Jefferson, T.  (1998)  'Muscle,  "Hard Men"  and  "Iron"  Mike Tyson: Reflections on Desire, Anxiety and the Embodiment of Masculinity', in Body and Society, Vol 4  (1): 77 - 98.

The piece starts with Jefferson's own memories of masculinity in two different contexts -- in a manual labouring job, and in photographs of himself in muscle man poses. Both make him doubt a common view that males neglect their body. It is probably more likely that masculinity involves  'a certain indifference to the body' (78) as an aspect of  'hardness'. It is also true that hardness means mental as well as physical toughness.

Muscular strength has long been associated with masculinity, as a symbol of perfection, a matter of beauty combined with strength in different ways. The muscular body offers both power and pleasure . How does this fit with hardness? The freudian line suggests that muscular bodies are simply symbolic extensions of the penis and phallic mystique. But this is reductionist, barely saved by the Lacanian notion of the phallus as a symbol rather than an actual organ.

So why might strength be chosen to symbolise patriarchal power? For some writers, hard men have been produced by manual labour in industrial capitalism. The boxer also became the symbol of German modernity, representing a 'machine like reality' (80). However, hardness involves not just strength but willingness 'to risk the body in performance'  (81). This requires an indifference to pain and mental toughness, endurance and courage, and these qualities have been noticed in a number of sportsmen including racing drivers, motorcyclists and Tour de France cyclists (81 - 82). The same emphasis on mental qualities is found in some recent studies on hardnesss among black British youth (82 - 3) -- being able to handle yourself, which can involve avoiding physical confrontations without losing face.

Boxing provide  'the ultimate arena for the display of hardness' (83). The mental demands to overcome fear and carry on regardless of pain are clearly evident in Wacquant's studies: boxers need not only skill but  'heart', the ability to  'soak up punishment as well as dish it out' (83). The  'supreme emblem of the hard man' (84) is the heavyweight boxer. It is this kind of hardness that separates out sports like body-building. Here, strength is used  'in the service of displayed beauty... [which]... a suspect because latently feminine', unlike the  'beauty in the service of strength or courage' of boxing, which has come to be the key to masculinity  (84).

Tyson's life shows a particular inflection directed at the black male body. In his childhood, there were stereotypical images available --  'the black man as more natural, spontaneous, fun-loving, childlike, expressive, rhythmic, sexual, violent and lazy... more  "primitive"  and physical' (84). For Jefferson, these aspects represent 'repressed characteristics of dominant, white, "civilized" males unconsciously projected on to the black, male body' (85)  [this psychodynamic explanation of dealing with fears by projection is a common thread in this account]. This enables social distance and hierarchy. Other stereotypes include  '"Toms, Coons and Bucks"' (85, quoting Bogle on blacks in American film). The Tom is safe, religious and loyal, the Coon is a clown, buffoon or child, the Buck is sexual, brutal, strong and threatening.

Jefferson thinks that stereotypes do affect, but not determine, every day perceptions. They also match to some extent actual racist practices designed to dominate black males, from slavery and repression, to [sidetracking] into sports and entertainment. In the Seventies,  'the only model of black manhood available to galvanise young, black men, in effect, was that of the  "Buck"' (86) [massive assumption here, apparently based on the work of Wallace]. This stereotype was also embraced by Black Power. The situation has not been improved by the economic and political deterioration in black ghettos in the USA -- these produced an entirely symbolic politics, or internecine arena for black struggle and black imagery  [the range of stereotypes depicted in Boyz'n'the Hood].

Tyson's own biography reveal that he was originally far from hard, and had to make the transition into local gang member, bully and criminal. His adoption of  'a new mental "hardness": a new willingness to risk the body in performance' (87) was crucial. Apparently, he was taught to box in the reformatory and discovered his ability, including his capacity for training and for developing mental toughness --  'how to overcome your own fear and instill it into (or project it on to) your opponent' (88). He was particularly able to intimidate opponents. His boxing photographs show him undermining the posing that bodybuilders do. The boxer's weigh-in, irrelevant with super heavy weights since there is no upper limit, was used instead to display fearlessness and to intimidate opponents:  'The  "winner"  at the weigh-in is not the man with the most developed body, but he who exudes the most menace and potential power' (89)

Thus social structural forces reduced choices radically for Tyson, but the possibilities turned into actualities as a practical accomplishment. Wacquant has also explored this tension between the social and the psychological [rendered here as an example of the mind/body dualism] in his explanation of why boxers choose boxing -- it is not for the money, it is not culturally determined, but arises from a fit between the boxer's wish and the habitus involved  [standard Bourdieu on how individual choices fit social structures. NB the same goes for the slim efficient male new petty bourgeois body]. The boxer's body is the subject of social practice, affected both by social action and personal investment and choice. We have seen how Freud has been rejected, but Jefferson wants to reject Foucault as well, on the grounds that the body is not just inscribed by disciplinary apparatuses.

Wacquant reviews Fussell  [I never knew that!] and notes the anxiety involved in body-building [Fussell got into body-building because he was intimidated by other males and felt fear on the streets of New York, and described his muscles as 'armor'] and how masculinity should be embodied. Jefferson sees a contradiction here between these two sorts of explanations -- does anxiety explain or precede the practice of developing the body, and this leaves a confusion. What exactly are the 'motivational, psychic investments' (92) in developing the masculine body? Wacquant also flirts with a theory of gender development, so that men have to become hard in order to split with their mothers -- but this is also too general and reductive. Jefferson also summarises Klein on anxiety  (93 - 4). People can experience depressive anxiety or paranoid anxiety, and a common defence against the latter is  'splitting/projection' (93), splitting off that which is uncomfortable and projecting it on to other people where it can be attacked -- homophobia is an example, but hardness might fit as well.

However, different types of anxiety arises from different circumstances, even though one type might predominate. Some people might be particularly in the prone to persecutory anxiety and its common splitting/projection mode of expression. Men in particular might have to do this in the process of separating from their mothers  (93 - 4). Wacquant wants to stress the social sources of anxiety as well, including those arising from social class by elements. [Jefferson ends rather tamely by suggesting we need both].

The Tyson case-study shows that there are degrees of hardness and commitment, as well as different sorts of opportunities in sport and boxing. Hardness alone, without a grasp of the social context, can involve excessive and unmediated risk-taking. Tyson may indeed have experienced  'emotional malnourishment' [it is starting to look very conventional here, blaming child rearing for the pathological development of hardness -- what if Tyson is simply expressing his masculinity in an equally valid but different form? What if it isn't pathological at all, but a source of pleasure? What if indifference to pain is simply a kind of  'flow'? Why isn't excessive bodybuilding also a pathology?]. Jefferson admits that this enthusiasm for violence and aggression is  'utterly beyond' his view  (94). Tyson can only be that hard as a result of  'a set of social and psychic congruences' (94), a lack of opportunities and  'a painful psychic legacy of emotional neglect' (94)  [he claims he has evidence for this in another account he has written of Tyson's life].[ He should have kept going with Bourdieu - the 'normal' body is also a construct, a result of anxiety and investment, a 'pathological' desire to 'fit in' and a chance to intimidate others through social distancing. New petty bourgeois males are really good at symbolic aggression and violence -- is that also 'beyond' Jefferson's experience?].

back to key concepts