Another annual Philadelphia chicken wing-bowl has come and gone, apparently. I wasn’t even aware of the event until my husband stumbled upon a BBC article about it. It is, or was in the past, exactly what one might imagine, a chicken-wing eating contest. As with pies, pancakes and hotdogs, wings are another popular favorite among America’s competitive eaters. To be honest I’m not particularly bothered by people who competitively eat or eating contests in general but I still have no burning desire to attend witness either. The wing bowl however, has morphed into more than your run-of-the mill eating competition. What one ESPN journalist called the ‘the worst event ever’ and what a Philly journalist described as a ‘ gigantic boozy frat ‘n’ bachelor party at a disgusting strip joint that just happens, one night, to hold an eating contest’, the wing bowl is what happens when the worst of American culture collides in a stadium-sized space. Participants and, by default, champs are mostly men, unsurprisingly. Sure, women go to this event and this years winner happened to be a woman but let’s face it, meat, men and competition do go together in the psyche like a triptych.
The Philly wing bowl was conceived of back in 1993 as most eating competitions, gluttony with an edge. Now it’s a 25,000 person event featuring a lot of men, swathes of women (wingettes) wearing only their bra and underpants cheering eaters on and dishing out wings, heavy-hitting corporate sponsors like Cadillac and Lexus, campy stage names like ‘Wing Kong’ and ‘Hank the Tank’, way too much drinking, way too much vomiting and not enough shame. Male bystanders are encouraged to be raucous and female bystanders are pretty much bullied into lifting their shirts. Everything is caught on a Jumbotron in real time and played back over and over in case you miss it the first time around.
It’s hard not to look at the wing bowl and point out the many ways it’s offensive but people go and in droves. It’s hugely popular and like many all-American events, think Paddy’s Day, Mardi Gras and the entire week leading up to most major sporting events, it started out as one thing and devolved into another excuse to binge-consume alcohol and bad food, don branded paraphernalia, fight, flash, moon, suck face etc. And while this behavior is indeed troubling the pop-culture machine’s manipulation of it is even worse, in my opinion. It turns the vulgar, ostentatious and absurd into the ‘new normal’ by reworking it into something innocuous, given, glamorous even. And the justification for behaving or acting offensive, it’s a matter of personal choice or an expression of individuality. Yes it’s true, we’re free agents. It’s probably safe to assume, for instance, that wing bowl goers choose to go, eaters choose to overeat to the point of discomfort and wingettes choose to wear very little clothing. But is it entirely personal choice if we’re being bullied or coerced into it and is it individuality if everyone else is doing it?
Philip Slater’s wonderful book, ‘The Pursuit of Loneliness‘ comes to mind. In it he says: ‘American’s have a profound tendency to feel like outsiders-they wonder where the action is and wander around in search of it’ (1970: 110). He goes on to argue that, in valuing agency, autonomy and individuality above all else we’ve created a society in which we have no real sense of place or connection, we are nobodies trying desperately to be somebody. Nonetheless, we are social beings at-heart and our history of first working hand-in-hand and later side-by-side incites our desire for camaraderie and yearning for validation. This still comes up against the dominant demand to set ourselves apart, stand out, be detached, unaffected individuals. This is distinctly Western but it concerns the United States especially and it’s a matter for every person but it’s one that plagues men in particular (Kudlick, 2003; Shakespeare, 1994). If it seems like I’m going to make a ‘men are in crisis’ argument, I’m not. In-fact I‘m careful about making any hard and fast claims about such matters. This especially since the argument itself has been taken over bya certain demographic of men who inevitably blow their own cover by touting on about men’s power lost as if power was theirs and naturally still is.
That aside, there are little grains of truth to some of the crisis claims. Vice writer Brian Moylan gives an amusing account of a crisis claim in his article ‘In Defense of the American Bro’. In response to (or in concurrence with) a Saward Vice article calling the American Bro the worst guy ever, Moylan suggests that the problem today is not men but society. Throughout history men have taken the liberty to imprint themselves on just about everything that is good about this country. Now the U.S. produces a lot more crap and corruption but masculinity’s imprint lingers and men, wondering and wandering, are looking for ways to validate themselves individually and collectively. Enter the ‘American bro’-crisis incarnate. Unlike their honest, hardworking predecessors, bros are a perverse, eye-rolling amalgamation of some old and mostly new. They make up the majority of the men that you’ll find at events like the wing bowl not so much because the men themselves are some new breed of nasty but because society is. I’m not suggesting that men’s bad behavior, or women’s for that matter, should be given a pass. It’s much easier to address the behavior of individuals than try and take on the pop-culture establishment but come on, the circus that is American mainstream gives what (or who, I should say) is creative and smart and inventive about our culture a bad name. That’s Moylan’s point, it was Slater’s, and it’s mine too.