Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Varda Burstyn.
The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 388 pp. $60.00 cloth (0802028446), $24.95 paper (0802077250).

Varda Burstyn’s assertion that “success in sport is the most powerful social configuration of masculinity that any male can attain in our culture” (p. 254) is an accurate and telling commentary on the deeply rooted gender identities and practices within the contemporary social landscape. A multi-billion dollar global enterprise manifested through the ever-expanding Olympic Games, and a professional sport industry that reaches millions of spectators and consumers worldwide, the modern sport nexus has embodied a quasi-religious status for several decades. Historians and sociologists, once unwilling to evaluate sport as a serious academic pursuit, have appropriately situated the analysis of these social relations within broader discussions of political economy, nationalism, imperialism, colonial racism, and more recently gender studies. Following upon the heels of feminist and pro-feminist scholars, who revealed the inherent discrimination against women and oppressive forces incarnate in the gender organization of sport, recent attention has been focused on the issue of masculinity as a point of departure for discussions which cross both class and ethnic boundaries. Burstyn’s problematic poses ‘hypermasculinity’ or the culturally exalted ideal man as an historic organizing principle and discusses how it has been mobilized in the making of both war and sport, through the employ of the technology-media complex.

Successfully synthesizing a considerable body of literature on 19th century sport, its foundations in militarism and muscular Christianity, and some of the important nuances with respect to social class and race, she confronts one of the crucial issues that others have been reticent to address - the historical relationship between men, sexuality, and the erotic spectacle of sport. Unfortunately, even 276 pages of text is inadequate to contend with material of such complexity and breadth. This does not detract from Burstyn’s cogent analysis of the contradictions of classed participation and the precarious social balancing act of the ‘civilized and the primitive,’ played out through late 19th and early 20th century sport. In addition to the character-developing qualities ascribed to middle class sport, and the educational and social value of sometimes violent, ‘manly’ sports, social reformers were also interested in the ‘rejuvenating’ properties of sport and exercise to combat the ‘feminization’ of male labourers brought on by technological advance in the early 20th century workplace. Further to the influences of institutions such as the YMCAs, schools, popular literature, and community identifications with sport heroes in the construction of hegemonic masculinity, she contends that family influences were just as potent. Burstyn argues that sport served as a secondary paternal identification for boys whose fathers spent more time at work than at home, and that castration anxieties and feelings of claustrophobia had much to do with the early development of attitudes toward sport and the emergence of more violent tendencies later in life. However, relative to other factors such as the horrific experiences of young men in the World Wars, and their immediate impact on the sport-masculinity relationship in post-war periods, these needs-based arguments beg for clarification and elaboration through substantive interdisciplinary studies.

Burstyn’s work on the emergence of consumer culture and the significance of sport to Cold War politics is well founded. The international cultural and political weight accorded to sport competitions such as the Olympic Games, as indices of Cold War progress, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, was rivaled in the public realm only by the competitive space programs of the United States and Soviet Union. This is well captured in her chapters on the situation of the aggressive, muscular male body within the broader context of popular culture and the more recent consumption of various forms of hypermasculinity through movies, television, and advertizing. From James Bond, through Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Mike Tyson, consumers in the last decades of the 20th century have been bombarded with images of the aggressive, violent, muscular man as cultural icon. Congruent to thematic video games and spectacle entertainment such as professional wrestling, roller derby, and the American Gladiators, professional sport leagues such as the NFL and NHL market such exemplars of manhood to spectators and merchandise consumers alike. A corollary of this, as Burstyn argues, is a broader emphasis on asocial, hypercompetitive behaviour and a process of dehumanization in sport subcultures which stems from playing through pain, ingesting steroids, celebrating misogynous and homophobic attitudes, and generally disregarding personal health and the well being of others.

As a further consequence to the widespread celebration of these culturally exalted forms of manhood, the competitive aspirations and participation of women and ‘inferior’ men are devalued and alternative forms of physical prowess are viewed as second rate. Non-participants benefit both vicariously and in their daily social relationships from such gendered associations. Burstyn has amply demonstrated that subordinate masculinities have historically been positioned as ‘feminized’ in and outside of the sporting world; but with respect to the issue of such anxieties and crises in masculinity, Mike Donaldson (1993, p. 655) has appropriately reminded us that, “[p]atriarchal capitalism delivers the sense, before a man of whatever masculinity even climbs out of bed in the morning, that he is ‘better’ than half of humankind” (“ What is hegemonic masculinity?” Theory and Society 22: 643-57).

Exploring the social organization of sport, itself, for understanding the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity in 20th century culture has been a valuable point of departure for scholars such as R.W. Connell and Michael Messner. However, Burstyn devotes space more generally to linkages between the metaphors of war, the masculinized sexual overtones of popular culture, public violence, and how they relate to the most popular sport forms.

The strength of Burstyn’s work, delivered through an effective, accessible writing style, is in her ability to draw together a comprehensive literature which places many of the important arguments about sport and masculinity - including Cold War politics, large scale commercialization, violence, drugs, sexuality, and the globalized media - into a relevant historical and sociological context. The Rites of Men begs for more interdisciplinary, substantive studies on the specific historical relationship between sport and sexuality but, nonetheless, undergraduates, academics, and the general public will find this book to be valuable.

Kevin B. Wamsley
The University of Western Ontario
March-April 2000
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