Friday, July 22, 2011

Jackson-Jackass, National Bo

In my neighborhood as a kid, there was a kid whose father was a real pistol. He was of the no-nonsense World War II generation and he had trouble seeing the foolishness that the second half of the century brought us, particularly among us teenagers. He made quips about popular culture and people in it some of which I carry to this day.

For example, he called Michael Jackson, "Michael Jackass" and thought he was real cute about it. This man watched Michael Jackson grow from a small boy into what he considered an eventual freak. He loathed almost anyone who was famous but had real some pet-hates that he wouldn't leave alone. Michael Jackson was one of them. 

I was at the age where when he said, Jackass instead of Jackson, I took it and ran with it. Everyone became fair game: Phil Jackass, Samuel L. Jackass, Bo Jackass and even president Andrew Jackass. 

It's awful of me to write this and I'm sure this term unfairly describes those mentioned above and the world population of Jacksons. I wouldn't say this to any of those I've listed above but I only include them here as examples. I never say it aloud but only mentally but it is a compulsion owing to my acquaintance of this particular schoolmate's father. Maybe writing this blog about it will rid me of the nasty habit.

The compulsion I had with repeating everyone's last name this way reminds me of another compulsion with substituting a word. I went to college in Baltimore in the 1980s and at the time the locally brewed rotgut beer was National Bohemian. This was in the days before micro-brews and artisan beers. National Bohemian and its sister brand, National Premium, were brewed and bottled en masse on the outskirts of the city. 

We referred to it so frequently in my day that we shortened it from the Baltimorese, "National Bo" to our local, "Natty Bo." 
Sometimes after an especially bad hangover, you'd call it Nasty Bo.

But the enduring name with me was Natty Bo. I became a habit and I began extending it to everything with National in its name. The pro-baseball's Natty League. Natty Aquarium. But then I got a job at the Smithsonian where almost every edifice is named the National Museum of  . . . (Natty Museum of . . . see? I can't resist).

French Misrepresentation in U.S. culture mid-20th century

When I was growing up I was exposed to stereotypes of a wide variety of people via popular media. These messages were of course untrue and unfair but some of them were so distorted and pervasive so as stick with me and many other kids of my generation for a long time. One of them dealt with the French, particularly French men. The juvenile American television, movies and cartoons I watched caricatured males from this country to the point of ridicule. I've met plenty of Frenchmen throughout my life who are no different from American, English or Australian men, but as a boy I was left with the impression that French men were weak, effeminate and overly emotional. 

Kids growing up in the U.S. in the mid 20th century were told repeatedly that the French man was a namby-pamby weakling. They were often either artists or chefs or some other occupation stereo-typically associated with women and they displayed this in their interpersonal behavior, for example when they cried if they heard the French song, 'The Marseilles'. 

Additionally, most French men in comedies, dramas or (especially) cartoons had what we might consider thin and very weak mustaches. While Americans had Mark Twain or Teddy Roosevelt mustaches, strong and thick and robust as the American west, the French either had pencil-thin mustaches or goatees or something that seemed to violate an American sense of virility.

This caricature of French males could have grown out of government propaganda just after the Second World War, perhaps because of the American GI rescue or maybe it came from some personal vendetta among those in Hollywood and other media production types. I suppose it grew out of a young America seeing France overrun twice in the first half of the century.

There were some notable exceptions to this unfair media stereotyping. One was the French-Canadian lumberjack type who appeared in several cartoons of the period. He was an unshaven, burly guy who wore a knit hat and plaid hunting jacket. Two other exceptions, the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau and Warner Brothers' French skunk, Pepe Le Pew, defied most of the messages that Frenchmen were lily-livered weaklings, although neither was terribly masculine like John Wayne or James Bond. And both perpetuated the bumbling idiot portrayal of French males to  American men.
The stereotype sometimes suggested homosexuality or hyper-sexuality (as we see in the Warner Brothers' Pepe Le Pew). I've nothing against French men or gay men but it reminds me of a bit of graffiti I once saw in a Baltimore restroom:

"Brian Murphy slept here with 4 french sailors and is still a virgin."

There were four of them.
They were sailors.
They were French.
And they still turned down Brian Murphy