I was at a bar recently which had an arcade machine with a punching bag. It would display a score related to how hard it was hit. Over the course of a couple hours I watched different groups of people using it, three in particular. What I found of interest was how they performed masculinity with regard to their perceptions of themselves and their perceptions of others perceptions of themselves. In essence, they were acting in accordance with patriarchal biopolitics.
What came to be of most interest was the second group, or more specifically an individual who parlayed with the machine on his own, seeking to perform masculinity so as to garner attention: as a point to start discussions/talking point to meet people. I will return to this…
The first group were two men, both quite muscular and appearing to be quite confident in their embodied masculinity: their dress, the mannerisms and interactions with each other, their tone and level of voice and the way they paraded themselves more generally. They sat adjacent to the machine, apparently unintentionally(?), and after a short period of time I overheard them comment and boast regarding the high ‘score’ on the machine. My interpretation was they the believer they could beat it.
After inserting the requisite coin, the punching bag descended and was promptly struck with more violence than I can recall witnessing: both the visual and audial. It was quite intimidating. Also more than a little disconcerting that someone would choose to install one of these machines: it’s presence certainly did not give of a vibe of ‘safe space’… Not surprisingly, the women I’m the bar situated themselves quite a ways from the machine, pretty much as far away as they physically could.
It was not long before both had received higher scores. One of them beating his own several times. Their performances might be described as grand, in the sense they intentionally made each throw of a punch (putting their weight behind it, literally) quite a spectacle. At one stage moving their own table (quite forcibly), another making contact with a nearby women with a level of (feigned?) concern—more on that later.
After knocking back a couple pints, their task of reinforcing their masculinity—both individually (in themselves) and for the presence of others—they made their exit.
Soon after another quite muscular male walked in an sat the the recently vacated table. He very quickly focused on the punching machine, the high score, and scanned the room for people more broadly. He proceeded to insert coin after coin seeking to claim the high score, and extol his masculine proficiencies. Whilst doing so he scanned the room, paying particular attention to the women in the room, and taking note of who was paying attention to his performance.
On receiving a very low score, which seemed to significantly under measure the violence of his efforts, he made a comment (half way between first and second circle) about the machine, seeking both an equal level of disbelief at the machines antics and speaking out as a very clear attempt to initiate contact with others in the venue. For me, sociologically, this was quite interesting. The feigned concern of the previous two men, mentioned above, had similar intentions, though with much less desire behind them. I use desire here intentionally, as this person was seeking to break the ice, of using the machine as a potential conversation starter, in much the same way a pool table is often used—albeit with a far different performativity.
He appeared to be seeking to meet others, not being the most proficient (or confident) in small talk for starting conversations with others. He did what many of us do, fall back on what we are comfortable with, what we perceive people/society expect of us. For him, is was this display of his masculinity, of public assuaging his prowess with the machine, which he hoped would open the door to meeting others, in particular women. This intersection of quite intimidating displays of violence, as a performance of masculinity, and utilising this as a means to meet others is what promoted me to reflect…
As with the preview group, he finished a couple pints and then left. His exit also included a little flair. Having been unsuccessful in attracting attention, there was more than a hint of his masculine prowess in his scanning of the room and his stride as he parted ways with the machine.
Soon after, a significant change in relations between men and machine occurred. A large group of uni students all emerged on the bar, wit around a dozen, mostly men, converging on the machine. The initiator of interacting with the machine was a man who exuded a white and class confidence (quite differently to all the previous men). He had on a salmon pink polo shirt, and wore it with the collar up. He preceded to seduce-pressure others to join with him in punching the machine. With the high score earlier set by men much larger than him, he did not come close to reaching the score, after numerous attempts.
What happened next as interesting. His masculinity someone threatened, his lack of performing to the standard previously set, he found a way to reassert and redisplay and re-assert (for/to himself at least) his confidence. He cajoled the women in the group to have a go punching the machine. He as quite confident that they would score lower than he did, thus positioning himself at least above someone on this score of masculine prowess. He also seemed to use this a means of fostering a loss of group interest in the machine, and a way to focus on something else than his apparent lack of masculine prowess.
Wouldn’t it have been interesting if one of the women received a higher score?
In all, over the space of a couple hours three quit different intersections and performances of masculinity. The first two playing off against each other (and the was a tension given that one constantly achieved higher scores). The second using it as a means (unsuccessfully) to meet others, based on his own perceptions of masculine performativity and it’s social value. The third, the approach of a class confident male after failing to display masculinity to the desired level (his perception of what others would value)…
The bar was The Stone Roses in Edinburgh, however I have seen similar intra/interactions in (and out of) bars and pubs in many places (and different western countries)