Just a Couple of Dudes
After he was done being President, Teddy Roosevelt decided to unwind by going on safari in East Africa and blasting the living bejeezus out of everything he could find. Ostensibly, he was there to get natural history specimens for the Smithsonian, but his heart was really in the simpler pleasures of hunt. Whatever else TR was, he was a man who like to shoot things. A lot.
He also took his son Kermit with him, but other than dedicating African Game Trails to “My Side-Partner,” he’s interestingly reluctant to frame the trip as the big father-son picnic it was. Instead, he displaces the problem of the father-son relationship (which is a problem for him for various reasons) onto the African landscape itself. Teddy’s epigram kind of says it all: “He loved the great game as if he were their father.” Because nothing says paternal love like a bullet to the brainpan.
Anyway, I find this photograph of the pair incredibly great:
There’s so much to say. They sit like manly men, legs folded to leave plenty of room for their genitalia, and they present their guns to us like the manly man phalli that they so clearly are. Their heads stick into the empty whiteness of the sky, stark against the background of a staged African emptiness that stretches out into the far horizon. Manly men in Africa, the place where manly men go to be men, manly-ly.
There’s also a clear gendered hierarchy within their manliness: Kermit’s hat is like a sun-bonnet, open and wide like his collar and posture, while TR’s hat is (like his face, closed off by glasses and mustache) tight and constricting. His gun is more phallic than Kermit’s, which is held at arm’s length, and TR’s wall of teeth (much beloved of caricaturists) has been displaced onto the bull itself, since his own lips are pinched closed and his gaze lowered and remote. And while Kermit has his leg braced against the animal, indicating that TR must be putting his weight against his son, the surface composition has TR floating unsupported, a towering tower of towering masculinity.
The bull itself… Shooting African animals brings these dudes together, and even though they sit in classic man-style (phalli carefully pointed in different directions to avoid the embarrassment of “crossing the streams”), the line between their bodies is both a point of contact and an impermeable barrier, both the point where they cleave together and where they cleave apart. But the horns of the dead bull they’ve shot resolves the problem, curving and embracing them in a single grisly familial body. Posed in an “action” pose — emphasizing not a scientific curiosity but a trophy — the Buffalo bull is the object on which their masculinity can be expended, and in doing so, bring them together. As TR writes:
“Kermit put his first barrel into the second bull, and I my second barrel into one of the others, after which it became impossible to say which bullet struck which animal, as the firing became general.”
Not much I can say about that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes a hunting rifle is a phallus. And this is one of those times.