Today I want to introduce you to Nadia Bulkin - I stumbled across her post written for Women in Horror Month, and it resonated so much, that I looked her up and reached out via email pretty much before the coffee kicked in. Nadia writes what she calls 'social-political' horror (if you're wondering what that genre tastes like, try Jordan Peele's movie Get Out), or 'scary stories about the world we live in.' Truly great stuff!
Most people I meet don’t take me for a die-hard sports fan. With my Converse All-Stars and combat boots, I look like I’m barely keeping the Hot Topic at bay. But I love caring too much about things that don’t matter; I love the drama, the ambition, the adrenaline, the hyper-realism, the goldmine of cultural symbolism. In the thick of academic burnout, I actually considered abandoning political science to work for ESPN.
My mom got me into sports; my dad was too busy watching politics. I’ve been watching tennis since I was four, figure skating since I was nine, and American college football since we moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, “a drinking town with a football problem,” when I was eleven. I’ve got an enormous competitive streak, so I can get into any sport if I’m convinced to care (admittedly, I struggle with golf). Volleyball, gymnastics, baseball, soccer, basketball, speed skating, track, diving, snowboarding, hockey, boxing: if there’s a winner and a loser, I can get caught up.
And let me tell you: it’s hard out here for a bitch.
I don’t just mean the hellscape that is the internet. I mean the ongoing pay discrimination scandal in American soccer. I mean the fact that an alleged rapist and confirmed misogynist still gets invited to elementary schools where he can silence little girls, or the fact that a goalie who had his ex-girlfriend fed to dogs is now out of prison and being paid to play soccer. I mean Ricardo Mayorga saying to Oscar De La Hoya, “You're going to be my bitch in my bed anytime I want you. I hate bitches and I'm going to make you my little bitch.” Watching sports while female is an exercise in choosing to look the other way.
The fact is, all sport is bloodsport; yes, even the ones with sequins. And the scent of all that blood and copper has done a bang-up job summoning the demon of toxic masculinity, which demands that men be violent, aggressive, unemotional except when enraged, and that women, well… “[w]omen were no longer people,” as Dick Hayhurst writes in a first-hand account of sexual exploitation in minor league baseball.
Toxic masculinity manifests in multiple forms. Let’s start with a very “feminine” sport.
As athletic pageantry, figure skating is built around extremely tightly-controlled gender norms. For the men, it means fighting tooth and nail against the reputation that theirs is “the gayest sport.” There’s a very thin line between “acceptable” and “too gay,” and male skaters take great pains not to cross it, lest they be labeled “not family-friendly” and cut from Stars on Ice. Brian Joubert sued an ex-girlfriend who claimed he had used her as a beard. Closeted skaters police each other. For the women – sorry, ladies – it means a strong advantage for graceful, emotive skaters who rate high on “artistic” skills, like Kim Yuna and Michelle Kwan, and a lot of eating disorders (Jenny Kirk claims 85% of the field has had one). Check out Sarah Marshall’s incredible feature for The Believer, “Remote Control,” on narratives of femininity, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding.
Now let’s look at a very “masculine” sport. This seems almost unfair.
The hot question at the start of every college football season is “Who raped somebody over the summer, and will they still play?” In 2017, we’ll get to find out whether Baylor will be punished for the brothel/rape-camp Art Briles and Ken Starr were running. Don’t hold your breath. I cling to the knowledge that at least the Huskers’ coach has seen the error in his rape-covering-up ways, and then occasionally I’m like, “Jesus, this is my standard?” I stick to college, though, because the NFL doesn’t even pretend to care. Of course there’s a price to be paid for having a sport built around watching violent, armored men beat each other up. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which the NFL has spent years and billions trying to hide, is toxic masculinity taken to its nasty conclusion – your brain is being smashed into oblivion, and you can’t ask for help because real men gotta be tough. See Aaron Leibovitz’s “Real Men Quit Football,” on The Cauldron.
But this isn’t even my final form!
Tennis is less “masculine” or “feminine” than just “neurotic,” a sport for tigers that pace in cages. Its scandals are equal-opportunity – match-fixing, substance abuse. Violence is limited to the odd locker room “scuffle” (some half-hearted grappling, perhaps some aggressive standing). There are no prominent out players on the men’s ATP tour, but top players insist it wouldn’t be an issue. Many were raised by domineering, abusive parents, but the only one recently accused of spousal violence is retired WTA player Martina Hingis, who had her ex-husband beaten with a DVD player.
But as one expects from a sport that values tradition, there’s a lot of policing of gender norms. The toughest enforcers are ATP players who, hoping to ward off comments that they play a non-contact “sissy sport,” are eager to prove what tough ballers they are – often by punching down women. Novak DjClick to replace anchor textokovic doesn’t believe female players should receive equal pay; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pities the emotionally unstable ladies who have to play through hormones; Sergiy Stakhovsky fears the secret lesbians of the WTA; Janko Tipsarevic just hates women’s tennis; Justin Gimelstob just hates women. Commentators and organizers engage in idiotic, racist criticism of the Williams sisters while putting pretty blondes on big courts and asking them to twirl their skirts.
The men, too, have their burden to bear. Toxic masculinity demands that the men of the ATP be macho the way Rafael Nadal is, unquestionably, macho. 99.9% of the top players faithfully follow the rules, huffing onto court like bulls instead of toreadors, entering violent fugues – smashed rackets, torn shirts, bloody foreheads – that call to mind arcane berserker rituals. They scream at their coaches and relatives. They do full-body fist-pumps and egg on the crowd and jeer each other from across the net to compensate for the fact they can’t clamber over the tape and punch each other, though they can sometimes use the ball. They’re Warriors of the World, all grunts and growls and glares and fuck-you gestures and oo-rah. “I have no interest in appearing nice,” says Ernests Gulbis, who isn’t very good but gets the zeitgeist, “On the court, it is a war.”
Except the main character of men’s tennis for the past decade and a half missed the memo.
If it’s not one violation of the masculine order with Roger Federer, it’s another. His courtside demeanor is best-defined by Julian Barnes: “a lack of all that strutting male bullshit.” His balletic game floats instead of grinds. He’s suspiciously prone to giggling. He wears white blazers at Wimbledon. His hair is always perfectly-coiffed. His monogram is this swirly golden crap. He’s practically coquettish as the Moet & Chandon global brand ambassador. He’s “pussy-whipped” by a “ball-busting” wife who looks like any other girl-next-door and wears Eurotrash sweaters to his matches. What kind of Greatest Of All Time isn’t married to a supermodel, anyway? Sad!
Most unforgivable of all: he cried on the podium after losing the 2009 Australian Open. And I mean copious tears. Every ESPN replay of that infamous, uncontrolled, uncomfortable “God-it’s-killing-me” cry was another nail in the coffin of tennis’ quest to be taken seriously as a sport for Men. You can imagine the profane vitriol in the hellscape, the hate that rained down for months after this display of emotion, pain, and weakness: “Your sport’s marquee player is a CRIER???”
And so, men’s tennis was destroyed, and Roger Federer was shamed into retirement.
This “moistened bint setting back the cause of manhood fifty years” (per GQ’s Andrew Corsello) continued to win the ATP Fan Favorite award every year. This “blubbering, crybaby sissy boy” (per Don Imus) went on to be ranked the second-most trusted and respected person on Earth behind Nelson Mandela. Even without playing half of 2016, he had the highest brand value of any athlete. “Roger’s hot,” Serena Williams slyly noted, six months after the Great Cry of 2009. “But he’s married, so…”
What? Is everyone taking crazy pills?
Possibly. Or maybe, people respond to his “different model of maleness,” to quote the FT’s Janan Ganesh. When Roger won the Australian Open in 2010, tears welled from runner-up Andy Murray’s eyes. “I can cry like Roger,” Andy quipped, “It’s just a shame I can’t play like him.”
Maybe we need alternative modes of masculinity. Different types of heroes. Maybe Tiger Woods should have had another way to respond to the pain of his father’s death than trying to become Sex God Rambo. As Wright Thompson shows, that little adventure cost Tiger everything – his family, his reputation, the rest of his healthy years on the PGA tour. That’s toxic masculinity.
And maybe there’s life beyond it.
Nadia has had a number of stories published since 2008. I dunno about you, but I want a long, dark, social-political novel. You should check out her other well researched and thoughtful writing, be it fiction or non-fiction
or read her story 'Seven Minutes in Heaven', recently reprinted in Nightmare Magazine (this story was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award 2015).
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