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Masculinity

By estaszewski May 20, 2013 1715 Words
Masculinity; Not Something for the Average Joe
Take one look at a male biker, bodybuilder, or surfer and see if you can’t avoid at least some feeling of intimidation. Most people, men in particular, cannot overcome this challenge. The majority of men, despite what they may say, can’t help but to develop a sense of discomfort when put in the presence of these distinct figures. But what gives these iconic men such an intimidation factor? Is it a physical characteristic such as huge biceps or an abundance of tattoos? Or could it be an inner quality like the carefree, rebellious mindset shared by these men? Perhaps the source lies beyond internal and external traits. Maybe we shouldn’t be so interested in these people, but rather the surrounding components that define them as bikers, bodybuilders, and surfers. These can be identified as the motorcycles, surfboards, dumbbells, and accessories that make these men who they are. It is through these machines that an overwhelming amount of masculinity can be depicted as the result of superhuman performances and accomplishments caught on camera, leaving other men questioning their manliness and inspiring a desire to achieve such a level of masculinity.

The W170 Bodies in Motion: Surfers, Bikers, and Bodybuilders Photo Archive contains numerous pictures that give a closer look at these groups. One of these photos features a group of about eighteen bikers standing around their motorcycles, unaware of the picture being taken. By including their bikes in this picture, the entire image is shifted. The motorcycles instantly classify these people as “bikers” and the distance separating the viewer from the actual group labels them as a private motorcycle club or “gang”. This along with the common association between biker gangs and deviant activities cause many assumptions to be made by the viewer. This relates to Judith Halberstam’s “James Bond” theory in her book, Female Masculinity. Halberstam explains how it isn’t Bond’s character that comes off as masculine and heroic, but rather his seemingly endless supply of gadgets used throughout the movie (Halberstam 4). In other words if you take away James Bond’s gadgets, he’s just a man in a suit. Well if you take away the motorcycles from this picture, it’s just a group of people standing in front of a café. However, because the motorcycles are included in the photo, a different message is conveyed. In the eyes of the viewer these men become seen as mischievous thugs, the café is looked at as more of a bar, and the woman being kissed goes from being identified as a wife or girlfriend to a motorcycle gang groupie. It’s amazing how a few bikes and camera angles can unconsciously alter the viewer’s entire perception.

We have identified the main source of masculinity within these three groups, but what exactly gives motorcycles, surfboards, and weight sets their masculine appeal? It can’t simply be the objects themselves that produce this manly-man persona for their owners. If it were that easy, any self-conscious man could go out and essentially “purchase” masculinity. However, the meaning associated with these machines has more to do with the ways in which they are used by these groups. Take bodybuilders for example. They lift weights every day in an attempt to sculpt and chisel their bodies. A bodybuilder’s entire life revolves around building the perfect body and obtaining a super-human physique. It is this perfectionist lifestyle that becomes associated with the set of weights. Although the weights are just the bodybuilder’s tool, they are seen as a symbol of strength and countless hours of hard work in the gym. This is what causes weights and dumbbells to be seen as a source of masculinity, rather than just piles of heavy scrap metal.

Surfboards are also thought of as masculine because of how they are used by surfers. This can be exemplified by another photo in the archive. At first glance it seems to be an ordinary photo of several surfers riding a wave and simply enjoying another day at the beach. However, the photographer captures this image in a way that relays subliminal messages to the viewer and requires a more in depth analysis. By taking the photo from a distant aerial vantage point, the viewer gets a sense of how massive this wave actually is in comparison to the surfers. This is the kind of swell that will suck a person in and not necessarily spit them back out. This potentially life-threatening risk taken by the surfers portrays them as fearless. Even the distance between these surfers can be thought of as dangerous. It would only take one surfer to stray off course or fall off his board to cause a domino effect crash. The photographer captures this image from a high perspective to create an angle that shows this. Because of this possibility, an established sense of trust and brotherhood can be depicted through this photo. Also by choosing not to include other beachgoers swimming in this picture, the author is able to highlight the danger of the given situation and isolate these men, furthermore establishing the feeling of confidence that this tightly knit group of surfers have in one another. For these reasons the surfboard is viewed as more than just some oversized piece of polyurethane. It represents a form of unity, as well as an exhilarating appetite for danger and excitement that would make the average person cringe.

Motorcycles obtain their masculine aura similar to the way in which surfboards do this. Another photo from the archive features a biker executing a wheelie in front of two other bikers standing on foot. The camera is positioned near the ground, offering a low perspective and looking up at the bikers. This angle depicts the men as powerful figures and gives the viewer a sense that bikers are above society, and maybe even above the law. By capturing the biker’s failed effort to wear a helmet while performing this trick, the photographer is able to portray the daredevil-like mentality commonly associated with bikers. The photo is also taken from a distance that allows the viewer to see the other two bikers celebrating and cheering on their friend. This attempt to entertain the small crowd hints at the idea that bikers enjoy being seen and showing off while doing something that is considered to be on the more masculine end of the spectrum. The enthusiastic applause expressed by the other bikers in this picture also makes this seem like a relatively normal feat, performed regularly within motorcycle gangs. Tricks, such as this one, combined with the popular notion of bikers flying down the road at high rates of speed give motorcycles their masculine appeal to the non-riders, who would never partake in such a risky behavior.

So what is it about perfection, danger, and even carelessness that cause these reoccurring ideas to be interpreted as sources of masculinity? A common theme can be established while looking into this group of bikers, bodybuilders, and surfers. Essentially, this is the theme of doing something considered to be impossible in the mind of the average person. Whether out of fear or lack of resources, most people would never be able to keep up with agendas of these men. Professional body builders literally work in the gym. The amount of hours they log there are comparable to that of a fulltime job. The average, working-class citizen typically doesn’t have this kind of time to dedicate to the gym. Surfers ride waves that would cause most beachgoers to get out of the water in a hurry. And bikers ride seatbelt-free at speeds that would cause panic in the mind of any non-rider. This notion of standing out from the rest and achieving what the average man could never achieve is what defines these groups of people as masculine in the eyes of society.

Although bikers, bodybuilders, and surfers surpass modern day standards of masculinity, this was not always the case. When these groups were beginning to emerge in the 1960’s, they were actually considered far less masculine than they are today. So how did these outcasts—at the time—become the modern prototypes for masculinity that we know today? This can be explained by Mark Simpson’s “manly dos and don’ts” theory in his New York Times article, “We Need Nuance, Not Lumberjacks”. Simpson discusses how women today are developing without being held back by gender conventions. They are taking on roles and expressing characteristics that were at one point strictly associated with masculinity, while also managing to remain seen as feminine. Men, on the other hand, are limited by these same gender conventions. They are presented with a set of standards telling them what to do and what not to do in order to be considered “manly” (Simpson). Male nurses, stay-at-home fathers, and other men with female-dominated occupations are not seen as masculine by society; but women can work as doctors, lawyers, or in any other male-dominated career field, while still remaining entirely feminine. All this femininity transpiring in areas that masculinity once occupied, along with the notion that a similar masculine expansion into female territory is socially intolerable, force masculinity to upgrade its standards. This is where we see these extreme examples of stereotypical masculinity—bikers, bodybuilders, and surfers— arise. Being the breadwinner and supporting a family no longer qualifies a man as masculine in today’s world. Men are now expected to meet above-average standards and stand out from the crowd if they want to be considered “manly men”.

Despite many arguments for the idea that masculinity is simply a characteristic and can be found in all male figures, modern society tends to disagree. We live in a world where actions speak louder than words, and extreme actions make more noise than regular actions. Bikers, bodybuilders, and surfers all fit the profile of above-average masculine figures. They not only possess these motorcycles, surfboards, and weights, but also use them in ways that allow both man and machine to be conveyed as masculine by society.

Works Cited
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print. Simpson, Mark. "We Need Nuance, Not Lumberjacks." The New York Times 13 July 2012: n. pag. Print.

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