Sunday, July 02, 2017
Brits Sang "Yankee Doodle" to Mock Revolutionary War Heroes As Gay
Sunday Review | NEWS ANALYSIS
That Diss Song Known as ‘Yankee Doodle’
By DAVID SEGAL
The New York Times
JULY 1, 2017
So that’s what they were calling us: A caricature of an 18th-century “macaroni.” Credit George Paston/The Print Collector, via Getty Images
The Fourth of July is upon us, so it’s time once again to sing what is arguably our most baffling national ditty, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Maybe you’ve noticed: Some of the lyrics seem like the work of a prankster on acid. Who else could have conceived a vignette as bizarre as a man riding a pony into town, then sticking a feather in his cap that, for unknown reasons, he insists on calling “macaroni”?
The answer is not George M. Cohan, who wrote the ecstatically patriotic verses of “The Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 musical “Little Johnny Jones.” He lifted the feather-and-cap lines from a song called, simply, “Yankee Doodle,” which was popularized by British troops during the Revolutionary War. And whoever composed these words — history is inconclusive — didn’t intend a jesting, surreal tribute to the colonists. Quite the opposite. The song is an insult.
It’s not just any insult, either. With “Yankee Doodle,” the Redcoats were delivering the most puerile, schoolyard insult in the schoolyard insult book. They were suggesting that American soldiers were gay.
Gay and bumbling, actually.
To decode this very un-P.C. put-down, you first need to know that the song has only a nominal connection to pasta. The macaronis were members of a subculture of British fops in the 1760s and 1770s, who took their name from the Italian ingredient that would have seemed exotic and sophisticated in England at the time. The trend started with aristocrats, but caught on with middle- and working-class lads as well.
Disdaining the drab clothing that was the English standard, the macaronis took inspiration from styles in Italy and France, then they doubled down on the flamboyance. Contemporaneous illustrations show men in comically tall white wigs, carrying preposterously tiny hats, wearing tight and garishly embroidered waistcoats, brightly colored stockings and impractical slipper-like shoes.
Today we would say these guys were working it. Clearly, they scandalized the establishment.
“Such a figure, essenced and perfumed, with a bunch of lace sticking out under its chin, puzzles the common passenger to determine the thing’s sex,” wrote Town and Country Magazine in 1772. “And many a time an honest laboring porter has said, ‘By your leave, madam,’ without intending to give offense.”
The ostentation of the macaroni would prompt talk about sexual orientation. In a 1999 academic article in “Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture,” Peter McNeil explained that “as soon as the macaroni stereotype entered the middle-class press the character was interpreted as sodomitical.” Macaronis were jeered at with fictional names that probably sounded more homophobic at the time: “Lord Dimple,” “Sir William Whiffle,” “Marjorie Pattypan.”
Now to the Revolutionary War. As in armed conflicts before and since, militias on both sides had a large catalog of derisive tunes to lift their spirits. King George III was a favorite target for the Americans, and the Americans were a favorite target for the British. The melody for “Yankee Doodle” had been around for a couple of hundred years, but a tailored-for-the-moment rendition quickly became the most popular tune in the Redcoat repertoire.
The lyrics were venomous. “Yankee” was a withering word for a colonist. A “doodle” was a rube or a fool, and the doodle in this song rides a pony, instead of a horse, which makes him ridiculous. And why is the titular bumpkin heading to town? He hopes to become one of those hyperstylized fellows known as a macaroni.
Here’s the clincher: The doodle can’t pull it off. He thinks that sticking a feather in his cap will suffice to join Britain’s most effete club. In reality, he needs an elaborate costume. The subtext — actually, it might just be the text — is that this quintessential American is a homosexual so daft that he can’t even demonstrate his homosexuality.
O.K., it’s the 1770s. It’s war. You expected nice?
Unfortunately for the British, the Americans started winning the war. And the more the Americans won, the more they embraced “Yankee Doodle” as their own. By the time the Battle of Bunker Hill rolled round, in June 1775, the Continental Army had the song in heavy rotation. After a clinching victory at the Battle of Saratoga, in September 1777, the Americans were serenading their defeated foes with “Yankee Doodle.” This was pure agony for the British, as an English officer named Thomas Aubrey reported.
“ ‘Yankee Doodle’ is now their paean, a favorite of favorites, played in their army, esteemed as warlike as the ‘Grenadiers’ march — it is the lover’s spell, the nurse’s lullaby,” he wrote. “It was not a little mortifying to hear them play this tune, when their army marched down to our surrender.”
What American soldiers had done would later become known as reappropriation. It is the act of embracing a name, a term, an idea — or a song — that was intended as derogatory. At minimum, the hug neutralizes the mockery. At most, it disarms an opponent of a weapon.
History is filled with examples. “Tory” and “Whig” were originally scornful appellations, as was “Impressionist,” which was lifted from a critic who dismissed the movement’s paintings as “fleeting impressions.” More recently, “queer” had the bite of a rattler until gays around the world adopted and thus defanged it.
But Americans are surely the maestros of reappropriation. Conservatives turned the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” from an accusation to a punch line. Liberals turned “Obamacare” from a sneer to an endorsement.
Pop stars like Madonna and Britney Spears made “bitch” a compliment. “Redneck” has a hint of pride these days, thanks largely to Southern comedians like Jeff Foxworthy who made it a touchstone of their identities and routines. Soon after Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a debate, the phrase began appearing on her supporters’ T-shirts.
In short, reappropriation is an American specialty — a rhetorical stratagem practiced even before the Declaration of Independence was signed. So by singing “Yankee Doodle” you’re not just celebrating the country’s birth. You are belting out words used by the soldiers who made that birth possible, and with a taunt that boomeranged for the ages.
David Segal is a business reporter for The New York Times.
A LAW MACARONI (British Musuem)
Ed's note: I've had this print for years and never realized the full implicatioss until today. How cool is that?