If, like me, you are a fan of The Brothers McElroy, there is a thing you may have noticed: their effusive and exceptionally polysemic use of the word “boy”, often in plural. This has been the topic of reddit posts and at least one YouTube supercut but regardless: I remain curious. Not, necessarily, about what they _mean_ or _intend_ when they refer to some unseen group of foes in a game stream as “boys”, or when they refer to their friends, colleagues, groups of animals or even inanimate objects as such. Rather, what I’m curious about is what–based upon the context of where the term is deployed–a “boy” *is* or if there even is some Unified Boy Concept we might divine.
However – before we dig in to this pressing question, there are two points I should be up front about.
First. The vast majority of my interaction with Those Sweet, Sweet McElboys is via their various social media accounts, and their Online Video Game Content, most notably game streams (Awful Squad, e.g.), Lets Plays and the inimitable Monster Factory (which factors heavily into Boy Lore for reasons we’ll discuss soon enough). I have listened to some, but by no means much, of their podcast works, though my wife is a fan. What I have heard has been at her suggestion. So: I am aware there may be material in the archives, some Deep Boy Cuts if you will, that shed significant light on the question at hand… and I am simply unaware.
Second. I’m fine with this. I like to think my sense of boy-ness, arrived at through a less than complete knowledge of the Brothers, may provide some material useful to the same–or their more dedicated fans–for orienteering out there on the many internets, and within the wilderness of language. Language is not meaning, rather meaning is meaning but in either case: though we may be the authors of meaning’s intent, we are not any of us the singular custodian of its impacts. My perspective is lone, and imperfect … but isn’t ours all? Hashtag disclaimer.
Now. There are several lines of inquiry we may follow in our search for this Ontology of Boys – what it means to be a “boy” – but the one most worth starting with, I think, is that regarding whether the McElbrothers (and it’s probably only fair to point out that Griffin, in my estimation, is the most Boy Crazy) mean ‘boy’ as a gendered label. Is this “boy” as in dude as in fella as in man… or is it meant in a sense similar to that encountered when one may refer to any heterogenous group as “you guys”?
And for sure we could spend any number of words considering if such a “guys” usage is, in fact, gendered. Can “you guys” stand as a sort of gender neutral catch all like “folks” or “y’all”? It may. It may not. For now, however, we find ourselves in Boy Town. I feel it best we not linger. I hope it suffices to say that we here are simply curious if when Justin, say, refers to a group of approaching Zombie aggressors outside of Razak as incoming “boys” – does he indicate something about said zombs’ gender, or does he apply a more complex, collective, designative term?
The answer is clear.
It is unlikely the approaching horde is in matter of fact comprised entirely of men. It is unlikely that, on the virtual plane, the character models selected by flesh-and-blood players on the physical plane, exhibit exclusively masculine-coding characteristics (the closest we can get, I’m afraid, in discussing confidently the gender identity of an avatar which, I will remind, is nothing *but* appearance in the particular case of PUBG). And, assuming some may want to disregard the models and instead consider only the players piloting said models, it is equally unlikely _they_ exclusively identify as male. I will stipulate such outcomes are possible, though unlikely. The McElroys know all this.
Given this, we can surmise that a “boy” is not necessarily a male, and that “boys”–be they sweet, special, eloquent or dirty–are not necessarily men. This flies in the face of expectation, and is an attempt to do to “boys” in an instant what we are not even so sure we have done to “guys” in an age. Meaning is made in people, not words, and the process during which it may shift or expand is one that takes place on the order of eras and epochs. To intone “boy” in a such a way that it disregards the widely accepted and until this point unquestioned denotation of the male gender is to force a cognitive dissonance upon one’s interlocutors. To trigger, even, some level of epistemic panic.
*dabs brow* *drinks*
But the brothers do so in the context of works which are otherwise welcoming, accepting, tolerant and sensitive. This is, I think, a central pillar of this usage’s novelty: semiotically boy is “wrong”, but in both performance and context… feels right. So: panic.
One question likely inspired by such panic is the following: does such usage of boys potentially misgender its subjects? In other words, in being called such, does becoming a “boy” erase something about one’s identity? Or (and these are by no means mutually exclusive options) does such a usage of “boy” de-gender the word itself? Upon becoming “boy” does anyone labeled so become something _in addition_ to their coherent self? In other, other words: Have the McElroys castrated “boy”? (I will here fully cop to the problematic nature of drawing a direct relationship between the presence of male genitalia and gender identity; if I’m being perfectly honest I really just wanted to ask the question “Have the McElroys castrated ‘boy’?” I hope you will forgive me).
These questions exist beyond the realm of intent on the part of the brothers – but instead approach the realm of experience on the part of those caught, perhaps unexpectedly, within the Boy Net. We ask not what is meant when calling someone a boy, but rather what it means to, apparently, be a boy when so called.
To further investigate, we must look at the work in which these boys talk boy most often: Monster Factory. We will do so in part 2 of this Half Baked essay, forthcoming.