Mr. Natural

Is Masculinity a Cultural Construction or a Biological Fact? Science (and Sci-Fi) Enter the Gender Fray.

Why they call boxing "the sweet science" is a mystery, unless you understand the sport as a powerful repository of ideas about men's primal nature. In the spectacle of a titanic fight and the glory of a world champion lie the deepest codes of male violence and its sublimation into sport. The ring is a holy arc, the bout a sacred rite in the religion we call masculinity. All the more fearsome when a girl, fercrissake, whups a guy.

That's what happened on October 9, when Margaret McGregor won a unanimous decision against Loi Chow. Before the battle in Seattle, sports writers— chivalrous bunch that they are— warned of dire damage to McGregor. But once she won, their concern became contempt. McGregor went from being a vulnerable frail to what the Post's Neil Travis called "a ballyhooed bimbo." The bout was widely labeled "a freak show," and a Washington legislator promised a bill to bar such fights, asking, "How many times can a woman be punched in her ovaries before she loses her reproductive capacity?"

Notice how readily women's delicate condition becomes a reason to forbid them from boxing men, and how easily McGregor's victory invites comparison to a freak show. Such rhetoric suggests that something besides right reason might be coloring the response from many sports "professionals." These defenders of the fight faith sense the heresy in a woman who beats a man. On a symbolic level, she puts another chink in the armor of masculinity by showing that you don't need a dick to be The Man.

It may be true that McGregor benefited unduly from the short stature and limited skills of her opponent (who pled high blood pressure as an excuse for his defeat). It may also be true that much of women's boxing is an excuse to watch ex-exotic dancers get pummeled for pay. But no one can say that McGregor is anything but serious about her craft, and the recent debut of Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila portends a time when women, too, can float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Already, the number of registered female fighters has climbed from 54 in 1994 to nearly 1300 today, and it's likely that women's boxing will soon be added to the Olympic Games. Ten years from now, when there's a tradition of training women to box, it may not be so unusual for a girl to wallop a guy. It will be interesting to see the sports world's attitude change from contempt to rage as they realize that yet another male preserve has been invaded by a culture hell-bent on making sex a fact rather than a fate.

Of course, males still hold the lion's share of the world's wealth, pull the strings of religious authority, and unleash the dogs of war. Even in America, where women do relatively well in the workforce, they earn only about three-quarters of what men do. In the material world, guys still rule, but on the symbolic plain of status, a real shift has occurred. And each new challenge to the prestige of masculinity makes it harder to argue that there's anything natural about it. Thirty years of feminism have convinced us that, at least when it comes to human potential, most of the traits we consider to be essentially male are culturally constructed. And the media beam a message of self-actualization so powerful that it has even been enlisted by military recruiters: "Be all that you can be." Margaret McGregor took that slogan seriously, and the result is fear and loathing in the primal ring.

Welcome to the crisis of masculinity '90s style. It's a market-driven trend with enormous resonance for every man who feels the hot breath of change. For every guy who longs for the days when he could swagger and bray with impunity; for every dude who's deeply pissed that women won't lie still under him (in politics or in bed); for every boss who can't tweak the girls in the typing pool, and every Joe Sixpack whose boss is a goddamn broad: This backlash is for you!

Since this is a crisis of status rather than substance, the cybercrat is as likely as the working stiff to feel under siege. Which makes the current situation tailor-made for a publishing boom, as shrinks, scientists, and revisionist feminists line up at the gender-studies trough. From Susan Faludi to Lionel Tiger, the trade-book cognoscenti are creating a new image of the oppressed and fragile male. Meanwhile, in the mass media, there's a rude dude rising, and the networks are perfectly willing to market him right alongside the subversion of masculinity. Check out that t&a fest The Man Show or Action, the new sitcom in which a nasty, narcissistic young boss calls his male underlings "my bitches."

On Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher inveighs about the need for "a male agenda," rendering as infotainment what could be George Bush's secret weapon. Beneath the carping about Al Gore is the uneasy sense that he's something less than butch. Bill Bradley comes across as a real man, but he's liberal, so how real can he be? Bush is the likely winner in this stud-stakes, rollicking on as the classic good old boy. There's an odd nostalgia surrounding W's persona, fueled by powerful anxieties about the new way men and women see each other and themselves.

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