Posts Tagged ‘Masculinity’

By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty. 

I know that I’m most likely overthinking, overreacting, and overstating this, but I find myself constantly on the defensive over my love of football, probably due to the unrelenting pace of my Facebook posts with tiny hearts and hashtags like #lovethenfl #lovecollegefootball, #adrianpetersonissohot, etc., etc., etc.

21spoy1223I’m a woman. I’m a feminist. I’m an annoyingly self-righteous progressive. So, in light of the social, ethical, and safety concerns brought about by the sport, I’m supposed to be a hater. My love of football is oxymoronic. It befuddles some. It irritates others. It appalls a few. So, I love it.

Like any form of entertainment, art, or sport, football creates a cultural and social space. It’s an integral space where men can be “men” in ways that are stereotypical and sometimes repellant, to be sure, but also kind of awesome. Our society expects men to maintain the precarious balance of command and cooperation, strength and tenderness, primal physicality and intelligence. All of this happens on the football field.  The players we talk about most are aggressive, unrelenting, self-aggrandizing, and Superman-tough, and I usually love those guys, so I catch a lot of shit for it. I’m supposed to oppose this kind of hyper-masculinity, because it upsets the social expectations of my feminist-liberal position. Certainly, I’m not supposed to enjoy the muscles and the trash-talk and the brutality. So, I love it.

Not only is it unrealistic to expect men to maintain the difficult primal/social balance of appetite and acceptable behavior, it is simply NO FUN if we demand that they adhere to such a strict social protocol at all times. Football creates a spacepatrick-willis wherein men can growl, pound their chests, and smash into each other with primal aggression, and I get to watch. Now, THAT is fun. They get to channel animal urges toward a common goal and I get to enjoy, unapologetically, watching men with superior physical strength and mental acumen crash their big, strong bodies into one another and out-think their opponents. Then, they do awesomely cute little dances, flex their muscles for the camera, and slap each other’s asses adorably. So (of course), I love it.

Now, I realize that this celebration of hyper-masculinity is not securely contained within the cultural space of football. I know the serious social and interpersonal problems that present when a man is encouraged to be aggressive and self-important, when physical violence is the go-to solution to a problem, when putting one’s health and future at risk is expected toward the aim of winning a superficial game for money and fame and to enrich a few a-hole owners and a grossly flawed system. These are problems, and I know I should be repulsed, but it makes football dangerous. So, I love it.

I know, football promotes many of the negative aspects of stereotypical masculinity, and it subsequently facilitates serious social problems like domestic violence, economic inequities, and mental illness when those aspects creep from the cultural space of the football field into the social space of the actual world. I get that, and it disturbs me. I don’t mean to embrace or forgive any of these social problems, but football is complex enough, and compelling enough, and fun enough, that these dangers create, for me, a conflicted set of feelings. I’m supposed to hate it. So, I love it.

For these dangers, and the sex-appeal of athletic bodies in strenuous battle, come with another level of complexity. All of these “negative” aspects of masculinity bring with them impressive and undeniable displays of camaraderie, cooperation, intellect, and, yes, tenderness. When eleven men are on the field together, on offense or defense, they must operate withNFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions absolute connectedness to meet their goal and to protect themselves and their teammates from serious harm. Teamwork is real, and it works: WE win when we work together and protect each other. That connection, and the insanely hard work that teammates do together, makes football a space of intimacy and brotherhood, and THAT is beautiful. Intimacy and cooperation is subtly discouraged among men in our culture, which expects a certain level of rogue individuality to achieve an unrealistic masculine ideal: I win; you lose. Cooperation toward a common goal in football demands a level of intelligence and intellect that is often overlooked in discussions of athletics.  Football players are rarely given props for their intellect, but, in order to reach their common goal, these men have to study, collaborate, and think critically about their own, their teammates’, and their opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. Teamwork, hard work, and smarts: now, THAT is sexy. I love it. And you should love it, too.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Judge me if you wish, but I love using Hollywood films to teach history courses.  You want to know why I love it? Two reasons.  First,  movies provide students with an opportunity to empathize with figures of the past.  Lecture and textbooks rarely are able to bring raw human emotion into the classroom.  Films can do that. Second, movies often get history completely wrong….Wait, what?  How is this good, you might ask?  I find that analyzing the inaccuracies of historical films clarify historical reality since this reality is often more shocking and memorable once we compare it with Hollywood falsehoods.

“This IS SPARTA” from movie and graphic novel

Films dealing with the Ancient Greeks are particularly good for this, since the filmmakers often misrepresent Hellenic culture so blatantly. Two such films  are the 2007 flick ‘300’, based on the Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, recreating with much artistic liberty the Spartans’ sacrifice at the Battle of Thermopylae, and 2004’s “Troy”, which is loosely based upon the seminal work of Western literature, Homer’s “The Iliad”.   Neither of these movies would be considered ‘great’ films.  They are not award winning; critics generally panned them; and, quite honestly, they are a bit tedious.  But, I love to use clips from these movies because of how they represent, and misrepresent, a central tenet of Ancient Greek civilization:  Masculinity and sexuality. 

When it comes to masculinity, “300” has the most disturbing inaccuracy.  One of the most memorable scenes of the 2007 film comes when a Persian messenger arrives at Sparta to threaten the Spartan king Leonidas (actually, there were two kings in Sparta), requesting submission to the invading Persian king, Xerxes.  Leonidas turns the messenger down, explaining why he can’t submit.  Leonidas needs to worry about the Spartan reputation.  He is especially concerned about this reputation since the Athenians have already rejected the Persian offer, and Sparta can’t be shown up by Athens.  Leonidas makes this clear to the Persian messenger by deriding the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’.   After poking fun at the weakness and perversity of Athens, Leonidas then provided a lesson for the Persian in noble Spartan toughness by yelling “THIS IS SPARTA” while kicking the man  down a bottomless pit. 

You can hear the disdain in Leonidas’ voice when he talks about those Athenians; those boy-lovers.  For a modern audience though, there is never any further dialogue to provide an explanation as to what the Spartan king means by this insult. Do the movie-makers believe their audience understands this reference? Or, were they simply using the words of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, since that line originates with it?  Perhaps the movie-makers and Miller think it is obvious; loving boys, and the evident Athenian propensity for it, clearly separates Athenians from the uber-masculine, uber-militant Spartans.  It is implied for the movie-goer that ‘boy loving’ is something strong, laconic, Spartan warriors just don’t do.  Leonidas loves his wife; end of story. WRONG!  As Professor Paul Cartledge has written, the Spartans were a bit notorious among fellow Greeks for loving boys. Reality is that ‘boy love’ was common within all the Greek world, and Sparta was no different.

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Let’s break away for just a minute  for some clarification.  The love of ‘boys’ sounds extremely disturbing to our 21st century ears. ‘Boys’ usually mean children to modern English speakers. But, we need to understand that ‘boys’ in the Ancient Greek context would be understood as young men.  Were they all consensual adults?  No, they were not, though no concept of ‘legal age’ existed for either men or women during this time period.  Furthermore, ‘love’ in the Greek context does not necessarily mean physical acts of love (though that was a possibility).  Loving a young man could mean wanting to be near him; teach him; protect him.  For the Greeks, love of young men was natural, and noble since the highest level of beauty was found in the physical body of a young, athletic male.   This was the Greek world; the Spartans were as much a part of it as the Athenians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “300” is not the only film to misrepresent Greek culture when it comes to “Greek Love.” In the 2004 film “Troy”, the relationship between Achilles BradTroya_N(Brad Pitt), and his young ‘nephew’ Patroclus is central to the story.  As Achilles refuses to fight the Trojans because of his petulant anger at King Agamemnon, impatient Patroclus rushes into the battle wearing Achilles’ armor.  Patroclus dies at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, and the killing of his ‘relative’ finally gets Achilles’ blood boiling.  Achilles desire for revenge, and his inevitable defeat of Hector is one of the central moments in Western literature.  Yet, the filmmakers of “Troy” completely misrepresent Homer’s vision. In the original epic, Patroclus and Achilles were not nephew and uncle. They were men who loved each other.   Perhaps not physically (or perhaps so), but they are as close as two men can be. The loss of his male love is what drives Achilles’ blood-lust. Family relations has nothing to do with it.

Our modern interpretations and misrepresentations of the past tell us a great deal about our own culture, but an analysis of why these films differ from Ancient Greek reality would be a whole other post.  However, when discussing this glossing over of ‘Greek Love’ in class the other week, one of my students made an astute comment.  She pointed out that the audience lining up to see ‘300’ and ‘Troy’ are usually composed of young men, and they may not feel comfortable with heroes being in love with other heroes.  I think she is dead-on, and her statement proves that young male masculinity in our society is similar, and at the same time, dissimilar to masculinity in Ancient Greece.  Much like the Ancients, youthful masculinity today is based upon aggression, and these films speak to that.  No need to change Sparta’s love of violence; Leonida’s love of victory; Achilles’ love of glory. But, unlike Ancient Greece, modern masculinity is based upon stoicism towards other males. Dudes don’t embrace each other, much less express the love they feel for each other in words.  It is no wonder movie-makers would be concerned that Achilles’ real relationship with Patraclus would be discomfiting for many  21st century young movie-going males. Heck, many of these ‘brahs’  won’t even sit next to each other in a crowded theater, leaving one seat in-between each wannabe Leonidas.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day on Facebook, a friend of mine posted a gun ad that had him a bit perturbed.  He commented on the ad, “Actual ad. Speaks for itself.”  It most definitely does. The ad is obviously speaking to a certain type of bushmaster_desktop_1024x768American who equates firearms with masculinity.  Nothing new here.  Masculinity in American culture (and many others, including Western Civilization generally) has long been identified with weapons.  Guns are just the latest incarnation. For some, guns equal aggression, and aggression is a predominately male dominion in these peoples’ minds. For others, guns equal protection of oneself and others, and protection is a predominately male dominion in these peoples’ minds. And for still others, guns may represent individuality and freedom.  The ability to control one’s own life and interests is best displayed by a holstered .45.

In post-Newtown America, guns are once again in the political forefront. Though it may not seem like it so far, this post is intended to focus upon more than simply the place of guns in American society. Instead, I believe that ad from my Facebook friend points to a troubling aspect of our culture that seems to be getting more pervasive as the years pass.  America has created what I am labeling a ‘culture of self-destructive masculinity’.  What I mean is that masculinity in our society is becoming portrayed more and more often with life-threatening danger.  This ad is just an extreme example.

I realize that the fact that I have equated guns with self-destructiveness would make many people very upset.  But, I intend this statement to be as non-controversial as possible. However you look at guns, there can be no denying that they are deadly weapons. Having a gun in your pocket increases your chances of being shot in the leg in the same way having a kitchen knife in your pocket would increase the likelihood of being stabbed.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Of course, knife manufacturers would usually not campaign on the ‘man card’ platform.  The fact that gun manufacturers felt this was an effective ad says a great deal about how we view masculinity.

KetelOneGentlemen2But, let’s look beyond guns because this culture of masculine self-destruction goes much further. How about alcohol?  Alcohol companies portray certain drinks as manly.  We know what alcohol does to the human body, but this is not supposed to be a concern for the ‘manly’ man.  Of course, the type of alcohol you drink is still based upon class distinctions, but each class has its masculine identity.  A certain vodka is manly.  Cheap beer is also manly.  One is for cultured barflies, the other for tailgating bros. But both are poisons that can cause self-destruction.

Manliness is also often defined by your vehicle.  Quickness, speed and power are portrayed as manly concerns.  Safety and dependability are not masculine.  I believe you can see the cult of self-destruction in the fact that for many, fast cars are not dangerous enough anymore; instead even more dangerous ultra-fast motorcycles are the symbol of manliness.  In this culture of self-destruction, protection becomes a weakness.  Helmets and seat belts are actually a burden that must be thrown off.

This culture of self-destructive manliness is noticeable in even more common arenas.  One is fast food.  The fast food industry fights against healthy foods by making our ingestion central to our gender, as this disturbing Burger King commercial illustrates.  And if fast food has become America’s meal, then football is America’s manly passion. The game is the epitome of manly interest.  It represents war for spectators in an age when war is never real (for average Americans at least).  Of course, football has always been about aggression; but we now know that football is not just ‘other’ destructive, it is also self-destructive.  Every year, ex-NFL players in their 40’s and 50’s can no longer walk, speak, or think because of the hits they have doled out to others.  Suicide and brain injuries are becoming common for ex-pros. But the ethos of manly self-destruction will not be done away with.  Bears Linebacker Brian Urlacher said just last month he would lie to cover up a concussion so he could stay in the game, or play the next week.  Self-destructive manliness epitomized.

Now the question that many may be asking: Is this new?  Or is this an aspect of history that has been with us for centuries?  I think it is new and it is old.  It is old in the sense that Western masculinity has always had a bit of self-destructiveness about it.  Two differences should be noted however; earlier self-destructiveness had traditionally been the realm of young men.  Also, this was not destructiveness for the sake of destructiveness.  Young men did not want to die in war.  They wanted to experience life. They wanted glory, nobility and heroism that purportedly came from the supposed selflessness that communal battle created.  What is new about this is that the self-destructiveness is now not aimed only at the young, but at all men.

But why is this?  That is the tough question. One reason may be that Americans have all been trained into believing that being young is ideal, and old age should be avoided at all costs. If it is self-destructive to be young, then the middle-aged want to reach this goal as well.  Additionally, this self-destructive masculinity seems to be spreading with America’s growing deification of libertarianism.  As American culture has become more and more individualized, direction or advice from others is often seen as overbearing and paternalistic.  Hence, helmet laws are despised.  Speed limits are increased.  Concealed weapons are normalized. Such libertarianism has become an aspect of almost all political hues in modern America.

How do we end this?  I don’t know.  Is it a fad?  I hope so.  Is it dangerous?  I think so.