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He’s a Big Man!

by Brandon Edmonds / 10.03.2011

Gender difference and the male body (alongside the relentlessly disrobed female body, of course) is really on display most weekends. Sporting weekends. What with Super Rugby and the Cricket World Cup in full swing. This weekend was particularly rich in male body talk. Rain ruined the Australia / Sri Lanka game, leaving Mike Haysman and Sean Pollock to enjoy a little comparative anthropology in-studio. On the evolving physique of the Sri Lankan team in recent years.

“I used to call them ‘baggy shirts’ because you couldn’t even read their names,” Haysman said.
Pollock agreed.
“They’ve really come on! Thanks to modern training methods. They aren’t little guys anymore.”

They crossed back to the apocalyptic stadium – a gothic shell wreathed in tropical gloom – to see a skinny shirtless Sri Lankan fan moonwalk across the rain-lashed covers. It was a perfect fuck you to the casual in-studio eugenics.

Over at the Sharks / Western Force game, comfortably won by the Sharks, 39-12, looking fluent and capable early in the season, there was this exchange.

“He looks fit… the Beast!”
“Oh… yeah!”
Australian commentators can do amazing things to a phrase like “Oh yeah!” There was complex admiration behind it. Regard, esteem, bitterness. The better the Beast looks, the worse it is for Australian teams. As men physically comparing themselves to other men, as men do as unfailingly and self-critically as women, the commentators couldn’t deny the Beast looks fit. “Fit” simply means the Beast has mastered the signifiers of a sporting body. Lean muscle mass, power, bulk, and stamina. Fit. This language is permissable between straight men only in a sporting, medical or military context. Anywhere else and you’re asking for a klap. Even the drilled cheerleading squad or the startled hottie routinely plucked by the male camera eye in those inevitable babe-swoops through the crowd goes unremarked. There’s an unwritten commentary code. It’s a family show. But sporting male bodies are endlessly assessed. Weights discussed. Physiques compared.

The Crusaders crushed the Waratahs 33-18 and we heard: “He’s a big man, isn’t he?” After a jarring tackle, “He’ll have some ice packs out tonight!” Always this mirroring fascination for the experiential limits of the male body. This projection of one male into another male’s capacity for pain. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it in her wonderful book On Boxing – “a man’s masculinity is his use of his body” – and she quotes the psychologist Erik Erikson – who watched little girls use building blocks to create “pleasant interior spaces” while little boys piled them high only to knock them down – “the contemplation of ruins is a masculine specialty.” Dare we admit that watching rugby every Saturday is a pleasure we return to, not only out of loyalty to a team, but fascination for the harm done to other male bodies? Is Super Rugby Fight Club?

There is more male body watching going on at Newlands where the Stormers beat the Cheetahs 21-15 in a blunt, unlovely encounter. A commentator looks around the broiling stadium, and says, “Not too many shirts… on the male spectators anyway.” Then the physicality of Andries Bekker comes up, “He’s packed on the bulk at 120kg.” Bobby Skinstadt purred, “Yeah, he’s a big man!” Inter-dude assessment continues into the Bulls / Highlanders game. Captain, Jamie McIntosh, who would reach a hand out of the ruck and surely cost the Bulls a draw in the dying moments, we are told, “is a very big man” – while Joel Stransky reminded us that notorious Australian referee, Stuart Dickinson, is “the man we love to hate.” Part of that enmity is the referee’s immunization from contact. He’s an official. And you’ve gotta fight to be in the club. But he’s closer to us than we are to the players, in this exemption from pain, and that’s why we love and hate him.

Oates goes further. Boxing for her is tragic because “it consumes the very excellence it displays – it’s drama is this very consumption.” In other words, each fight ruins you a little more (or a lot more), takes you closer to the end of your body’s capacity for pain, the end of your reign, your career. There is an aspect of this melancholy masculine expenditure, this looming end, in all contact sport. Which is why the Sharks captain’s age, Stefan Terblanche is 36, is ritually invoked each time we see him. Praise essentially for a continuity and endurance men tend to admire. Martina Navratilova’s longevity began to have the same magical quality. As did Lance Armstrong’s. Exposing doping or cheating definitively in Armstrong’s case would be a severe blow to the male imaginary, our shared and necessary delusion of invincibility. That’s all we need.

And finally the deep conservative structure behind the gendered reception of sport was exposed by the international anxiety unleashed over Caster Semenya. The problem was literally how to look at her, how to see her, for who she is? She introduced gender dissonance into the customary consumption of TV sport, threatening the differences we take for granted. A kind of cosmetic rehabilitation – figuring her assuredly feminine – to restore to the viewer the settled ‘look’ of a woman – climaxed with that You cover. Begging the question: did she win or lose the fight, who is she now?

Caster Semenya

*Opening image © Sharks Rugby.

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