The Fragility of Western Masculinity
Some of the questions raised by this article were followed up here: Do Women have a Commitment Advantage in Muay Thai This post also lead to me writing about the Myth of Overtraining and how Endurance is a Skill.
There’s a type of dude who frequently appears in the gym in Thailand, looking to fight in Muay Thai. Usually these guys already have a few fights under their belts and are in close-to-fighting-shape. I specify that they’re “close to” fighting shape because these guys rarely identify themselves as being already in shape, or where they would want to be to fight. From the outside, they’re all fit enough to get in the ring. But there’s a particularly western hesitation around “fight shape” wherein the guy perceives himself as always being just shy of this perfect state of physical stamina in which fighting takes place. But he’s passively outside of it; he’s always waiting to be fit enough rather than actually putting his nose to the grinder and getting himself into the shape he thinks he should be in in order to step in the ring.
Another trait of this variation on western masculinity is that the body – while admittedly not in perfect form at this very moment – is a fine-tuned and highly volatile machine. Any little thing can set off the perfect equilibrium of this high-octane motor; a single rough night of sleep, for example can throw the whole thing out of whack and it’s like starting over. A hard day of sparring results in three days away from the gym to recoup because someone has put diesel in the gas tank of a Ferrari. God only knows how delicate these fine-tuned engines might be when they’re actually in fight shape, rather than just on the periphery of it.
This is not an attitude shared by Thais. Muay Thai fighters absolutely do take care of themselves, most of them eating well, resting well and avoiding alcohol and drugs far better than most western men do who consider themselves serious fighters, but who don’t seem able to untangle the “vacation” from the training regimen. But Thais aren’t taking three mornings off in order to recover from one night of bad sleep. Thais aren’t waiting until they’re in shape to schedule a fight, they’re actively getting in shape as best they can before the already-scheduled fight date arrives. It’s a different mind-set. And it’s fine to have opposing ideas about physical fitness – just look at how many fads there are in the west about the “best” way to exercise, eat, avoid carbs, down supplements, etc. What really pisses me off about the western male’s physical ideology is that he faces the difference between himself and Thais with what feels like an undercurrent of racism that is largely unacknowledged. “That’s fine for the Thais,” they say, “they’ve been doing this since they were children,” with an implicit suggestion that Thai bodies are beasts of burden that can handle the workload that white, western, mostly middle-class bodies simply can’t. But it’s not identified as weakness that the western body can’t handle it, rather it’s the issue of the fine-tuned machine versus a tractor. They’re not built the same.
I believe this is a completely unconscious form of racism, and it’s one shared by Thais as well but directed toward the Isaan body (the buffalo, the laborer) vs. the femeur fighter that’s technical and beautiful, long bodied and rangy. (You can read about this in “Thai Boxing: Networking of a Polymorphous Clinch” by Rennesson) It also makes sense that someone who has been training in Muay Thai for 10 years by the age of 18 is well ahead of the game of a westerner who at 25 has been training, probably only a few hours per week rather than hours upon hours ever day, for a few years. But the recognition that “they’ve been doing this since they were children,” is not an acknowledgement of how the process has toughened these fighters. If it were recognition of all the work put in already then the western male would be admitting that he just has to work harder to be more like the Thais. Instead he’s using it as an excuse to take it easy, to wade in slowly and not disrupt his complex corporal composition. The suggestion, rather than being a hat tip toward years of hard work, is more directed at how Thais are bred for this kind of work, they have a kind of racial disposition to it. Again, I don’t believe this is a conscious consideration on the part of westerners; I don’t think it’s a conscious racism. But there is a definite distinction between what those bodies do and what our bodies require.
I want to fully acknowledge and own that I may be promoting a brand of masculinity that is old-fashioned and perhaps even makes me an asshole. I certainly don’t appreciate men waxing poetic about what femininity should look like or be, but I also believe those voices have meaning to themselves, even if I don’t give a damn what they’re spouting. So, with that disclaimer, the kind of masculinity that I’m drawn to, that I love, appreciate, admire and respect – perhaps even aspire to – is the kind that bears the struggle. I don’t mind the kind of posturing that comes from a guy who knows he isn’t yet what he could be, so he fakes it because he acknowledges the possibility that he could be this, that he will become it. I actually like cockiness (not universally, but it’s certainly a theme in the kinds of masculinity that I look to) because it’s the kind of posturing that has at the front of it an ideal. It’s a kid wearing a plastic super-hero mask. What I can’t stand is the guy who eats his own bullshit so feverishly that he actually believes it himself; he’s not even posturing. There is struggle in masculinity. The cowboy is not convinced of his own toughness but is instead convinced of his own ability to withstand, again and again, the process of toughening. The kind of masculinity I see come through the gyms here doesn’t struggle; it refuses to struggle. It pats itself on the back for all the hard work that takes place in every tense except the present.
And I’m not saying that masculinity is not varied, and I’m certainly not claiming that it’s all Spartan drills, all day. Two of the most potent examples of Thai masculinity at Lanna, who happen to be young men at the start of their 20’s, sat in the middle of the shadowboxing area while one cried into his own knees and the other just draped his upper body around the shoulders of his friend. The one crying had just broken up with his girlfriend and the other was comforting him –just being there. This wasn’t a weak moment, it wasn’t in contrast to their masculine performances in the gym – it was a complement to it. The struggle of being tough when one is not feeling tough had already played out in the gym a thousand times before that. I don’t think that these western men are pitiful examples of masculinity because they’re not screaming “rub some dirt in it!” as a solution to pain. Rather, it’s because they’re so afraid to break a sweat, because they build the fence so far in front of their real vulnerabilities so that they’re never challenged, that they end up wanting credit for being sensitive without ever letting anything touch the nerve.
Countless times I exchanged a look with Den while he held pads for me and we shared the ring with one or two western men. These guys were almost always doing their padwork with Nook, who plants himself in the women’s ring at first bell and is usually the last to leave it. Nook is tricky. He will tease his students by pulling pads that he’s just extended, causing you to miss your shot and he’ll laugh and giggle at you while he lightly taps you on an opening. It’s confusing at first, then enraging, a little humiliating, and after a very long time and some self-reflection, pretty fun and actually very instructive. But the response to Nook’s shenanigans run the gamut and often times men get really frustrated with him. He’s basically mocking you for 25 minutes and if you don’t decide to be in on the joke then you are the joke. So how these men react to Nook can be quite comical – in a misanthropic sense. You’ll see them huff and puff and try to throw their shots harder when they miss, which of course just makes them miss harder. Then they get tired and perform the “I’m so exhausted” act that comes from wanting a way out. Den and I would look at each other and shake our heads; he because he was genuinely baffled – these responses are all very un-Thai, which favors never showing any frustration or pain at all – and I because I wanted him to know that this is not a universal trait of western males.
Resilience and Anti-Fragile
There is a distinction between Thai masculinities and western masculinities as they come face-to-face in the Muay Thai gyms in Thailand and I contend that it’s less to do with the difference of culture than the difference of class. The Thai men populating Muay Thai gyms and stadium rings are generally lower-class and the westerners who come for the training experience are middle-class, which, relative to this area of the world, is very wealthy indeed. In my part of the west, the US, we definitely take our cues of manliness from the more “rugged” lower class. Being a gentleman is something else – that is manly – but markers for masculinity are squared in the physicality and volatility of men on the verge of the “come up,” the hustle. The middle- to upper-class fellow is more inclined to worry about his physique in a manner of grooming and fueling – “man-scaping” and optimizing his access to trending food sensitivities and organic produce. The lower-class fellow probably just wants to make a sure enough first impression that is physically powerful, to be physically intimidating enough that he’s not messed with while walking down the street. The middle-class romanticizes this lower-class ideal with depictions of the gangster, the thug, the rancher or ranger and indeed the boxer. But Rocky Balboa, Mike Tyson, and tough guys in movies are not reading up on their supplement regimen or whether HIIT methods are better “hacks” than high-weight/low-rep. These iconic hard men and tough guys are standing in the fire and becoming tough as nails under the pressure of their environments. Without that pressure, would Rocky ever become Rocky? Would Bruce Wayne just be another privileged corporate heir?
This, I believe, is what we’re looking at in western masculinity. There’s fragility in it. Absolutely these guys are spending hours in the gym learning a skill or an art form, getting bulked up or leaned out, but doing so in the absence of pressure. The ideal is there, it’s recognizable, but the pressure under which such ruggedness is devised is absent. So when these men come in contact with real pressure, they buckle under it. The men upon whom the ideal is romantically shouldered were built out of the very fires of that furnace. They have been made not only resilient, which is the fortitude against breakage, but have become anti-fragile – the increasing resistance to breakage – by repeated pressure. (For a good run-down of anti-fragility see this article from The Art of Manliness, “Beyond ‘Sissy’ Resilience: On Becoming Antifragile”)
Picture the perfect vase. Its immaculate status is what makes it so high-priced, like how collectors never take toys out of the packaging and want no bends in the cardboard. But with no blemish the value is constantly at risk by just a single scratch or chip appearing on the vase. This is what men are facing in their masculinity. If the thing had been dropped 20 times and had chips and cracks and had been re-glued here and there it would be of less value in terms of condition veering away from mint – but the vase has less risk; it actually grows stronger after it breaks. (Say that in Bane voice.)
Men who build their fences so far out that they never come in contact with their breaking points end up in constant risk of shattering. More than even fearing pain, I see these men in fear of being tired – just being tired. So they don’t push themselves. Rather than starting with their toe at that line, which happens to be my own modus operandi, in order to feel what that limit is and begin pushing against it from the get-go, they instead build up as many safety nets as possible in order to never get near that limitation. So “kinda tired” becomes the stopping point, the whistle to halt everything and regroup.
This isn’t not masculine in the sense of it being feminine. Women don’t demonstrate this as part of their femininity, although there are obviously men and women who are this way. In fact, perhaps here is a good time to point out that I’m not calling these men unmasculine – the title of this post is about a type of masculinity, one that is marked by fragility. Fragility is not feminine; it’s just weak. My mother recently wrote a wonderful essay on her experiences and understandings of gender roles, divided and mixed between the sexes, as seen from her generation (she is in her 60s). At one point in her essay she explores women’s ability to just deal with something that needs to be done whereas, in her experience, men become encumbered by emotional responses to having to do something. This description of men points out a certain version of masculinity which illuminates what I’m trying to say:
“It’s like cat vomit. Women just clean it up. They feel disgusted, but it has to be done, like wiping baby butts. It has been my experience that most men, even if it’s their own cat, are angry at the cat for vomiting and making them deal with the mess. Having to clean up vomit cancels out any concern about why the cat is vomiting. And now the carpet has chemicals on it to mask where the vomit was. Women, who probably clean a lot more carpets than most men, know what’s on the carpet, remember when they last cleaned it, and simply make a mental note to clean it again earlier than they had planned.”
I see this all the time at the gym. Not cat vomit, but western men who feel cheated or pissed off by a sparring partner for accidentally causing a small injury or for whatever kept them up late at night, or a trainer for pushing him too hard in padwork. This attitude betrays a strong degree of passivity toward Muay Thai training, all these things happening to you, rather than a casualty of being engaged in a very active lifestyle of being a fighter. Rather than considering what caused the cat to throw up in the first place and if a remedy is required, it’s just a background to the obstacle at hand. Why are you so tired? Why is your foot smashed up from kicking an elbow? The obvious answer is because Muay Thai is exhausting and kicking elbows is a very common and perhaps – given a long enough timeline – inevitable mistake…perhaps stop kicking “up” in your kick. Cats get sick and more often just hack something up because that’s how cats work. If you train harder, if you push through the fatigue, you’ll be less tired next time. If you make sure the cat isn’t actually ill you’ll likely not have to clean up more vomit anytime soon.
Be a Man – Performance
I’m not claiming that there is only one kind of man and that men who don’t grunt and beat their chests are somehow not masculine. At first I was going to offer up a disclaimer about how I don’t want to come off as telling men that their gender should be performed this way or that way or that they’re failing by falling steadily in a gray area, but then I laughed because welcome to being a woman: we’re told by men what we should and shouldn’t be all the time. What I am saying is that in the world of Muay Thai and in the world of fighting, there are a lot of agreed-upon markers for what participation in that world entails, what being a fighter is coded to mean, and a lot of that is about masculinity. Men want credit for being brave, for being badass, for being tough and resilient and hard. And those are all things we code as masculine. I’m not making it up. And my participation in this world means I strive toward those things, too. I’m not unfeminine for being a fighter, but I am absolutely working with/within masculinity in all my endeavors to do with being a Muay Thai fighter. Masculinity is not only for men. What pisses me off is that there’s an assumption that male = masculine without actually doing anything. Which is maybe why this fragile masculinity I keep coming across is so infuriating.
Judith Butler, the American Philosopher and Gender Theorist, contends that gender is all performance. We’re all in drag and the gender identity of a person is not a natural, inborn destiny but rather a repeated (and re-repeated) choice. We are what we repeatedly do, as Aristotle put it. She is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean you can just put on a dress and be female and then when you put on trousers you’re a man. It’s a culmination and continuation of constant, habitual performance. And of course we borrow from and perform both sides.
And maybe the conscious decision is what I’m after here. I don’t see Muay Thai as simply, flatly masculine. I see the performance of masculinity in Muay Thai for what it is, which is hyper-masculinity. It’s not a natural oh-I’m-just-this-way kind of thing any more than performances of hyper-femininity are natural. There’s a wonderful Burlesque performer who calls herself a “female Female Impersonator,” which I think applies to hyper-masculinity as well. Someone who I consider one of the best performers of masculinity is actor Tom Hardy, generally typecast as an introverted, prone-to-violence tough guy. His characters aren’t uncomplicated and are often shifty, like animals baring their teeth when backed against a wall, which gives his particular presentation of masculinity an emotionally sensitive edge. His masculinity is present in the readiness to act, which makes his characters appear very volatile. But that’s what is powerful about these men he portrays, that he’ll put his hands on whatever is threatening him. I think that’s a trait fairly universally associated with masculinity, which is why the contemporary western men I see coming through who seem unwilling to act appear as a particularly fragile sort. When under pressure a fellow who says, “wait…. wait, I haven’t prepared yet, I have to go rest up and my arm kinda hurts and I think there’s something wrong with my ankle,” you wouldn’t generally consider him a threat. The “code of honor” that rules the Appalachian Mountains in the US and makes this particular breed of masculinity feel violent and hostile is that it’s quick to act. You cross a man and he corrects you immediately, you don’t dare cross that man again. That’s not “natural.” That’s a choice and a performance. When interviewed about being typecast as a masculine sort, Hardy actually identifies the performance as a kind of drag:
“A lot of people say I seem masculine, but I don’t feel it. I feel intrinsically feminine. I’d love to be one of the boys but I always felt a bit on the outside.
“Maybe my masculine qualities come from overcompensating because I’m not one of the boys.”
And maybe that’s what I’m getting at with all of this. I’m not a man. When I choose to do instead of hesitate and stall and wait-to-do, I’m doing so because that’s how the game of being a fighter is played. I don’t care whether these men feel insecure or have anxiety about their bodies; everybody does. What bothers me is that the attributes of a fighter, the bravery and fortitude, the strength and toughness, are coded as masculine and men think they can wear those labels simply by virtue of being men. Being rather than doing. The Thai men who are unbreakable are this way because they have done it countless times. Women, too.
I’m astonished by the fragility of this type of western male masculinity because it resides in the trenches of fear: fear of fatigue, fear of confrontation, fear of acting. As I’ve experienced it, a number of western men who completely identify themselves as fighters actually end up failing to do on a consistent basis. These guys feel like they’re working really hard but out of fear they never actually push past their limits. These guys identify as high-performance athletes but never want to take themselves out of the packaging for fear of damaging their fine-tuned physical engines. But the engine can’t actually do anything because it’s never pushed – you have a car that can go from 0-60 in a fraction of a second and it’s never left the garage. It’s still embodies all the things that a car like this is supposed to – it’s designed and maintained with all the associations of advanced technology and “horse power” machismo but it doesn’t go out on the road to do these things. It’s a token. Western masculinity is fragile because it rests behind a barrier with token masculinity as a front.
To be very clear, I am launching a tirade against a simplified expression of western masculinity within very complex and largely wonderful persons. These guys aren’t wimps; they’re not cowards. And the Thai masculinity against which I’m contrasting it is not universal, is also not simple, and certainly has myriad negative factors within it as well. I’m not talking about persons, who embody numerous and contradictory qualities. Rather, I’m talking about gender ideals and how they are constructed and performed. (That said, I have also met individuals who are heinous and egregious examples of poor character, cowardice, and the very worst constructs of masculinity. They have influenced these thoughts as well, but they are so far outside the mean that they deserve their own blog post.)
Cus D’Amato, the revered trainer of Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, explained how he always taught his fighters to embrace fear, rather than be paralyzed by it. He didn’t have the terminology for it, but what he was doing was making his fighters antifragile by having them constantly confront their fears, rather than distance themselves from them:
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning in any area, but particularly in boxing. For example, boxing is something you learn through repetition. You do it over and over and suddenly you’ve got it. …However, in the course of trying to learn, if you get hit and get hurt, this makes you cautious, and when you’re cautious you can’t repeat it, and when you can’t repeat it, it’s going to delay the learning process…When they…come up to the gym and say I want to be a fighter, the first thing I’d do was talk to them about fear…”
“The next thing I do, I get them in excellent condition….Knowing how the mind is and the tricks it plays on a person and how an individual will always look to avoid a confrontation with something that is intimidating, I remove all possible excuses they’re going to have before they get in there. By getting them in excellent condition, they can’t say when they get tired that they’re not in shape. When they’re in excellent shape I put them into the ring to box for the first time, usually with an experience fighter who won’t take advantage of them. When the novice throws punches and nothing happens, and his opponent keeps coming at him…the new fighter becomes panicky. When he gets panicky he wants to quit, but he can’t quit because his whole psychology from the time he’s first been in the streets is to condemn a person who’s yellow. So what does he do? He gets tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired, because they’re getting afraid….Now that he gets tired, people can’t call him yellow. He’s just too “tired” to go on. But let that same fighter strike back wildly with a visible effect on the opponent and suddenly that tired, exhausted guy becomes a tiger….It’s a psychological fatigue, that’s all it is. But people in boxing don’t understand that.” …[Heller, 61]
“… However, I should add that at no time does fear disappear. It’s just as bad in the hundredth fight as it was in the first, except by the time he reaches a hundred fights or long before that he’s developed enough discipline where he can learn to live with it, which is the object, to learn to live with it…”
Aside from how beautiful and profoundly insightful D’Amato’s explanation is here, I use it in the conclusion of this blog post to iterate an important point. Fear is not what is fragile about modern western masculinity. Fear is, as Cus uses it here for fighters and as I bring it forward to express something about a kind of masculinity, an integral and necessary part of it. The difference, then, between fragile and antifragile is that the former shapes itself at a distance from that fear whereas the latter takes shape within it. And out of this process the pressure and doing, the actions that are repeated in order to become something, do not ultimately make a man any more than the refusal to take part makes one not a man. What is forged out of this kind of masculinity is a stronger form of antifragility, a quality that I associate with the hyper-masculinity of Muay Thai fighters. Through this process you become more a fighter and less of whatever you were before.
If you found this post valuable, you may find this one interesting as well:
– for those who don’t follow me regularly, I’m an American woman who has trained and fought full time for the last two years in Thailand. In that time I’ve fought 67 times. These observations come from my time training in Thailand where the western male comes to prove themselves in what is taken to be the most brutal fighting sport: Muay Thai.