Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The artistic cachet of tightie-whities

Let's face it: Most guys you know wear boxers.

I'm not going to say it's a universal thing. If that were true, you wouldn't be able to find those three-packs of briefs in your local Marshalls. There are still those activities that require extra support, like being an athlete, or being in the military.

But there are other colors of briefs that can serve that purpose equally well.

And that's why in the last couple decades, the "tightie-whitie" itself has been virtually purged from the extended wardrobe of most self-respecting men. Not only are they considered gross in the same way that Speedos are considered gross -- they call Speedos "grape smugglers" for a reason -- but their white color makes them especially incapable of disguising the occasional errant stain. I'll just leave it at that.

I'd argue that popular culture is in part to blame for people turning on tightie-whities. Any loser who gets a wedgie on TV or in the movies always has tightie-whities. Any redneck drunk drowning in a pool of his own vomit is always wearing them. Anybody you're supposed to laugh at or mock or ridicule is distinguished by his white underwear.

But popular culture's portrayal of reality has yet to fully reflect the change it helped inspire, and this is because tightie-whities have oodles of artistic cachet.

You wouldn't think so, but just think about it for a minute -- it's that single article of clothing that immediately indicates that someone is a schlub. In fact, such a schlub that he hasn't even switched to boxers yet, like all the other schlubs trying to move up in the world. You might call him an uber-schlub. It's the ultimate in "real," the imagined "real" if not the "real real" -- it has a seeming genuineness, a seeming realness. You might call it uber-real. It's a stripping away of all a person's glitz, all his defenses.

I've pondered this issue before, but it occurred to me again last week as I was revisiting Margot at the Wedding in order to review it. Three different male characters in this movie are shown wearing tightie-whities, and that's not just because Noah Baumbach is obsessed with making it seem like his movies were made in the 1970s.

The first to be spied in the offending undergarment is Jack Black's Malcolm. He's examining himself in the mirror in only tightie-whities, with the back pulled down slightly to reveal half of a butt crack. (I can't remember if he's wearing socks in this scene, but that would complete the image, wouldn't it?) He's obsessing over the fact that his testicles hang lower than the rest of him. The fact that his future wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shares the room with him suggests that there's no vanity whatsoever in his sartorial choice. Just practicality. In fact, you could almost call it anti-vanity.

The next time the underwear appears is when Nicole Kidman is spying on their redneck neighbors. She's peering through the window and sees the mother and father engaged in some kind of unholy activity involving the carcass of a pig wrapped in a clear plastic sheet. In truth they're only preparing it for a BBQ, but the activity reaches an extra level of unholiness because the man is wearing tightie-whities -- and nothing else. As I'm watching this, I'm starting to develop a theory about Baumbach's perspective here, because carrying the dead weight of a pig carcass should at least involve a pair of pants, and quite possibly a sturdy pair of shoes.

Finally, in a far more innocent context, Kidman's son Claude (the androgynous Zane Pais) removes his pants while they're staying in a hotel room late in the movie. He's an early teenager, so there's nothing untoward here -- just a boy changing in front of his mother. Here I guess the choice of underpants is meant to remind us how young this boy really is -- something to ponder when you consider the emotional warfare he's witnessed, and been victimized by.

I don't think that Baumbach is making an overt statement by showing three male characters in white grape smugglers, but it would be a mistake to assume his wardrobe choice has no meaning either. Statistically speaking, at least one of them should have been in boxers, most likely the teenager, since teenagers are always conscious of what they need to do to fit in. Jack Black's character is a bit more quirky (he leaves an ironic moustache as a joke after he shaves his beard), and the neighbor is a kook anyway, but you'd think one of them would be boxer friendly as well.

The problem is, you can't communicate angst with boxer shorts.

It's as simple as that. Boxer shorts are way too tidy and socially presentable to express the inner torment of a character's soul.

Think about it. Tightie-whities are used precisely because they make the character more naked than he'd be if he were actually nude. They reveal all his flaws and imperfections. Why do you think neither Homer Simpson nor Peter Griffin has ever donned a single pair of boxers? Tightie-whities are the perfect way to underscore how relentlessly human they are, how much they hang out here, and sag there. To paraphrase Rob Zombie, they make you More Naked Than Naked.

I do find it slightly artificial, I guess. But it's one of those bits of artifice I feel I should accept, like how people don't say goodbye when they hang up the phone, or how they always find a parking spot without any trouble, or how they always have exact change. Each of these are narrative shortcuts to keep things moving. Tightie-whities are a narrative shortcut for saying "Here is a man who is emotionally exposed and possibly a bit sad."

Because the reverse is never true, is it? You never see tightie-whities on a stud in the movies. Studs always wear boxers, or at least briefs of a different color. Just try to imagine Clive Owen or Daniel Craig in a pair of tightie-whities. You can't, can you? You'd say "What's wrong with that guy that he's wearing tightie-whities?" You're a regular consumer of entertainment, so you know what this underwear is meant to signify. And Clive and Daniel ain't it.

Plus, it would be too sexual. Tightie-whities leave as little to the imagination as anything a man can wear, and if the man is really attractive, it confronts the heterosexual men in the audience too directly. This may be a totally subliminal thing, but it's got to be a reason you don't see matinee idols in white underwear. If they're in boxers, they're decent, and heterosexual men don't have to worry. Whereas, the men who do wear the tightie-whities -- say, Jack Black -- don't threaten us because we don't have a latent attraction to them anyway. They are, as described above, schlubs.

Please join me next week when I discuss the psychological symbolism of dressing an actress in granny panties.

1 comment:

Lord Vader said...

Well, tightie-whities (w/optional white socks) is almost the official uniform of Jack Black - I reckon he has it written into his contract that he has a scene wearing only TWs. And preferrably jumping into a pool.

And yes, they're a great costume short cut to communicating something about a character. Allows the writer to lazily rest on cliched costume choices instead of thinking.