Weekly Link Roundup: 4/14/16

Our collection of thought-provoking, discussion-sparking reads.

  • How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy: “[Sheryl] Sandberg and [Kim] Kardashian are perceived by most to be opposites, two aesthetically distinct brands fighting for our allegiance, when each has pioneered a similar, punish­ingly individualistic, market-driven understanding of women’s worth, responsibility and strength. In the world of women’s empowerment, they say the same thing differently: that our radical capability is mainly our ability to put money in the bank.”

  • Who Disrupts the Disruptors? We Need to Change the Way We Talk About Innovation: “The culture of disruption’s American Dream 2.0—where you can both be the man and claim to be sticking it to him—glosses over the fact that the type of innovation venerated by disruption culture often works to keep white men in positions of power and strengthens our relationship to instant-access consumerism. More importantly, it lacks critical engagement with the processes of disruption and the values being advanced by those we call disruptors.”
  • What ‘white folks who teach in the hood’ get wrong about education: “There’s a teacher right now in urban America who’s going to teach for exactly two years and he’s going to leave believing that these young people can’t be saved,” says Dr. Chris Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “So he’s going to find another career as a lawyer, get a job in the Department of Education or start a charter school network, all based on a notion about these urban youth that is flawed. And we’re going to end up in the same cycle of dysfunction that we have right now. Something’s got to give.”
  • Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest: “As men continue to fall behind women in college, while outpacing them four to one in the suicide rate, some colleges are waking up to the fact that men may need to be taught to think beyond their own stereotypes.”
  • More Than One Medical Student at UVA Believes Black People Don’t Feel Pain“The researchers found that half of the sample endorsed at least one of the false [medical] beliefs [about black patients], and those who endorsed these beliefs were more likely to report lower pain ratings for the black vs. white patient, and were less accurate in their treatment recommendations for the black vs. white patient.”

Big Sound Saturdays: Tired Man, Vol. 1

Welcome, pals, to the dustbin of history; the never-ending tale of the Tired Man! The story of men being “fed up with it” is just called “History:” “Make it new!” quoth irate facist Ezra Pound, and modernism gets an audience! Fuck capitalism!, quoth Marx, and the dancing table becomes commodity magic! I know it’s glib to refract a broad moral history through the single lens of male fatigue, but what I’m saying is that these songs of men feeling bored and agitated and sleepy—mostly, obviously, because of a woman—cast a broader, and deeper, line when they get all shuffled together.

Punchin’ cows sure don’t arouse me anymore

I’m getting’ tired of listenin’ to the coyotes snore

Oh, sleepin’ on the Rio Grande is makin’ him snore –

I’m a tired cowboy

Just a tired guy!

Welcome, pals, to the dustbin of history; the never-ending tale of the Tired Man! The story of men being “fed up with it” is just called “History:” “Make it new!” quoth irate facist Ezra Pound, and modernism gets an audience! Fuck capitalism!, quoth Marx, and the dancing table becomes commodity magic! I know it’s glib to refract a broad moral history through the single lens of male fatigue, but what I’m saying is that these songs of men feeling bored and agitated and sleepy—mostly, obviously, because of a woman—cast a broader, and deeper, line when they get all shuffled together. Continue reading “Big Sound Saturdays: Tired Man, Vol. 1”

Boys in Cafés

More or less true vignettes from the lives of E.L. and S.A., of boys prepared to impress.



Edouard Manet, Chez le Pére Lathuille

More or less true vignettes from the lives of E.L. and S.A.

Waiting for your drinks in a crowded café, the man next to you pulls a dog-eared copy of High Fidelity from his pocket, angling the cover toward you. You wonder if his bad haircut is a self-conscious attempt to emulate John Cusack, or is simply a happy coincidence.



He – stocking cap, linen pants, bemused smile – approaches the table where you are preparing for class with a volume of Kant only to say that he, too, once read continental philosophy before he discovered the true “embodied philosophy” of yoga. From now on, you read all books in public with the spine flat on the table.



On your first date he asks you what kind of soul you think you have. He’s a romantic soul, he says. A lover, like Jim Morrison.



He uses a $1 bill as a bookmark in his copy of Infinite Jest. This he keeps casually on his nightstand, though you’ve never seen the bookmark move.



Your seatmate on a flight to L.A. watches The Seventh Seal on his laptop. He makes a production of turning the subtitles off.



Before you have sex he tells you what all his tattoos mean.



A barista once told you that he decided to get a masters degree in Medieval literature because it “shares a lot of resonances” with Men’s Rights literature. You don’t tell him what motivated your graduate degree.



He finds your taste in music really impressive.



His okcupid profile begins with two quotes, one by Adrianne Riche and one by Ernest Hemingway.



Your neighbor invites you to a party that he calls a “salon” where you play surrealist party games. He tells you how much it would mean to him if you read Death in Venice. The copy he gives you is the one he borrowed from you months ago.



What a shame it is, he says wistfully, that he wasn’t raised more like Thomas Jefferson, who could read and write Latin by age 10. What he couldn’t have done with an eighteenth century education.



He says he wants to write a novel about the Human Condition.



You discover years later that all those profound aphorisms he used to write in your notebook were actually just unattributed Weezer lyrics.


A Feminist Watches WWE: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pro Wrestling

April’s WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view event featured a “Kiss Me Arse” match between Sheamus and Dolph Ziggler. A relatively minor interlude between the pre-show warmup and the main event, lasting only two minutes longer than the Divas (women’s) match which is traditionally always the shortest of the night, it was designed as a piece of fluff to keep the crowd’s attention until the real action happened. As the name suggests, the rules of this particular match prescribe that the loser must kiss the winner’s ass.

Dolph Ziggler, a tanned bleach-blond, conquered the pale Irish Sheamus and proceeded to chase him around the ring with his ass exposed while Sheamus made a show of pure and abject horror. Finally, in a pretty predictable turnaround Sheamus ignored the rules of the match and forced Ziggler’s face against his ass. The match itself was relatively boring compared to the five minutes in which Sheamus and then Ziggler in turn hurled themselves around the ring dry-heaving at the prospect of putting their mouths where their hands had just been during the match. After nine minutes of sweaty muscle-on-muscle action, both had to perform homosexual panic as if they hadn’t just been pressed against each other’s bodies in any number of compromising positions.

Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus promo for WWE “Extreme Rules”
Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus promo for WWE “Extreme Rules”

The Kiss Me Arse match beautifully dramatizes one of the most enchanting things about mainstream pro wrestling: both the wrestlers and the audience must negotiate the close proximity of male bodies in a highly performative event in a way that both plays on but leaves normative masculinity (more or less) intact. It’s a subtle dance, especially in a space in which the male body is so fetishistically focused on.

Like many women, I suspect, I begrudgingly began to watch pro wrestling because my boyfriend does.* Before that, the only thing I knew about wrestling was that The Rock—featured on a poster on my elementary school cafeteria wall—got his start in the erstwhile WWF before transitioning to action movies. Before I began to watch in earnest, I dismissed pro wrestling for many of the standard reasons: it’s sexist and racist, female wrestlers are both marginalized and subject to the male gaze, the narrative moments are both contrived and inconsistent, and nationalism and violence are fetishized for easy pops.

And these things are true on the surface. But the point is that wrestling is all surface, all performance, all glitz. The entire production is so self-consciously performed that even the more unsavory aspects of its operation become caricatures of themselves. It’s difficult to read Ziggler and Sheamus’s homosexual panic as anything other than a cheeky jab at the undisguised homoeroticism of the wrestling enterprise itself—as, that is, a reminder to the viewer that the pleasure of the spectacle is precisely the sweaty grind of two (or more) muscular beefcakes.

Masculinity occupies a strange position as the golden calf of the pro wrestling world. Both the privileged fetish and the false god of the ring, it must continually be set up as a sacred image only to be spectacularly revealed as empty. This is not to say that an empty masculinity is by necessity barren or vapid. In fact, in the hands of the WWE’s stable of talent masculinity becomes a deeply captivating and seductive exhibition, but one that is nevertheless produced insistently on the surface as image, persona and drama.

There is no such thing as essence in the world of wrestling.

In the 90s when academic queer theory was just beginning to codify itself, the drag queen held a privileged position in the canon for the way she revealed the non-essential and performative aspects of gender. We’ve talked about this before at Acro. Judith Butler, the fairy godmother of queer theory, suggests that the drag queen is a particularly apt way to think about “gender performativity” and citationality precisely because she proves that gender has no essential tie to bodies or body parts but is rather continually reproduced in repetitive acts of performance and language (hailing someone as “she,” for instance).

I find this both compelling and a little gross. Historically, queer theory has had a way of objectifying drag queens and trans* people in order to prove theoretical points about gender as if drag performance and trans* identity were a theoretical rather than deeply personal identity. Luckily, however, the same point about gender performativity can be made using any number of figures—there is nothing theoretically essential about the drag queen, although early queer theory paradoxically seemed to treat her as such. Since the 90s, the canon has expanded to include drag kings and other forms of what Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity,” meant to reveal perverse and prosthetic aspects of normative masculinity.

Enter pro-wrestling.  Masculinity is as much a prop in the wrestling ring as it is on the floor of a drag king show. An image to be lovingly lambasted and playfully ribbed by friends who love you for your flaws.

Wrestling is a show. Devoted to neither narrative continuity nor pure athletic exhibition, it has too much plotting to be a sport and not enough control to be a dance. While every wrestler in the promotion is undoubtedly a talented athlete, the true mark of success in the WWE is the ability to captivate crowds with one’s persona. Impressive moves mean very little if the crowd isn’t invested in the outcome of a match. Whether the audience loves a wrestler or loves to hate him, charisma is paramount.

Beyond the pleasure of watching talented and buff men dance around each other in twenty minutes of choreographed violence, one of the joys of the WWE spectacle is the unabashed absurdity of the narratives and characters. There are good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) which change sides as the match-ups dictate, and the heels seem always to be trying to take over the world one wrestling match at a time. The personas are playful and occasionally compelling, but their job is to get the crowd interested. Before he became the iconic America-loving face, for example, one of John Cena’s early personas was as an evil rapper playing on levels of gender and race that eventually disappeared as his persona became more vanilla.

The point here is that the playfulness with which these wrestlers negotiate performance, masculinity and race is precisely the thing that makes them so compelling. Pro wrestling is a special space in which more or less normative audiences get the chance to enjoy the kind of play with masculinity that is thought to only exist in queer spaces. Violence might provide a plausible cover for the obvious queerness investing the wrestling ring, but it cannot erase the pleasure we get from watching beefcakes simper and strut.

Ric Flair, a wildly popular heel for over four decades, is a perfect example of the ways in which masculinity is revealed as a performance in the very moment of its exaltation. After sustaining a back injury in a plane crash in the 70s, Flair modified his persona and style to accommodate a lower-impact performance. Known for talking big game while avoiding actual time in the ring, Flair carried the crowd’s affection almost exclusively on the power of his charismatic persona.

Ric Flair in his legendary robes
Ric Flair in his legendary robes

Almost disturbingly blond, he was known for showing up to the ring in wildly bejeweled, custom-made robes to throw shade at his opponent before ducking out again. From brawler to “chicken-shit heel” (a technical term), and macho even in feathers and rhinestones, Flair is quintessential WWE masculinity.

In a famous promo spot, Flair performs this masculinity as only a pro wrestler could: aggressive but cheeky, excessive yet charming, abbreviated with energetic Woos! “Last year,” he begins, “I spent more money on spilt liquor in bars from one side of this world to the other than you make. You’re talkin’ to the Rolex wearin’, diamond ring wearin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, limousine ridin’, jet flyin’ son of a gun.”

Between the Rolex and the gun I count five different phallic symbols in a single sentence. The sheer number of times Flair identifies himself with the phallus reveals both his masculinity and the phallus itself as effects of performance. It’s not quite that he’s compensating for something—since to compensate is to contain a hidden depth that in the case of pro wrestling does not exist—but rather that he is reveling in the empty flatness of his persona through which the phallus becomes another prop in the performance rather than a core quality in need of protection.

The queerness of Flair’s performance is, in many ways, what has sustained his popularity over the decades. A trend I have noticed in my relatively short time watching wrestling is that performers with normative masculinity are far less beloved than those who embrace their flamboyance. John Cena, for instance, has a strikingly normative persona—macho, nationalistic, sporting jean shorts (the straightest of all sartorial options) and a dull smirk—that is also notoriously boring. Consistently booed by audiences despite playing the good guy, he is simply too normal to incite good will. Young children are the only demographic that like him, perhaps because he has the feel of a superhero, but his earnestness and apparent lack of ironic distance seem to rub adult audiences the wrong way.

Queerness seems to be the standard condition of the wrestling world. Even lady’s man personas such as The Rock’s are a little bit queer. His act is insolent and precious, and his famous raised eyebrow expresses a brand of masculinity that cannot take itself seriously.

The Rock and his eyebrow
The Rock and his eyebrow

The WWE offers a popular space in which queerness can be embraced and masculinity can be enjoyed as a performance. It is a space in which straight boys can take pleasure in watching sweaty men tussle and prance. It is a space in which violence is not provoked by the threat of queerness but is, in fact, the condition for queer performance itself.


*A boyfriend whose vast body of knowledge about wrestling, it should be said, I have to thank for making this piece possible.

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