Saturday, November 07, 2009

Maintaining Masculinity

Speaking of baseball, as I was in passing below, I want to make a quick observation about sports fandom and the negative work it continues to do to reinforce accepted norms of masculinity and competition.

Around June this year I unexpectedly found myself obsessively following the Phillies again, really for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1993 (after which I had moved just far enough away from home so that I couldn't catch games on tv or radio). In part this meant spending way too much time on fan forums and message boards connected to the Philadelphia newspapers at As a result, I encountered the kind of sports-talk I'd always generally successfully avoided in the past, much of which is, of course, painfully sexist and otherwise retrograde. The most appalling in my view being the feminization of players who were struggling. The focus of this kind of talk was usually pitcher Cole Hamels.

In 2008, at the age of 24, Hamels was the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Much was made of his "Hollywood" good looks, his beautiful wife. He was on top of the world. Then this year he got off to a bad start, hurt his elbow, and never really settled into a decent groove. All season long there was speculation about his mental toughness, his maturity, his ability to not let mistakes, his or his teammates', rattle him, in sharp contrast to his apparently icy demeanor in 2008. Whereas last year he was the hero, this year it wasn't enough that he be merely the goat. On the boards he was now a "princess" or a "queen", a "prima donna". He was "pretty"; when things didn't go well, and he was unable to shake it off, he was a "pussy". Thus feminized in his struggles, it was only a short step to speculations on whether he might be gay, with the kind of mean-spirited certainty and graphic coarseness one encounters so often on the Internet. I probably don't need to spell out the kind of language used in such attacks. The sexism and misogyny and homophobia in these remarks is obvious and unfortunately not terribly surprising. But it is instructive. Thus we have reinforced for us that to be a woman is to be weak, to be unable or unwilling to handle pressure, to not be tough enough. If you are a man and are perceived to not be manly enough or to be otherwise failing in pressure situations, then you may as well be a woman and may quite possibly be gay, both of which are understood to be distinctly negative conditions, both unfortunate deviations from the masculine ideal. The logic is impeccable. The people making such remarks would no doubt claim it's all in good fun. It always is, isn't it? Not everyone says these things, of course, but no one objects or calls anyone else out. The relationship between this and the feminization of the enemy--or, even more important, of any would-be internal opposition (you gotta be "strong" on Iraq, you can't "lose" China)--that happens during a war, or even during ordinary politics, is clear. The norms and limits of masculinity must be and will be maintained.


Rebecca H. said...

There is much to love about the internet, but the way it can foster and encourage these sorts of ideas is not one of them. Ugh.

J.R. Boyd said...

I'm often caught off guard by these types of attitudes, even amongst some of my closest friends, and I have to say I'm still trying to develop an effective way to confront them.

On one level I think it means identifying as feminist much more openly, all the time, so that people won't feel ambushed when you call them on sexism that they may not "own" consciously, but still perpetuate. I find people are less likely to risk offense to someone they know personally, particularly if they respect them.

Richard said...

Hi Dorothy. I agree. The internet can be an unpleasant place. I know I read far too many comment threads than are good for my health.

Hi J.R. I agree about identifying as openly feminist. I've so far not gotten into much in the way of overt feminism here, in part because I know there's much I don't know. I hope to focus much more on it from now on.

On the boards I'm talking about, I wasn't a registered user, and didn't really want to be, otherwise I'd like to think I'd have at least said something.

J.R. Boyd said...

I had in mind personal relations, but you are right to bring up these other contexts, as well.

I wouldn't even know where to begin in an online forum, because it is already so impersonal. It's hard enough expressing anything sincere, let alone critical, and expect that people will respond constructively.

At least in person, people are forced to make a choice. But I believe there are creative solutions to most things, and also strength in numbers, so hopefully we can figure something out!

Thanks for the post.