It’s been about eight months since I first saw American Vandal, and I don’t think the fact that I’ve subsequently transitioned from female to male is an overreaction. That’s not to say that American Vandal makes a compelling case for Being A Guy—far from it, in fact.
But for reasons I may never be able to fully explain, when Lucas Wiley tells the camera, “Uh, yeah. He shits at Priceless Moments,” to explain why Dylan refuses to use the bathroom at Lucas’ mother’s house, because “squishy toilet seats are like pressing your butt against someone else's butt,” I was struck by two immediate and inexplicable thoughts:
No one gets anything for a successful prediction recalled in hindsight, but I’ve been able to predict very little about anything in my life over the last few years, and I’m going to declare little victories wherever I can.
The show’s vast array of hyper-specific teen dirtbags reminded me of how much of my mental energy in high school was spent creating a Taxonomy of Dudes. Dudes to avoid and Dudes to placate, Dudes to fob off with thin promises and Dudes to impress with exaggerated claims, Dudes to dismiss and Dudes to avow, Dudes to suspect and Dudes to solicit something from, I knew not what. I was never called upon to describe this taxonomy, which I spent roughly as much time constructing as I did memorizing the periodic table of the elements.
It was as if I was studying for an exam in maleness that I never actually had to take. If those hours spent watching Doug and Patrick and Mark and Brian try to teach themselves how to skateboard or play Resident Evil IV while simultaneously ignoring me weren’t even going to be on the test, then what did I audit the course for? (“You mean I studied all that for nothing?!?”)
The taxonomic categories—kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species—are best read in a faux-relaxed, affectedly chill tone of voice designed (but failing) to mask an inner condition of panic, desperation, longing, bewilderment, self-loathing, and a cold-eyed awareness of the inherent unworthiness of the desired object. American Vandal named them all, and exposed me in the process.
American Vandal made transition shift from a consummation-devoutly-to-be-wished to a missed deadline, something beyond necessity. Suddenly, I was being gently shaken awake by the sleepiest, friendliest boy from AP Stats: “Dude, are you still asleep? You were supposed to be over here hours ago. Everybody’s been waiting for you, dude.”
“If I’m being honest,” narrator Peter Maldonado says at the beginning of the show, “I can’t say I really like Dylan [Maxwell, the titular—or at least central—vandal].” The Dude Taxonomy was intended to serve several purposes, none of which involve expressing any sort of positive declaration of affection or endorsement, which is a real shame.
The Dude Taxonomy is, of necessity, protective, defensive, paranoid, and reactive—it’s ready to reassign and disavow any entry at a moment’s notice in the interest of maintaining structural integrity, even at the expense of individual connection. The attention to detail, the hyperfocus, the relentlessly critical eye trained on mostly-heterosexual male defects I thought unique to my adolescent heart was apparently shared by the creators of American Vandal. The Dude Taxonomy has at least aspirations toward gender-agnosticism, though I always wielded it against, at, and in the interest of, Male Dudes.
“A lot of people would agree that Ming is the nicest kid in school In many ways, he’s a sort of anti-Dylan. During the third-period food fight last December, Ming didn't throw a single thing. In fact, he actually helped clean up the mess afterwards.”
Would most people agree that Ming Zhang is the nicest kid in school, or is Peter simply covering up for a total unfamiliarity with his subject with a pleasant bromide? When asked to vouch for a mostly-unknown Dude, and in the absence of a gut-level dislike or serious reason to doubt their character, it’s best to go with something safely vague and easily abandoned if someone else disagrees. “Oh, yeah, I meant I’d heard he was a good dude, but actually I think––” See? The “Oh, yeah” is the key here, not the “good” part. The “Oh, yeah” turns it into an afterthought rather than a carefully-weighted recommendation. When I say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good dude,” what I am really saying is, “I am prepared to become a coward at a moment’s notice.”
“Did you hear that, man? That is some teacher shit. That is some straight-up teacher shit.”
“Fuck that dude” is not the ultimate rejection. Anyone who has achieved “fuck that dude” status may not yet have committed the worst and most personal of betrayals, but by their very nature, perhaps by their profession, they have aligned themselves against the common welfare. They are, in short, Management, or as close to Management as Dudes in high school can get. It’s very difficult to come back from this position, and few who find themselves in it are especially worried about getting out.
“That call was so important. I was filming Janson when he was listening to that voicemail, and I could tell, in his face, he was like, "Man, I need to put all my shit on the lawn." And he did.”
There’s a significant difference between the Dude who cheats off of you because you actively suggested the idea to him—because you want him to fall in love with you, say, and you’ve convinced yourself that he’ll finally have the time to do so if he doesn’t have to study for exams—and the Dude who cheats off you incidentally, as a comrade. The cheating here has nothing to do with relative levels of knowledge or expertise—it’s likely you’re both doing (roughly) as well as the other in most of your classes. He’s not drafting off of your hard work. You two are merely brothers-in-arms in the us-against-them trench warfare of the taught against the teachers. This Dude lacks the same life-altering charisma as the former, but you know he’d extend himself to do you a solid, should you ever require one. He doesn’t owe you one, exactly (neither of you are keeping score with or against the other), but assistance from his hands is only ever a head-nod away.
“Man, I just smoked a victory blunt for no reason, and now I’m, like, upsettingly high.”
This Dude is incapable of reciprocation. Even if he were willing to let you cheat off him in return, and that’s fucking up for debate, you’d be better off straight guessing all the way down the Scantron. He has no idea where he’s at half the time, much less what he’s doing, and he’s less than useless, because even when he can muster up enough energy to demonstrate a general sense of goodwill towards others, being met with anything less than an immediate standing ovation is disappointment enough for him to give up all the harder. Nothing short of 10 minutes of sustained applause is loud enough to break through the fog and grab his attention, and he’s never done anything worthy of sustained applause in his life, so nothing’s likely to change. Now, he’s not so bad that you’d cover your exam to keep him from cheating off of you (he’s not Management, after all), but you never answer any of his questions directly, and you take enormous pleasure in his many failures. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself, but you take that pleasure just the same.
“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.”
That guy knows what he did. You either don’t want anyone else to know, or you’re hoping they’ll imagine something slightly worse than what actually went down as long as you stick to darkly hinting at what a piece of shit that Dude is instead of getting specific about what he actually owes you. Either way, he’s lucky you’re not in the mood to go into detail right now. He’s achieved total “bitch-eating-crackers” status.
“It's clear that they're still planning something on the couch, while Pat Micklewaite talks to Julia Perez and Allie Cabrera. Which also means that Pat Micklewaite was invited to this party. So. Good for Pat, I guess.”
The lack of detail renders him ultimately suspicious, and yet (as a result?), this Dude is somehow enveloped in a gauzy haze of mystery and desirability. Shouldn’t I know about that Dude? Shouldn’t he know me? Doesn’t he want to?
“If Alex said "blow job," I would have called bullshit, for sure. But just eh, a simple hand job is not that big of a commitment.”
A hasty vouch during passing period: “Hey, what do you know about [Dude in question]? I was going to [bum a ride/ask a favor/strike up something ongoing], but I want your buy-in/recommendation/recommendation with reservations/warning] first. Is he safe? Am I safe? Are we all right, you and I? Would he look for ways to humiliate me, if he knew the ways in which I could be humiliated? Will he look out for me, if I let my guard down? If I looked over at his paper in Stats, would he move his arm, even if we both know I didn’t really need him to, simply as a gesture of goodwill and recognition of our shared humanity? For that matter, would you? Do you? Have you? Will you do it again, if I needed it?”
“I mean, Boulder was always a bit of a stretch for you.”
The unspoken second half of “That Dude’s wild” is “Please don’t make me hang out with that Dude, because I am, and have always been, afraid.”
“We call ourselves the Wayback Boys because we go way back, but we actually go even wayer back than people think.”
“My dude” is not the same thing as “my friend,” but it is an act of claiming all the same, even if the claim is only viable during school hours and on school property. It is often misused, and just as often backfires—you may claim someone as your dude, but do they claim you?
“I got a handjob from Sara Pearson, but you don’t see me bragging about it.”
This guy has attempted to reverse-engineer your endorsement by claiming to be yours, either directly or indirectly, in an act of effrontery so public it requires your active negation. This guy has to be negotiated against, his aggressive friendship forestalled lest it infect your entire social circle. This Dude, if left unchecked, will become an unending source of lies, a furnace of stinking untruths that reek straight up to heaven—he must be so distanced that he becomes not “That Dude” but “That Guy.” Kick him straight down the chain.
I don’t know what good this Taxonomy will be to any of you. You may not find it accurate unless you attended a suburban Californian high school in the early aughts. Even then, I have a bad habit of attempting to universalize my own experiences. But the show put me in mind of it, all the same. The Dudes here are by no means universal—their social location is deeply influenced by time and geography and race and gender—but everyone has to develop their own relationship to Dude-ness, at least in high school, and I hope you’ve made your peace with yours, even if you haven’t seen them in years.
There’s a scene in the very first episode of American Vandal where Dylan stands dazedly on the front porch of the house he just delivered fries to before bypassing the two—literally two!—steps to the sidewalk and jumps instead. But there’s no energy behind the jump, no initial bounce to get some momentum going, he just wrinkle-in-times himself to the ground.
There’s a bit in Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo that goes like this: “For here there is no place / That does not see you. You must change your life.” There are a number of times where Bugs Bunny would pop up out of the ground in old Warner Brothers’ cartoons in front of, like, Dracula’s castle or something, look startled, pull a map out of his pockets, and start tsking sadly to himself before saying, “I should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque.” For me, those moments all happened at once. For me, they were the same.