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  • Writer's pictureSaurabh Nagpal

When in Sport, Masculinity meets Nationalism

When in Sport, Masculinity meets Nationalism: Understanding how the Nexus between Sport, Hegemonic Masculinity, and Nationalism plays out in the Media

Having been associated with a sport – cricket – formally since my early childhood, I lived through the socialization process that boys undergo in sports academies, naturally without realising what I was experiencing. At times, I would be unsettled about something that was said or done amongst the boys in and around the field. However, seeing that such behaviour was regarded as acceptable by my peers and seniors, I doubted myself. Later, with more education and experiences, I came across phrases like normative conventions of masculinity and patriarchy, among others, and my past doubts made more sense. Hence, the basis of my choice of topic stems from the want to learn more about these concepts, and how they are reproduced in sport. In order to construct its argument, this essay would look at existing literature on hegemonic masculinity, nationalism, the linkage of these two concepts with sport, and the role that media plays in this nexus. To do so, it would draw upon the works of Nagel (1995), Jansen and Sobo (1994), Trujillo (1991), Bairner (1996), among numerous other relevant scholars. Another objective of the essay would be to substantiate the theory with real-life examples from the world of sports. Finally, the essay would conclude that the relation between hegemonic masculinity, nationalism, militarism, and sport is an intricate one. Also, the role that mainstream media plays in conserving and reinforcing the principles of these concepts is fundamental.

R.W. Connell’s work on masculinity has been integral in gender studies, and has served as a springboard for subsequent scholars to build on. She defines hegemonic masculinity as ‘the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy’ (Connell 1995: 77). For Kalman-Lamb (2020: 242), the notion of hegemonic masculinity denotes how ‘patriarchal domination is exercised through a privileged masculine subject position’. The connection of Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to the understanding of masculinity pinpoints the structural – rather than the individual – nature of male dominance in our society (Kalman-Lamb 2020).

Glass (2008: 16) asserts that hegemonic masculinity outlines ‘what it means to be “a man” within a particular society’. Nagel (1995: 245) adds that it involves a constant overt display of strength, ‘discipline’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘stoicism’, and ‘sexual virility tempered with restraint’ alongside rejecting ideals like ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity.’ For Trujillo (1991: 291), ‘power defined in terms of physical force and control’ and ‘occupational achievement in an industrial capitalistic society’ are important indicators of hegemonic masculinity. Moreover, most commonly, hegemonic masculinity finds articulation negatively, that is, by otherizing and subordinating women and those displaying the so-called lesser masculinities such as homosexual people, among others (Hardin et al 2009; Jansen and Sobo 1994). Huebenthal (2013: 17) perceives ‘the hatred of the feminine’ as one of the central markers of hegemonic masculinity.

As can be inferred from Connell’s (1995) above-mentioned definition, hegemonic masculinity is a dynamic social construct that changes and adapts as per time and space. However, despite its clear markers, it is not feasible to utterly abide by the terms of hegemonic masculinity (Huebenthal 2013), and yet it remains a normative, controlling principle (eg: Huebenthal 2013; Kalman-Lamb 2020; Nagel 1995) that is constantly defended, performed, and reinforced (Hardin et al 2009; Huebenthal 2013). Kalman-Lamb (2020: 242) puts it succinctly when he claims that it is easier to understand hegemonic masculinity ‘in terms of what it represents rather than who has it’.

Because of the unstable nature of hegemonic masculinity and its dependence on the perpetual need to contrast and oppress, Hardin et al (2009: 185, 197) argue that ‘masculinity is crisis’ and ‘crisis is integral to its maintenance’. The sports/media complex is one of the pivotal institutions that works to solve the crisis and encourages adherence to norms of hegemonic masculinity (Hardin et al 2009). It is an arena where violent and dominant depictions of conventional maleness are legitimated (Kalman-Lamb 2020). Thus, in this process, it also shapes the audiences’ sense of acceptable masculinity (Trujillo 1991).

Corrigan (2014) delineates how private and corporate takeover of media in a capitalist society, in order to favourably shape the public consciousness, not only imposes limits on what the media can put out in the public sphere but also incentivises media organisations to shed their role as the watchdogs in a democratic society, and instead look out for their own material interests. One of the direct consequences of this phenomenon is that the mainstream media, especially sports media, functions as a socializing agent (Corrigan 2014). ‘Media accounts accentuate and celebrate sports’ idealized capitalist structures’, in the process, glorifying and preserving the conventional masculine values that are commonplace in most sports (Corrigan 2014: 44). Expanding on the institutional control over media, Corrigan (2014) also elucidates that broadcasters are sanctioned to criticise the in-game play, however, questioning the larger structures or socio-politico events associated with the sport is restricted.

Harris and Clayton (2012) highlight that ‘the neglect of female athletes’ in media is a common practice in sport. In a similar vein, Jansen and Sobo (1994: 10) argue that the notion of lionizing male athletes and elevating them as heroes carries in itself the idea that ‘masculine’ contributions are more significant than ‘feminine’ ones. Furthermore, men and women players are often portrayed hypocritically in the media, especially tabloid media, wherein the masculine status of the former is either celebrated and/or protected while a patronizing lens is employed to frame the latter (Harris and Clayton 2012; Trujillo 1991). Additionally, to satiate the gaze of the male audience, the representation of women athletes is often trivialized and sexualized (Trolan 2013). A consequence of such representation is that women players consistently confront a paradox. They have to showcase masculine qualities in order to succeed because ‘sport is classified as a masculine domain’ and yet keep making significant efforts to exhibit their femininity in the media by, for example, ‘posing nude in magazines, wearing very long manicured fingernails, etc’ so as to get acceptance in the society as a woman athlete (Glass 2008: 20). Disagreeing to comply with these standards is a significantly difficult task because sports media depicts ‘alternatives to [hegemonic masculinity] as unconventional or deviant’ (Trujillo 1991: 293).

Having defined hegemonic masculinity and analysed its linkage with sport, from here on, the essay would shift its focus to nationalism and its association with hegemonic masculinity and sport.

Nagel (1995: 247) discerns nationalism as ‘a goal to achieve statehood’ and ‘nationhood’ simultaneously. The objective of statehood is to attain and/or maintain the land’s status as a nation-state, this therefore often requires the services of armed forces (Nagel 1995). The aim of nationhood on the other hand is ‘nation-building’, which involves constructing a community in the nation-state’s geographical region through an imagined history and traditions (Nagel 1995: 247). Thus, this process ‘of defining a community’ and ‘articulating national character’ would comprise of selection and rejection, or in other words, unifying and otherizing (Nagel 1995: 248). Because of nationalism’s reliance on the force of the military and the process of otherizing, ‘the culture and ideology of hegemonic masculinity’ is closely intertwined with the ‘ideology of hegemonic nationalism’ (Nagel 1995: 249). Highlighting the similar historical roots of the two concepts, Enloe (1990: 45) remarks ‘nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope’.

Sport and nationalism also share an intricate relationship. The latter is concerned about a citizen’s feelings regarding an imagined community, while the former smoothly serves as the element that represents the ‘most tangible indications of a nation’s very existence’ (Bairner 1996: 315). Historically, nation-states have often utilized sport for ‘securing legitimacy’ and ‘enhancing prestige’ (Bairner 1996: 315). However, it has also been deployed to exacerbate social divisions (Bairner 1996). For instance, because of the long-standing political hostility between India and Pakistan, India’s governing body for regulating cricket, warned former foreign international players against taking part in the Kashmir Premier League, a cricket tournament administered by Pakistan’s cricket board, if they wanted any potential cricket-related work in India (Ghani 2021).

Emphasizing the relationship between sport, war, and nationalism, George Orwell, infamously, proclaimed that international sport is equivalent to ‘war minus the shooting’ (Bowes and Bairner 2013: 6). While Nagel (1995: 247) indicates that militarism and nationalism ‘go hand in hand’, Jansen and Sobo (1994) specify how similar the socialization process is for soldiers and athletes, and how male-dominated both these fields are. For instance, Huebenthal (2013: 5) professes that American football is the sport which ‘weds’ violent masculinity to nationalism. Huebenthal (2013: 50) also contends that ‘images of nationalism and militarism’ surrounding the Super Bowl valorize physical violence and give legitimacy to hegemonic American masculinity while ‘denigrating others’.

Furthermore, various kinds of media also capitalise on this association amongst military, nationalism, and sport. This is perceptible in the (mis)use of sport/war metaphors, as established by Jansen and Sobo (1994). Depicting the prevalence of ‘sportspeak’ in the government, the military, and war journalism, Jansen and Sobo (1994: 3, 10) argue that sport/war metaphors are ‘deeply entrenched in the narrative structures of sport media’ and represent and promote the codes of hegemonic masculinity in the society. Critiquing the use of such language during the Persian Gulf War, they hold that sport is at times used to advocate for war, while war also supports the ideals of sport.

Vincent and Kian (2014: 299) construe how the sport-nationalism-media troika is an important junction where ‘cultural ideologies about national identities’ are produced and strengthened. The power of selecting narratives, which function as connecting points for an imagined community, is often used by the mass media to overtly frame ‘us vs them’ plots in order to create and bolster a hostile in-group feeling within the national community (Vincent and Kian 2014). For instance, Star Sports India’s trend of running patronizing and vengeful ad campaigns for promoting India’s national cricket team seeks to create and encash the ‘us vs them’ division (Gill 2021).

Earlier in the essay, it was noted that sport often assumes the role of a socializing agent (Corrigan 2014). Alongside that, Corrigan (2014: 44) argues that sports events and the chatter surrounding them also work like distracting agents that keep ‘spectators distracted from more pressing social and political issues’. For example, the 1978 Men’s FIFA World Cup was played in Argentina during the period of state terrorism known as ‘the Dirty War’ – a time when the nation was being run by a brutal military dictatorship (Bensinger 2018).

Another manner in which nations and media exploit sport for the intent and purposes discussed throughout the essay is by creating sports icons or heroes, and then representing them advantageously. Trujillo (1991) states that the media worships the male athletes who embody the features of hegemonic masculinity while reproaching those who do not. Bowes and Bairner (2013: 10), observe that male athletes can be perceived as ‘proxy warriors’. Corporates and media houses often employ the connection between sporting heroes and the nation to market their interests (Glichrist 2004). Such heroes are necessary for exporting a nation’s image globally besides helping in socializing the audience at home, especially the youth (Gilchrist 2004). Vincent and Kian (2014: 300) advance that mega-sport events like the Olympics and World Cups enable nations to not only showcase their sporting talent, but also their ‘political, economic, and cultural exceptionalism’ through their athletes.

Analysing the position of cricket in India, Appadurai (2014: 21) maintains that through the ‘convergence of state, media, and private-sector interests’ cricket has become synonymous with India, and engaging with the sport in any capacity (including viewing) is attached to the ‘erotics of nationhood’, especially for males. Kavoori (2021: 3), indulging in ‘a mode of nationalist viewing’, unpacks the careers of several Indian cricket ‘heroes’ and reveals how they reflected or were represented in the media to reflect the contemporary moment of nationalist politics.

For instance, Sunil Gavaskar, who retired in 1987, that is, just before the liberalisation of the economy, embodied the in-betweenness that the nation was experiencing, both in his manner of play and image in media (Kavoori 2021). Another example can be Tendulkar: emerging as an icon post-liberalization and during a period of rising far-right, majoritarian politics, his compliance to both consumerism and ‘essentialized Hinduism’ echoed the dominant discourse of the country (Kavoori 2021: 9; Nalapat and Parker 2005).

In conclusion, through the viewpoints and arguments developed and discussed in the essay, it can be inferred that the linkage between ideologies like hegemonic masculinity and nationalism and institutions like sport and media is not linear. All these elements conflate with one another to celebrate, reinforce, and also protect the codes that have constructed the status quo. Because of the convoluted and institutional nature of sport and media, the underlying presence of principles of dominant masculinity and nationalism is not always explicitly perceptible in certain events. However, as demonstrated in the essay through real-life sporting examples, sometimes the masks covering these phenomena come off, and the socializing, distractive, protective role of media and sport is revealed. Thus, as a concerned citizen, sports fan/player, and/or scholar, it becomes imperative to learn about these concepts in depth.


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