"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Friday, November 16, 2007

Men Doing Feminsit Work: Michael Messner

This week we'll take a look at Michael Messner, a sociologist who specializes in the relationship between masculinity and organized sports.

From his bio on the University of Souther California site, where he is a professor:
Michael Messner's most recent books are Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements (1997), Men's Lives (2004); Paradoxes of Youth and Sport (2002), and Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports (2002). His articles have appeared in Gender & Society, Theory & Society, Men and Masculinities, and Sociology of Sport Journal. He is a past president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, and has conducted several studies of gender in sports media for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, and for Children Now.

His 1992 book, Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity, takes a critical look at how masculinity is shaped by organized sports, but it is his complex analysis of the impact of traditional masculinities on women's sports (and the effects of Title IX) that I find the most intriguing. In a review of Welch Suggs' book, A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX, Messner brings his analysis to bear:

Yet, herein lies a tension in the public debates about Title IX, and to a certain extent in Suggs's narrative. Suggs is right to raise questions about women's sports' uncritical adoption of "the male model" of sports. Sport sociologists have documented the many ways that men's college sports reflect and perpetuate many of the most negative aspects of narrow conceptions of masculinity (including violence to self and others) and promote values of commercialization that are antithetical to what many see as the mission of university life. Suggs points out that women athletes now face a rising rate of serious injury (especially to the knees) and other health-related problems; that their higher graduation rates, compared with those of men athletes, might now tumble; and that the "club" system of youth sports, as a feeder system to the university, has favored white middle-class kids, thus making it difficult for African American women to benefit from Title IX to the extent that white women have.

These are all important issues, but since Suggs falls short of a radical critique of men's sports, two unsatisfactory alternatives remain: women's sports should use Title IX to "go for the money" and mimic men's sports as much as possible, including taking on all of the costs and negative consequences of men's sports; or women's sports should return to the pre-Title-IX ethic of healthy noncompetitive sports and games. This latter will not happen, of course. As Suggs points out, Tide IX and women's sports are here to stay.

So are we stuck with the unsatisfactory dynamic of liberal, equalopportunity feminism fighting against the backlash of an anti-Title-IX conservatism that claims to fight for fairness for men? I think not. Although Suggs does not become a critic or an advocate-preferring to stay, I believe, in the middle space of the reporter-I think it's consistent with his reporting to suggest that women's sports activists need to proceed simultaneously on two fronts. First, continue to use Tide IX to fight for equal opportunities (still far from achieved, as Suggs points out with ample statistics on recruiting, coaching, and funding in women's college sports). second, wage a critical analysis of the negative aspects of the dominant men's sports-especially football, I would argue, which stands at the center of the sport-media-commercial complex. Far from being the goose that lays the golden egg (as its advocates like to suggest), institutionalized football is a major reason for the perpetuation of gender inequity in sports, for the ramping up of commercialization processes, and for a disproportionate number of the problems generally associated with college sports. And football's monopoly over resources, as economist Andrew Zimbalist's work has so clearly shown, is one of the main reasons that the "marginal" ("nonrevenue") men's sports are so vulnerable today when university athletics departments need to trim their budgets. Playing sports is good for girls and women-that has now been established by research, is accepted in public opinion, and is supported by the law. But the question of how we organize our sports-both for women and for men-needs to be put at the center of the table. Until we ask those more radical questions, we will be stuck in the quandary that Welch Suggs so nicely describes.
Messner is utilizing the feminist conceptual took of intersectionality, noting where gender, race, sexual orientation and class contribute to organized sport in order to take a critical look at male masculinity.

Messner has continued to broaden his study from men's organized sports to the ways in which men organize with each other in general, as the title of his Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements suggests.

You can't help liking a guy who says it like it is, even when he's liable to ruffle more than a few feathers. In an article about Chico State Alumni, Messner is quoted talking about the way some men use gang rape not only as a way to control women, but as a way to bond with each other sexually:
"Gang rape is not about sex as far as the victim is concerned, it's a brutal assault, and a stripping away of dignity, but when it comes to the group dynamic of the guys I think there is something sexual going on in gang rape, and it's not necessarily sex with a woman, because in gang rape the woman is really not there as a human being -- she is the vessel through which men are having sex with each other," said Messner.

More on Messner:
Other books by Messner.
Messner's Wikipedia entry.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

Really glad to see you profiled Messner. As a gay man who has played and coached rugby at the college level, I've always found authors who challenged the dominant paradigm of team sports and masculinity fascinating. Messner is one of the best, and in my view, the one who comes closest to an accurate analysis from an athletes perspective.

If you're not read it, I'd highly recommend Paradoxes of Youth & Sport, as it gets into how we can develop pro athletic attitudes and lifestyles in youth without a dominant competitive angle. Especially for those who have not traditionally been welcome in main stream sports.

Jeff Pollet said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Al! It's good to hear an athlete give it a recommendation...

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with the Pokemon cartoon? The main character's quest is explicitly to become a champion at a competitive sport. The first two lines of the theme song to the first season read "I want to be the very best/ Like no one ever was." The premise of the game and the show are rather explicit appeals to the (masculine?) competitive spirit - being the best implies that everyone else is worse.

Interestingly, the main character, Ash, doesn't always win, and generally takes losing very well. (Usually the show sets up anyone who defeats him as a friendly, sympathetic character.) On balance, I don't know if the show's message regarding competition is a positive influence or a negative influence.

Anonymous said...

Very hard to understand where you are coming from but I would say I wouldn't mind feminism changing the female soccer players. They are rougher than the males. I personally would prefer to play males in sports than females.

I played for a couple of games and then quit. They are nasty, nasty.

What is feminism doing to challenge the masculinity in women?

Jeff Pollet said...

I'm not familiar with Pokemon, except as just a general pop-cultural phenomenon. One of the things that strikes me about it is that the competitors aren't really fighting each other, right? They are sending in their proxies, aren't they? I'm not sure if that has any bearing on the competition aspect of things or not...but it sounds at least a little bit complex, which is nice.

Jeff Pollet said...

I'm not sure where you're getting your information, aside from your personal experience. "They are rougher than the males," is an odd claim to make, unless you've played soccer with/against a bunch of men who didn't know you were a woman. Or at least it is a claim that needs some buttressing.

As far as "what feminism is doing to challenge the masculinity in women" goes--well, part of what Messner is talking about is how conceptions of traditional masculinity have been infused in both men's and women's sports, to the detriment of both--so here is a feminist addressing that. But that's just one example. (You might take a look at Halberstam's book, Female Masculinity, if you're sincerely curious for one answer to your question.

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