The Changing Face of Masculinity

It was Year 7 Camp, and I was the teacher on night duty. A youngster came out of his room only minutes before all were supposed to be away in their cabins, seeking some support from the first teacher he could find. “Mr Olsen…I’m scared of the dark,” he admitted. But he didn’t find much sympathy. While I can’t remember the exact phrases, ultimately he was told to suck it up, note that the other blokes felt safe, and believe that he’d wake up the next morning and realise he’d made it through the night.

I chuckled to myself on the way back to the break-out room to catch up with the other staff after the kids were in bed, and recounted this story upon my arrival. What ensued was an enthusiastic celebration from the female teachers who were all extremely proud that almost-teenage boys felt that they could admit such things to their male teachers. Apparently, my views – which were supported by the other male teacher present – were far outdated for the 21st Century men who I was supposed to be educating and supporting through the trials and tribulations of their adolescent years.

Last Thursday night, I watched my first round of a bout of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Turns out it was a replay of the second round of a Lightweight bout from UFC 107, held in Memphis last December. Two Americans, Kenny Florian and Clay Guida, danced around the bloodstained ring for the first couple of minutes. Guida was covered in blood, and while he appeared to be on the offensive, it was clear that Florian was the man who had the fight under control.

Sure enough, Florian gave a stunning one-two combination, and crunched Guida with a powerful right hand that sent him to the octagon’s mat. The hit was stunning in its athletic brutality and timing – the kind of shot that old-school boxing writers would have immortalised. Take a look for yourself – it’s at 6:24 in the video. And while you’re there, take a look at the 13 shots that Florian gives Guida afterwards, either while Guida’s on the ground or while Florian’s on his back.

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The third rule of Fight Club: if someone yells “stop”, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule: one fight at a time, fellas. Sixth rule: No shirt, no shoes. Seventh rule: fights will go on as long as they have to. And the eighth and final rule: If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight.

There are currently 31 Fouls that are outlawed in UFC bouts. Amongst others, head butting, eye gouging, biting and doing anything to your opponent’s penis are all fouls.

Most interesting are foul 14 – ‘Kicking the head of a grounded opponent’, foul 15 – ‘Kneeing the head of a grounded opponent’, and foul 16 – ‘Stomping a grounded opponent’. They are most interesting, as they reveal that a fighter is permitted to hit a grounded opponent, and is also permitted to kick or knee a grounded opponent, as long as contact isn’t made to the head.

“This is the dilemma the UFC faces right now. On one hand, it’s desperate for legitimacy. It doesn’t want mixed martial arts to be thought of as medieval barbarism – it wants to be thought of as sport. It doesn’t want its fighters to be thought of as bloodthirsty maniacs – it wants them to be viewed as supreme athletes. In short, the UFC wants mixed martial arts to be the kind of sport that can hold promotional functions in swanky art galleries without creating comical paradoxes. On the other hand, it knows that much of its popularity rests on its underground aura. It knows that young men in the 18-34 age bracket tune in because the raw violence of the fights lends them a street cred that boxing has lost and martial arts and wrestling never had. They love the illegitimacy of it all.” – Aaron Scott, ‘Street Value’, Inside Sport, March 2010.

Perhaps more than anything else in the life of a 31-year-old, the world’s shifting tectonic plates surrounding masculinity make a bloke feel old. In the 90’s, we would have reviled anyone for hitting a bloke while he was down or while his back was turned. And we would have never admitted to feeling nervous at sleeping in the dark when we were old enough to be at high school.

These values appear to have retreated from dominant to alternate ones while I wasn’t paying attention. But it’s not the change, really, that makes me feel old. It’s the realisation that even if the dominant paradigm has shifted, I never will. Instead, I will be stuck there, in a 20th Century paradigm of masculinity, where no matter what happens, and what rules other people play by, a real man does not hit another bloke when he’s down.

One day, when I fortuitously wasn’t on yard duty, a fight broke out at lunchtime. It was pre-planned, just like some were when I was at school: the ring of guys on the oval surrounding two opponents facing off like gloveless middleweights.

I, like most of the staff, saw the fight on Youtube. One guy decked the other, and while the loser was on the grass the victor didn’t stop: he kicked and punched at rapid speed. The staff found it abhorrent. Many admitted that it was the brutality of the attack that occurred after one combatant had been felled, and the fact that it took a long time for a couple of spectators to pull the victor away to stop the violence, that really tore at the fabric of their feelings for the school and its boys.

The school punished the student, with the almost unanimous support of the staff. The wider school community protested the decision. As a rule, the staff made a fundamental distinction between hitting a bloke when he’s up and hitting a bloke when he’s down. The students didn’t appear to make the same distinction.

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1 Response to The Changing Face of Masculinity

  1. Russell says:

    I find that quite creepy, although I am not sure why. Maybe because of the lack of boundaries, the celebration of violence rather than the contest, or perhaps my being old.

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