Paradoxes, crisis of masculinity

The rise in (commercial) popularity of mixed martial arts style (blood) sports has been a s sporadic and peripheral interest for around a decade. In particular as I interchanged living in North America and Australia. I watched debates in Canada in the context of attempts to hold events there, and more-recently Australia. My reflections on masculinity, in particular crises of masculinity, is where this interest is mostly situated. This post is not necessarily a coalescing of thoughts, rather prompted by a recent Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event in Melbourne recently. It received significant coverage, as being one of the first events in Australia (the first in Melbourne), and the headline fight was between two women — including a person some have labelled as the most talked about (female) athlete in the world.

The UFC event in Melbourne generated significant media attention — even in the wake of wholesale media coverage of the murder of more than 100 people in Paris, and an almost complete lack of coverage of a similar massacre in Beirut the previous day. Mainstream coverage included some debate and criticism. Whether the UFC is a ‘sport’ — and the level of violence is entails, requires, promotes — was a foundation of much of the debate (i.e. how appropriate is it). Women being the fighters was of course a substantive element, itself reflective of deeply engrained patriarchal assumptions.

On the question of violence, it is a violent blood sport. I doubt anyone can make a convincing argument otherwise. A key aim is to hurt your opponent, the injure them just enough/so badly they cannot continue. To be critical as such is not to discount the level of skill required. To be able to injure someone as such does require some skill. Many mixed martial artists are very skilled at doing so. I have heard this as a basis for peoples interest, why they watch. They like to see — and in some ways celebrate — the skill that the martial artist’s showcase.

By way of analogy, whilst living in North America, I heard similar assertions from numerous people about ice hockey. In particular, the body checking. Body checking is basically when you line up a player from the opposing team and should charge them with significant force to unbalance them. Theoretically, at least, aim is to get to puck away from them. Some players are celebrated for their ability to ‘check’a player so skilfully and violently that they are significant injured (i.e. concussion). I use violent and skilful intentionally here. To successfully check somebody requires significant skill. It is almost always quite violent as well.

As with debates about body checking in hockey (i.e. should it be allowed, or banned), there are similar about the UFC and mixed martial arts more broadly. For me, I did not see a social value for such events. There are arguments that it is the ultimate masculine sport, as the ‘u’ in UFC makes clear. Even that is a misnomer. The events are significantly managed and regulated (to reduce the potential for serious injuries — fighters have died in the early days of events). Each ‘fight’ has a referee, and a number of types of strikes are prohibited.

To get to the crux of my reflections, there are two intersecting themes: media coverage in the wake of the Melbourne event, and a crisis of masculinity in and around the UFC more broadly. Media coverage was significant in the lead up — seeking to generate interest for this ‘tourism’ initiative*, and as a result of the brutality of the climax of the event: Holly Holm (the challenger) knocked out — I could say brutally knocked out, though all knockouts are brutal, are they not — the champion Ronda Rousey with a kick the neck/side of the head. Rousey was hospitalised as a result.

It was Holm’s response to her (brutal) knockout of Rousey, which did not seem to generate much media commentary — not that I looked for it — that piqued my interest. In short, Holm displayed what appeared to be genuine concern for the wellbeing of Rousey. I have also noted this in the actions of some of the men as well — which in itself reflects the instability and paradoxical nature of masculinity (and socially constructed humanity).

After expressing her (significant) concern for Rousey — most visibly in her body language, facial expressions, and repeated attempts to approach the downed and visibly injured opponent — Holm went on the emotionally talk about path to becoming the world champion. She made repeated references to love as the defining feature and foundational element of getting her to where she was. Love as a foundation for brutality, for violence against others to get ahead.

It is interesting how deference to love sits with the type of masculinity the UFC seeks to highlight as integral to its image. This is not necessarily new, as (male) boxers have often evoked love as a driver.** A number of men in the UFC have also displayed concern when injuring others in a fight.

The other expression of the paradox, and crisis, of masculinity in the UFC — directly tied to relations of capital and neoliberalism — is how men have responded to losses. The UFC’s flagship reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter is packed with examples (perhaps someone has or will produce a showreel?) of men struggling to come to terms with an apparent failure to succeed: choking on words and brought to tears in post-fight interviews.

In short, we have a women brutally injuring another and expressing significant concern, almost looking to the audience to see if such expressions of concern — in many ways a disavowal of the masculinity promoted/enshrined/required in the UFC — were allowed. Yet not so damaged that she can still express love in the paradox. This is contrasted with men who struggle with expressions of concern, and perhaps more-so with the burden of apparent ‘failure’, and the neoliberal crisis this ensues. Sat alongside a crisis of masculinity expressed in choking on words and being brought to tears in trying to comprehend and come to terms with such failure…

* Gate takings for the event were reported as being $9million.

** The Australian boxer Jeff Fenech’s‘I love you’se all’ became the title of a 1993 book and 2008(?) reality TV series.


Postscript

A small — directly linked — segue, and one I continue to reflect on in its broader sense…

The US Marines have sponsored The Ultimate Fighter on numerous occasions, which is indicative of the hypermasculine image the UFC and Marine core seeks to evoke. Paradoxaically(?) and in many ways tragically, there is a crisis in masculinity in the armed forces. The book and documentary Restrepo (clearer in the documentary, as I do not think the author realises or understand it) and the follow-up documentary Korengal provide clear examples: the (all male) soldiers struggling to come to terms with the loss of friends in war — again, choking on words and brought to tears — and reflecting on the devastating impacts of PTSD. All the while situated in a narrative of bravery and sacrifice, intermingled with naive and child like activities embraced as escapism and avoidance.

an ongoing, troubling, journey

Over recent months I have reflected on the musings penned and shared here, the significant periods without words, and how life has intersected. These periods have reasons, and before I
ponder these it is the content and approach-style of what I have shared—and how these have transformed over time—over the last ten years which have prompted some thoughts.

Contrasting with a prescribed aim of my space here — reflecting on intersecting oppressions, life experiences and thoughts on appropriate-effective responses — I have noted in the collection of musings an array of contradictory elements. In particular the language embodies — rooted in hegemonic masculinity that is often unmarked — key societal aspects I seek to challenge. The language and tone in anyways illustrate my own unquestioned (at the time) manifestations  of patriarchal confidence and arrogance. The language and tone is at times (overly?) aggressive and adversarial, even when I have sought to expose and challenge this in others.

I do hope, and can see indicators of this, that as I have continued to reflect on life, love and all things in between in a world mediated by capital that the content and approach-style of my musings have become more aligned with the vision of an egalitarian society across species, gender and ability — as my experiences and active attempts to grow as a person continue.

My outlook is of course shaped by my experiences, and these are responsible for what I pen and share, and at the same time the periods without words. I have had a long history of precarious employment. At times, some very enjoyable periods. I have had rolling contracts for three years now, without any periods of unemployment between (and recently transitioned to an ‘ongoing’ role). I find myself in the position of having secure employment for the first time in my life, albeit in a role that is not something I am overly passionate about — like a vast number of others.

I find moments and spaces where I am able to promote and achieve socially-positive outcomes, amongst a milieu of bureaucracy and redicularity common to many roles. The milieu — alongside time put to community work and other activities undertaken in seeking to find employment more aligned with my values — is largely responsible for these periods.

With developing experience, I am creating-finding more spaces for life in work. In part, the wellbeing which emerges are planting seeds as well as a hope for emergent personal and (however small) social benefits of sharing my musings…

the wondrousness of a smile

My friend Sherbs time came to an end today, after living with breast cancer for a few years. This has struck me in myriad ways, some quite unexpected and at times a little overwhelming —irrespective that it was expected any day, after her move into hospice care a week or so ago. I am struggling a little with words, and some feel just wrong. For example, in trying to describe Sherbs’ wonderful smile — which light up rooms, what comes to mind is ‘infectious’…

In part, an awareness of how I need to work on processing aspects of life (and death) has come to the fore again. These words here are an attempt to reflect on this moment, provide a (future) time capsule perhaps. Be a part of my process, and perhaps in some small way provide some insight for others??

I have long thought that in the wake of death, what transpires is much more about those still living than the one whose time has passed. Family, friends, associates. This is very clear to me today, and this time I am seeing it in my own responses — and find it a little uncomfortable as how I am reflecting is very much about me, my recollections, my own wellbeing. I have felt the need to pen some words, even though doing so is very much about me.

Quite a few people are openly posting their thoughts on social media, sharing their condolences, their memories. In coming days and weeks, I am sure I will reflect on this more, from a different space, a different context, perhaps with a contrasting interpretation. Whilst such public displays are not something I engage in, the insight and perspective I have has imbued an ability to reflect and perhaps understand a little similar insistences I have come across that I am quite removed from. Another plus, is that someone has referred to this person smile as ‘gleaming’ which is a much more apt, and less ‘wrong’ descriptor.

A lot of pictures have been shared, many I have seen before, which reminds us all of our memorable experiences with Sherbs. I went back through my own photo’s this morning looking for pictures — in part to help with recollections and memories, and to re-stimulate my feelings and connections. I want to dig a l little deeper here, not to reciprocate, enunciate or provide my own account of how wonderful, selfless, and inspiring Sherbs and my moments with her memories are. That said, in my searching I found quite a lovely one photo — and times like this remind me of the value of having them (I have far from anywhere near enough). It very clearly reminds me of the day it was taken, and all of the other good times we had. What we shared, experienced (I did not take the photo, and can’t recall who did).

When I first heard that Sherbs’ had cancer — the first of my friends (in contrast to family members’ friends) — I did not know how to respond. It was not a lack of words, rather just not knowing how. My experiences growing up with a father who did not seem emotionally available and relatively introverted when it comes to feelings may be a factor here. It may also be more broad, existing in a world where men are consciously and subconsciously reminded that emotions are a feminine thing, not something for real men; that men can’t reach out to other men for emotional support. These sit with stark contrast to the many men I know who have moved beyond such limitations and have developed quite constructive emotional capacities. My lack of process is still evident.

By way of example, I was at work when I that Sherbs had passed. When a shared this with a colleague, I found myself fighting back tears and hiding my face so as not to be seen to be emotionally impacted in any way. Even following this awareness of my friends and colleagues, I did not say anything more for a kind of fear that I would not be able to contain my emotions, that tears would flow. And where I work is filled with many wonderful and supportive people. Governmentality  at its finest!

As Sherb’s has lived with cancer over the last few years, I found myself not reaching out to her — when she needed it. I felt did not know how. I felt I did not know what to say. I felt II did not know how to be. Even in the last weeks, and especially when she was moved into hospice, I continued to struggle, to have doubts. I can’t see this as anything but selfish in impact, which makes it even more difficult to process.

Shortly before Sherbs was diagnosed, I had moved (back) to the other side of the world. In some ways this made it both harder and easier to process, to avoid having to process. I could not physically be there, to visit, to create and share memories. I think this would have been much easier (for me), just the physical presence. It does not require words in the same way as other forms of communication. Sometimes our body language conveys what we cannot (emotionally) through words. Our body can reveal joy, pain, sorrow. Often when we don’t want it to. Sometimes when we need it to.

I am running out of words, partly due to being distracted by others whilst trying to put these words down on paper — given that I am ‘at work’ and shirking my responsibilities. As small, potentially inconsequential and perhaps broadly unread as these musings may be, they seem in this moment to have more value than mundane and even somewhat valuable work tasks…


postscript

I have, and continue to have, similar struggles in reaching out to a friend living with breast cancer for the last 2 years. Only yesterday I crossed paths with their partner and one of their daughters. I think it is the (differently) visible pain in their bodies as they survive through this everyday that impacts me most. Which reinforces  my apparent inability to relate, to be able to (comfortably) reach out. I still relish and look forward to the moments I share with them… perhaps I will pen reflections on those another time.