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The Masculine Journey according to Corduroy

2 August 2009

Having reached the age of two, my son has discovered the pleasure of obsessing on forms of entertainment, in this case the Scholastic Video rendition of Don Freeman’s children’s book, Corduroy. It seems proper for me as his father to guard him from the world’s messages, especially when those messages are actually mythic sets of values disguised as obsequious feel-good plots. As it turns out, Corduroy is in fact a pornucopia of Freudian themes.corduroybook

The story starts out in a department store, where a charming young girl bolts from her mother and scampers into the toy section. Lisa quickly spots a teddy bear wearing corduroy overalls with only one button, and asks the lady clerk to see it. To her mother’s exasperation, her daughter latches onto the deficient specimen, begging to “have” it as her plaything. She doesn’t care if he’s missing a button.

Missing a button is a serious thing in the real world. The girl may not care at first, but lacking buttons cannot be tolerated. Buttons connote dignity. Buttons keep clothes on – and so govern one’s ability to take them off. Why do modern men and women continue to wear buttons even in the age of the zipper? Because buttons show intelligence, even erotic intelligence, power, self-will over one’s body. “Lisa,” the girl’s mother says at last, “we’re late.” The girl refuses to listen to all her mother’s cajoling until the real reason for her anxiety comes out: “Your father is waiting for us.”

No more need be said. They leave together. For all their disappointment, the basic reality of their world is that the father has laid claim to their lives. He has ordered the world so; they as women must respond to him. They know this. And now Corduroy knows this.

This is how it begins for all boys, cradled in the maternal nest, safe among the playthings. But boys come to understand, consciously or unconsciously, that their claim to the happiness of the womb is only temporary and provisional. Only the male figure with his god-like powers can command the female affections. How can a young lad obtain such power over women that he might dictate those who oversee the realm of pleasure? Certainly not by sitting on a shelf without a button.

So Corduroy leaves the toy store late that night, intent on asserting himself as a man, that is, manning himself through assertion. The initial foray (according to the film, which is far more instructive than the book by the way) is to climb through a dark tunnel. There he discovers a control board, for a toy train, though he doesn’t know this at the time. He manipulates the dials for a while, then dares to press the button – a different type of button, granted, but still a thing concerning control. Corduroy quickly finds out that he is not in control, however, when the locomotive screams through the tunnel towards him, picking him up and carrying him about in an endless loop.

Too many young lads find themselves ill-equipped for the task of self-control. Either because they have felt no initiative or because others have restrained them so well, they have no awareness of their own powers and what they are able to emit. In this anal phase the boy learns the boundaries of his own output, and what is acceptable and what is not. In this case Corduroy loses rein on the process. But there in the tunnel or cave (which has marginal, inchoate sexual significance) a boy finds out how his powers, even if used destructively, are real powers. Some boys continue to ride that train, pulling others into the dizzying ride, living out of their chaos. Corduroy cuts his losses and acknowledges his lack of control, latching onto a lifesaver and falling into a soft, maternal pile of beach balls. This forfeiture of power is in its own way a claim to it. Repression must harness intention.

But a disturbance rarely goes unnoticed. The department store’s security guard hears the sound and begins the investigation. The father has been roused. Corduroy hides. It is no surprise that Corduroy is ashamed by all this, Eric Erickson might comment, since initiative and guilt are the operative poles in western culture and religion. A man is responsible for his actions, for penetration into the world and cultivation therein. But the inherent failures built into this course of action lead one into a long stream of groveling, repenting, hiding. One reaps the harvest always with a look back over one’s shoulder to the flashing swords guarding Eden. There stands the “security guard,” goading and tempting and belittling and shaming the boy all at once. The authority figure calls for action, but smites the child in the child’s action. The security guard, the Lord Protector, preserves the ordered, masculine realm. This is not done cruelly: the father is kind in all his dealing. But kindness does not mean forgiveness. The father can never be contested directly by the son, and will never regard him as a peer so long as the boy is in his house. The son cannot supplant the father, or kill him in order to steal the affections of the mother.  So the boy minimizes himself, hiding.

Once the security guard has passed, Corduroy steps onto the elevator for a new adventure. This time he finds himself in a more adult-like and manly arena, the sporting and camping section. Here he discovers a self-inflating raft. Choosing to ignore the “CAUTION” written next to it, he presses yet another button. How many buttons must a boy press in his search for the button? Again, Corduroy’s proactivity results in mayhem as the raft is erected to many times its size.

By the time the security guard arrives to investigate the ruckus, the raft blends in with the rest of the scene. There are manly products everywhere: hunting equipment, tents, basketballs, and everything else pertaining to the recreational world of men. The guard does not even detect the raft which Corduroy has inflated, just as a father will miss the many little crossovers the boy makes into the world of men. Is Corduroy a builder or a scheister? A champion or a trickster? He is, at the very least, a poser. He hides there, wearing a fisherman’s hat and holding a fishing rod, never moving a muscle. He can only tinker with responsibility, not enter into it genuinely. Again the father passes him by.

The final foray into wish-fulfilment occurs when Corduroy sees a sign announcing the sale of beds on the fourth floor. He notices with glee: bed mattresses come with buttons on them! Not only out of curiosity and conquest but out his concern for self-repair, Corduroy takes the escalator up. He climbs atop a mattress, and sure enough, there are buttons aplenty.

The bedroom holds a sense of mystery for children from the very beginning. They are not usually welcome there. Mother and father go there and close the door – and such noises! For young men sexual encounters come like an epiphany, and afterwards become an obsession, in large part because there adolescents can prove themselves as whole. They realize that their missing button was there all the time, and that a girl possessed it. Of course! Needless to say, he must get it from her. He must win her or subdue her or both, then what she has will be his again. The combination of proving himself – getting the notch on his belt – and satisfying his desire is almost too much to resist.

But getting the button does not come without a struggle. Corduroy pulls and tugs, thrusts and flails in an attempt to remove the button. The excitement is replaced by frustration, and then, with a final effort, the button flies off the bed – and Corduroy with it. Victory! Release! – and with it, all loss of control. He careens into a lamp, which slams to the ground, and the button rolls far out of reach.

The security guard stomps in, and the young bear pulls himself beneath the bed. But this time it is too late. The father-figure finds him and drags him out. But, as if the man knows the whole necessary drama, he chides him softly. “You shouldn’t be up here, now?” the guard asks, adding with a smirk, “You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you? No, I guess not.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Men are acquainted with the dance of desire and loss, pursuit and shame, and they must acknowledge this in other men, especially young men. With all its pride and embarrassment it is the shared male secret. The security guard undoubtedly has his missing button too, does he not? And so he returns Corduroy to the toy store with paternal, even fraternal, kindness.

The next morning the store owner (a man, of course) unlocks the door to the department store. In bursts Lisa, the girl who loved Corduroy so much the day before, now with the money to purchase him. She is disappointed when the lady clerk is unable to find the bear. Corduroy has moved, of course, and ultimately been placed in a different location. The clerk offers to order a new one, but Lisa replies, “But I wanted that bear.” What? Real acceptance? A buttonless bear the object of desire? As the girl mopes out of the toy store, Corduroy takes a timely initiative, kicking a box of crayons onto the ground to get her attention. It works. She takes him, buys him, and brings him upstairs into her bedroom.

In the final scene Corduroy has a second button sewn onto his overalls. (Lisa: “That [missing button] doesn’t matter – I can take care of that.”) Corduroy’s assertions have been met with reception. He looks smugly into the camera as the film ends. But one wonders how long this will last. After all, has he really merited this conclusion? Is it really his button he wears? Does Lisa belong to him, or he to her? Will she resent him the next day for the deficiencies she has to mend? And will he really be content to sit on her shelf or sleep in her bed this evening?

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2 comments

  1. Haha this is incredibly perceptive.


  2. I loved Corduroy as a child! I feel like there should be a movie already…



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