Scripts ‘N Pranks: The Davidson Gentleman
During the early to mid 20th century, Davidson College maintained multiple student-led literary publications, including Scripts ‘N Pranks, which evolved to become a mainly satirical magazine. It was published from the late 1930s to 1960s, well before the official inclusion of female students that did not come until the 1970s. The magazines contained advertisements, student-written prose and poetry, and graphics. These often depicted ideas of conformity, with one issue even — presumably somewhat jokingly — labeled as such:
CONFORMITY: FORMERLY SCRIPTS AND PRANKS.
The only magazine with a Harris Tweed Cover.
The magazine for discriminating, upper middle-class aryans.
The magazine for you, IF you can qualify.
A theme spanning many issues was what Scripts ‘N Pranks called the “Davidson Gentleman.” Though there were not explicit portrayals of transness or gender nonconformity in the publications, this idea of what a man at Davidson should be imposed overarching ideas of masculinity and manhood, forcing a standard.
The most notable examples of the “Davidson Gentleman” and other prescriptions of gender presentation in Scripts ‘N Pranks are as follows:
In the December issue of 1957, there was a cartoon titled “The Davidson Gentleman Primer.” As a primer, this guide would include all of the basics to being a Davidson Gentleman, which the cartoon goes on to list. Though as a satirical magazine, the cartoon does poke fun at the stereotype of the Davidson Gentleman. For example, there is a drawing of a student falling asleep at their desk with the caption, “See him take advantage of his education.” What was striking about the article, though, was the opening image. The illustrator drew six men, almost exactly identical in hair and outfit, with each pair staring at one another with stern faces. This creates a sense of surveillance, as if students must be monitored to enforce the standards of the Davidson Gentleman. As noted in the introduction, the theme of conformity came up often in the magazine, and in order to obtain this conformity, standards had to be enforced and surveillance was necessary. While potentially just the illustrator’s humor or exaggeration, the fact that it is present is indicative of Davidson’s environment at the time.
The next notable article, “Gentemanius Davidsonius: The King of Beasts?” from the 1962 Midwinters issue, involved the satirical categorization of the Davidson Gentleman as a species. The breakdown includes Gentemanius Davidsonius (G.D.) Frigidius, G.D. Nastius, and G.D. Flitius. What stood out was G.D. Flitius, which was said to be the most affectionate and intelligent, as well as have a “fluid gait, limp wrist, and, in some cases, a thlight lithp.” It’s important to note that G.D. Flitius is also drawn as a human-fly hybrid, thus bringing the article in conversation with notions of the trans monster. There is also the possibility that the wings allude to fairy, which was used as an insult towards gay men. Without any explicit comments, it is unclear whether this class of G.D. was a jab at homosexuality or gender nonconfirming folks, but at the very least, it is addressing some sort of queerness.
The 1950 Spring issue featured an advertisement for “Jack Wood Ltd. Clothes” that certainly contributed to this idea of the Davidson Gentleman. It says that “The best dressed men at Davidson” wear their brand of clothing. Most notably, at the bottom of the advertisement there is a line that says “It costs no more to dress correctly.” What is correctness? The vagueness of this word can be weaponized for men who perhaps do not conform to Jack Wood’s idea of “correct.” The Davidson Gentleman does not leave room for fluidity or “abnormal” gender expression.
There are two pages of graphics covering (men’s) faculty fashion in the 1959 Spring publication. The photos lay out different collar, tie, and shirt options. It even discusses variations of pants length. The most notable takeaway from these pages is that men’s acceptable dress is uniform. There are set options, and a “real man” does not express creativity in his wardrobe.
The Calendar Girls segment in the 1952 Christmas edition depicts women in sensual poses, along with two images of men dressed in provocative feminine clothes. Because this is a satire magazine, the men are meant to evoke laughter from readers at the “absurdity” of this inversion of typical gender presentation. Not only is the publication making fun of women and portraying men as superior, but they are also eliminating any potential for the safe existence of men (or those assigned male at birth) who may desire to wear more feminine clothing. These men in the magazine come from a place of cisgender privilege. They are secure enough in their positionality as Davidson Gentlemen that they can wear bras and makeup and not have their stature as men questioned.
In a 1958 publication of Scripts ‘N Pranks — titled “Wild One Handbook” — there are two photos next to each other portraying the “Davidson Gentleman as seen by himself” and the Davidson Gentleman as seen by the Queens student (an all-women’s college in Charlotte at the time). The left image is of a big, strong, muscular man who exudes confidence and style. This is how the Davidson Gentleman views himself. The other image presents a lanky man with ill-fitting clothing, head down, awkward stance. While this is perhaps progressive because the publication is poking fun at the Davidson Gentleman ego and unearned confidence, the idea that the left image is somehow preferable to the right image feeds into the cisgender hegemony. A brawny masculine man is considered more of a man than an effeminate man.
The ideas of conformity and the impact of this advertised conformity within Davidson literary publications, specifically Scripts ‘N Pranks, have no doubt had an effect on the presentation of gender and gender nonconformity here at Davidson. While it was necessary to queer these publications since there were not many explicit expressions of gender nonconformity, one is able to see how these publications are representative of the larger ecosystem here at Davidson. The idea of the Davidson Gentleman that was reinforced and supported by the writings, advertisements, and cartoons in Scripts ‘N Pranks is only one way in which a gender norm and standard was able to be set at Davidson. This standard and the way in which Scripts ‘N Pranks communicated it created a hostile environment for those who were gender noncomforming or trans at this time in Davidson.
It is important to recognize the context and environment of Davidon’s history and understand that even though the voices and perspectives being shared most loudly were not queer voices, this doesn’t mean queer or trans voices did not exist. They just were not able to share their perspectives due to the unsafe environment created for gender nonconformity at Davidson.
Authors: Nguyên Trinh, Cathy Diop, Sarah Baker, Isabel Smith — GSS 360: Transgender Studies, Fall 2021.