Sunday, February 21, 2010

Figure Skating and Masculinity

A little context: I am writing this as I watch the Canada/U.S. hockey game ... nothing lacking in the masculinity department there. I am a huge Winter Olympics fan, and this year has been the best because I a working a DVR for the first time. I love figure skating ... men's, dance, pairs, women's, pretty much in that order. I watched pretty much every minute of the men's short and free programs. I thought Lycacek clearly won, Plushenko deserved the silver, but Takahashi was lucky to get the bronze. Lambiel, whom I have long admired, needed one more clean jump to move up; Takahashi free skate was athletic, fun, and lively, but hardly the classic grace and beauty of either Lambiel or Weir. Patrick Chan of Canada was overscored as a home ice kind of thing. I thought Johnny Weir was robbed of 5 points on the short and 10 on the free; if that's true, he should have the bronze. He certainly skated more cleanly than any of those in the 3, 4, and 5 spots, and he clearly beat Lambiel and Chan. All the results are here.

So that out of the way ... what is it with all the whining about masculinity and the quad. If Plushenko figures a quad equals the gold, then why don't they have a quad contest, sort of like ski jumping. Everybody gets two shots with marks and the best combined score wins.

But that is not what figure skating is. Rather, it is a combination of athleticism and aesthetics that is judged based on that. We all know that skating judging is notoriously corrupt ... and that in my view is why Weir placed as low as he did. efforts have been made to clean up the scoring, and I think those efforts are only half complete. Lots of people think that way, and some have taken this conjuncture as an opportunity to challenge, again, the basic nature of men's figure skating. Most famous is the great Canadian skater Elvis Stojko.

Stojko was a stirring skater, a short fireplug with a muscular athleticism combined with just enough grace to make him a champion. I never particularly favored his form of skating though. I always thought his arms slapped around like swords. But short guys have that problem in skating ... they lack those long lines that we equate with grace.

Stojko and others have argued that figure skating needs to be more masculine. A curious notion that accepts an unexamined notion of what constitutes masculine. Perhaps it would be more masculine if they wore work boots and skidded along the ice before jumping. Is that what they mean? More seriously, at least part of what they mean is that something should be taken away ... the grace, the artistry, those gestures associated with the feminine, certain kinds of costumes.

It's all nonsense. Evan Lycacek is consummately graceful and I see nothing about him that is not masculine. I'm convinced he is gay ... if there were a girlfriend or a wife, NBC would have been all over her like fur on Johnny Weir. He sounds gay to me too, but I confess that my gaydar is notoriously given to false positives and false negatives.

Johnny Weir is a big old queen, but again I do not see why his skating is not masculine just because it favors the graceful and the articulated.

Masculinity is always metaphoric. That is, the concept stands in for something else. That something else is a socially projected notion of what a man should be. For the Greeks and Romans, a man was someone who went to war; killing made the man. That has been true in military societies for millennia. It was true in our society within my lifetime. Increasingly there is a move to include some form of family-style sensitivity in the masculine ... how often do we have to listen to butch film stars ramble on about how fatherhood made them into a better person. The older form of masculinity didn't waste much time on becoming a better person through love and feeling. Nor does the Stojko school of figure skating.

The unspoken, and now oddly unspeakable, side of the masculinity trope is that gay is not seen as masculine. Nobody admits that Johnny Weir is gay, not even Johhny Weir. They call him "controversial". He is certainly, as I said, a big queen. And in his personal demeanor it would be hard to find something that we would ordinarily call masculine. Except he works out like a fiend, he suffers through pain, he marches past ridicule, he calls his own shots, and he doesn't give the time of day to those who revile him. Tough, strong, self-reliant.

Tough, strong, self-reliant. What's not masculine about that. But, of course, there are plenty of female athletes who are tough, strong, and self-reliant, and they'd punch you in the nose if you called them masculine.

Masculine as a concept is also always relative. There is no masculine without feminine; from another angle, there is no masculine without the effeminate. Curious that there is no masculine equivalent of effeminate ... and that goes to another issue in masculinity. In conventional sex roles, the crime of a woman is not to be subservient to a man; the crime of a man is not to dominate either women or men. Much, of course, was made of this during the sexual revolution, but a point was missed. So many men, I would argue the vast majority of men, live masculine lives of ethics and fairness and humanity. The flaw in the feminist view of the masculine was its glib acceptance of the stereotype proffered by the most extreme advocates of chauvinism. That is a flaw which the Stojkos repeat.

I am a gay man who like masculine gay men. I like the queens too, gawd noze. But I am filled with admiration for my brothers who pursue "masculine lives of ethics and fairness and humanity". What has that got to do with figure skating? Does Stephane Lambiel's well turned hand in mid-spin bespeak a lack of masculine ethics and fairness and humanity? On the contrary, I think it speaks to the fluidity of masculinity, to its possibilities, its limitlessness.

So many of the sports we consider masculine are made of grace and beauty. The ski jumping has these scrawny youth striking glorious poses against the wind. The long strides of a speed skater evoke ballet more than football. Why are these masculine, and not figure skating.

It all goes back to the metaphor, the relativity. If your masculine is John Wayne, skip the skating. If your masculine is Dan Choi or Evan Lycacek, enjoy it all.

Photos by Arod of signage around town. This post is not all I want it to be, but I have to get back to blogging. I have become quite a tweeter, and I enjoy the form enormously. But I have to carve out the time again to blog. So choke it out, spit it down ... is that too masculine?