Toxic Masculinity in Ultimate

By Annie Want, August 29, 2017

I’ve been working at middle school camps this week, and thinking a lot about my interactions with boys at camp. Most of them are still physically small, and, it being middle school, many are painfully self-conscious and powerfully influenced by their peers. Watching how gender works at camp is leading me to ruminate on the idea of toxic masculinity, and I want to take some time to discuss this idea, and how I understand its influence in ultimate.

Gender norms as a whole can be damaging to many different people of all genders, sexes, and bodies. Asking an entire group of people to exhibit similar traits limits some and gender is constantly policed by authorities and peers. We know that women can be more than caretakers, that men can be more than soldiers or fighters. We know that there is a space between female and male, between man and woman, and genders that cannot be neatly categorized in relation to that binary. Yet I’m not just talking about the violence of requiring and policing gender for everyone. I’m talking about what those requirements are, what kind of traits are valued for men.

Those requirements or ideals may be summed up by what I term here “toxic masculinity”. The definition I’m using is: a set of gendered expectations that require men to prove themselves by dominating others in their lives. These expectations include extraordinary strength, control, and oftentimes violence. They both exclude and discourage intimacy, care, empathy, and sharing. These expectations are then translated to a set of behaviors disciplined into men constantly through both positive and negative feedback.

A few anecdotes:

  • At the Santa Barbara Invite. I’m standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn green. As I wait, five male players I don't know arrive and wait too. I turn to one and ask offhand, “Hey, how bad is it to jaywalk in California?” One of them says, “I don’t know, I got a ticket once.” I proclaim my surprise at this fact, and turn away toward the light again. I hear a comment said low behind me, one I can’t make out. It’s met with laughter, and someone else says, “I don’t think that’s what she meant.” The speaker, emboldened, says loudly and clearly for my benefit, “Yeah, this one time I beat my wife while jaywalking!” This gets under my skin, and I turn back toward him and say sarcastically, “That’s funny, you should definitely tell that joke.” He scoffs, “Oh my god… Yeah, and I beat my kids, and my dog!” The light finally turns, and I walk toward the parking lot with all five of them behind me, and I’m so pissed and also so unwilling to engage with five grown men on why domestic violence is not a joke to me.
  • Watching the showcase game at OFUDG, current Ego vs. Ego alums. I’m standing at the back corner of the end zone. One of the current players goes up during universe point, gets a huge sky, and comes down with the winning goal. As he does, his knee buckles and he immediately curls up, yelling in pain and writhing. His teammates, still focused on the play, swarm him, excited and jumping around him. They attempt to haul him to his feet, to celebrate him, despite his swearing and tears. No one attempts to find a trainer. He finally gets himself up, and attempts to “walk it off”. His teammates clap him on the back approvingly as he holds himself up on one leg in the huddle. I’m staying at his house for the tournament and I see him later that night, icing the knee.
  • At one of the few co-ed practices at Whitman, during fall. One of the men’s team captains is injured, walking the sideline. We’re scrimmaging. One of the men on the field calls a pick. Injured captain yells, “Soft!” Players resolve the dispute, play goes on.
  • High school state tournament in Colorado. It’s spring, so we’re playing in gender divisions. Our tournament is over, so we head over to watch our boys team play in the final. I ask why our captain is wearing an Ace bandage on his wrist. Am told he was kicked in the arm on an attempted foot block during semifinals. He continues to play through, and we later find out that he has broken several bones and a plate in his wrist.
  • Watching men repeatedly talk over women in huddles, even when they’re both captaining the same team.
  • Male alum coaching my college women’s team. Is riled up and upset about a call on the field. Attempts to intervene in the call, is largely ignored. Spikes his clipboard into the ground in frustration.

All of these examples share a common trait: men attempting to conform to what they think they should be as men. In them, men make dangerous plays, show off for their friends, endanger their own health, and treat women in demeaning and sometimes violent ways. In some, men also enforce that ideal for other men, and ask them to exhibit similar traits of dominance, denial of emotion, or aggression to prove themselves in some way.

Toxic masculinity feels intimately connected to sexism to me. Many of the times I’ve witnessed it have been in direct connection to times I’ve felt threatened, undervalued, or pushed out by male ultimate players in my communities. I think that talking about the unreasonable and unhealthy expectations we have for men is an important part of inviting men into important gender equity work, and helping them to see how sexism and gender roles hurt them too. Yet when I get down to it, I’m writing this column because of my experiences working with boys. While I want to end toxic masculinity to stop experiencing the effects of sexism as a woman, I also want to end toxic masculinity because I really believe that the process of making boys into men is often a violent one which leaves them more isolated, more aggressive, and more doubtful of themselves.

A few years ago I jokingly coined the term "radical tenderness" with my friends. Over time, I’ve come to think of it as the antithesis of toxic masculinity. I see it as the celebration of emotions, and the embrace of softness, care, and community. When I think about the ultimate community I want to play in, it’s one where men are allowed to be tender with one another, and where their physical and emotional well-being is valued beyond their ability to prove themselves or to be the best and the strongest. It’s one where softness, care, and emotional capacity are uplifted and appreciated, and where all people are allowed to embody them. When boys cry here, I want them to be met with comfort and genuine engagement rather than jokes or shaming or encouragement to “toughen up”. We’re scared beings. We carry fear and insecurity, and we need to develop ways to engage with those fear and insecurities so that we don’t take them out on others. Sport in general, and ultimate specifically should be a place where we can celebrate vulnerability, because playing with others and attempting to reach goals requires us to stretch beyond what we are comfortable doing, and to risk failure. Ultimate lends itself to a culture of skill-building, and I want that skill-building to include emotional and social skills as well as physical ones. Most of all I want it to be a community where people, and men especially, are able to bring their trauma, their doubts, and their anxieties, and be healed through their experiences with one another.  

TLDR; Toxic masculinity (esp. When linked to whiteness and class privilege) is rampant in ultimate, and it hurts everyone, including men. Radical tenderness is important! It prepares us to be better humans and to sustain ourselves as we fight for a more just world. Community building, vulnerability, increasing access, being intentionally soft and caring to each other is where it’s at.

Written by Annie Want, former Whitman Sweet.