Jocko Homo: How Gay is the Super Bowl?
Our long national nightmare is over.
By “nightmare,” I mean the drumroll of breathless speculation, ESPN stat porn, and news-anchor joshing about who’s going to be whose daddy that culminates in that Great Event in the History of Our Times, the Super Bowl. By “our,” I mean those millions of Americans who would rather undergo a trans-orbital leucotomy with an icepick than the protracted brain death of pre-game hype, when our cultural conversation is pre-empted by a live feed from the jock unconscious of Team America.
It may come as Piss Christ blasphemy to many, but there are those of us who Truly Do Not Give A Flaming Fuck who finished last in the league in rushing the ball or who led the league in defending tight ends or who had a hot flash during red-zone play-action passes (although that does sound provocative, now that you mention it).
Not that anyone asked us. During the run-up to Super Bowl Sunday, anchorclones, talkshow hosts, politicians, and the rest of the chattering class act as if we’re one big happy congregation gathered in solemn veneration of the Gipper’s jockstrap, displayed in a monstrance. It’s the sheer presumptuousness of the sports-crazed majority that galls the unbeliever most—an obliviousness to the possibility, even, that not everyone shares the One True Faith. It’s the same genial arrogance that makes evangelical Christians so monumentally irritating to those of us who prefer a good exfoliating body scrub to being Washed in the Blood of the lamb. (The religious reference is apt: in our national religion, sports is one aspect of the Holy Trinity, the other two being the Free Market—whose invisible hand, like God’s, moves in mysterious ways, but always for the betterment of all—and Christianity, which in the American vernacular is a bizarre amalgam of self-help pep talk, Left Behind doomsaying, and theocratic fascism). From the gridiron metaphors in your pastor’s sermon to the scripted locker-room banter of local TV newsdudes, joshing about who’s gonna open a can of whupass on who, to the Fantasy Games geek at the office watercooler maundering on about who had six touchdowns and no interceptions in 12 pass attempts this season, posting a 124.3 passer rating, while outside of the red zone his rating on play-action was only 79.7 and his five touchdowns have to be measured, after all, against nine interceptions, the assumption that every red-blooded American—or at least every red-blooded American guy who isn’t a wussy—would give his Truck Nutz for Super Bowl tickets is as unconsidered as it is ubiquitous.
Historically, athletic prowess and a consuming passion for sports have been defining aspects of manhood in America. Boys cursed with a congenital ineptitude or, even worse, an indifference to sports tend to end up stuffed into their gym lockers, bleating pitifully for help through the vents—the high-school equivalent of Piggy’s fate in Lord of the Flies. Growing up gay in the South, the humorist David Sedaris “had no interest in football or basketball,” he confides, in his essay “Go Carolina,” but learned “it was best to pretend otherwise. If a boy didn’t care for barbecued chicken or potato chips, people would accept it as a matter of personal taste, saying, ‘Oh well, I guess it takes all kinds.’ You could turn up your nose at the president or Coke or even God, but there were names for boys who didn’t like sports.”
Indeed there are—”pussy,” “faggot,” and “homo” foremost among them.
Recently, over drinks at a bar, some friends of mine—all of them intellectually topheavy ectomorphs who’d ended up in the arts or tech-related industries (codeword: geek)—and I bonded over our mutual sports loathing. (Okay, that, and their high-fiving consensus that Relayer is the best Yes album.) One guy reduced his animus to a terse equation: “I hate sports because the guys who beat me up in high school were jocks.”
For some men, Super Bowl season stirs memories that won’t stay buried—of beatdowns by jocks, some psychological, some literal. Their legacy, in most cases, is psychological wounds whose scars still itch, not to mention an undying hatred of sports. Robert Lipsyte, a former New York Times sportswriter and penetrating thinker about the spark gap between sports and masculinity, wrote a cultural postmortem on the Columbine killings; in it, he wondered about the societal costs of “jock culture” (his term). (The battlecry of the Columbine killers, he noted, was, “All jocks stand up; we’re going to kill every one of you.”)
In his ESPN essay, “Jock Culture,” he recalls:
“The e-mail was overwhelming. It became an Internet forum that wouldn’t quit as middle-aged men exposed the emotional scars of high school.
This was typical:
When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge on the bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those four years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
Here’s one from a jock:
We really did get special attention both from the students and from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.”
Reading Lipsyte, I was back in high-school P.E. class, in late-’70s Southern California. Gangly and knobby kneed in shorts and T-shirts, we assembled in military formation on the blacktop near the football field, each man on his number, the number he’d been assigned on Day One, a stenciled number neatly spray-painted on the asphalt. An ex-marine, coach began every class with a review of his troops, pacing silently along our serried ranks, staring down any kid cocky enough to meet his gaze. A bullnecked, barrel-chested caricature of Alpha Manhood who regarded us with abiding suspicion from beneath the proverbial low brow, he looked uncannily like the dominant male in a pack of silverback gorillas, and could easily have loped along on his knuckles. His surname (omitted here for reasons of privacy—and libel) sounded like the English word “testicle”—God’s gift to the class wags, and a textbook example of what English teachers like to call situational irony.
Standing smack on your number, so that your gym shoes covered it, was important. So was standing at attention; only a “numb nuts” slouched, in coach’s words. Most important of all was ensuring that your jockstrap wasn’t hanging out of your shorts, a brazen violation of corps discipline (and the Cosmic Order it implied). Guys who arrived panting on their numbers after the bell rang, guys who wore colored socks rather than the regulation white, and guys whose clearly visible jockstraps were prima facie evidence of insanity (either that, or a death wish) felt the fateful lightning of coach’s terrible swift sword: a goggle-eyed impression of the offender as drooling dorkwad, after which coach pronounced sentence in a drill instructor’s bark: “Hit the deck and gimme 50!” (Push-ups, of course.) It was boot camp lite; Full Metal Jacket meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
For all that, I had a begrudging respect for coach, maybe even a conflicted affection, somewhere between butt-puckered fear and fond contempt. Despite his simian appearance, the man was articulate about his subject. There was a keen intelligence in those beady eyes—and a pathos, too, if you looked hard enough. Sure, he could sink half-court shots like clockwork and kick our asses—all of our asses, simultaneously—and he, and we, knew it. But every year, he’d square off with a busload of new recruits, forever the same age. There would come a time when he’d miss that half-court shot a dozen times for every time he’d swish it, a time when the biggest guy in the class would look him in the eye with the certain knowledge that he could take the old man.
Then, too, I thought I saw a knowing self-parody in coach’s uber-butch persona, an ironic glint in his eye that translated, in my mind at least, as a winking recognition of the idiocy of masculinity when inflated to extremes. Sure, he modeled a heavily armored masculinity for us, and inculcated the militarized mindset that America confuses with “masculine” virtues—unquestioning obedience (a value diametrically opposed, weirdly enough, to the spirit of skeptical inquiry the rest of our teachers paid lip service to), group cohesion, a Spartan resolve to suck it up, soldier on, Be All You Can Be.
But for those with a functioning irony gland, he seemed, at the same time, to be hinting that real men, men who were truly comfortable with their own masculinity, didn’t need to strap on the prosthetic masculinity of the jock (whose very epithet reduces him to a big, swinging dick), the steroid-pumped weightlifter in his thong, the highway cop in mirrorshades and jackboots. The fact that all of the above are stock characters in homoerotic fantasy is no accident: their hyperbolized masculinity—what the postmodern theorist Arthur Kroker calls a “hysterical” masculinity, since it fairly screams its anxieties about its own manhood—ironically undermines itself, emphasizing not the impregnable masculinity of the subject but the social constructedness of gender—that is, the extent to which we’re all in drag.
Tim Burton’s Batman offers a readymade metaphor for the idea that masculinity is not something inherent in us, an act of nature, but something we put on, a figment of culture: the wimpy Michael Keaton becomes Batman only after being sealed in the huge, hulking batsuit. Transformed into an armored phallus with a sculpted six-pack, he speaks through gritted teeth, in the raspy monotone that, in American culture, is a benchmark of Real Manhood, from Duke Wayne to Dirty Harry. (Listen to interviews with icons of masculine power such as law-enforcement officials, Pentagon top brass or, better yet, football players and coaches, and you’ll hear the same terse, tough-talking, g-droppin’ tone, almost robotic in its flattened affect; emotional expression is for girls. And girlyboys.) The Batmobile, likewise, is all about masculinity as prosthesis, gender as put-on. It’s Darth Vader’s idea of a jet-propelled dildo on wheels, an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile retrofitted for the hysterical male. It uses its, er, glans as a battering ram and guards its orifices with heavy-metal shields that sphincter shut when threatened with penetration. (Yeah, sure, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but cum on!)
Years after the fact, reading the feminist theorist Judith Butler’s writings about the “performativity” of gender—her belief that society writes the code for what it means to be a man or a woman, roles we then perform in our everyday lives—I thought of coach and smiled. I thought, too, of his rumored assignations—to play chess, of all geeky things!—with the flinty eyed, smarter-than-you’ll-ever-be English teacher, an unmarried Ms. whose mannish hair and steely manner won her everyone’s vote for Most Likely to Be a Closeted Lesbian. Somehow, their odd-couple friendship seemed instructive, although none of us knew what it meant, exactly.
During the mind-glazing interludes of gameplay between the real Super Bowl action—meaning: the commercial breaks—I found my thoughts turning, idly, to coach. And to the bullying jocks of my high-school years. And to the question hidden in plain sight, in the middle of the field: What does it mean to be a man in America? Isn’t that what the Super Bowl is all about, in a sense? I thought, too, about the Fear of the Inner Queer—of Being a Homo or, worse yet, Being a Pussy—that seems to gnaw, like some infinitely dense, endlessly collapsing black hole, at the heart of American masculinity. I thought about what Robert Lipsyte said during our phone interview, about the blurry line between the homosocial—male bonding, by any other name—and male eros.
For Lipsyte, the pathologies of American masculinity owe much to jock culture, the “team-sports culture” that “permeates high school” but “starts with Pee Wee and Little League, some obscene loudmouth with a whistle around his neck, called coach, creates this little cult around himself, and [the boys] must respond to his authority, the team comes first, they must learn to dominate, to win by any means possible, and to me the key of all of this is: anyone who is not of the team is the Other. This is why it’s perfectly okay to garbage-pail a nerd in the lunchroom and why women in particular, unless it’s your mother or a cheerleader, must be watched with great wariness, [because women are] the prime Other. So there’s your misogyny; beating the shit out of your girlfriend is kind of a jock prerequisite.”
But the Queer is an even more unsettling figure, within jock culture, because while women are, ironically, reassuringly Other in their undeniable anatomical difference, homosexuals are perilously close to home. If masculinity, in Freudian terms, is a heavily fortified citadel, gay men are inside that fortress, undermining its foundations from within by being male yet violating the official (read: heteronormative) rules of what it means to be a man in America. It’s as if you got into the batsuit, only to find that the Joker was in there with you, naked and way too close for comfort.
“I don’t think that kids grow up homophobic,” Lipsyte told me. “Jocks in particular get called ’sissy’ and ‘girl’ and ‘faggot’; even today, in 2010, it’s not impossible for a kid who hasn’t tried hard enough to find a tampon in his locker. All of this is reinforcing the [notion of] the Other.”
As Lipsyte implies, jock culture’s hysterical fear and loathing of the Queer is a classic reaction formation, a desperate attempt to draw a bright line between the homosocial and the homosexual. Of course, everyday life is a messy thing; its gray zones have a way of smudging even the brightest lines.
“Football is so homoerotic,” said Lipsyte. “I spent a thousand years in locker rooms, and the naked horseplay—the dick-grabbing and the ass-soaping and the slapping in the shower, I mean, come on! I was at a party a couple years ago with John Amaechi. [Author's note: Amaechi, who played center for five seasons in the NBA, was the first pro basketball player to come out, in 2007, after he'd retired.] He recalled that the first time he went into an NBA locker room, there were all these guys, they were all naked, they were all touching each other, and they were trading jewelry and they were trading shirts and they were looking at each others’ musculature, and he said, ‘My first thought was, ‘Hey! I’m supposed to be queer!’”
In his memoir, Man in the Middle, Amaechi is sharply insightful about the wavering borderline between homosociality and homosexuality in jock culture. “Coming out threatens to expose the homoerotic components of what they prefer to think of as simply male bonding,” he writes. “And it generally is. It’s not so much that there’s a repressed homosexuality at play (except for a small minority), only that there’s a tremendous fear that the behavior might be labeled as such. Or, as I heard the anti-gay epithets pour forth that gay men in the locker room would somehow violate this sacred space by sexualizing it.”
“On Sports,” Daniel Clowes, Twentieth Century Eightball. Copyright Daniel Clowes; all rights reserved.
I thought about these things while watching Super Bowl ads, too. Calculated showstoppers, the game’s commercial breaks, which most viewers find more entertaining than the game itself, target Homo Budweiser, and in so doing offer a borehole into the anxious unconscious of the American male (at least, as imagined by Madison Avenue).
This year’s commercials included an ad for Docker’s khakis whose tagline said it all: “Calling all men: it’s time to wear the pants.” (Dude, if your idea of Alpha Male wear is a pair of midlife-crisis khakis only George Costanza would be caught dead in, you’d best have “Low Self-Esteem” tattooed on your forehead right now. You’ll never wear the pants.)
A spot for the Dodge Charger featured a perp walk of hangdog guys staring dejectedly at the camera, their balls broken by the matriarchy’s iron heel. (A Manolo Blahnik, no doubt.) A voiceover channels their pain: “I will be civil to your mother. I will put the seat down. I will take my socks off before getting into bed.” Then, with a manly vrrrooom, comes the punchline: “And because I do this, I will drive the car I want to drive.” Over thrill-cam footage of Ron Burgundy’s idea of a bitchen-ass sportscar eating up the road, we hear: “Charger. Man’s. Last. Stand,” pounded home with pile-driver clangs—a tagline calculated to reset the clock of gender politics back to one million years B.C., when Raquel Welch wore wooly-mammoth Uggs and men didn’t have to take their socks off before going to bed.
But the commercial that spoke volumes about what feminists like to call the Crisis of Masculinity was the metrosexual-friendly ad for Dove “Men + Care” body and face wash. Over Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (a.k.a. the Lone Ranger theme), some opera dude recites—sings, actually—the cultural code for manhood with suitably manly (if winkingly ironic) bravura: “Be good at sports, play hard, run fast…lift weights, be strong, know how to fight…be tough, be cool, be full of pride/ don’t show your sensitive side…” In the end, the goateed white everyman earns the right to chill-ax on his suburban lawn, button-down shirt defiantly undone, necktie cast aside. Bobos of the world, unite; you have nothing to loose but your ties! He’s emo’s answer to Don Draper. “Now that you’re comfortable with who you are,” the voiceover asks, “isn’t it time for comfortable skin?” Cut to footage of him soaping up in the shower. Like American masculinity itself, caught in the crossfire of the resurgent culture wars, Dove walks a fine line, reinforcing stereotypes of hard-ass manliness yet daring to play drop-the-soap with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy definitions of masculinity. Wary of the wussiness implicit in softer, more sensitive skin, the Dove Man is studly enough—comfortable with who he is—to treat himself to a “body wash.”
Of course, American men aren’t comfortable in their skins. Which is why Dove goes to such lengths to reassure us that the guy in the ad isn’t, you know, too heteroflexible. Shots of our hero pumping iron, playing football, taking a shot to the head in the boxing ring, and punching some guy’s lights out certify his credentials as a bona fide He-Ra, pre-empting any raised eyebrows about the sort of guy who would use body wash. Clearly, the strenuous life, and sports in particular, is the forge in which Iron Johns are made.
In his own, inimitable way, coach helped make me the man I am, even though I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan, and cordially loathe jock culture to this day. Now and then, I’ve wondered what became of him. Some years ago, I got an inkling. To his shock and awe, an old friend, a fellow high school alumnus, ran into coach one day.
In San Francisco.
In the city’s Castro district.
In a gay bar.
There’s a symmetry to it, if you think about it—a kind of perfection, like the snap coach used to put on a football, sending it spinning through the sky.