Sunday, April 19, 2009

pit I said pit I will Pit

It seems important while we're still pretty new here to go through some definitional exercises. In popular culture, "pit bulls" are generally lumped together. They might be portrayed as monsters or as angels (usually depending on the race of their owners), but beyond this typical Madonna/whore dichotomy, they're seen as the same basic type of dog. (In breed-specific laws, this is an even more broad and incredibly vague designation since they include multiple breeds and "all pit bull-type dogs.")

It's much more complicated that that in pit bull world(s). There's all kinds of Othering going on with racial and class-based subtexts. If you're not immersed in one or more of these cultures, you probably have no idea that the boundaries of "pit bull" are highly contested - everything from its origin, history, appearance, purpose, characteristics, breed classification, and on and on. Here's my attempt to map the contours of the pit bull landscape in broad strokes. (Please forgive the necessary shorthand I've employed in many of these descriptions - each of them can be debated ad nauseum. I'm also trying to be as objective as possible, but we all have our biases, cause you know, my dog is the best.)
Bulldog: Old-school pit bull fanciers (read: old white country dudes) still call them bulldogs. This is very confusing for mainstream pit bull lovers today, since the term "bulldog" has come to mean the English Bulldog in common parlance. But throughout the 20th century, this was the term of choice among pit bull people and definitely used in a positive light, as in "Now that's a bulldog, Son!" Loosely synonymous with "gamedog," below.

Gamedog: This is such a contentious term! "Game" is one of the most heavily debated and mythologized concepts in and out of pit bull circles. In most basic terms, game is that purple heart, never give up quality, a crazy determination, an invincible will and spirit. The rules of dogfighting that have been typically used throughout the 20th century in the US are based on concepts of scratch and turn which are supposed to reward gameness, so that "gametesting" can mean dogfighting (or something similar to dogfighting) for people in that culture. "Gamedog" is the opposite of "cur," so suffice it to say that Game is God for old-school pit bull people. But it is CRUCIAL to understand that "gamedog" or "game-bred dog" does not necessarily mean that a dog is game, or that a dog will fight, or even that a dog was bred for fighting. There are plenty of breed enthusiasts who simply appreciate the qualities and the breeding of gamedogs, and see it as the "original," or best and most stable representation of the breed. Most people believe that gameness can come into play in other sporting activities, such as hog hunting (another traditional form of "work,") weight pull, agility, and even in companionship. These dogs tend to be on the small side (40 lbs or so), lean, and very active - but this is a huge generalization since there is massive variation among bloodlines.

American Pit Bull Terrier/APBT: The standard for the bulldog was codified, so to speak, into two different breeds loosely around the turn of the 20th century. One was the American Pit Bull Terrier, or APBT, which was registered by the UKC and then the ADBA (American Dog Breeder's Association). Although gamedogs were registered in both registries, the standards of these two registries have diverged somewhat over the years. The ADBA still tries to keep with the working standard for pit bulls, whereas the UKC has come to emphasize a standard of conformation based solely on physical appearance. As a result, ADBA dogs often look just like the gamedogs of fifty years ago, whereas the UKC "style" of pit bull (if you will) is typically larger, with a more pronounced brick-like head and wide chest, and often has cropped ears and more "flashy" coloring. All the usual animosity and stone throwing between show and working dog breeders come into play here.

American Staffordshire Terrier: This was the AKC's version of the pit bull, literally modeled on one of John P. Colby's gamedogs. Petey from L'il Rascals was actually dual-registered with the AKC and UKC. As with the UKC APBT, the emphasis on conformation over working ability has resulted in a dog with more exaggerated physical features than the typical gamedog. There is the lingering notion that AmStaff lovers are phony anglophiles trying to leave their old pit bull relatives behind, but failing miserably with a watered-down bulldog. In reality, even though AmStaffs have been bred for show and their bloodlines have diverged from working bloodlines, many of these dogs look and act no different than a gamedog.

Bully/American Bully: This is the low-slung, wide and huge pit bull popularized by gang bangers in the 1980s who developed them for guard work and badass image. Although there have always been large pit bulls, and pit bull/mastiff crosses (called "Bandogs"), the larger pit bull became fashionable in the last few decades and associated with urban street culture and a particular sort of expression of African-American identity. Atomic Dogg Magazine provides a good representation of this "style" of dog, typified by Razor's Edge and Gotti bloodlines. Even though this culture often seems to give a nod to gamedogs, there is bitter resentment among gamedoggers toward bullies and their owners. These dogs are seen as mutants, embarrassments to the true APBT, and are accused of being obese, overdone, piglike, and all manner of other evils. The racism that is directed at bullies is often very thinly veiled and centers on the concept of the "blue dog" on many pit bull message boards. (This is because blue is a popular color among bullies and show dogs, but is far less common in gamedogs which are not bred for color or physical appearance but for working ability/performance.) Because bullies tend to be larger, gamedoggers often say that their little dogs could kick a bully's big blue ass, but there is also some indication that the greater size of the bully lends itself to quick-and-dirty urban streetfights where physical power is more important than endurance or gameness. A huge caveat here is that tons of white people raise bullies, and many of these dogs are registered with the UKC. Just a few years back, a group of bully enthusiasts created a separate breed, the American Bully (not yet recognized by AKC or UKC) to differentiate and legitimize this type of dog.

Rednose, bluenose: These terms came into vogue in recent years to designate types of pit bulls based on color. While red noses and blue noses are common results of recessive genes that manifest through inbreeding and linebreeding, using these terms to describe dogs, as in "I have a rednose," is thought by many breed fanciers to be inappropriate since it places emphasis on color rather than bloodline or some more meaningful descriptor. People confuse rednose with OFRN (Old Family Red Nose), which refers to a constellation of historic pit bull bloodlines, but OFRN dogs may or may not have red noses.

Pit, pit, pit: The use of the term "pit" by itself is relatively recent and was originally used in urban areas to refer to bully-type dogs. The term has caught on and is now widely used in popular culture to refer to any and all pit bull type dogs (and even some non-pit bull-type dogs). The terms gets a great deal of hate from APBT fanciers and gamedoggers who are concerned about preserving the APBT and act as gatekeepers, policing the boundaries of what is and is not a true pit bull.

Petbull: The term used by working and even show dog people to refer to the typically spayed or neutered pit bull that serves only as a pet and companion. Petbull is often used online as a derogatory term, as a petbull is considered by some gamedoggers to be either waste of a good bulldog, a bored couch potato, or a cur.

Pibble, pittie: the more positive and feminized identifiers of a petbull used by pet lovers and rescues. These cute terms seem to be aimed at rehabilitating the image of the pit bull.

Fighting dog: I'm still trying to figure this one out. Throughout history and all over the world, various breeds and non-breeds have been used for fighting. And many dogs will fight, you know, just like people. My Chihuahua is the closest thing I've seen to a dead game dog. Point being, this is a complete red herring, used by HSUS et al to create fear and manipulate the public, and a totally vague and inappropriate basis for legislation.
All this being said, I would dare the most knowledgeable pit bull fancier to categorize the average "pit bull" that shows up in a shelter. It's impossible: dogs are individuals, there is wide variation even within litters, and the pit bull with no history or context could conceivably fit within any of the above categories. I've avoided adding photographs since these "types" are so fluid. But they do exist, at least as archetypes or imaginaries, and they carry great psychological import and potentially disastrous consequences for the dogs.

It's important to realize that although there are surely biological components, dog breeds, like race, class, and gender, are socially constructed. Literally created by humans within culture for various purposes. Despite best efforts to retain purity of a breed or a bloodline, they are always changing, just like the English language. To understand social constructions means getting past the simple dichotomies of good and bad, black and white, traditional or newfangled, and considering the deeper reasons behind our choices - in dog breeds or anything else. What do these choices serve, what kinds of identities do they create or challenge? These types of categories provide frameworks in and through which we live.

In order to analyze dog breeds and their representations, we need to understand the range of signifiers we're dealing with, and all their offensive and stereotypical implications. We need to historicize and complicate the term "pit bull" to begin to unpack its relationship to race, gender, and class, both within the multiple cultures that embrace pit bulls and vis-a-vis society at large. Hopefully we are ready to begin.

1 comment:

  1. Wow- awesome new blog, guys. I once, before I became anti-intellectual, wanted to go back to school and write some kind of graduate thesis on race/class/gender and "bulldogs" and their popularity and the popular conceptions around them. I am stoked to see this blog and the thoughtful posts. Seriously can't wait to see more.