Rant 31 March 2006: Putting the butch in butch up: fitness and anxious masculinity

If one follows the popular press, the fitness fora, and the so-called blogosphere, it would seem that masculinity is in an unprecedented state of crisis. The list of infractions reads like a Freudian wet dream: hordes of fashionable hommasexshuls with tiny fruity dogs forcing otherwise au naturel men to brush their teeth, tuck their shirts in, and peel the week-old pizza slices out of their bellybuttons; castrating mothers and wives; a large Teutonic Nanny State wearing sensible shoes and making bad boys wear helmets while their soft squashy bodies hurtle through space at 150 kph; an emasculated nation still reeling from the forcible penetration of its innocence (And, according to Maclean’s magazine, the Canadian Tire Guy. But we all hate him and his smarmy shilling of his new power washer anyway).

In fitness terms, the masculinity crisis occurs at several levels, some of them contradictory: the brute strength guys disparage the “bodybuffers”, while the bodybuffers disparage the “pencil necks”; the guys training for mass rip on the guys training for strength; the guys lifting barbells dump on the guys lifting kettlebells; the guys training with the new technological gadgets regard old-school trainers as a bunch of shambling Cro-Magnon morons; the weight trainers think endurance athletes are wimps and the endurance athletes say the weight trainers are so muscle-bound they can’t wipe their asses, and so forth. Running through this divergent collection of j’accuse is a “lady doth protest too much” level of angstiety over male weakness.

As one writer states in his essay, “The Pussification Of The Western Male”, “We have become a nation of women.” (In case you need assistance understanding this, dear reader, being a woman is a bad thing. Try to keep up.) The author enumerates a variety of faults of Western culture, mostly involving imaginary scenarios, Cheerios commercials and sitcoms, and provides statements such as “Real men, on the other hand, have big ####### mean-ass dogs.” My first question is: if this is such a real man thing, why does he write ####### instead of “fucking”? My second question is: this guy is pissed about women getting the vote 80 years after it happened? This is like what they call Northern Irish Alzheimers: You forget everything but the grudge.*

what makes a man, is it the power in his hands?
is it his quest for glory?
Give it all you’ve got, to fight to the top.
so we can know your story.

now you’re a man, a man, man, man.
now you’re a man, a manly, manly man.
a man, man, man.
you are now a man, you’re a man.
now you’re a man.

[Guitar solo.]


what makes a man, is it the woman in his arms?
just cause she has big titties?
or is it the way, he fights every day?
No, it’s probably the titties.

now you’re a man, a man, man, man.
now you’re a ma-man, a ma-ma-ma-ma-man
now you’re a man, M-A-N man, man.
man, man, maan.
now you’re a man.

–Title track, Orgazmo

In 1985, Australian sociologist RW Connell and colleagues introduced the notion of “hegemonic masculinity” to describe “configurations of practice that are accomplished in social action… ‘Masculinity’ represents not a certain type of man bur rather, a way that men position themselves through discursive practices.” (2005: 836, 841). In non-academese, “masculinity” is defined as things that people do within social situations, rather than who they are. One could be said to be “performing”, “practicing” or “doing” masculinity. The point is that masculinity, like femininity, is doing rather than being. It is important to differentiate the idea of “masculinity” from “men”. “Masculinity” is a set of ideas and practices that have cultural currency at a historical period. The “hegemonic” part refers to the dominance of one cultural ideal or practice over others: at any one time, although masculinities are in fact highly diverse, there will be a general set of masculinities that are preferred or more valued. These forms of masculinity are understood to be dominant over femininities as well as other, less valued forms of masculinity.

It is also important to point out that masculinity, like femininity, has a history and what it means to be a “good man” or a “good woman” changes with time, circumstance, and individual characteristics. A century ago, many ideals of womanhood would be almost unrecognizable to the airbrushed and collagened clones that march across magazine covers, or the vapid, politically paranoid “soccer moms” whose habitus consists of the few cubic feet of an SUV’s interior. For example, the 1921 address of U.S. President Warren G. Harding includes a vision of women as workers and nation builders: “With the nation-wide induction of womanhood into our political life, we may count upon her intuitions, her refinements, her intelligence, and her influence to exalt the social order. We count upon her exercise of the full privileges and the performance of the duties of citizenship to speed the attainment of the highest state.” Likewise, a century ago, working-class men were seen as emasculated because of their subordinate relationship to capital (i.e. the fact that they laboured for a wage at the behest of factory owners and industrialists); it was middle-class white men who defined masculinity as a combination of domesticity and economic power (non-Anglo men were largely beneath notice except as occasional threats to white womanhood). Today people often hearken back to working man as an icon of “true” masculinity. A few decades ago, a manly man was a well-dressed man who was never without his hat; today it is seen as slightly twee to care about matching belt and shoes (Michael Jordan’s sartorial splendour notwithstanding). In some cultures, it is the presumed differences between males and females that are seen to be of prime importance in defining masculinity; in other cultures it is the differences between children and adults. Thus, masculinities not only change over time and depend on different things for social intelligibility, but at any one moment there are likely a number of competing and varied masculinities – as Joseph Roisman points out, such contradictory and convergent masculinities date back at least as far as fourth-century Athens and no doubt earlier .

French Revolution-era military uniforms, mid 1700s

Masculinities can be thought of as “projects, and a masculine identity as always being a provisional accomplishment within a life course.”(843) That is to say, one is always working on one’s masculinity, repeating it, refining it, and reiterating it, as masculinity is rarely content to rest on its laurels. As Stephen J. Ducat writes in The Wimp Factor, “For many men, masculinity is a hard-won, yet precarious and brittle psychological achievement that must be constantly proven and defended.”(1) He adds that while the circumstances provoking anxiety over emasculation appear to be external (e.g. queer cowboys, Hilary Clinton, latte drinking, etc.), “the actual threat that many men experience is an unconscious, internal one: the sense that they are not ‘real’ men.”(1)

Old joke: A guy in a bar turns to the man sitting next to him, and says, “I built this bar with my own hands. Do they call me John the Carpenter? No. I tilled the soil with the sweat of my brow. Do they call me John the Farmer? No.” He leans in closer to his listener: “But you fuck one goat…”

Culturally speaking, it appears that masculinity, like carpentry and farming, can be undone by a single goatfucking.

What people “do” is constrained by social rules, “by embodiment, by institutional histories, by economic forces, and by personal and family relationships.”(843) We are not fully free to choose our identities and behaviour – we must operate within the limits of our surroundings and our bodies, and relate to other people in our lives. We have to make ourselves coherent to others. Membership has its privileges, but also its price.

This cost-benefit sets up a complicated relationship between people and cultural ideals. While hegemonic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is dominant and has the most social value, very few men measure up to the hegemonic ideal. Indeed, it is the anxiety, powerlessness, and other negative consequences provoked by not “measuring up” that may encourage men to participate in a system that does not always reward them in the end. While men may participate in hegemonic masculinity, they may also resist it. However, the alternative is not always an option given that the costs of non-participation can be very high. As Connell (2005) writes, sustaining gender relations “requires the policing of men as well as the exclusion or discrediting of women.”(844) Punishments for not measuring up can include social ostracism, shame, verbal abuse, or in extreme cases of violence towards perceived gender deviance, death. In most cases the consequences are fairly quotidian; nevertheless they may be deeply felt and mark the psyche intensely. As Ducat notes, being a man is not a pathological state; instead, it is the “psychological cost of developing a male identity in a culture that disparages the feminine” and more importantly “insists that the boundaries between masculine and feminine remain unambiguous and impermeable.”(5) In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins asked why a woman can’t be more like a man; it appears that the real issue for masculinity is not being a woman.

In late February I attended a CST training workshop. There were 15 men and me. When one is the only female in a group, especially a group typically defined by masculine characteristics (e.g. strength, power, mastery of physical skills), one of three things happens:

  1. the woman is accepted into the group after the other people decide that she belongs;
  2. the woman is rejected by the group after they decide she does not belong; or experiences small reminders that she is not welcome and not one of the boys;
  3. the woman is largely ignored, her presence neither of interest nor of value to the group.

After a short period of figurative butt sniffing, the guys decided I was OK and went with option a. During a break early in the day, we were given an opportunity to look at the clubbells that the instructor had assembled. I’d seen but never lifted a 45-pound “Bruiser” CB before. Nobody seemed brave enough to touch it. I figured I had nothing to lose – perhaps they expected me to be a weakling anyway – and I was curious, so I grabbed it, and tried a swing with it. I (barely) managed to swing it upright in a messy two-hand clean, holding it way up the handle with both hands, because it was both damn heavy and too tall for my stumpy self to swing properly at full length. Focused on moving the weight, it wasn’t till after I was done that I realized I was standing in the middle of a semicircle of men, with 15 pairs of eyes riveted on this phenomenon. Oh great, I thought, they think I’m a wuss because I can’t swing this damn thing properly. I was mistaken: over lunch, one of the guys enthused, “Man, when you picked up that Bruiser, everyone was like holy shit!”

“Well, I couldn’t really swing it”, I replied.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “You tried it. Other women wouldn’t have tried it.”

It dawned on me: they didn’t care about “measuring up”; what mattered to them was giving it a shot. The fact that I was there, taking my carpet burns rolling around on the floor looking like a jackass while learning the exercises along with everyone else… that was the point.

(By the way, the clubbell site advertises that you can “win big if you are man enough” to be the first Knuckledragger to clean the Bruiser clubbell. I say make me a shorter version, beeyotches, and we’ll see about who’s man enough. :))

A vision of manliness — as played in reality by a woman, aka a drag king.

In the recent book Self Made Man, writer Nora Vincent goes “undercover” as a dude named Ned to infiltrate the mysterious world of boycreatures. Vincent throws herself into Ned’s world with enthusiasm, seeking out various masculine spaces: she joins a bowling league, gets jobs in ad agencies, spends months in a monastery, goes to strip clubs, and attempts the dating scene. Along the way she discovers the immense diversity among men that is yet made coherent through a shared code of outlook and behaviour. One thing that strikes Vincent, particularly with the bowling league, is the air of collegiality: Ned is a terrible bowler and many other players take it upon themselves to offer correction, mentorship, and good-natured mockery. In contrast, Vincent notes, no female athlete offered the same to Nora during her many years of playing women’s sports. This, too, was my experience: the guys patiently corrected me without rancour nor judgement as we worked together for the shared goal.

The present “crisis of masculinity” (if such a thing exists, since such crises have been occurring with regularity, usually coincident with other economic or political anxiety) is somewhat ambivalent in its fears, but it appears to center around men losing power in various dimensions of their lives – power that they feel should naturally accrue to them. This notion reflects a misunderstanding of power as domination and control, and a misguided notion that masculinity should entail purposeless aggression, subordination of others, and a rock-hard metaphorical dick at all times.

Yet in fitness terms, power has two meanings: the power to do things, and explosive strength, both of which must come from within. Strength is also primarily neurological: the power to coordinate nervous impulses so that the muscles correctly execute their tasks. In training, one has power only over oneself: the power to make choices, the power to execute a movement, and the power to overcome challenges (most of which are, in fact, mental and emotional rather than physical even though the tools are manipulated by the body).

This second, more productive notion of power as power-to-do sets the stage for alternative visions of masculinity. Ducat links the presence and experiences of fathers to the development of masculinity, and discovers that in fact, a distant and authoritarian father produces a son who is narrow and rigid in his thinking, and emotionally disabled; whereas a father who is involved and loving produces a son who is able to tolerate emotional and intellectual complexity and ambiguity, and provide emotional sustenance to others in a healthy way. One of the most powerful roles for men is that of fathers, and yet in English, “to father a child” refers only to the dispensing of sperm (compare with “to mother a child”). Involved and caring fatherhood is masculinity at its best, evoking the most productive elements of hegemonic masculinity: responsibility, devotion, sacrifice for others.

In a recent post on a training message board, a number of strength training fathers discussed “Daddy Fitness”. Notably absent from this conversation was ranting about pussification, wimpery, wussification, or pimpery. Notably present was an honest conversation about weakness and strength dedicated to the care of others. One poster writes:

“Got into a conversation with another member of the YMCA yesterday about our workout goals. Both of us are white collar guys and we spend a large amount of time crouched in front of a computer. Both of us have kids and we are not involved in a sport. So we were trying to create a program that we would fit into our work schedule that would give us the fitness we need to be a prepared dad. We defined a prepared dad as one who can:

  1. sprint across the street to save a child;
  2. pick his child (children) up and carry them for a mile or more (possibly up stairs or hills);
  3. play tag for an hour and have enough energy to put the kids to bed;
  4. pick up most everything in his home and move it;
  5. mow the grass, rake the leaves, or shovel the drive and have enough energy to play tag, jump in leave piles, or climb the best sledding hill in town with the kids on the sled;
  6. do all of the above without pulling a muscle.

Once we came up with this definition we realized that the ability to do 100 pushups or to squat 400 lbs may not the best goals for us. Sure its impressive, but is it useful strength? And if not, is the time spent obtaining that strength the best use of limited workout time?”

Another poster shared the fact that his daughter is disabled and much of his training is dedicated towards being able to move and care for her.

This is “functional fitness” at its best, with training geared towards both life responsibilities as well as lived challenges that define us as real people, not false ideals that are ultimately self-destructive and exclude those who don’t “measure up”. It doesn’t depend on what kind of weight you lift, what sport you play, and whether you win – just on whether you try, bust your ass a little for a good cause, and ultimately, build a body and psyche that in its movements and ideas, adds to society rather than fulminating against its decline. And it’s something that we can all do.

*Please feel free to substitute the ethnic group/nationality of your choice. There’s enough long-standing internecine dysfunction for everyone to have a piece.

Connell, RW and James Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19 no. 6 (December 2005): 829-859.

Ducat, Stephen. The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Roisman, Joseph. The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators. California: University of California Press, 2005.

Vincent, Nora. Self Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back. Viking Press, 2006.