Jumping for Masculinity

3 Jul

Recently my wife and I went for a stroll along a near by harbor and marina. We were enjoying each other’s company, happily taking in the fresh air, views of the yachts and fishing boats, the surrounding hills and mountains, and the deep dark sea. There was a strong breeze but the air was warm. We reached the end of the north pier and were looking down into the mouth of the harbor and over toward the south pier. There across the water on the opposite pier were three topless men. The men were jumping up and down, laughing and shouting; they were shadow boxing and shoving each other around.   My wife and I watched them for a moment, not quite sure what they were up to.

The men began jumping up onto the pier wall, looking over the pier edge to the water in the harbor below and then jumping back down off the wall. They then resumed their messing around, jumping up and down, and beating their chests like hairless apes. It was clearer now they were psyching themselves up to jump off the pier into the harbor, some thirty to forty feet below. Never wanting to miss a photo opportunity and curious of the scene that was unfolding, I turned to my wife and said – “let’s watch for a minute!”

The men continued their sequence of actions; messing around, boxing the air and each other, climbing up onto the pier wall, looking over and down into the water below, then back down off the pier wall and goofing around again. I began to think this was all bluff and the men were not really going to jump. With my masculinity lens these men appeared to be putting on a performance for each other, and incidentally for the handful of people in their view within the harbor and marina. The tide was out, and to me, it didn’t look like there was sufficient depth of water below to allow for a jump from that height. I guessed the men might be considering this. If there was insufficient depth of water in the harbor, the men risked serious injury from the fall. Then before I had a minute to capture the moment, one of the men climbed up onto the pier wall. Shouting loudly, he jumped off the pier wall dropping down into the water below. The time between the man hitting the water and resurfacing seemed incredibly long.

Sure enough, he resurfaced and began swimming to shore. I thought his friends would fallow in sequence jumping next, but they did not. They waited until the jumper made it back up onto the pier wall having completing his very long self-indulgent glory run, cheering and whooping along the way. I wondered whether this was an individual test or group challenge that had been set. The men whooped and shouted, congratulatory slapping the jumper on the back at his return. The three men laughed loudly and the jumper expressively reenacted his jump through mime. Then it was clear another man intended to jump. He began the earlier sequence of actions carried out by the first man; he jumped up onto the pier wall looked over the edge, back down off the wall, shadow boxing, chest beating, shouting, shoving … then he ran, climbed up onto the pier wall and jumped off into harbor below. This time my camera was ready.

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Happily I turned to my wife – “I got it!” Knowing I had captured a perfect illustration of men partaking in a perceived test of masculinity. These men were taking a significant risk. There are many signs positioned around the harbor and marina explicitly stating diving is neither safe nor permitted. Engaging in rule breaking, carrying out a physically challenging task and taking a substantial risk all culminate in what Michael Kimmel (1997: 309) would describe as the “vigorous ways” men “demonstrate their hardy manhood”.

Kimmel (1997: 310) states, often “men’s bodies” are used as a “masculine testing ground”. These men were indeed publicly testing their bodies, and the limits of their resolve. There was a certain ritualistic sequence to their pier jumping; the psyching up, surveying the field, the taunting / rallying from peers, more psyching up, the jump itself, the glory run to and congratulation from peers, and then the repeat of this sequence by the next man. However, it was the very public nature of this risky activity that fascinated me so. It reminded me of something Matthew Desmond (2007: 7) wrote: “the drama of manhood must be performed ardently, publicly, and without end, and one way this is accomplished is through activity that threatens male bodies”.

I am ever fascinated by social constructions of gender, and in particular men’s constructs of masculinity. The fact that many men have to engage in such risky behaviors and actions to accomplish a perceived state of manhood or manliness, is bizarre to me. The scene my wife and I witnessed, demonstrates the very real and dangerous ways gender constructs are enacted by some men. As my wife and I walked away from this scene, I chatted on about masculinities, tests of manhood, and so on. Luckily I don’t need to test my masculinity like the men at the harbor because my wife reassured me by saying “you’d never need to jump off a harbor to prove your manhood like those doofuses … because I’ll happily push you off, if you don’t stopping talking about masculinities and just enjoy the bloody walk!”

© Clay Darcy, July 2015.

Bio: Clay is a PhD Candidate at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin.  To read more about Clay visit http://www.irishsociologyblog.com or http://www.claydarcy.com

References:

Desmond, M. (2007) On the Fireline – Living and Dying with Wildland Fires. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kimmel, M. (1997) Manhood in America – A Cultural History. New York, London & Toronto: The Free Press.

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