To Be an Ordinary Hero:

Male Figure Skaters and the Ideology of Gender

by Mary Louise Adams
Queen's University
from Avante, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 93-110

In this article, gender is introduced as a crucial ideological construct. While considering the representations of gender as conduits through which ideology is created, I focus on the "border case" of figure skating. I examine the social construction of figure skating as a sport for "sissies" and gay men, as well as the recent efforts to overturn that view. I note the changes in figure skating (from skaters as artists to skaters as athletes) and the associated changes in the discursive positioning of the sport in postmodern social commentary. I am mostly concerned with the construction and representation of masculinities in figure skating, but my reflection on male figure skaters is intended as an opening line for a conversation about the possibility, in postmodern times, of expanding the repertoire of gendered identities.

Dans cet article, la variable genre est présentée comme un construit idéologique crucial. Tout en considérant les représentations du genre comme conduits ar lesquels l'idéologie est crée, je m'attarde au cas limite du patinage artistique. J'examine la construction sociale du patinage artistique en tant que sport pour les "fifs" et les hommes gais, ainsi que les récents efforts pour faire renverser ce point due vue. Je note les changements au sein du patinage artistique (des patineurs artistes aux patineurs athlètes) et les changements qui y sont reliés en ce qui a trait au positionnement discursif de ce sport au sein des commentaires sociaux post-modernes. Je m'intéresse principalement à la construction et la représentation des masculinités en patinage artistique, mais ma réflexion sur les patineurs artistiques est voulue surtout comme l'amorce d'une conversation au sujet des possibilités, dans la post-modernité, d'élargir le répertoire des identités de genre.

As a child I was a figure skater. My brother was a figure skater. I was chubby and not terribly talented. My brother was athletic and progressed rapidly. I skated for almost 12 years. He quit early on to play hockey. Figure skating is a "girl's sport." Like gymnastics and synchronized swimiming, it is defined by aesthetic factors -- appearance, musicality, grace -- as much as it is by muscles and "athleticism." Although many Canadian boys take up skating as children, they usually retire from the sport by the time they reach puberty. As a teenager, I belonged to a club where nightly practice sessions were attended by about 20 young women and, on a good day, 2 or 3 young men.

Like male dancers, male figure skaters are often assumed to be sissies and faggots. Certainly they defy traditional notions of the male athlete as a "man's man," as "one of the guys." But over the last decade this image has started to shift:

[Canadian and World champion Kurt] Browning glides onto the ice in a black leather jacket, black beret, dark glasses, black denim pants, and a black leather belt with silver studs. He is carrying a chair and sits down on it. As the music starts to pound, he hops into the rhythm. He flings away his beret, then strips to a black muscle shirt, flexing his biceps and deltoids ... he pumps pelvic thrusts. Some women [in the audience] are stomping and whistling .... He sits down, bows his head, and raises his fists. At the end, always, squeals and shrieks rise above thunderous applause. (Hopkins, 1989, p. 76)

Kurt Browning's flaunting of his muscular body contributed to a "tough guy" image that was a consummate representation of mainstream masculinity. The package contrasted markedly with the dignified "sensitivity" of previous male skating champions like Brian Orser, John Curry or Toller Cranston. And it did not go unnoticed in the press. Television commentators called him "The Cowboy." Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot wrote: "The guy is a rarity in figure skating, a fighter" (1990, p. 85). Browning was heralded as the guy who would ensure figure skating's future as a sport, as a safe place for (real) men.

Forget creativity. Browning's agent, CorpSport International's Michael Barnett, calls his star "a world-class jock." He also contends Browning may accomplish something that no other male figure-skater has been able to do: make his sport popular with men. (Hopkins, 1989, p. 76)

It is as if sports writers heaved a collective sigh of relief. Finally, someone who could disperse the effeminate cloud that has been hanging over popular perceptions of figure skating, someone who could live up to the journalists' conceptions of what makes a real sportsman.

It is partly the relationship between athleticism and masculinity that relegates figure skating to the edge of commonsense definitions of sport. If sport is meant to make young men look and act tough -- to make men of them -- what are we to make of male athletes who perform to music, wear sequined costumes and smile as they compete? What are we to make of male bodies that do "feminine" things? The contradictions that arise between definitions of sport and figure skating, between the masculinities attributed to jocks and sissies, make an interesting base for an exploration of gender as an ideological construction.

In this article, I focus primarily on Kurt Browning because he is often identified as having ushered in a new era of "masculine" skaters. More recently, World champion Elvis Stojko and French skater Philippe Candeloro have pushed the macho quotient in figure skating to new heights, a sign that the trend associated with Browning is in no danger of diminishing.

The Theoretical Framework or So What If Browning's Not Fey

I am not taking up gender here as a reflection of innate biological characteristics nor as a discrete category of analysis, but rather as an ideological construct that is an integral part of all aspects of social, economic and political life. As a construct, gender is an articulation of power. Thus the meanings of femininity and masculinity are constantly being challenged and negotiated within a larger nexus of social relations. The ways that genders are represented and lived can contribute to either the maintenance or the dismantling of particular forms of social relationships.

One of the primary vehicles for the representation of gender, and for our experience of it, is, of course, the body. Our individual relationships to femininity and masculinity are signified by the clothes we choose to wear and by those we do not, by the way we move, by the space we take up, by the level of comfort we feel with our shape, our looks, our weight. As Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub write, gender is, in part, "how we deploy our embodiedness" (1991, p. 3). In attending to the back and forth between bodies and genders, in noting the way this relationship varies across time and culture, we see that bodies too are not simply biological givens, but are produced through practices, ideologies and discourses (Wolff, 1990). In this essay, I look at figure skating because of the way it throws into question popular discourses about masculine bodies, about the limits of the appropriate expression of gender.

According to Mary Poovey (1988), representations of gender, as the ways that ideas about gender are put into circulation, accomplish ideological work in two ways. First, they act as a conduit to various ideological positions. Representations of gender make ideological positions available to us. For example, 19th century British notions about sort as a training ground for manliness and the develpment of moral and physical prowess, fed easily into claims about the superiority of the British race and white bodies as a justification for imperialist activities in other parts of the world (Walvin, 1987). Second, representations of gender do part of the work of creating ideology. When Kurt Browning dons his black muscle shirt to skate an exhibition number to the music of Terence Trent D'arby, he is not only adopting a particular frm of masculinity for himself, he is validating it and strengthening its position vis-à-vis other ways of being a man. It is an ideologically-informed choice that he makes within a complex net of social relations. It is not as if Browning just gets up one morning, pulls himself out of bed and says, "Gee, I think I'm going to skate like a real tough guy tonight." We have to ask what social conditions facilitated his adoption of that image to give it meaning for him and for the people who watch him (who do not necessarily make sense of it in the same way he does). 1

Sexual difference, that is, the distinction between femininity and masculinity, is the route to a social understanding of gender. Drawing on poststructuralist insights about language and meaning, writers like Mary Poovey and Frank Mort (1987) analyze the way a model of binary opposition, one in which power does rest equally in the two poles, influences our ideas about what it means to be a woman or a man. In this framework, gender operates as a relational category. Without looking at femmininity, masculinity cannot make sense -- neither gender takes shape independently of the other. And, power is produced in the constant vigilance that attempts to keep these two genders distinct.

In her study of gender in 19th century England, Poovey focuses on what she calls "border cases," or instances that "have the potential to expose the artificiality of the binary logic that governed the Victorian symbolic economy" (1988, p. 12). In this article, I have adopted her notion as a way of getting at the ideological underpinnings of masculinity. What can male figure skaters, in their uneasy relationship to the rest of the sporting world and to the way sport, sporting men and sporting men's bodies are defined in our society, teach us about the possibility of expanding the repertoire of gendered identities? In the next section I will look more generally at ideology in sport before moving on to figure skating as a border case within that context.

How Macho is Macho Enough?

The "wide world of sports" has long been heralded as a schooling ground for manliness. In the 19th century, games and athletics were, in part, intended to counter the "feminine" characteristics of the bourgeois home (Segal, 1990). Calisthenics allowed young men to develop their bodies and their morals while "in the crucible of athletic competition...the male character was to be forged" (Parks, 1987, p. 10). Athletes came to embody power and existed as models for other young men. In 1855, an American Unitarian clergyman called upon colleges and universities to institute physical education and games to compensate for the detrimental effects of urbanization: "O for a touch of the Olympic games rather than this pallid effeminacy" (cited in Parks, 1987, p. 19). Robert Connell (1983), an Australian sociologist, notes that sport remains a vehicle through which adolescent boys can struggle against their femininity. As Bruce Kidd puts it, "sports were designed to harden males" (1987, p. 261).

Commonsense ideas about masculinity and sport rarely diverge from the "hard" -- physically and emotionally -- image of the professional ball or hockey player or the pre-Seoul version of a Ben Johnson style Olympian. It is not just women's events that get lip service on television and in the sports section of the daily newspaper; certain male athletes must also negotiate a distinct hierarchy that ranks some activities as more worthy of coverage and promotion. Figure skating, although increasingly popular, still stands with sports such as gymnastics and diving, as a second string of sporting endeavours. And while gender considerations are not the only determinant of this pecking order, they undoubtedly contribute to it. In the sport hierarchy, men who participate in hard-hitting, aggressive, "combative" activities occupy the highest rungs. So although sport is definitely a male prserve (see Lenskyj, 1986), what counts as appropriately male is a limited category.

Connell (1983, p. 18) suggests that the male engagement with sport is a singular project of achieving power through a "specific combination of force and skill," where force is "the irresistible occupation of space" (and not necessarily something to be used against another body). And though figure skaters clearly accomplish this, they do other "girlish" things besides -- like appealing to their audiences or displaying an ability to interpret a range of musical styles. So even though figure skating brings in more medals than almost any other Canadian Olympic sport, its position in the sporting world remains tenuous. Sports need jocks, and male skaters -- for all their hanging out with girls, their lack of access to the rituals of male bonding, and for the "girlish" things they do in training and competition -- can lay only limited claim to that select fraternity.

Edmonton sports columnist and Browning fan, Terry Jones, hoped that with the phasing out of the "dull" school figures, skating would gain more credibility as a sport (cited in Hopkins, 1989, p. 77). But what is at issue in the shaky definition of skating as sport is not the "dullness" of the precise and technical figures, rather it is the question of gender. What type of masculinity is required in a sport where men have to move their bodies gracefully and with emotional expression (within "appropriate" limits of course)? Certainly not the hegemonic variety that we see on Hockey Night in Canada.

Thus sports sociologist Gary Smith (cited in Hopkins, 1989) could say that in spite of Browning's status as a world champion (he eventually won the World Championships four times), his undeniable athletic talent and his boy-next-door image, he may never be a true Canadian sports hero (this is what Poovey means by a border case). Browning may cover the ice at blinding speed, he may have the lower body strength of an elite-ranked long jumper, he may be the son of an Alberta trail guide and cowboy, but world champion or not, he cannot account for one critical detail. According to Smith it is:

mainly because of the sport he's in. A lot of people think of it more as an art form than a real sport. Skating is seen as kind of feminine, so to what extent can he really be a hero to guys? (cited in Hopkins, 1989, p. 76)

In discussions about men, "kind of feminine" is a phrase used to police the boundaries of acceptable heterosexual behaviour, an easy euphemism for gay. Homosexuality frequently serves as a catch-all category for male traits unaccounted for by the assertion of men's essential difference from women. Whether Browning is gay or not, he is guilty by association -- real guys don't hang out with girls (or with the queers who do). In the ideologically narrow field of sport, where masculinity has a heterosexual face, so-called effeminacy and gayness are easily conflated.

In part, it is the fear of being labelled gay that leads to the early retirement of a lot of (gay and straight) male skaters. Brian Orser, Kurt Browning and American Christopher Bowman have all commented on being ridiculed about their skating by other boys and young men, particularly by hockey players. Orser is the only one who does not claim to have resorted to a I'm-more-macho-than-you response to the insults (Orser & Milton, 1989). Bowman apparently went through a "girl-in-every-port" stage as something of a rebellion against the perception that all male figure skaters were gay. In an interview in Sports Illustrated, he said:

I had a lot of anger when I was younger.... I got harassed all the time by the hockey players. I was performing in a predominantly girls' sport, so what did that make me? Finally I realized it was the hockey players who were living in a mudhole. While they were skating around after sweaty men from 10 till midnight, which is when they had the ice, I was out on a date. (cited in Swift, 1990, p. 82)

Browning's mother told Saturday Night that when Kurt began ice dancing he was taunted and spit on by hockey players, "but when his team met theirs, he got even" (cited in Hopkins, 1989, p. 74). "The irony in Neva Browning's statement is that ice dancing is one of the most heterosexual corners of the sporting world. Although there is no reason why it could not be otherwise, the rules insist that "a couple shall be composed of a lady and a gentleman, each skating their own steps." Judges mark dances on their ability to skate in unison, with "the mutual coordination of the movements and positions as a couple.... The man shall show his ability to lead his partner and the lady her ability to follow a lead" (Canadian Figure Skating Association, 1988, p. 108). It is a construction of heterosexuality that is based on an image of masculine dominance; there is nothing even remotely homoerotic about it. Nevertheless the music and expressiveness required in ice dancing put the event into the realm of the "feminine" and beyond the borders of heterosexual masculinity. So it was not necessarily homoeroticism that triggered Browning's tormentors but the construction, through sport, of a male identity that differed significantly from their own as jocks in training.

Separating the Men From the Girls

Perhaps because of figure skating's reputation as an "effeminate" activity for men -- a characterization not necessarily based on the number of gay skaters but on aspects of the sport -- officials, television commentators and journalists all go to great lengths to entrench sexual difference in the sport. In asserting men's dissimilarity to women, they may hope to overcome the sport's reputation as a haven for gay men. For instance, regulations require that men's programs be longer than women's (i.e., that men's bodies exhibit greater stamina). As well, the required elements of the short free skating segment are not the same for each sex. Men have to do triple jumps while women are permitted to do doubles; men perform a spinning combination while women (always referred to as "ladies") do what is called a layback: a spin in which the skater rotates in an extremely vulnerable position on one foot, the other foot elevated and extended behind, while her back is arched and parallel to the surface of the ice. Women are also required to do a sequence of spirals or arabesques -- very traditional balletic techniques -- that men need not perform. Presumably these latter two moves indicate desired competencies in women but not in men, in spite of the fact that some men perform laybacks and spirals in their longer programs.

Needless to say, figure skating firmly ensconces the female pole of the sexual difference opposition within traditional notions of femininity. If women are taken up as ultra-feminine, the space for difference between them and the less than jock-like men with whom they share the ice is maximized. Because the women and men have relatively similar physical capabilities,2 the feminization of the women centres around other aspects of their performance, in particular their physical appearance and their styles of skating and interpreting music. For instance, after American skater Debi Thomas wore a full length body suit in the 1988 Olympics (an outfit well-suited to male and female athletic activity, in spite of the beading and sequins that surrounded its neckline), new regulations were adopted by the International Skating Union in 1989 to make it obligatory for women to wear skirts in competition (Hynes, 1989). And while there was not one mention of a man's costume, a man's body or a man's appearance in the 11 hours of CBC coverage from the world championships in Halifax in March of 1990, women's "looks" were routinely noted. As Epstein and Straub note, ideological constructions of gender rely on "bodily difference to define and coerce gender identity" (1991, p. 3).

American Jill Trenary did not even have to skate to fulfill the first-place requirements of CBC commentator Toller Cranston. As the eventual gold medallist stood on the ice waiting for her music to start, Cranston gushed: "Tracy [Wilson, the other expert commentator] and I were just commenting about the appearance [of Trenary]. It's so dazzling, the dress is so dazzling, the body so dazzling, that from me she has already got a six." After the completion of the women's event Cranston enthused again: "Trenary made an incredible world champion. She's gorgeous. She's musical." There is more. During the post-competition exhibitions he was at it again: "I'm going to miss looking at her, she's so beautiful... I think it's appropriate that she skate to the music 'Body Heat,' for obvious reasons, it's the perfect choice." Indeed.

In terms of what is appropriately feminine in skating, the 1989 world champion, Midori Ito from Japan, is the border case that confounds the assumption of inherent sexual difference in physical ability or in approaches to an artistic sport. According to CBC commentator Tracy Wilson, Ito skated so well at NHK, an international competition in Japan in the fall of 1989, "a lot of people thought she should have won the men's event." Ito's stamina was unwavering and her jumps were higher and more precise than those of almost all the men. Unlike most of the women, she did not smile as she waited at the beginning of her program, instead she put on what the other skaters and the commentators dubbed "the killer look." Ito did not excel at the so-called feminine aspect of the sport, receiving low marks for artistic impression. Apparently these factors put her in league with the men. But in a sport where men and women compete separately, that is not possible, so sports writers and announcers did their best to feminize her. They relied on, as well as contributed to, well-worn discourses of femininity, female physical frailty and sport (see Lenskyj, 1986; Varpolatai, 1987).

a headline in the Globe and Mail read: "Short and sweet, Ito stands alone in world skating" (Christie, 1990, p. A2). Another in the Toronto Star followed a similar theme: "Little Ito not finito" (Orr, 1990d, p. B1). In an article in the glossy Today's Skater magazine (produced by the Canadian Figure Skating Association), Frank Orr likened Ito to "a highly computerized toy, jumping in the air every so often, doing three revolutions and landing perfectly" (1990b, p. 56). Drawing on a racist discourse about Japanese people, each of these instances addresses Ito diminutively, rather than focusing on her outstanding talent, her strength and speed. The headline in the Globe and Mail makes it sound like it is Ito's height and disposition and not her skill that put her in a class of her own.

With the exception of Ito (who has recently decided not to pursue further amateur titles), there has yet to be any significant challenge to what gets defined as world calibre women's skating. And Ito herself was never taken up as challenging the category but as transcending it. Were the Karen Magnussens and Peggy Flemings of the past two decades to skate alongside the Jill Trenarys or Michelle Kwans of today, there would be little difference in their approach to the sport. While the jumps are more difficult, the skirts a little shorter and the bodies a little thinner, a smiling face, a bubbly personality and an eminently graceful style remain the essential components of women's programs. As in the pairs and dance events, women singles skaters are expected to match dominant conceptions of femininity. On display as entertainment, as icons of femininity, their athletic accomplishments are secondary.

Not surprisingly, skating does not reinforce traditional standards of gender identity for men as it does for women. The mere presence of a man on the ice can set him in opposition to a commonsense masculinity. And it is perhaps this marginal location that has permitted male skaters some flexibility in what counts as good skating. In the early 1970s, Toronto's Toller Cranston and Britain's John Curry introduced an interpretive dimension that transformed men's free skating. They skated to opera and ballet music, did moves that had been previously reserved for women (like spirals and laybacks), experimented with costume design, and accentuated the grace in their programs. It is as if finally some men were able to make explicit the gay sensibility figure skating was always rumoured to have had. While the judging establishment initially resisted their interventions, other men began to appropriate their respective styles. But along with the Cranston and Curry imitators, there continue to be men who are muscle-bound and wooden, those whose interpretive abilities serve only to get them from one jump to the next. The important point here is that the collective identity of male figure skaters has been far from homogeneous. Male pair skaters get to be "big and strong," muscling their female partners into unusual positions f display (putting all that male strength to good use), while male ice dancers can be sensitive and heterosexual all at the same time. In contrast to football or hockey players, male skaters do not necessarily have to conform to one particular model of how to be a man.

In spite of this historical diversity, the trend towards an explicitly macho style on the ice is new. Although the new "tougher" skating is interpretive and expressive, it resists classification as gay. Male skaters seem to be trying to code their programs as "cool," as heterosexually sexual (homosexually sexual is not good): snapping their fingers to rock, blues and jazz, raising clenched fists, shimmying across the ice, giving clues that they are sexy -- there are a lot of cocked hips, lingering hands on well-posed torsos, and fingers running through tousled hair. In one exhibition program, Philippe Candeloro rips off his shirt and skates topless. Needless to say, the semiotics of these gyrations are far from subtle.

Of the top ten skaters in Halifax, only Victor Petrenko from the Soviet Union performed a balletic long program. More surprising than this was that none of the television announcers commented on his unique position. In general, the male image (unlike the female one) was not taken up. We heard about athletic ability, jumps and spins, speed and stamina and competitive ability, but certainly not about what men looked like, nor how they carried their bodies, nor the impression they made with their movements and expressions. Here is a case of discursive silences that are thundering. As a viewer, what I watched, what I heard and what I made of it were not necessarily the same things.

Skating and the Economics of Entertainment

The relationship between sport and television rests on issues of sponsorship -- will the sport sell,l will it hold an audience for advertising? In this context, different sports, and the athletes who participate in them, become commodities, subject to the whims and demands of teh "market" and the people and activities that operate it. In the case of figure skating, the intensity of this relationship has led to the most radical change in the history of the sport. In 1991, school figures were completely eliminated from international (read televised) competition. Without the figures, the argument goes, skating will be easier to understand and the entire competition will be accessible to viewers at home. As a consequence, the size of the audience (and the price of advertising) will increase.3 With bigger advertising revenues, the national skating associations may be in a position to demand higher fees for television rights. Related to this, the International Skating Union recently voted to allow professionals and amateurs to compete together at international championships. Will television producers and agents have a role in determining who actually gets to compete? Will the familiar, marketable names (Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, Toller Cranston, Brian Orser and the like) make it difficult for new skaters, no matter how talented, to break into the ranks? (see Milton, 1990a).

Current mythology among sports journalists is that the Kerrigan-Harding fiasco of the 1994 Olympics made figure skating a sport. While that may be the case in the United States, Canadian networks have been drawing strong skating audiences for many years. According to Dave Moorhead, a publicist for CBC-TV, the world championships sit third in importance behind hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs and Canadian football's Grey Cup on CBC's sports broadcasting schedule (Milton, 1990b). In March 1990, the network ran 11 hours of prime time coverage while the world championships were taking place in Halifax. In recent years, CTV has matched this level of coverage. Steve Milton contends that the steady increase in audience through the 1980s "was given a boost mid-decade by the development of the riveting rivalries: The Battle of the Brians... and East Germany's Witt vs. America's Debi Thomas" (1990b, p. 89). Of course those rivalries did not erupt spontaneously, they were built up and nurtured within various nationalist discourses and through the interventions of commentators and sportscasters. For instance, on a compilation tape of clips from the 1988 Winter Olympics produced by ABC Sports, the women's event that included Witt and Thomas was framed as "The story of the two Carmens" (each skater had chosen to skate to music from Bizet's opera). "Backstage they were like fighters before the bell," we learn from a solemn-toned announcer, "or prima donnas about to sing." After hearing this, it is difficult to engage fully with the rest of the competitors -- they are not the central characters in the story as it has been constructed. Hence the jubilation when Elizabeth Manley, the Canadian underdog, managed to squeeze between Thomas and Witt for a silver medal.

A whole body of feminist and poststructuralist theory about autobiography and other types of literature discusses the power of the narrative form to draw in an audience, to make it easier for us to identify with what we are reading or watching, to help us take up subject positions from which to make sense of what we see (see, for instance, The Personal Narratives Group, 1989). According to sports critic Garry Whannel, the construction of sporting events to fit the exigencies of a standard narrative minimizes "audience awareness of the mediating effect of television" (1984, p. 101). At the very least, by engaging with the narrative, a viewer is carried past the commercials.

On another level, narratives tend to revolve around individual success or failure, helping to construct certain skaters as stars. Spectators grow loyal not to the gold medallist per se but to Kurt Browning. So that even when Browning performs poorly (as at the 1992 and 1994 Olympics) or retires from competition, viewers continue to be interested in him and are more likely to follow his professional career.

As skating increases in popularity, opportunities for a small number of elite skaters extend beyond the limits of their competitive pursuits. Success in the professional realm depends, in part, on the kind of name (and face) recognition that is built up through the extensive coverage of amateur events.4 High ranking international competitors can move on to tour with professional ice shows, to star in television specials and to endorse commercial products -- as long as they stay popular.

As they compete, "amateur" skaters are accumulating value as commodities. The greater their appeal with the fans, the better the terms of their future contracts. It is not surprising then to see skaters working at being entertaining, not just in terms of how well they skate, but how "showbiz-like" they seem. In competitions, we hear less classical music and see more risqué costumes, with men wearing lycra and women baring more of their backs and chests. More skaters are hamming it up, both during and after their programs. For a lot of the men, the few minutes after they skate and before they receive their marks give them an opportunity to hug and kiss their way around the rink, a chance to assert a heterosexual identity, to make a hit with an audience, composed mainly of women. The same thing is true of post-competition exhibitions where skaters get to "let loose" as the announcers often put it. Of course there is the possibility that some of the men intend this display to be taken up as camp, but in a mainstream context, that is difficult to gauge.

Christopher Bowman, who was once dubbed the "22-year-old heartthrob of American figure skating" (Swift, 1990, p. 79), was the first to be blatant about sexualizing his exhibition numbers. In Halifax, he wore a cut off T-shirt and spandex pants, skated to the Rolling Stones and took time out at the boards -- in the middle of his routine -- to kiss women in the audience (whether they wanted to be kissed or not) and generally bumped and ground his way around the ice. The point here is not whether Bowman is expressing his own true heterosexual masculinity but that in adopting that sexual identity on the ice, he is serving specific commercial purposes. In distancing himself from the image of the fey male skater, in sexualizing his athletic body, does he make himself more marketable?

Skating as Representation or Kurt's on My TV

As living room spectators, we take up skating not only as sport but as entertainment. We engage with a representation rather than with what actually takes place on the ice. This is an important point if we are to understand figure skating as both vehicle for and contributor to ideology about gender.

Writing about the television coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, John Corner says that if something has been televised, it is in "a processed state." Events are not simply "on television" but are changed by the procedures that get them there (1984, p. 58). The form that these re-presentations take has a lot to do with how they are embedded in various discourses and how they fit into certain relationships of power (see Kuhn, 1988). However, the working of ideology means that the deployment of power is not always obvious to us as we watch sports programs or read about events in the newspaper. One of the goals of this article, taking off from the work of Richard Gruneau and others who have addressed sport from within the fields of media and cultural studies, is to "crack the codes" that obscure the "assumptions, procedures, and rules of discourse" which structure sports coverage (Gruneau, 1987).

Along with editing and camera techniques, commentary plays a significant role in constructing the images we can take up as viewers and in articulating them to the particular discourses within which each of us is embedded. So when the ABC announcer at the Calgary Olympics tells us that Brian Orser succumbed to a case of nerves to lose the "battle of the Brians" and that Brian Boitano won because he was able to keep his emotions in check, we ascribe to these two men differently coded masculinities. In popular mythology gay men are flighty, physically weak, nervous and neurotic while straight men are calm, restrained, powerful and in control.5 Nevertheless there is no guarantee that viewers will take up an image as the commentator (or editor or director or athlete) intended them to. In not referring to the bodies or the physical appearances of the male skaters in Halifax, the announcers may have hoped to disavow the possibility of eroticizing a male athlete. But even my lesbian eyes managed to do so in spite of them.

Television critic Margaret Morse (1983) writes that the strong cultural inhibition against "the look" at the male body can be attributed to a deep-seated reluctance to make the male the object of scopophilia. "The look" at another is both a privilege and an instrument of power, potentially a tool of mastery and degradation (Morse, 1983). Morse also says that sports broadcasters counter "the look" and its attendant desire with a "scientific" obsession with statistics and technical details. When Browning performs, both TV commentary and subsequent print coverage encourage us to engage with him not as an object of desire but as an example of mastery over the human body. So in Saturday Night magazine, alongside a sultry photo of Browning, who could easily be taken up as gay or straight, we read:

Browning's quad jump confirmed his unparalleled athletic talent. According to measurements in Budapest [at the 1988 world championships], after catapulting off his left toe he is airborne for up to .8 of a second, compared to the .75 of a second that Boitano and Orser manage for their biggest leaps. To get around four times and get in and out of the jump, Browning must whirl at a speed of more than 360 revolutions per minute. In other words, he spins as fast as the wheels of a car doing fifty kilometres an hour or of a bike racing at top speed. And on landing he must instantly transfer that whirling torque into straight-ahead horizontal velocity. "I get off on jumping," he says. (Hopkins, 1989, p. 74)

This passage and others like it in the same article seem almost comical in their attempts to dissect the most minute aspects of Browning's technique, eventually constructing an image of the skater as a high performance machine. We are not invited to pursue a fascination with the body in the photo but with a mechanized wonder that seems far removed from the provocative fellow in the Che Guevara beret and black leather jacket.

Nevertheless, neither journalist nor television commentator nor even Kurt Browning himself can guarantee the sense people will make of his skating. Sport is one of the very few places where men's bodies are clearly on display for viewing. And in figure skating, this view is overstated as individual competitors perform alone, sustaining the gaze of an audience for almost five minutes in the long free skating program. With only one player in the game at a time, few commentators are able to maintain their pattering hold on our attention, leaving room for the play of our own interpretive frameworks.

As Mary Poovey (1988) says, representations make ideology accessible to people. However, this does not mean that a representation can guarantee easy passage of ideology into our daily lives. Each of us comes to an image from a unique location in emotional, material and discursive relationships. It is the intersection of our historical position with the discursive attachments of a specific representation that determines the meaning we make of it. Which is to say, quite simply, that meaning is not fixed. Thus we can ask what possibilities for meaning exist in the performance of a Kurt Browning who, while he may fancy himself a macho kind of guy, still competes in a sport perceived to be fey? How might a straight male viewer take up a man who has been encoded as effeminate? Although it appears that Browning himself is trying to appropriate some version of a hegemonic masculinity, the contradictions that arise among his identity as one of the most successful contemporary Canadian athletes, his cultivated tough guy style and his identity as a figure skater, leave plenty of space for multiple interpretations. Does the reputation of figure skating facilitate a male gaze that is homoerotic? Or does Browning's position as object of the gaze feminize him, leaving the subject position of the viewer unchallenged? Does watching Browning on TV increase the range of masculine identities available to the male viewer?

The partial answer to this latter question is yes. Like the macho guys who hang out at gay bars, Browning's televised performances undercut notions of a clearcut division between heterosexual and homosexual identity. And, like his agent suggests, they have the potential to shift definitions of what counts as male sport, what activities can be considered appropriate for masculine bodies. Whether a male viewer identifies with Browning or constructs him as the desired object, the traditional boundaries of heterosexual masculinity are crossed. But as skating shifts from sporting event to entertainment commodity, the transgressiveness of Browning's performance is diminished and the range of masculine identities that figure skating offers a television viewer is not as broad as it might have been. Thus, I think it is no accident that "man's man" Kurt Browning was the first male skater to sign endorsement contracts with big-name, non-sporting corporations like Toshiba and Tele-Globe. As a jock, Browning's image might have cast doubt on the virility of a big player like Toshiba, but as a TV star, Browning was a code for youthful, masculine hipness.

The acceptability of a particular masculine identity has a lot to do with the context in which it is expressed. What concerns me here are the specific differences between the worlds of sport and entertainment. What is thought to be fey in sports might be admiringly labelled as "creative" in the field of entertainment. To know whether skating has an impact on the range of gender identities, we would have to know whether it is taking up as sport or entertainment, to the extent that this is possible. What discursive regulations are governing the watching?

As a sport, skating has the possibility to expand a very narrowly defined masculinity. In spite of the best efforts of ISU and CFSA officials to make it otherwise, figure skating (in the terms of the dominant discourse) "feminizes" the men who participate in it. So when Kurt Browning or Elvis Stojko are seen as athletes, they are challenging dominant notions of what it means to be a man (whether they want to or not), of the uses that can be made of the masculine body. Most important, they are opening up the possibility for men to be "sportsmen" without being jocks, to work within a range of masculine identities. They are filling in the space of sexual difference. But as entertainers, the oppositional position of figure skaters erodes; they are operating in a different set of discourses where the scope for acceptable masculine identities is much greater. Heterosexual macho guys can dance so long as they do it in the right place at the right time, like in Saturday Night Fever or Dirty Dancing. Outside the realm of sport, the ability to successfully interpret a piece of music can be less about gender than about marketability. While figure skating may be a girl's sport, it is a way for a man to make a good living.

And So...

Does looking at figure skating teach us anything? What can we learn about gender ideology from the way male bodies represent it on the ice? Certainly male figure skaters do present images of masculinity that fall outside dominant representations of gender. Even Kurt Browning is contextualized by a world of amateur competitions and by discourses of sport and gender that are unable to accommodate his efforts. But, because he competes in a "girls' sport," he comes off as not quite macho enough. He is not a real jock. Unfortunately this marginality does not necessarily translate into any kind of significant challenge to mainstream gender ideologies. Sports institutions, television commentators, journalists and viewers all contribute to the inability of male skaters to contest heterosexual hegemony,6 by limiting the kinds of images that can be constructed around them. Even an "out" gay skater like the 1996 U.S. men's champion Rudy Galindo has not forced the media to drop their heterosexual chatter, to talk about men as if they actually had bodies that could be looked at, to deal with masculine identity in a different frame.

Those of us who are intent on changing gender relations need to learn how gender actually works in the world. It is not enough simply to documents its effects; by limiting ourselves to that task, it is impossible to see the way in which gender changes as an ideological practice, or to see how gender is so intricately related to other social relationships. Although skating is far from monumental in its effects, it does have a part to play in all of that. At the very least, it is a wonderful representation of gender, in all its contradiction, in operation. It is by looking at the particular effects of discourses, ideologies and practices that we see not only how incredibly pervasive oppressive relationships really are, but also how imperfectly they are put together and how, perhaps, they can be taken apart.


1. For instance, have the various discourses about the "new man" -- that combination of sensitivity (read femininity) and ruggedness that continues to creep into advertisements, popular films and television -- opened up a space for Browning's construction of a masculine image?

2. As in other areas of physical performance, the differences among men and among women are as great or greater than those between the two sexes. Surya Bonaly attempted a quadruple jump in competition. Previously it was the only jump separating the men and women competitors. And, of course, most of the men are unable to do it.

3. To their credit, Canadian members of the International Skating Union voted against the elimination of figures. See Frank Orr (1990c).

4. It would be interesting to research the overlapping ownership of some of the American television networks and the professional ice shows, most of which are also American with the exception of the few smaller, more "arty" shows that take place periodically.

5. Boitano's long program epitomised male emotional control as he interpreted a military theme, an effort on the part of his choreographer to allow the expression of emotion within an appropriately bounded masculine context. "We made him a military man because of the big range of emotions that a soldier, a fighting man, goes through," Sandra Bezic said. "We could show the invincibility, sensibility and vulnerability of a soldier's emotions. We worked in his reactions to sorrow, his pride of being a man in uniform and, of course, a victory march" (cited in Orr, 1990a, p. 82). As Lynne Segal (1990, p. 103) suggests, perhaps it is only when men are at their "most unquestionably masculine," as in the military, that they are allowed to express their more "feminine" emotions.

6. For a discussion of this term, see Gary Kinsman (1987).

Author's Notes

This is a revised version of an article that appeared in the collection Men and Masculinities: A Critical Anthology edited by Tony Haddad (Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 1993).

Thanks to Bob Gardner, Roger Simon and Sharon Rosenberg for their comments on this paper. Further thanks to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financial assistance.


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