Register Saturday | September 21 | 2019

Are You A Girl Or A Boy?

Winner of Maisonneuve's Boys & Girls literary contest

While my peers in the developing world toiled in sweatshops, huddled over sewing machines to support their siblings and the family goat, I delivered the Vancouver Sun. It was my first foray into the working world; I was in grade seven and needed to fund my burgeoning obsession with clothes. I didn’t receive an allowance, and my father would be damned if I was going to spend a hundred of his hard-earned dollars on a pair of Doc Martens.

With my route came insight into my community. For the first time, I realized working-class Italian families did not inhabit all homes. Not everyone drank homemade wine. A mother didn’t lurk behind every door, ironing a perfect crease into her kid’s jeans while ensuring that dinner was served within ten minutes of dad parking the dump truck. That said, getting to know the people in my neighbourhood wasn’t as cheery as Mr. Rogers had led me to believe.

Such was the case with Mrs. Reed, an emphysematous widow with scaly skin and cankles, who always insisted I come inside to collect my monthly payment. Her post-war bungalow seemed adequately charming from the street, but inside, it felt like a subterranean bordello. The velvet curtains hadn’t been parted in years. The carpet runners, like her fingernails, were now amber and brittle. And a layer of dust suffocated a garden of porcelain knick-knacks on her coffee table.

As I waited, her dog—a skittish terrier she dubbed the Bitch—would bare its fangs and snarl. Over its yapping and the sounds of CBC Radio wafting in from the kitchen, I could hear Mrs. Reed’s laboured wheezing. With every breath, a heavy gurgling emanated from deep within her bosom. It was the sound of air surfacing from the La Brea tar pits, of a viscous bubbling stew. It made my skin crawl.

Those monthly payments became a domestic drama, and we each had starring roles. Seated on her worn chesterfield, Mrs. Reed would glance up while rifling through her purse. Fixing her gaze on me and narrowing her eyes—during which I wished cardiac arrest upon her—she’d say: “Can I ask you a question?”


“Are you a girl or a boy?”

I couldn’t blame her curiosity. My complexion was fair and my lashes, gorgeous—better, in fact, than your run-of-the-mill cover girl. But I also had a mullet and Rubenesque man-boobs. And, to top it off, I wielded the melodic voice of a tone-deaf castrato. Now, my problem wasn’t the question, but that she quizzed my chromosomal makeup every single month. Was she just a bitch, like the dog, or had neither of us realized she was totally senile?

I balanced my weight on one huarache-clad foot and drew insecure toe-circles in the carpet with the other. I batted my lashes and smiled. Then the chubby little girl bashfully replied, “I’m a boy.”

“Really? I’d say you’re a girl.”

One needs a stellar reason to endure such humiliation, and I had it—tips. Her monthly subscription was eight dollars fifty, and I’d pocket the one dollar fifty in change from the ten-dollar bill she always handed off. Even then, I was a whore for money.

The moment would pass, as it always did, and my gracefully choreographed “Dance of a Dollar Fifty” would end with her asking me to go buy her a pack of smokes. She clearly adored cigarettes but lacked the stamina to endure an epic trek to the corner store. The smoke run, however, didn’t seem prudent. Would the Boy Scouts approve? Did enabling her nicotine addiction count as a good deed? Surely there was a difference between helping an old lady cross the street and helping her get the wrapper off a pack of king-size menthols after she’d called you androgynous.

Then again, that Christian clique of bleeding hearts was anti-gay, and that made me an abomination. Since I was going to hell anyway, I figured I might as well cash in on the way down.

With ten more dollars in my Batman fanny pack and the dirty deed done, I gave both bitches the stink eye and closed the door behind me like some second-rate hooker who’d just turned a trick. I could hear the lighter strike, and Mrs. Reed—the satisfied john—take a haul.

The onset of puberty and a better-paying part-time retail career meant the end of my days as the asexual paper boy. But as my first job, I’ll admit it helped me develop some virtuous qualities like patience, modesty and tolerance of others. I also learned the value of a dollar: if I was only earning one hundred dollars a month, the last thing I’d drop it on was a lousy pair of Doc Martens.

For the last century at least, male writers have been complaining that women are reducing the huskier gender to second-class status. To see how pervasive this male anxiety is, how persistent the complaint, we’ve culled from every decade some of the more vivid examples of manly moaning.

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt repeat-edly gives speeches advocating “the Strenuous Life,” during which he rails against “emasculated milk-and-water moralities” promoted by Victorian society. “Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people.” For America to be a great nation, Roosevelt argues, American men have to become less effeminate and more militaristic.

The Boy Scout movement gains popularity in the early twentieth century as a way to re-establish norms of manhood. According to the 1914 Boy Scout manual: “the hardships and privations of pioneer life, which did so much to develop sterling manhood, are now but a legend in history, and we must depend upon the Boy Scout Movement to produce MEN of the future.”

Wyndham Lewis attacks the rise of “the homo” in his 1926 treatise, The Art of Being Ruled. “There are very many male Europeans who never become reconciled to the idea of being ‘men’ (leaving out of count those who are congenitally unadapted for the rigours of manhood).”

Marshall McLuhan uses the content of the comic strip Blondie in the late 1940s to describe the fall of man. “Blondie is trim, pert, resourceful,” he notes in his 1951 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. “Dagwood is seedy, saggy, bewildered, and weakly dependent.”

In a 1958 The Decline of the American Male series, Look magazine asserts that “scientists” are worried “that in the years since the end of World War II, [the American Male] has changed radically and dangerously; that he is no longer the masculine, strong-minded man who pioneered the continent and built America’s greatness.”

In 1960, John Wayne despairs of the state of masculinity in fifties films like Rebel Without a Cause. “Ten or fifteen years ago, audiences went to pictures to see men behaving like men,” the Duke argued. “Today, there are too many neurotic roles.”

The long-haired hippies of the sixties become a symbol of virility gone awry in the 1970s. Men’s Lib offers a self-help solution with best-sellers like Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male (1976). Films like Deliverance(1972) further raise the sissifying stakes by showing men as the victims of sexual violence.

Bruce Feirstein’s 1982 satiric best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche mocks the rampant effeminacy of the era. By the end of the eighties, Michael Douglas, with his furrowed brow and disappointed eyes, becomes the poster child for the beleaguered male. In an interview, Douglas offers a statement that sheds light not only on then-current Fatal Attraction (1987), but also on his future work in The War of the Roses (1989) and Disclosure (1994): “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands.”

In the 1999 movie Fight Club, character Tyler Durden complains that “we’re a generation of men raised by women.” For Tyler, the glory days of masculinity were in the early twentieth century. “We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression.”

“Desperate Housewives is castrating us all,” complains Kevin Gray in the March 2005 issue of Details. Gray argues that “the women’s movement has waged a brilliant PR war, attacking masculinity as coarse, retrograde and even dangerous. A generation of bewildered men sat through compulsory rape-awareness classes in college. The message: your dick is a threat to society.”