Sports and masculinity do often go hand in hand across the board in all media types. It’s in radio, film, literature, the press; you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The close relationship between masculinity and sports is arguably enforced tenfold through its common portrayal in the media; men, or masculinity as a whole, are commonly associated with physical activity, competitiveness, shows of brute strength, the list goes on. This overwhelming association with sports does, however, leave room for a critique of masculinity.
The most blatant example of this intersection between sports and masculinity in media is Fight Club, an original novel written by Chuck Palahniuk (and later adapted into a cult film by David Fincher) and released in the peak era of questioning just what it IS to be masculine: the mid-90s. The suburban dad trope, through films like Kindergarten Cop (1990), Junior (1994), and Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), amongst others, suddenly began to carve a path for itself in mainstream media. Notice how the first two films listed starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, previous bad-ass killing machine ‘The Terminator’ now turned doting dad. The ‘feminising’ (in traditional familial terms) of hypermasculine media figures into fathers, ‘maternal’ and femininely-coded figures, resulted in a ‘crisis of masculinity’, wherein defining what is masculine and what is not became… difficult, to say the least. In this moment of crisis, where do men, like Tyler Durden, Angel Face, Bob Paulson, and so on, turn to reinforce their masculinity? They turn to shows of strength, to physical prowess; they turn to sport, or specifically, to fight club.
Fight Club can be read as a satirical commentary on the ‘loss’ of these hypermasculine figures and indeed of hypermasculinity in itself, with its focus on men who are determined to regain their sense of masculine power. To reinforce themselves as masculine, independent from the society that seeks to ‘control them’ and in that effect more powerful than that society, these men have to… fight each other? Written down it seems even odder than it is. What’s most interesting about this novel and even the intersection between sports and masculinity as a whole, is that these arenas these men hold themselves within don’t really mean anything beyond the chains with which they bind themselves. These men can fight out their worries in a basement all they want, but beyond that ring, these fights do not mean anything beyond their own microcosmic world at that moment. Tyler encourages his men to ‘start a fight, prove you’re alive’, as if this sport is the be-all and end-all of their worth as people. Sport, and specifically victory in sport, is perceived as the peak of humanity’s performance when in reality that victory is restricted to the arena it was won within.
Through this irony, Fight Club, and other similar novels and media, reveal the truth of masculine worth from sportsmanship; unless you care as deeply about it as the winner does, it means nothing. Masculine power in sport is perceived as a farce, a dream of momentary authority over the world that’s gone as soon as someone lands the next winning punch. Masculinity as determined by one’s worth and skill in the realm of sport is defined, and ultimately destroyed, by that realm. Looking at these stories from an outsider perspective, these ‘winning’ men appear desperate, sad, powerless, and lost; it’s impossible not to feel some sort of pity for them in their fallacy.