The Privilege of Lusting for the Village Idiot

At Role/Reboot, writing about Ryan Lochte and the rise of the “himbo:”

Lochte’s combination of washboard abs and cretinous, perhaps calculated puerility (he made headlines as much for admitting he pees in the Olympic pool as for his medal triumphs) is hardly sui generis. Rather, the athlete Ryan calls “fratty as fuck” is the latest example of what Lauren Bans calls “himbos.” Writing in GQ earlier this year, Bans defines a himbo as a “man who is more attractive than he is smart. A bimbo with nuts, to put it testicularly.” Think of the hunks of shows like Jersey Shore; think of what many people assumed about the male stripper movie, Magic Mike (though the title character turned out to be far more complex than the himbo stereotype.) Though women’s attraction to lantern-jawed simpletons is not new (think of Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies remarking about Jethro Bodine: “I like my men big and dumb”), Bans is right that we’ve arrived at the “Golden Age of Himbodom.”

On the one hand, the ascendancy of the beefcake numbskull is partly good news. If straight women can publicly acknowledge that they’re turned on by men with ripped bodies and no other redeeming qualities, we can at last put to bed the hoary old myth that “women aren’t visual.” The lie that women invariably need a satisfying emotional connection in order to be sexually aroused can finally be allowed to die a very public death. In our national conversation, we’re beginning to recognize that the kind of sexual feeling we once ascribed solely to males is simply part and parcel of being human. Women aren’t becoming more like men, in other words. We’re just getting a long-overdue reminder that women are people too.

Read the whole thing.

Title IX at 40: How Perfectionism Keeps Some Girls Out of Sports

It’s the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and there is much reason to celebrate. From June 2007, Title IX’s 35th anniversary.

The reason more girls still aren’t playing sports has everything to do with the pressures we put on them — and far less to do with a lack of interest in athletics.

On Wednesday, the National Review published this piece by Jessica Gavora, who is associated with the nemesis of women’s sports, the College Sports Council.

Gavora is worried that having had great success in defending the proportionality rule in colleges (which has led many schools to cut certain men’s sports, like wrestling, in order to meet quotas), the advocates for Title IX are going to push for similar measures in high school. Gavora, like most conservatives, is a fierce believer in gender essentialism; she is convinced that girls “just don’t like sports” as much as boys do. Thus mandating equal funding for both sexes unfairly punishes boys for their “natural” competitive nature. After all, many conservatives seem to believe that most real women would rather be at the quilting bee (or shopping at the mall, or writing sonnets in imitation of Millay) than running, leaping, or striking at balls with their bats or their cleats.

Okay, so maybe that’s not fair. Here’s what Gavora says that I did find interesting:

The reason high schools are having trouble finding as many girls to play sports as there are boys clamoring to take the field is apparent to anyone who takes the time to look: Girls have more varied extracurricular interests than boys. Girls out-participate boys in every extracurricular activity band, drama, debate, student government every one, that is, except for sports. The extracurricular gender gap so favors girls that the Independent Women’s Forum calculated that if the government were suddenly to require the same gender quota for participation in other extracurricular activities that it does in sports, 36 percent of female choir members, 25 percent of female orchestra members, and 33 percent of female debaters would have to be eliminated.

The implication of this is clear: If high schools follow colleges and universities in instituting gender quotas in athletics, boys will be forced to pay the price in limited or eliminated opportunities. Girls are too busy doing other things after school to turn out at the same rate for sports.

Bold emphases mine. There’s a grain of truth in what Gavora says, though it’s hardly an argument against proportionality. I’m convinced that the primary reason some schools have a hard time getting enough girls to come out for sports is not because of a lack of interest, but because of a perception on the part of these over-scheduled, over-pressured young women that sports isn’t the best use of their time. I’ve written before about the colossal pressure we put on this generation of young women to be successful; all things being equal, it does seem clear that our daughters are more anxious to please and to achieve tangible signs of success than many of their brothers.

It’s not that girls are any less competitive, any less interested in getting sweaty and dirty, any less interested in victory than boys. But as they think about college applications, as they look to their parents and adults for cues as to how to succeed, they are more likely to be pushed towards student government, the debate team, the French Club, or massive amounts of community volunteering. That’s not a function of nature — that’s a calculation about what will look good. When applying to a selective university, these girls imagine that being president of the student body will look more impressive than being an all-league mid-fielder on the soccer team.

Not everyone wants to play sports, of course. There are plenty of boys (I was one in high school) who have no interest in being athletic, and I know perfectly well that there are lots of girls who find the idea of playing on a team to be a dreary one. But I know full well that those boys who are interested in playing are more likely to be encouraged to do so, while their sisters are more likely to be pressured to choose other, seemingly more “prestigious” extra-curricular activities.

Applying proportionality to the high schools will force a necessary cultural shift. We’re going to need to do more than demand that dollars spent reflect the percentage of girls and boys in the entire school. We’re going to have to challenge the “culture of perfection” in which so many young women labor, a culture which often discourages girls from putting their hearts, bodies, and souls into sports. (Courtney Martin writes very well about that culture, I reviewed her book here).

And we’re going to need to get some boys up off the damn couch, away from the video games, and into not only sports, but those activities now so often dominated by girls: debate, band, student government.

Bring on proportionality.

The Real Reason Some Boys Won’t Play With Girls

At Role/Reboot today, I look at the latest in a string of incidents in USA high school sports where boys have refused to compete against girls. Excerpt:

As women integrate themselves into what were once all-male spaces (like universities, corporate boardrooms, and Congress), even the most ardent traditionalists have been forced to accept women’s intellectual equality with men.

But that grudging acquiescence to egalitarianism in most public spaces means an even fiercer determination to protect the few remaining all-male bastions, be they Marine barracks or baseball diamonds.

As long as there are still a few remaining spaces in which women are not allowed, defenders of traditional gender roles can still resist the modern claim that men and women are far more alike than they are different. They may have to cope with alarming innovations like sexually assertive girlfriends or ambitious female colleagues, but in sports (whether as players or spectators) men who are uncomfortable with equality hope to find a space where biology is still destiny. When girls like Cassy Herkelman or Paige Sulzbach prove themselves capable of playing alongside boys, they demonstrate that the physical distinctions between the sexes are not as great as we imagined. For those already uncomfortable with women’s growing economic, sexual, and political power, this concrete evidence of their commensurate athletic ability is shattering. Forfeiting becomes the only way to sustain the illusion that men and women are fundamentally different; regardless of the outcome, to play against girls would demonstrate tacit acceptance of women’s equality.

MLS Official Says Men Don’t Find Female Soccer Fans Appealing

I’ve got a quick post up at Jezebel about a controversy brewing in my favorite sport: Major League Soccer Blowhard Says Female Superfans Are Totally Not Hot. Excerpt:

On Monday, Simon Borg, a writer for the league’s official site, MLSSoccer.com, said on the league’s official podcast… “It’s fine if you’re a female and you want to be a super-fan. Clearly go for it, that’s your choice. But there is something to be said for how appealing that might be to the other sex. Having a woman that’s such a fan, like painting your face, tuning in to every podcast. I don’t know how many males would be into that.”

Simon Borg is getting a good fisking in the comments section too, and from Women United FC.

For more background on this story and sexism in the MLS check out Alicia Ratterree’s great post at The Goat Parade. (She’s a Chivas USA fan, but it’s still worth reading.)

David Beckham Makes Over Burger King — and Makes Middle-Aged Men Swoon

At Role/Reboot this week, my reflection on a certain new Burger King ad featuring the most famous metrosexual of them all, David Beckham. Excerpt:

Just a few short years ago, Burger King, their sales slumping, ran their infamous “I am Man” ads. The ads celebrated rebellious masculine carnivorousness with such vigor that some thought they were a campy parody; alas, they were all too real. The commercials failed to revive BK’s fortunes, a predictable result of a campaign that insulted men and completely ignored their female customer base.

Times change. Having ditched the machismo and their iconic king, BK is back with a new round of advertising, focusing on their expanded, lighter, less meat-focused menu. One new ad features David Beckham attempting to order a Real Fruit Smoothie. The woman behind the counter is so smitten by Becks she freezes; when her older male manager comes to assist, he too falls for the charm of the globe’s most famous soccer player.

More on what this means for changing sexual attitudes — and changing fast-food menus — here.

As an LA Galaxy fan, however, this is what had me swooning this month..

Penn State and Sexual Shame

I finally said something about the Penn State tragedy. Here’s To Prevent Future Penn States, We Need to Celebrate the Good in Male Sexuality

Excerpt:

My take-away from the Penn State tragedy is one of wonder and optimism. I marvel that the university’s trustees were willing to fire an octogenarian living legend for the grave lapse of not having done more to protect children and to do so by phone. I expected far more voices to be raised in defense of those whose commitment to the reputation of an institution trumped their moral obligation to kids. That Paterno’s firing has proved so popular nationwide (the stupid antics of a handful of PSU students notwithstanding) is indicative that we’re more willing than ever to confront the atrocity that is child sexual abuse. There have always been Jerry Sanduskys, and there have always been Joe Paternos to cover for them. Though we might wish that each faced a stiffer penalty still, what’s been done so far is more than would have been done just a few decades ago.

But progress is not perfection. And when it comes to rape and molestation, we can’t settle for the comforting reassurance that these crimes are becoming slowly rarer. Far too many women are still raped, and far too many boys and girls abused for us to be self-congratulatory. We need to continue to push for more protection for children, and we need to do more to teach men to end their own complicity in the culture of silence and tacit approval that makes rape still so common.

Tom concludes his piece with a reminder: “The real problem is that until now we haven’t wanted to look at sexual misconduct in our own communities.” And it’s about time we did.
That’s absolutely true. But we also need to remember that while pedophilia and related disorders are genuine mental illnesses, they are aided and abetted by sexual shame. In a world where the hefty majority of rapists and abusers are men, that means that helping men–all men–overcome that shame is a critical part of the “solution.” What Tom calls “misconduct” flourishes where frank talk about sex and desire is off-limits. Ignorance, silence, and the distrust of pleasure facilitate that misconduct.

Please read the whole thing.

Booty shorts and body image: sexualization in high school sports

My Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at the problem of creeping sexualization in high school girls’ sports:

Take a look through an old high school yearbook from the 1970s. You’ll see the volleyball players with some fairly short shorts – and the guys on the basketball team with shorts that may well be even shorter. The tops are mostly loose fitting; the outfits are comfortable and practical.

But take a look at what high school volleyball players are wearing today – and at what the boys on the basketball team have on! Over the past two decades, boys’ shorts have gotten dramatically longer and their uniforms much more concealing, all without any sacrifice of athletic performance. But even as more and more opportunities are emerging for girls to play sports, the uniforms that they’re required to wear (particularly in sports like track and volleyball) have become tighter and more revealing.

The issue isn’t improved performance. In high school volleyball, it’s hard to argue that French-cut briefs lead to a dramatic step up in anything other than attendance at games. (Many women I interviewed for this piece report that the number of people showing up for volleyball matches or track events rise when schools begin to require skimpier uniforms). The issue is how these uniforms and the expectations that come with them affect young women’s self-esteem.

Read the whole thing.

Football frenzy

An incredible weekend of soccer, with three extraordinary matches all ending with the underdogs winning on penalty kicks. Uruguay knocked out Argentina yesterday, and Paraguay shocked Brazil today in the Copa America — and for the first time in history, South America’s most prestigious football tournament has neither of its traditional powers in the semis.

Say what you will about destiny, it’s a tangible psychological concept. We saw it today on the faces of the Japanese players from the first whistle to the last penalty kick in their remarkable win over a splendid US women’s national team in the World Cup final.

Liberated from History: In Praise of Los Angeles, and Club Football

This post first appeared in January 2007.

I don’t always write about sexuality and masculinity. My doctoral dissertation, among other things, looked at what it meant to live on a border, the Anglo-Scottish frontier, in the late middle ages. And like my brother, a scholar of Britishness, I’m fascinated by nationalism and identity.

I’m also in love with my adopted hometown of L.A., and was reminded yet again of why last night as I watched the USA-Mexico Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl. The fans were overwhelmingly for Mexico; the fans were overwhelmingly U.S. residents. This displeased Howard, the unfortunate American keeper.

A week ago Sunday, my buddy Leo and I ran up the El Prieto trail and the Brown Mountain fire road. Though we’re usually part of a larger group, we were alone that day. Leo was recovering from a marathon, and I was feeling well-rested, so I was actually able to keep up with him for a change. (In his late 50s, Leo still regularly runs marathons just above the three hour mark and has finished his share of 50 and 100-mile races).

We talked about books, history, ideas. When I run with some friends, we talk about love and marriage and family; when I run with others, I argue politics or theology. A few friends, like Leo, are interested in all of these topics and more. In an early morning chill, we began by reflecting together on the burden of the past.

Leo was born just after the Second World War into a Polish refugee family. He was raised in West Germany. Much like my late father, a dozen years his senior, Leo has that sense that many war refugees have — a sense of never quite belonging, a sense that perhaps at any moment, he might have to pack his bags and leave again. My father, born in Vienna, raised in rural Berkshire, spent nearly fifty years of his life in California without ever truly feeling at home here. He didn’t feel fully at home in Austria or England either. Leo and my Dad knew each other, and were fond of each other. When I got married a year and a half ago, they spoke German together at our wedding.

But we didn’t just talk about my Dad or about Leo’s similar sense of not quite belonging. We talked about the San Gabriel Mountains we both love so much. As we neared the Brown Mountain summit, I said to Leo “Isn’t it interesting to think we are the only members of our family ever to be here? None of our ancestors ever stood where we are standing right now.”

“Yes”, Leo replied, “it’s liberating.”

And I’ve been thinking about that for nine days now. I’m a historian by trade, of course; I have devoted my scholarly and professional life to the study of the past. I’m a dual national, holding a UK passport, and am a regular visitor to the land that gave my father’s family shelter and the land my brother calls home. I love to visit what some folks call “old places”, filled with a rich sense of history. When I tramp through the hills of Devon, or run through the streets of Vienna, I feel as if I am surrounded by ghosts. Not evil spirits, mind — just an extraordinary cloud of witnesses of all who have lived and died in these places. And when I am in those places where my ancestors lived, I feel the weight of their fears and their hopes and their expectations all around me. It’s not always unpleasant, but it’s always there.

Even when I go home to Northern California, I feel surrounded by a sense of family history. On my mother’s side, my family came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush more than a century and a half ago. We’ve had a country place in the hills northeast of San Jose since Rutherford Hayes was president; by the standards of this state, that’s some ancient history. My maternal great-grandfathers both went to Berkeley, and when I was a student at Cal nine decades later, I felt them all around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is a wonderful feeling to feel so connected to a place. But at other times, it is exhausting in ways I find difficult to describe.

What makes me a Los Angeleno in my mindset is my fascination with self-reinvention. I love that I am surrounded by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, who call somewhere else their truest home — but have nonetheless come here, to this basin with its beaches and valleys and hills — in order to start something new. They’ve come here to escape the burdens and obligations of the past, the sort that linger in the old places even after the old people have gone. They’ve come here to escape the “things are the way they are” mindset. They’ve come here to replace the fatalism and superstition of the old places with a relentless optimism about their own potential and the possibility of global transformation. They’ve come here to get away from the ghosts of Holocausts and World Wars and rigid class distinctions. They’ve come here to run on mountain trails upon which their ancestors never set foot. Continue reading

Strong is Beautiful: a note on the WTA campaign

A few people have written me about the Women’s Tennis Association Strong is Beautiful campaign. Featuring stylized action images of a variety of current and rising tennis stars, the Strong is Beautiful initiative both reinforces and challenges our stereotypes about women’s bodies.

On the one hand, these are athletes photographed in motion, doing what they do best, often drenched in sweat with faces fixed in concentration. These are powerful women; there isn’t a passive pose to be found. On the other hand, the players chosen are perhaps less than fully representative of the upper echelons of the WTA. The Williams sisters are conspicuous by their absence, and the Strong is Beautiful campaign seems heavy on long-limbed, high cheek-boned Eastern Europeans. (Then again, the Russian invasion of women’s tennis shows no sign of losing steam. This may not be as unrepresentative a group as first appears.)

In a post on Monday, Jeff at Feminist Allies admits to some ambivalence about the ads.

All of (this) could be a small step in the right direction. There is a stereotyped idea of what a beautiful woman should be, and “strong” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind–wouldn’t it be cool if we lived in a world where “strong woman” and “beautiful woman” were more intertwined conceptually? And yet: Why the emphasis on beauty at all?

The answer, of course, is that beauty matters. While culture shapes what it is we find beautiful, the fascination with beauty (in all sexes) is a human universal — there is no civilization that hasn’t valued physical appearance in one way or another. Telling young women not to care about their appearance (and suggesting that if they do, they are either “shallow” or “victims of a misogynistic cultural discourse”) isn’t helpful. Rather, we should be working to expand the spectrum of what is considered beautiful while making sure that beauty, for all its importance, is joined by other equally important priorities in young women’s lives.

Jeff briefly mentions my work with Healthy is the New Skinny and Natural Models LA. (Thanks, Jeff!) He’s right about what we’re trying to do, which is to create a more diverse understanding of beauty. That means producing new images and new sources of inspiration. It means rejecting the suggestion that the search for beauty is invariably a source of misery in women’s lives. The misery, we argue is linked not to the longing to be beautiful itself but to the particularly unattainable ideal that dominates our culture.

Obviously, being a world-class tennis player is also an unattainable ideal. But the glamorizing of strength, the celebration of sweat that has nothing particular to do with sex — that’s tangible progress. These were not images we had a generation ago. And it is an unmistakably good thing that we (and the young women we love) have them now.