Masculinity in Topdog/Underdog is often cast as unstable and potentially dangerous. Although both brothers speak about their sexual conquests in chauvinistic terms, Booth especially clings to inflated ideas of his own sexual prowess, allowing it to define his sense of manhood. Booth even tries to emasculate Lincoln during a particularly heated argument not only by reminding him that his wife left him because he was impotent, but by revealing that Booth had slept with Lincoln’s wife while they were still married. This tactic is a direct result of Booth’s own insecurities surrounding his masculinity. However, Booth’s revelation falls flat rather than precipitating a crisis for Lincoln, perhaps because Lincoln isn’t as concerned as Booth with being an alpha male. By contrasting Lincoln’s easygoing, assured masculinity with Booth’s tendency to overcompensate sexually and violently for his own shortcomings, Parks exhibits the destructive ways in which certain ideas about masculinity can contribute to a man’s behavior and general worldview.
Booth’s behavior is in many ways a product of his frustrated and unfulfilled sexual cravings. Although he claims to have passionate sex with Grace, Parks suggests that this is a lie when Lincoln confronts Booth about the stash of semen-covered pornographic magazines he finds underneath Booth’s bed. Booth’s claims about having sex with Grace seem all the more unlikely when he later reveals that he has killed her because she told him he has “nothing going on.” When Lincoln calls Booth’s bluff by saying, “You didnt get shit tonight” and revealing that he knows about his younger brother’s pornographic stash, Booth justifies his magazine collection by saying, “Im hot. I need constant sexual release. If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself I would be out there running around on thuh town […] doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release.” Without “sexual release,” Booth thinks he would be “shooting people,” a sentiment that not only associates male sexuality with violence, but aligns with the play’s title (Topdog/Underdog being a reference to ideas of dominance and submission). Simply put, a lack of “sexual release” makes Booth feel inferior, so he cultivates an alpha-male persona, overcompensating by bragging about darkly violent predilections and exaggerated roles of dominance.
Because Lincoln doesn’t need to constantly affirm his masculine identity—at least not as desperately as Booth—he is better able to put himself in situations in which he’s vulnerable. For example, he does this when he sits at the arcade dressed as President Lincoln and allows patrons to simulate his own assassination. Booth, by contrast, can’t seem to fathom the idea of turning his back to strangers while they pretend to shoot him. “You ever wonder if someones gonna come in there with a real gun?” he asks Lincoln. “A real gun with real slugs?” This question once again highlights Booth’s insecurity. His fear of being made to feel powerless is so pervasive that he can’t even imagine himself into Lincoln’s position without dreading the possibility of violence. For him, to turn one’s back on others is to invite danger and aggression—a fact which seems to reveal more about his own inclination toward violence than any such inclination in others. Lincoln, on the other hand, doesn’t think so obsessively about power and dominance, and thus doesn’t let the fear of being dominated interfere with his life. As such, he relaxes into a position of vulnerability, accepting that he’s at the mercy of strangers but also grasping that this doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be attacked. Indeed, it’s a distorted line of reasoning to believe that vulnerability inevitably leads to harm—a line of reasoning that arises from Booth’s insecurity and results in a constant need to prove his own dominance.
In keeping with Booth’s need to assert his dominance as an alpha-male, the play culminates in a tragic act of violence that illustrates the utter toxicity and senselessness of Booth’s brand of masculine aggression—in which lashing out in aggression is how he deals with humiliation. When Grace insults him by refusing to be his girlfriend, he kills her. “Who thuh fuck she think she is doing me like she done? Telling me I don’t got nothing going on. I showed her what I got going on,” he brags to Lincoln. To somebody like Booth, being told that he has “nothing going on” is an insult that cuts straight to the bone, an accusation that can only be met with violence. Likewise, when Lincoln cons Booth out of his money, making him look foolish and proving that he’s just as gullible as the average mark, he responds with violence. Humiliation, then, is an emotion which he simply can’t countenance. Once again, he proves himself incapable of embracing any kind of vulnerability or weakness. And although for several moments after killing Lincoln Booth talks like a tough guy—saying, “Watch me close watch me close now: Ima go out there and make a name for myself that dont have nothing to do with you”—he eventually collapses over Lincoln’s lifeless body and weeps, attesting to the fact that his alpha-male persona is not only useless in protecting him against sorrow and desperation, but is in fact a trap that leads him into sorrow and desperation.
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Violence ThemeTracker
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Violence Quotes in Topdog/Underdog
I got her this ring today. Diamond. Well, diamond-esque, but it looks just as good as the real thing. Asked her what size she wore. She say 7 so I go boost a 6 and a half, right? Show it to her and she loves it and I shove it on her finger and its a tight fit right, so she cant just take it off on a whim, like she did the last one I gave her. Smooth, right?
Grace Grace Grace. Grace. She wants me back. She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasnt together just so she could say we aint never been apart. She wiped her hand over our breakup. She wiped her hand over her childhood, her childhood years, her first boyfriend, just so she could say that she been mine since the dawn of time.
Im hot. I need constant sexual release. If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself I would be out there running around on thuh town which costs cash that I dont have so I would be doing worse: I’d be out there doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release. I’m a hot man. I aint apologizing for it. When I dont got a woman, I gotta make do. Not like you, Link. When you dont got a woman you just sit there. Letting yr shit fester. Yr dick, if it aint falled off yet, is hanging there between yr legs, little whiteface shriveled-up blank-shooting grub worm. As goes thuh man so goes thuh mans dick. Thats what I say. Least my shits intact.
You a limp dick jealous whiteface motherfucker whose wife dumped him cause he couldnt get it up and she told me so. Came crawling to me cause she needed a man.
I gave it to Grace good tonight. So goodnight.
Its pretty dark. To keep thuh illusion of thuh whole thing.
But on thuh wall opposite where I sit theres a little electrical box, like a fuse box. Silver metal. Its got uh dent in it like somebody hit it with they fist. Big old dent so everything reflected in it gets reflected upside down. Like yr looking in uh spoon. And thats where I can see em. The assassins.
Not behind me yet but I can hear him coming. Coming in with his gun in hand, thuh gun he already picked out up front when he paid his fare. Coming on in. But not behind me yet. His dress shoes making too much noise on the carpet, the carpets too thin, Boss should get a new one but hes cheap. Not behind me yet. Not behind me yet. Cheap lightbulb just above my head.
And there he is. Standing behind me. Standing in position. Standing upside down. Theres some feet shapes on the floor so he knows just where he oughta stand. So he wont miss. Thuh gun is always cold. Winter or summer thuh gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me he can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real. Me looking at him upside down and him looking at me looking like Lincoln. Then he shoots.
I slump down and close my eyes. And he goes out thuh other way. More come in. Uh whole day full. Bunches of kids, little good for nothings, in they school uniforms. Businessmen smelling like two for one martinis. Tourists in they theme park t-shirts trying to catch it on film. Housewives with they mouths closed tight, shooting more than once.
They all get so into it. I do my best for them. And now they talk bout cutting me, replacing me with uh wax dummy.
All she knew was you couldnt get it up. You couldnt get it up with her so in her head you was tired of her and had gone out to screw somebody new and this time maybe werent never coming back.
She had me pour her a drink or 2. I didnt want to. She wanted to get back at you by having some fun of her own and when I told her to go out and have it, she said she wanted to have her fun right here. With me.
And then, just like that, she changed her mind.
But she’d hooked me. That bad part of me that I fight down everyday. You beat yrs down and it stays there dead but mine keeps coming up for another round. And the bad part of me took her clothing off and carried her into thuh bed and had her, Link, yr Cookie. It wasnt just thuh bad part of me it was all of me, man, I had her. Yr damn wife. Right in that bed.