Two cartoons on familiar themes

In my comics feed recently: a One Big Happy (from 4/6/10) on masculinity for boys; and a Wayno / Piraro  Bizarro (from 4/23) with an Ahab and the whale cartoon (but with a whole lot more packed into it).

Grocery shopping. The OBH:

(#1) Joe (age 8) to his dad, reading from the Masculinity 101 syllabus: Real Men Don’t Shop

From my 12/19/21 posting “Masculinity comics 8”, with a note on this series of comics on masculinity for boys:

From the first [of these comics], on 10/5/21:

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. … 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.

Those cultural norms include the central injunction to avoid anything that smacks of femininity; anything feminine contaminates and spoils masculine identity. That will of course require staying away from anything viewed as women’s work — and (in the pervasive culture of modern America) most of the whole chain of meal service counts as women’s work: planning meals, shopping for the groceries and then storing them, preparing the meals, setting the table, serving the food, clearing the table, handling any resulting garbage, trash, and leftovers, and handling the used dishes and utensils (washing, drying, and storing them).

Some of these activities can be performed by adult males or children (even boys), but some are normatively reserved for women (or gay men). In particular, grocery shopping is so reserved: a woman (or gay man) does the household shopping alone or in company with a household partner. Consequently a guy who’s shopping alone at a grocery store and who seems to know what he’s doing — straight guys whose partners are momentarily not available to do the shopping can sometimes be found wandering incompetently through the aisles — will read culturally as straight but unpartnered, or as gay.

A side product of these cultural norms is that grocery stores and supermarkets can become places to look (usually in a fairly low-key fashion) for pickups. Apparently, lots of straight guys try to pick up women at the market; I can attest that markets in gayborhoods are often heavily cruisy; and also that a lone male shopper who reads as straight and looks presentable is likely to be approached in a friendly way by women (my experience, and my dad’s as well). (A lone male shopper with a kid in tow, well, wow.)

Well, getting back to #1: the world in which Joe will be interested in picking up chicks is still in his future (it’s a tricky transition from early boyhood). Meanwhile, he’s asserting his masculinity with I ain’t doin’ no shoppin’ — thick with socially marked “g-dropping” (informal, skewed towards working-class masculinity), and, really strikingly, using an ain’t that would be unexpected in his middle-class milieu, but here serves as an aggressive marker of working-class masculinity. In front of his dad, he probably wouldn’t go all the way to I ain’t doin’ no fuckin’ shoppin’, but he might go there talking to his buddies.

Captain Ahab, the sailor Ishmael, and the whale Moby-Dick. The Bizarro, showing those three characters, left to right:

(#2) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

The cartoon is, first of all, a play on words, with its imperfectly punning imperative:

(a) Call me, Ishmael vs. (b) Call me Ishmael

(b) is the original, the sailor Ishmael’s words at the opening of Melville’s Moby-Dick; (a), the sentence in #2, is prosodically distinct from (b) in speech, orthographically distinct from it in writing, and these differences are associated with quite different syntactic structures for (a) and (b).

Then, the different syntactic structures in (a) and (b) have different verbs call in them, (a) having call ‘contact (someone) by telephone’, (b) having call ‘address (someone) by a specified name’.

Further, contact-call in (a) is associated with a hand gesture,🤙 “call me hand”, which is being executed by the whale in #2. The verb and the gesture are clearly addressed to Ishmael; he is telling her to call him; both seem pleased by this exchange.

Finally, why is Moby-Dick asking Ishmael to call him? (There are, after all, an endless number of reasons for such a request.) The whale’s imperative call me alludes to the song “Call Me”, the theme to the film American Gigolo — a song written from the perspective of a callboy for women. Moby-Dick is telling Ishmael to call him so that they can hook up for sex.

(And that explains the oddness of having the cartoon Ishmael be a woman, when the character in the novel is male, with a masculine name. Moby-Dick is male, so the Ishmael he wants to hook up with has to be female.)

Now for some details.

Lexis, syntax, and prosody. I’ll start with the contrasting lexical items I’ll call contact-call (in (a)) and appellation-call (in (b)), for short. Relevant pieces of the NOAD entry, with the two verbs highlighted by boldfacing:

verb call: 1 … [with object and complement] [c] give (an infant or animal) a specified name: they called their daughter Hannah.[d] (be called) have a specified name: she is called Eva | a 1942 mystery called Time To Kill. [e] address or refer to (someone) by a specified name, title, endearment, or term of abuse: please call me Lucy | if he remains quiet she calls him a wimp.

… 3 [with object[a] contact or attempt to contact (a person or number) by phone: could I call you back? | at the first sign of heart attack symptoms call 911 immediately. …

Subentry 3a is contact-call — in (a) above — while subentry 1e is appellation-call — in (b) above.

Now, the VP syntax associated with the two verbs:

contact-call combines with an object denoting the person called: as in call me and I want to call my lawyer

appellation-call combines with two arguments: an object denoting the person or thing referred to, and a complement with the name used in that reference: as in call me Ishmael and they call him Mr. Tibbs

For (b), with appellation-call, that’s all we need to say; (b) is an imperative VP, with the requisite two arguments, period.

But (a) has more: it’s an imperative VP, call me, plus a vocative NP, Ishmael, as an appendage. Vocatives are one subtype of a rich class of what CGEL calls supplements — embracing various sorts of parenthetical and appositive elements and loosely adjoined adverbials (like the speech-act adverbial frankly), plus (at least) interjections (hey, gosh), vocatives, fillers (um, aah), and discourse markers (y’know, well). From p. 1350 on supplements as:

elements which occupy a position in linear sequence wthout being integrated into the syntactic structure of the sentence

(occurring as interpolations or as appendages in initial or final position).

Supplements are usually set off prosodically in speech and by punctuation (commas, especially) in writing. That’s the case for the vocative Ishmael in (a) Call me, Ishmael: two separate intonational units in speech (one with accent on call, one with accent on the Ish of Ishmael), punctuated with a separating comma.

Now, contrasts like those between (a) and (b) are often the source of jokes — as in the Bizarro cartoon in my 4/2/17 posting “On the road, a/some head”:


Amidst much silliness about how punctuation saves lives — Let’s eat father and all that — comes this even greater silliness with the road sign STOP AHEAD (conveying that there is a STOP sign ahead on the road), alluding to a bit of language play I first heard as a child:

What’s that on the road ahead? / What’s that on the road — a head?

(with a digression into road head, getting fellated while you’re driving).

Ishmael. A reminder about the character. From Wikipedia:

Ishmael is a character in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which opens with the line, “Call me Ishmael.” He is the first person narrator in much of the book. Because Ishmael plays a minor role in the plot [he is merely a sailor aboard the whaler Pequod, under Captain Ahab’s command], early critics of Moby-Dick assumed that Captain Ahab was the protagonist. Many either confused Ishmael with Melville or overlooked the role he played. Later critics distinguished Ishmael from Melville, and some saw his mystic and speculative consciousness as the novel’s central force rather than Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal force of will.

The call-me sign. I’ll work up to this in steps. First, from NOAD on

shaka /ˈšækə/: noun: US informal (also shaka sign) a hand gesture in which the thumb and little finger are extended outward from a closed fist, used when greeting or parting from someone or to express approval, solidarity, etc.: the President left with a grin and a shaka sign | he didn’t know who the guy was, but still gave a shaka and said “nice voice”. exclamation: used to express approval, solidarity, etc., often when greeting or parting from someone: “Shaka, brah.” He high-fived Lopaka, then broke into laughter.

And from Wikipedia:

The shaka sign, sometimes known as “hang loose”, is a gesture of friendly intent often associated with Hawaii and surf culture. It consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while holding the three middle fingers curled, and gesturing in salutation while presenting the front or back of the hand; the hand may be rotated back and forth for emphasis.

(#4) The “shaka” sign is a common greeting in the Hawaiian culture and New Zealand subsequently also used in surfer cultures

[other uses, among them:]  Beverages: The sign can also be used to indicate the imbibing of a bottled drink, either alcoholic or non-alcoholic, … by placing the thumb to the mouth and motioning the little finger upward as if tipping up a bottle’s bottom end. A similar meaning can be achieved by pressing the thumb up against the tip of the nose with the little finger raised upwards parallel to the bridge of the nose. Referred to as “schooies” (Australian slang for a schooner) the sign is thought to have originated in Perth.

Telecommunications: With the thumb held near the ear and the little finger pointed at the mouth, the gesture is commonly understood to mean “call me”, as it resembles a handheld telephone. The Unicode 9.0 emoji 🤙 “Call me hand” can be interpreted as a shaka sign.

The song. From Wikipedia:

“Call Me” is a song by the American new wave band Blondie and the theme to the 1980 film American Gigolo. Produced and composed by Italian musician Giorgio Moroder, with lyrics by Blondie singer Debbie Harry, the song appeared in the film and was released in the United States in early 1980 as a single.

… The lyrics were written from the perspective of the main character in the film, [a Los Angeles callboy for women, played by Richard Gere].

You can watch the official video here.

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