March 27, 2005

Underwear sociolinguistics

My posting on "Tighty-whities: the semantics" elicited some thought-provoking e-mail about the use of this expression and of other pieces of underwear vocabulary.  A lot of what's going on, but not all of it, turns on attitudes towards the underwear itself  -- the perceived social "meanings" of the underwear (briefs vs. boxers, Y-fronts vs. bikini briefs, white vs. colored, cotton vs. more exotic fabrics) -- rather than on attitudes towards particular linguistic expressions.

1.  In my first posting on this subject ("Tidy-whiteys") I noted the disdain that some people have for white Y-front briefs, a disdain that seems to be based on the judgment that such underwear is conservative, unadventurous, uptight.  Now Lal Zimman has written (on 21 March 2005) to say that the negative judgments are likely to be on both the clothing and the expression tighty-whities (or however you want to spell it), and to offer another route to these judgments:

Personally, I have always found tighty-whities to be a derogatory way to describe an article of clothing that is also being judged as negative (so it would be bad if I said "Ha ha, you wear y-fronts!" but if I say "tighty-whities", I'm insulting you both with the fact itself and the wording), unless one is talking about children's underpants (since little boys are expected to wear tighty-whities.) I think the origin of the negativity associated with tighty-whities comes from people in their 20s or younger, for whom there was enormous pressure at a certain time for boys to switch over from tighty-whities to boxers. Boxers were cool because of skaters, rappers, and grunge rock stars showing their boxers, and this desirability reinforced the separation of boxers as adult and T-Ws as childish. So (for me and my peers at least) around early adolescence, when a child is the worst thing you can be considered, the switch had to be made and T-Ws were forever looked down upon.

This is briefs vs. boxers, with the canonical briefs being white and cotton and fly-front.  In the social world Zimman is describing, boxers communicate adulthood.

Competing with this social meaning is what I'll call the "hotness effect":  briefs (of any sort) are hotter than boxers, because briefs display your equipment (in remarkable detail, if the briefs are tight enough and thin enough), and men are, well, vain about these things.  The package is especially important to gay men, and it turns out that material designed for gay men portrays a world of briefs, not boxers.

Consider the Undergear catalogue, which (with its big brother the International Male catalogue) is transparently aimed at a gay male audience.  The  Spring 2005 issue of the catalogue offers not a single pair of boxer shorts.  There are briefs of many varieties: bikini briefs, boxer briefs, thongs, jockstrap briefs (essentially jockstraps with seats).  But no boxers; the occasional item labeled "boxer" is actually a boxer brief.  Now, in the real world, some gay men do wear boxers. ( I can vouch for this, though I haven't done a systematic study.)  From what I see at my (not gay-oriented) health club, plenty of straight men wear briefs too (probably because of the hotness effect, or just for the feeling of support that a pouch provides), but gay guys are in general much more committed to briefs over boxers than straight guys are.  The Undergear catalogue provides a kind of distilled version of this commitment: in Gayworld, everybody wears briefs.

In the Undergear Gayworld, guys wear mostly colored briefs (though white is available as well), mostly in extraordinary fabrics (though cotton is available as well).  There's the shimmery nylon/spandex Flawless Mesh Collection: "Super sheer, sexy mesh is virtually undetectable beneath clothing.  Soft, smooth stretch fabric conforms to body.  Available in a variety of brilliant colors... Nude, Black, White [more like Silver, I'd say], Purple, Turquoise, Red." (p. 22)  On the facing page there's the nylon/spandex Seamless Mesh Collection, essentially fishnet made into tank tops and boxer briefs.  All this underwear is meant to display the body, ostentatiously.

What almost no one in the Undergear Gayworld sports is a fly front.  Only one item in the entire catalogue (boxer briefs on p. 15, available in White, Heather, Orange, and Black) has a "functional fly", as the catalogue puts it.  The word "functional" is actually informative here, since some briefs in the catalogue have front seams that a careless observer might take to be a fly.

On to the presentation of male bodies in gay porn.  Although I haven't studied the matter systematically, my impression is that the underwear that these guys rush to take off one another in Porn Gayworld is even more restricted than what's available in Undergear Gayworld.  We see almost nothing but bikini briefs of fairly conservative cut, white, and cotton.  Segment 2 of Stone Fox (featuring Eddie Stone), for instance, has the arrangement repeated in porn flick after porn flick: two guys in (for a while) these white cotton bikini briefs, one from Calvin Klein, one from 2xist.  Tighty-whities in all respects save the missing fly front.  I'd expect that some men do in fact call them tighty-whities, in an entirely positive way.  [Added 28 March 2005: This speculation has now been confirmed by a gay friend, Jack Carroll, who reports that his usage of the expression, and that of at least one friend of his, is positive, even celebratory.  Fly fronts, present or absent, seem to be irrelevant.]

What makes this specific sort of underwear so dominant in gay porn?  My guess is that it's an amalgam of two attitudes: the hotness effect of briefs, already noted, combined with the high masculinity associated with white cotton briefs in particular (high masculinity because these briefs are associated, in the minds of gay men if not in the real world, with straight men).  Actors in gay porn are supposed to project high masculinity, and the underwear is part of this display.

What I haven't figured out yet is why fly fronts get such a bad rap in Gayworld.  Maybe a missing fly front is just a missing fly front.

2.  Notice that the expression tighty-whitey or tighty-whities can be used metonymically, to refer to the sort of man who habitually wears tighty-whities.  Negative attitudes towards the underwear carry over to the man who wears it.  Chris Brew wrote me (on 21 March 2005) to note a possible parallel in British English:

Apropos your recent Language Log post on tighty-whities, I wonder how close the British term 'anorak' (= "parka", roughly) is (cf. Probably not very, but if I get the drift of what you say the strong elements of uncool and sexually-repressed are pretty parallel.

Anyway, that's the only really culturally salient instance of British clothing metonymy that I can muster, apart from the routine 'suit' and 'stuffed-shirt', which seem to work in the US as well.

For non-British readers: British anorak, referring to a person rather than a parka, can be glossed roughly as 'nerd', or in more detail (in the words of the anorakspotters site): "any dull or immature individual, or someone who follows a hobby which appears boring to the majority of people who find other pursuits more attractive once they have passed the legal age for sex and alcohol."  Anoraks are usually male, and (to tie two threads together) we can surmise that they wear white cotton Y-fronts.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 27, 2005 03:49 PM