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I know "Whatcha gonna do about it?" is a slang term and means "What are you going to do about it" but I'm confused about its meaning in the text below:

At first he watched the younger boys with wary concentration, then he began to bait them. It wasn’t obvious aggression, just small provocations. He might flick off a boy’s hat or knock a soda can from his hand and laugh as the stain spread over the boy’s jeans. If he was challenged—and he usually wasn’t—he would play the part of the ruffian, a hardened “Whatcha gonna do about it?” expression disguising his face. But after, when it was just the two of us, the mask lowered, the bravado peeled off like a breastplate, and he was my brother.

Educated by Tara Westover

Could you explain if it has a negative (or aggressive) meaning?

  • If you read the paragraph carefully, you can see that her brother is a bully. You taunt and tease someone and then say that, if you are a bully. – Lambie May 12 '18 at 20:19
  • Meanings arise from a broader context, so the paragraph is important here. There is no slang term in it at all. Merely spelling that imitates or mimics real speech. – Lambie May 12 '18 at 20:25
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Absolutely.

“Whatcha gonna do about it?” is an idiomatic rhetorical question; the implication is always that "you" (the person so addressed) can't do anything about it. It is a mocking or intimidating insinuation that one is powerless to stop the person doing the thing. It is the equivalent of saying, "Yes, I did do that objectionable thing to you and I will continue to do that objectionable thing to you, and you can't stop me."

When said in earnest (i.e. not done in an obviously joking way) it is a very hostile, very aggressive, and, above all, very domineering thing to say. It literally asserts dominance.

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Yes it definitely can and mostly will, but it can also in some terms have a joking and slight playful teasing tone/meaning to it as well.

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The example is about an expression held on his face, a passive reaction, which is perhaps challenging or defensive – but not aggressive or negative.

  • But she says: "he would play the part of the ruffian" – Peace May 12 '18 at 18:15
  • That is where "challenging" comes in. The question is about the expression on his face, not about his behaviour with hats and sodas. I think the text was poorly written – the ruffian's act was about hats and sodas. – Weather Vane May 12 '18 at 18:16
  • ... so he had already played the ruffian, and the facial expression was his defence. – Weather Vane May 12 '18 at 18:27
  • And what about "the bravado" which has mentioned in the one before the last line? – Peace May 12 '18 at 18:31
  • And what about "the bravado" which has mentioned in the last but one line? – Peace May 12 '18 at 18:32
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He might flick off a boy’s hat or knock a soda can from his hand and laugh as the stain spread over the boy’s jeans. If he was challenged—and he usually wasn’t—he would play the part of the ruffian, a hardened “Whatcha gonna do about it?” expression disguising his face.

This is the typical behavior of a bully. That does not mean the expression would only be used here.

If I say to you here, "You may not like my comments but really what are you going to do about it?", what do you think? It is probably aggressive.

If I say to you, "You didn't report the thief and now he has stolen your money. What are you going to do about it?" is not aggressive.

Finally, the fact the author uses a common spelling for this phrase to mimic the real speech of a young macho-acting young man suggests even more strongly that his behavior is mean and nasty. She also uses the entire phrase as an adjective. The speech sounds like a snarl. And snarling is part of the bullying scenario.

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