The Mask You Live In And The Parallels Of American And Indian Sports Culture

The title of the documentary takes its inspiration from George Orwell’s quote on attitude adopted by the imperialist: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

The film begins with former NFL defense liner (and now motivational speaker) Joe Ehrmann talking about how playing soccer was his way of demonstrating the hypermasculinity he felt obliged to display. It goes on to suggest how these standards are ingrained early on in children. For instance, sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that a surefire way to get boys to fight on the American playground is to label somebody a sissy. Similarly, political scientist Caroline Heldman claims that the concept of toxic masculinity is built upon the “rejection of everything that is feminine.”

The documentary navigates the ideas of toxic masculinity and how it alters primal human-ness in both private and public parts of our lives. Set against the backdrop of the USA, the film throws light upon the American Dream that seeks to promote success in the fields of sports, economy and politics… training young boys to often lose themselves in the path to attain perceived glory in these areas. In the process, they are also conditioned to be out of touch with their emotions, while shunning human intimacy.

Ehrmann recalls his dad asking him to stop crying—“to be a man. This is one of the most damaging words in this society”, says Ehrmann.

Many such personal anecdotes highlight how “alpha male” dads imposed the importance of athletic ability as a means to perform masculinity. Ehrmann reminds us that masculinity as well as being a man is a very different experience altogether. 

The film reflects on the unhealthy ways of reproducing culture by telling boys and men to act a certain way at the cost of their own well-being. From adult men to young boys, from parents to teachers, the documentary examines how this interpretation of masculinity is influencing the mental wellbeing of cis-men in our society. Throughout the film, we hear from teenage boys about trying to suppress their feelings and the pressure to be violent, as well as from grown men sharing tales of relentless abuse and experiencing suicidal tendencies.

Ehrmann asserts that coaches and sporting leagues have the ability to be a source of motivation and belonging for young men (which begs the question, why not people of all genders?). Rather than sports teams being a place where coaches spit insults at players to win a match as the ultimate aim, Ehrmann wants trainers to be mentors and teammates to be a welcoming unit. These teams would focus on shared confidence and integrity and inspire boys to develop into men of character who live to their full potential, not macho tropes.

The documentary speaks to progress but also detracts from salient points like the misrepresentation of certain sports and lack of gender expression.

Young men seem to devalue their relational emotions as it feminizes them, highlighting a more universal conflict within their minds. 

It does talk about gender being a social construct and it not being a binary, but does not mention the queer scene in the slightest of any sport. Through exclusion of this narrative, it speaks volumes of the plight of other genders in the area of sports.   

This documentary was released 7 years ago and is still relevant in every way. However, with respect to trans representation in American sports, a few small changes have been made in a few states.

In recent years, queerphobes have dismissed the inclusion of transgender youth in athletics as part of their dismissal of trans rights, and therefore, human rights. Transgender student-athletes are likely to feel motivated to play sports the same way as any other participant, but in many states in the US (as in most parts of the world), they are refused the right to do so or can only do so only after meeting multiple intrusive, medicalized requirements, which further ostracization and exclusion. These transphobic laws and regulations restrict transgender athletes from having access to a wide variety of opportunities for well-being, education and socialization. Perhaps most importantly, they deny trans people their freedom to gender identity and expression, i.e., that trans-women are women, and that trans-men and men. And if you’re wondering about non-binary identities, then there is no space proposed for those among us who do not identify with the binary, thereby cementing the sexist attitudes.

Despite the dangers that transgender sporting bans raise, in 2020 alone, 20 American states passed legislation to restrict transgender people from competing in sports in compliance with their gender identity. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden released an exec action calling on the federal government to fully ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, noting clearly that “children should be able to progress without wondering whether they would be denied access to the restroom, locker room, or school sports.”

Mainstream sports culture as found in practice in most parts of America as well as India, pushes men to get into their heads than their hearts. Out of this emerges such a set-up of toxic masculine ideals, which are often examined in relation to addiction behavioural patterns, treating women as sexual conquests, bullying and deep-seated homophobia.

Delving into the Indian scene, firstly, we all would agree that if sport may be considered the micro sphere of our culture, it is not shocking that even now, a cisgender heterosexual man has a better chance of athletic success than anybody else. This is not because of some innate or biological superiority, but the result of cultural norms that glorify their feats, funneling funding, attention and support into their careers, even as gender inequality remains a stark factor in the chronic malnutrition among children in India.  In the real world, sport has, for the most part, seldom provided safe venues for transparent expression of gender and sexuality beyond the cis-het-masc.

Yes, inclusion is sporadically discussed with the rise of queer athlete Dutee Chand and her coming out to the world. But had she been public before earning public accolade, it is quite likely that her sexuality would have invited ostracization, thereby derailing her career. 

My sentiments immediately went to the strength that it would take for her to come out in a heavily patriarchal society like ours. Growing up in Mumbai, I observed how boys who aren’t ‘macho’ enough were laughed at. I was also made fun of as a girl, alongside my teammates, while playing a game of shot put because we “threw it like a girl”. How else are we supposed to?! 

After all, sports is part of the society and, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize homosexuality, there is plenty of stigma attached to it. Needless to say, not many in the sporting world have expressed their support for Dutee in the face of institutionalized, state-sponsored homophobia.

Queer exclusion would rob an already marginalized population of the advantages of sports

(TW: Mention of sexual assault, transphobia)

Engagement in sports has been correlated with greater self-esteem and self-confidence, better academic performance, a greater sense of school integration and school-based social support, and wider social capital and community connection.

These benefits would especially be important for LGBTQ teenagers, who are at a heightened risk of familial and peer alienation, widespread homophobia, and other forms of discrimination—they have more to benefit from engaging in athletics. 

In the US, an estimated 13% of transgender adults reported being sexually abused as a result of others’ perception of transgender identity and expression. When coupled with experience of verbal abuse and physical assault, the instances dramatically increased in occurrence among American Indian, multiracial, and Middle Eastern transgender people living in the US. Such data points are hard to come by in the Indian context, but its absence speaks volumes about the exclusion of trans people in our public discourse.

For years, queer communities have been rallying for people of marginalized genders to have access to public spaces and institutions. However, this begs the inevitable question: how engaged are these public spaces in helping us feel safe and supported? And can sport, with its publicity as well as history of deep-rooted homophobia, rewrite the story for the better?

In recent years, however, the groundbreaking steps taken by the Kerala Olympic Council and Manipur’s all-trans football team talk to me more than American sports culture does. But, making separate safe spaces for LGBT athletes is not actually inclusive of them in mainstream sport, which receives much of the public attention, support and funding.  

Besides creating spaces for queer people to engage in sport, several other changes are required behind-the-scenes as well so as to fully integrate them into the community. Recently, the American court also ruled that transgender people must be required to use bathrooms that are compatible with their gender identity, and while this is a tiny step towards validating certain trans identities, we must consider the alternative of providing gender-neutral rooms that finally breaks toxic masculine notions and the pervasion of the gender binary.

Inclusion needs to be acutely active (at all times)

Often, coaches in schools impose a transactional relationship of instruction that emphasizes the athletes’ personal identity and reputation instead of a sports culture that promotes bonding, empathy and community.

Simply considering participants who conform with a binary identity, most of our sporting laws disregard the particular challenges people encounter regardless of their sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, aro-ace). Rejection (or the fear of it) is deeply coded into mainstream sporting culture that is perpetuated by a uni-dimensional narrative of victory. Avoiding abuse, fear, and uncertainty, plays a vital role in determining the course of their careers.

Except in situations where openly gay athletes have been recruited into squads, many struggle to continue as their sexuality affects their chances. In professional sports, where athletes have no discretion as to who they compete for or practice under the aegis of, conforming to stereotypes such as the ideals of toxic masculinity become crucial.

With the establishment of binary gender and heteronormativity over centuries, athletic systems cannot afford to be passive recipients of patriarchy and its stereotypes. The work for better representation and inclusion will take immense time and deliberate effort, but it ultimately boils down to just what we optimize as a society, and how we want that to be mirrored in our sport.

Much like other cultural realms don’t exclusively define us, sporting culture should not either. We should be the active makers of the same.

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I am an art dilettante, into bilingual poetry, learning to philosophize and comprehend spaces for differences to coexist.

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