By Judith Kegan Gardiner
As I walked to my Chicago neighborhood grocery store in late June, the streets were filled with people wearing red and black clothing. Crowds in a holiday mood spilled out of bars and partied in the streets. Many people wore shirts depicting a stereotyped Native American man wearing face paint and feathers, that is, the insignia of the Chicago Blackhawks, which had just won the Stanley Cup trophy of the National Hockey League. Over a million fans reportedly gathered to celebrate the victory.
As someone who has helped organize smaller rallies for peace, strike support and my campus union, I marveled at such enthusiasm for these large, well-coordinated, well-paid, mostly white male ice skaters.
Left analyses of events like this often dwell on sports as big business and sometimes discuss the functions of professional sports in capitalist America as ways of selling tickets, advertising and branded merchandise while distracting people from economic inequality. Here I want to extend this discussion through the dimension of gender theory and particularly that of masculinity studies.
That professional sports, in particular hockey, are a male preserve is a fact so obvious that it rarely gets analyzed. In this respect hockey resembles warfare, prison populations and the upper reaches of major corporations, all areas of modern life that take for granted the near exclusion of women and the naturalization of norms and ideals connected with masculinity.
The feminist movement of the past forty years has highlighted the importance of gender in the differing allocation of resources and opportunities to men and to women, and it has continued to fight to advance women’s condition. But men are shaped by gender, too, and they do not participate equally in the benefits of male privilege.
Although masculinity scholars investigate men’s treatment of women, a major strength of masculinity studies is its analyses of relationships among men, particularly the overlapping hierarchies based on race, sexuality and social class that distribute power and prestige unequally. The concept of hegemonic masculinity, popularized by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, describes a norm that is also an ideal by which many, if not most, men are judged – and judge themselves – as inadequate. Key strengths of masculinity studies are its analyses of relationships among men and of internalized pressures in male psychology, like homophobia, as men anxiously police themselves and their peers to avoid fears of appearing gay or effeminate.
While some men have responded negatively to feminist gains in the past decades, many men have become less sexist or have been brought up with more egalitarian ideals.. Explicitly pro-feminist men’s groups are small, but feminist ideas now influence many men’s views and behavior, for example, in more active male parenting and the recognition of the harms of sexual harassment. One strength of pro-feminist men’s groups is leading anti-violence efforts for other men. Such pro-feminist men’s groups should be distinguished from their conservative peers, like the Christian Promise Keepers or the poet Robert Bly, who encouraged men to “regain” their “deep masculinity,” assert leadership over their wives and bond with other men while beating drums in the woods.
Thus it is clear that pro-feminist men strive to advance egalitarian gender relations, which is also a socialist goal. But a pro-feminist masculinities perspective can aid socialist analysis in other ways as well.
The group enthusiasm I saw being whipped up for the Blackhawks hockey players illustrates one way that contemporary U.S. society encourages some group identifications while upholding the ideology that individual men are justly rewarded for their individual merit and therefore that the existing social system is just, rather than grossly unequal in its class, race and gender privileges. These unusually gifted athletes reinforce the myth that any individual with talent can achieve financial and social success.
However, talented women athletes earn very much less than the men. There are no professional women hockey players in the United States at all, and even professional women golfers and basketball players earn a fraction of men’s salaries and attract much less public interest. And athletics is hardly an isolated case. Recently the salaries of young American women have moved closer to parity with men’s salaries, although middle-aged women and women of color still earn much less than white men, and they face higher hurdles for promotion.
Besides such economic disparities, we might look from a masculinity studies perspective at the cultural work that sports like hockey accomplish in this society. Hockey enhances traditional stereotypes of masculinity as well as capitalist values like the virtues of competition. The sport reinforces the image of the ideal American man as big, tough, heterosexual and white. He plays through injury and ignores pain. He has team spirit and is willing to fight for his teammates, even though he may be bought or traded by the team’s owners. Fans are encouraged to identify with the local team, though its members may be purchased internationally, and to feel happy when the home team wins and proud of being Chicagoans and Americans.
All this varies, of course, from the values that socialist feminists wish to encourage, ones of individual fulfillment achieved in supportive, just communities. We believe that the vast majority of people, the “99%,” men and women of all racial groups and sexual orientations, have common interests in the common good, in matters like clean water, plentiful food, freedom from commercial manipulation, accessible healthcare, safe workplaces with fair compensation and a genuinely democratic government, plus leisure time for family and friends.
Contemporary pro-feminist men’s movements contribute to these goals with their endorsement of active fathering and campaigns against the interlocking oppressions of racism, homophobia and sexism. A society that focuses attention on fake Indian hockey players won’t prevent these positive goals from being attained, of course, but it may obscure their importance and their achievability.
Leftists used to condemn what they called “false consciousness” and wonder why most Americans failed to see that the game is rigged in favor of corporations and the ruling class. Thanks to a widening gap between rich and poor and to movements like Occupy Wall Street, unjust disparities in contemporary society are now clearer to many people than previously, although popular resistance is still inhibited by the belief that nothing can change and by the distractions of popular culture.
Professional sports entertain and enliven many people's lives. However, I conclude that the analytic perspective of masculinity studies can help us understand some less positive effects of these spectacles. In particular, masculinity studies can help analyze how and why some professional sports like hockey work in contemporary American society to reinforce some masculine privileges and to reinforce as well the perception that our deeply inegalitarian society is just.
More information on pro-feminist masculinity theories can be found on the websites of American sociologist Michael Kimmel and of anti-imperialist Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell at http://www.raewynconnell.net/.
Judith Kegan Gardiner is a member of Chicago DSA and active in the faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor Emerita of English and of Gender and Women’s Studies, she is a founder of UIC's Gender and Women's Studies Program, a member of the Editorial Collective of the journal Feminist Studies, and on the editorial board of Men and Masculinities.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.