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.

oblivious self importance and the cult of celebrity

My title here conflates two things, whereas my thoughts are about these as quite distinct — coming out of attending a well funded and institutionally supported conference (following on from a more grass roots one without any funding or institutional support beyond the participants themselves).

I am reflecting on two different people speaking early on. One being an organiser of the event, another a keynote speaker.

The former felt a need to talk about themselves, how many of these conferences they have attended, how they had been involved, what they had done in being so involved, what they had achieved. It seemed they were quite oblivious to the implications of such (public) statements as an address to the audience. Were they seeking some form of recognition? Did they feel a need to self assure themselves of their own value and importance? If the latter, there are bigger social issues at stake (i.e. what have they experienced/suffered through to lead them to the feeling this way and a need to do so?). Is this emanating from a position of privilege, which is often the location from which obliviousness it rooted?

These are difficult questions to address, especially without a specific awareness of the context from which they emerged. They can be rooted in destructive experiences, and can lead to their own somewhat destructive implications. In trying not to be disappointed in the actions of this specific person—given their position of privilege and obliviousness, and my experiences with them over a couple of years—I am finding it a little difficult to emphasise with them…

Empathy is the common thread here, which was the focus of the keynote speaker, a well know and respected author about the lives of animals. As I sit listening they are quite engaging and have developed communicative ability. In short, quite a good amount of the gift of the gab.

I would not go so far (being perhaps overly critical) and pull in the cliché that they love the sound of their own voice. In mentioning one of their well know books, in what came across more to indicate surprise at how it seemed to be interesting to people (‘sold 1 million copies in the USA’), the subtext being they are significantly well off (understatement). To give this some context, they are also the guest speaker at the conference dinner, with tickets being $90—far from accessible and inclusive.

In the context of all of this, I sat there listening to some interesting ideas, and conveyed in similarly interesting ways: emanating from a self-assuredness and self-confidence. They are have put significant time and thought into these ideas.

Whereas I don’t think there is an oblivious self-importance, how much self-importance is there? Bringing this back to the cult of celebrity (another cliché), where is the intersection? The latter is about perception. Yet how much of this emerges from the former?

To return to the first speaker, and to bring gender in, is the first speaker’s (a woman) inferences of self-importance part of this trajectory (and the context of patriarchy—the keynote speaker was male) and how much is it rooted in (class, race/ethnicity) privilege?


as a side note, the first questions at the end of the keynote—from women—started with an explicit attempt to frame their own (self) importance through an outline of what they had achieved. Such statements are common in academic environments/at academic events. Which opens up a lot of further questions about status, privilege, class, obliviousness and arrogance… and of course patriarchy-gender

‘the happiest angry band in the world’ & everyday patriarchy

I attended a local, annual gig which raises funds for suicide prevention recently. I had not been to the show for a few years due to living elsewhere, being too ‘busy’, and my time being taken up with other projects.

Where I live has a long history of progressive politics rooted in a worker struggles, a longstanding immigrant community and campaigns for justice. The music scene here reflects, embraces, and in many has ways provided leadership for decades. This was again clear in the festival, the bands, the discussions and the audience.

Woman continue to play a key role in organising and running the event, with very clear and explicit support from men. There bands who played included a mix of genders, including the normative male only bands, and some long established and well-respected women only groups. Alongside the focus of festival, it was one of the latter that I most wanted to see—having not been to one of their shows for several years. The title of this post is a reference to them, and provides some subtext to what spurred me to pen some words.

The gig ran from mid afternoon through to late evening. I arrived mid ay through, with four bands still to play. First up was a group of men mostly playing Ramones covers. Most of them were wearing wigs, and their performance in many ways embodied the music ever scene: one that does not take itself too seriously, and at the same time comes together on key issues in the community like depression and suicide prevention.

The next bad to play was the one I most wanted to see, and all women three-piece — and I was more attentive They might well be the happiest angry band in the world. Their lyrics and style embody riot girl, and those I know personally live that ethos their everyday: radical and progressive politics and attitudes towards each other and the community. They have a good fun playing their shows, which we might consider essential given how long they have been together.

What specifically spurred me to write is the audience. As they played, the floor was a mix of men and women, all respectful of each other’s space. Right in front of the stage, women were dominant and their space was not intruded on in anyway. There was a clear embodiment here of progressive ideals, and an obvious awareness and comfort amongst the women who came to the show and were enjoying themselves. At the time I did not really pay too much attention.

The next band was 50/50 male female, and there was a similar representation on the floor. Again I did not pay too much attention. It was when the following band started playing that my non-noticing—as a benefit of my lived privilege as a man—became much more exposed. They had an all male line up. Noteworthy here is that also embodied the progressive politics and values that was the foundation of the event, and the broader community in attendance. What was different was the floor. Right in front of the stage was not only dominated by men, it was exclusively male.

I need to stress here that I did not note any aggressive or abusive intent or actions towards women. Rather there was an absence of the comfortableness I had witnessed only an hour prior with an all-women band on stage. For me it is not the overt impacts of patriarchy and sexism that are the most insidious. It is the everyday, the ones we (mostly men) don’t notice so much that require our attention. The example here illustrates how they permeate into progressive spaces. It is not in the actions of men that these were visible (to me), rather the response, perhaps preemption of women in not being willing to be in front of the stage for an all male be band—irrespective of the bands politics, and that of the audience—that are most telling.

I think men need to step back, (perhaps) become a little uncomfortable and embrace uncomfortableness in these spaces. Reflect on and reduce their presence. To make spaces for others—on their own terms.