left shoulder is hinged strangely or that you don’t know what a good throw looks like. It is that you have not spent time training your leg, hip, shoulder, and arm muscles on that side to work together as required for a throw.

Boys learn it through a long period of what amounts to “masculinity practice”. (Which I never committed to, so I still “throw like a girl”.)

But 8-year-old boys like Joe can be expected to have finished that period of masculinity practice, in the company of other boys preparing to be baseball players. Ruthie has apparently sneaked in a bit of maliciousness, under cover of play — an ever-present danger of ritual insults.

To come next in this series: the value of a big brother (and his responsibilities).

2 Responses to “Masculinity comics 2”

  1. Danny Boy - London Derriere Says:

    “A poopy head is something little kids call each other when they’re angry. It means they have shit for brains, therefore they are idiots.” Well, that’s a relief. I have usually pidctured it as much more a physical realisation — saying the target has literally got poop smeared on their head.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Strictly speaking, a formulaic expression is just some phonological stuff associated with a use, and its etymology (if, indeed, it is reliably known) is irrelevant — but people want to find bits of meaning in stuff, so they will seize on recognizable parts, whatever the actual history is. Which is how most English speakers — and I expect, *all* young children — understand formulaic goodbye to be wishing a good something or other to people (the information that the first chunk is etymologically God is of no practical utility to anyone, fascinating though it is).

      Rather more complicatedly, in writing about formulaic abusive Eat it!, I’ve noted that (insofar as we understand things) the etymology is from an exhortation to fellatio (Eat (my) dick!), but that a fair number of people understand it as an exhortation to coprophagy (Eat shit!), and some understand it to be fellatial, but with an unsavory tinge or suggestion of the coprophagic in there somewhere. I think it would be silly to argue over which understanding is “right”; all that we really need to know is that Eat it! is intended to be abusive.

      So with poopy-head (and with the more vulgar shithead): historically, it might be ‘head filled with shit’, hence roughly synonymous with shit for brains, but it could also be seen as ‘head covered with shit’ (parallel to pimple-face). Or indeed as a resemblance compound (roughly, ‘head that looks like a pile of shit’). Or still further possibilities: Ns of the form N + N and Adj + N are notoriously open to multiple interpretations.

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