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Episodes: The locker room


Emily VanDerWerff

Oct 08 2016

7 min read



When I was in the fifth grade, I started having to use the locker room with guys several times my size, and I hated it. I hated it when I was scrawny and small, so much tinier than them. And I hated it when I abruptly hit puberty and shot up like a weed. I hated having obvious evidence that most of the other guys were getting more and more built, and I remained stubbornly beanpole-ish.

And, okay, I just didn't like some of the other guys in there. I grew up in a tiny little town (stop me if you've heard this one before), and the various other boys in my class were largely together through thick and thin, for the full 13 years of school. There was a core of seven of us who started kindergarten together and graduated high school together. We were joined by another in third grade and another in sixth. And those were the nine guys in my graduating class. I still know some of them better than I know anybody I've met in the decade-plus since I've moved to California.

But the older guys, the sixth and seventh and eighth graders (to say nothing of, good Lord, high schoolers), I always knew they could pick me out in a second as a weaker member of the pack, thus isolating me from the others and devouring fresh meat.

See, and you'll be surprised by this, I was kind of a nerd.

The cliques in my town were essentially two. You had the kids who grew up in town, and the kids who grew up on the farm. And all of the other high school cliques had to be formed within those two larger ones, because, hey, we just didn't have the bodies to spare. Yet even though I grew up on a farm, most of my best friends were city kids, thanks to a quirk of who was in my class. And, as mentioned, we were all pretty tight already, so the "farm/town" distinction largely fell apart when it came to our group. This allowed me to more fully embrace the fact that I was never going to be a basketball star, despite that growth spurt, without anybody judging me for it.

But that wasn't really the case in gym, where all of the different classes got lumped together. (I am just now realizing that this must sound crazy to a bunch of you, who likely grew up in towns where you had graduating classes larger than 16. I promise you I'm not making this up.) There, my indulgence of my nerdery was met with exactly the sort of greeting you would expect nerdery to be met with in a high school comedy -- mockery. I endured it with good humor, but it slowly ate away at my soul.

There was another dynamic at play here: I was a committed, serious evangelical Christian, and I had a reputation for being a bit of a goody two-shoes. I didn't go around trying to convert people to the faith, or anything like that, but I had brought friends to my church, only to have their parents decide they could no longer go with me again to the weird church where people spoke in tongues and tried to heal each other through laying on of hands. (I, of course, assumed this was how most churches operated.) Anyway, the church thing was seen as weird, and add that on to my love of sci-fi and fantasy, along with the gigantic collection of original Broadway cast recordings I carried around in my backpack (which I tried to keep others from finding), and there were all sorts of sore spots.

So when I was cornered in the seventh grade by a couple of older kids, who backed me against my locker, I didn't exactly expect what came next: "Say fuck," they said.

They weren't going to beat me up -- somewhat remarkably, I never was, all through school -- but they were going to try to get me to betray my Lord or something similar. (My mind performed frantic calculations. Was "fuck" technically a forbidden word? It wasn't taking the Lord's name in vain...) I stammered a little, and it was obvious they weren't going to back off easily. They probably would if I waited them out -- and normally I would have -- but for whatever reason, I didn't have the patience that day.

"Fuck," I mostly whispered. They wanted to hear it louder, and I tried to make it sound casual, like I said it all the time, like every morning, when I had my oatmeal, I said a hearty, "Fuck!" if I spilled the sugar, and the whole family laughed. They seemed to accept that, and off I went, to be miserably bad at basketball again.

Much of today has been taken up by the idea of how Donald Trump talked about women in a long-ago video being "locker room talk." And I have to confess that in all my years in locker rooms, I've never really heard discussion of women beyond a very mild variation on, "She's attractive." Maybe that's because I grew up in a fairly repressed Christian community, or maybe I just don't go to enough locker rooms. But my experience, even into adulthood, has been of a place where people either joke with their friends about very mundane things or avoid looking at each other altogether.

Yet at the same time, I couldn't help but pull back a bit at this idea of "locker room talk." To me, the locker room was never a place I felt terribly at ease. I got in, and I got out, and I tried not to linger. It always felt like a place where guys would engage in shows of physical dominance, and I was just never going to win those displays. When I got to college, and did some mandatory phys-ed stuff, and discovered that I had grown into my body and was no longer TERRIBLE at sports (though I also wasn't good or anything), I still felt that lingering after-effect of junior high, the sense that I might get cornered and made to betray myself.

This, probably, is what we mean by "locker room talk," then -- that casual display of easy dominance, that alpha male bluster that you can either laugh along with or ignore. And even when it was entirely about, like, whose truck had the best engine or whatever else the kids in my town used to jaw about, it was still hard to feel like a part of that solar system, where everybody was competing to be the sun, and I just wanted so badly to be the comet that only showed up every 86 years.

I guess why "locker room talk" sets the hair on the back of my neck on edge is because "locker room talk" reminds me of the easy competition of masculinity, the way dudes will turn just about anything into some sort of struggle. And, like, that's as true for us nerds as it was for the jocks -- we're all trying to preen and show off our tail feathers.

But there has to be something else, right? There has to be something other than primal displays of dominance, than thumping your chest and grunting like Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor.

Or maybe there isn't. Maybe there can't be. Maybe this is a part of being a guy that I just missed out on because I was too busy skirting the edges of the universe. I hope not. One never knows.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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