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The Superbowl Culture of Male Violence

by Eugene C. Bianchi

Dr. Bianchi is associate professor of religion at Emory University, Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 18, 1974, pp. 842-845. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Two years ago I wrote a piece analyzing professional football. I argued that this great national sport, which claims the devotion of a significant percentage of our population, mirrors in a ritual way some of the worst characteristics of our culture. In particular, I insisted, it interlinks four qualities that drive the American violence machine: physical brutality, profit-maximizing commercialism, an authoritarian-military mentality and sexism. (Of course, I was focusing on the destructive elements of professional football, not condemning sport in general.)

After two years’ reflection, I would make only one important change in my earlier perspective. I have come to the conclusion that the fundamental evil from which the others flow is sexism. The basic way by which the male in our culture establishes his sexual identity is a prime source of exaggerated aggression in the interpersonal, economic and political realms. The problem can be put thus: How are males in our society conditioned to value themselves as persons? What are the criteria of self-worth and social acceptance among American men? Let me explore these questions in the context of major social patterns and institutions. The answers, I am convinced, manifest a close relationship between violence and sexism.

How to Teach a Boy Aggression

First, a word about my use of terms. By "aggression" and "violence" I mean not only destructive conduct toward persons and property, but also the subtle types of violence that have been called avoidable injury and the institutionalized violence that deprives people of rights and resources. By "sexism," I mean a learned pattern of relationships among men that creates an adversary and domineering style between male and male and toward all females. These distinctions should become clear as we examine concrete social structures and mores.

The American family is the first conditioning agency for the mode of self-identity that leads to aggression. The boy learns very early that if he is to attain real manhood, he must perform and compete better than girls -- at least physically. To be thought of as a sissy is tragic for a male child. By way of toys and games denied to girls, he is schooled to muscular and psychic aggressiveness. He understands from the start that both his own and society’s acceptance of him as a man depends on his being dominant toward and protective of females and successfully competitive toward males. TV’s "Sixty Minutes" program presented an exceedingly graphic example of such pedagogy earlier this year when it showed the indoctrination of prospective little candidates for Midget Football Leagues. Toughness, aggressiveness and winning were portrayed as ultimate values, and the risk of serious physical injury was ignored or minimized. Vividly encapsulated in the episode were the fathers’ needs to extend their own competitive-success syndrome to their sons and to ward off fears of deviant sexual development in the boys.

The American family also teaches violence by direct example, notably through father-mother relations. Overt violence on the part of husbands toward their wives, while not common, is a sizable social reality. In addition to wife-beating, there are threats of abandonment, which are especially menacing to a woman whose socialization has left her without independent means of support. She may be punished by being ignored or by having her movements and her circle of friends limited. The young boy observes these control patterns and incorporates them into his own personality for later use. Again, he sees that his father has some power while his mother is weak and submissive. This experience also creates in him a potentially destructive tension. He may value the unconditional love of the mother and at the same time reject or even despise her for her derivative and dependent status. Later, his own desire for status and adventure may cause him to suppress the affectional (mother) dimension in himself in order to seek power among males.

At the same time, women’s resentment at being used gives rise in them to feelings of hostility which may prompt them to manipulate their husbands in devious ways and to exercise over their children a dominance that harms the latter psychologically. These hidden structures of animosity in family life, arising from the sexist structure of our culture, create a climate of enmity, envy and suspicion, a training ground of violence. For in such a climate, the roles and expectations of family members degenerate so that none of them can realize personal potential, much less empower others. Feeling psychologically impotent, they lack a sense of self-worth. And, as sociological and psychological studies have shown, low self-regard tends to lead to antisocial, aggressive behavior.

A sexist family structure can also foster violent leanings in young males by impairing their power to empathize with others. In order to survive, the child may have to deny the reality of hostile and dominative parental relations, and that denial makes it very difficult for him to get in touch with his own feelings and wants. But unless we sense our own real feelings we cannot begin to perceive the feelings of others. It is this inability to empathize with the pain and tenor of the victims that opens the door to acts of violence.

The Sexism of Schools and Peer Groups

What the sexist family began, the school promotes in more sophisticated ways. Athletic events, academic grades, examinations are geared to fashion male children into competitors and achievers. (Illuminating in this connection is the fact, established by a number of studies, that many female college students program themselves to fail, in order not to abandon the accepted image of femininity.) Of course, competitiveness does not necessarily conduce to violence. It may be just a rivalry that makes the contest an enjoyable exercise of skill. But our schools indoctrinate the young male with a deadly serious spirit of competition. He is trained for a confrontation with others in which his own self-identity, self-respect and public acceptance are at stake. He can hardly afford to lose. Winning is all, even if it means trampling on his fellows. Hostility and violence are tools for removing obstacles on the way to the top.

More perhaps than by formal schooling, the young male is influenced by peer relationships. Here again the sexist mentality is basic, though it reveals itself in different ways. Among deprived minority groups, for instance, the gang offers the young male a quick road to personal selfhood and social respect in his own group and even in the larger society that has stacked the deck against him and his peers. A tough stance and acts of violence bring him material rewards, a reputation for bravery, and the adulation of females. For in the gangs -- as well as in certain alternate-life-style groups -- the woman’s role is essentially subordinate and derivative; she functions to bolster male toughness. Thus the gang reflects in crude miniature some of the impulses that drive American society. It is a new chapter in a long national history of aggressive individualism, frontier lawlessness and the glorification of outlaws. Technology has only helped to update an old American institution.

The middle- and upper-class male peer group is also a milieu for sexist development. The assumption here is that inflicting pain will produce real men who get ahead; witness, for instance, the rite of fraternity hazing, or the tendency to label draft resisters "faggots" because they refused to undergo pain as an introduction to manhood. In this group the fear of homosexuality is as pervasive as the passion for fast, powerful cars. Both the fear and the passion grow out of the cultural demand for potency in heterosexual performance. The young male, torn by doubts about his own sexual capacity, flees from the specter of homosexuality and reassures himself by driving at excessive speeds. The problem is not that many or most young men are quite naturally somewhat insecure sexually; rather, it is the domineering, violence-oriented sexuality that is advocated as a cure. The young man is encouraged to "score" with girls, to "make" women. This is a sexuality of conquest, of trophies to deck out his ego.

Rape as Rage

Apply all this to big-time football. I think it should now be obvious that this game does indeed manifest and reinforce the fundamental evil of our culture; namely, its sexism. The weekend trek to the arena is not an escape from the world of corporate America, but a pilgrimage to the national shrines where the virtues of toughness and insensitivity can be renewed and the role of woman is clearly defined against the masculine criteria of value. In the football spectacle the important action is male-dominated; women can share in it only at a distance. They can shout and squeal from afar for the pleasure and service of the male whose "bunnies" they are.

Yet for all its chest-thumping bravado, the game also portrays the anxieties and contradictions of aggressive sexuality. Its calculated violence makes it hard for the player to become sensitively attuned to his own body. Moreover, in distorting the challenge of sustaining authentically interpersonal sexuality, it evidences an unhealthy polarity. In a culture that is geared to aggressive attainment and that demands a kind of technological efficiency even in sex, many men are imbued with a fear of relating to women in sex as full equals. For as between equals, there is no need for one to control the other or to succeed according to external prescriptions.

Violent crime in the United States is a particularly male phenomenon. "Crime" is usually taken to mean violence to property (theft) or to persons (assault, homicide). Rape involves both theft and assault, while at the same time pointing to the sexist underpinnings of much violent crime. And since the incidence of rape has been on the rise, it merits special attention.

Rape represents a compulsion to dominate and harm women. The physical brutality that often accompanies it manifests the rapist’s need to force a woman to do his will. It is probably this urge to overpower and coerce, rather than sexual appetite, that motivates him. In the act of rape, he may simply be venting his conscious or unconscious rage against society or against other women in his life. Readers will remember Eldridge Cleaver’s graphic confession that in committing rape he was striking out against a repressive social order (though’ later on Cleaver saw this crime as dehumanizing to both the perpetrator and the victim) .

Whatever the rapist’s motives, his action itself is particularly demeaning for the woman. It reduces her to a thing in a thing-oriented culture. This crime marks the culminating point of the cultural ethos which shapes the male psyche in terms of winner-loser. It requires that the competitor, the opponent, the enemy be humiliated and rendered powerless -- that is, made into woman.

Other social overtones of rape likewise exemplify the violence-prone mentality of our male-dominant society. Fear of it is used to perpetuate a status quo where men hold power and women stay in their place, to foster the notion that women are like children who need to be protected by male-dominated laws and institutions. This message is implicit in police investigations. By questions and innuendo, officials often try to fasten the blame for rape on the victim. What was she doing in a certain part of town, why was she dressed provocatively, why was she alone? She stepped out of her place and therefore deserves to be frightened and abused.

Again, the punishment for rape prescribed by law is so severe that the rapist will hardly be convicted unless he is of a minority class; that is, an inferior, already something like a woman. There is also the fact that, since a woman is considered the possession of a husband or father, an assault on her violates male property rights. This view is especially in evidence when a black is implicated in the rape of a white woman. Having created the myth of the black’s extraordinary sexual prowess, the white male interprets such a case as an affront to his ego, his virility and his property.

Watergate -- for Men Only

These same male psychic patterns operate in our economic life -- not only in that of the criminal underworld but throughout the corporate-capitalist system. Both at home and abroad, that system is rapacious. Its purpose is to amass wealth, and to do that calls for toughness and aggressiveness along with willingness to sacrifice humane considerations for material gain. Social concern is largely a façade. Exxon and ITT buy humanitarian TV commercials, but their primary aim is to make the rich richer. The corporation exists not as a community but as an efficient means of concentrating wealth in the hands of a small band of individuals. And in committing economic "rape" it fulfills male ego needs as these have been conditioned in our culture. The vast majority of our population judges a man by the amount of money he makes. So does the man himself.

But when women struggle for or attain equal financial standing with men, the men feel castrated. Men have protected their money-based identity by mouthing their self-serving, ideology of mother and home while using women as cheap labor. Thus our economic system is permeated with sexist violence -- to men too, because it not only keeps men from fostering lives of intimacy and community, but also prevents them from finding real pleasure in their work.

On the political level, our society’s sexism raises frightening prospects. We have lately heard a great deal of talk about not negotiating on our knees, not turning tail, not presiding over the first American defeat. This is the talk of little boys who learned that winning was all. The culture of Bonnie and Clyde and the "fastest gun" has a quick trigger finger. It views the international political scene as a game board for power manipulations; that is, for placating the male psyche.

At home, this code of toughness decrees that men shall attain power by any means available. Such is the real message of Watergate. Notice, by the way, that Watergate is a male-only affair. When a woman finally appears among the conspirators, she is a mere secretary who bungled with a tape recorder. Watergate was in fundamental contradiction to the best in our democratic heritage and in full accord with the superbowl culture of male violence. It exemplified the American male mystique to the superlative degree.

But that mystique is not only opposed to the best elements of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence; it is also a rejection of the core ethos of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Justice, equality and community -- all the qualities that promote the common welfare -- cannot exist side by side with proneness to violence. The gospel stresses the building of trusting, life-supporting communities; the male mystique emphasizes individualist self-aggrandizement through domination of others. The gospel advocates the sharing of resources; the hero-hunter mentality nourishes itself by amassing and quantifying things for the self or its immediate extensions. The Judeo-Christian ideal evolved toward an ethic of minimizing destructive aggression; the male mystique is geared toward Overt and hidden violence. Until we see and deal with these contradictions, we will continue to harbor a false conscience that is psychologically and spiritually damaging. We cannot live in this society without complicity in its evils. But it is quite another matter to blind ourselves to hypocritical contradictions and even to claim that they are glorious virtues.

Can MANkind Some Day at Last Be Free?

The focus of Scripture is on the liberation from bondage, from the powers of death that diminish our humanity. And the prototype of our enslavement is the oppression of women. From this primary distortion of the male mind proceeds the oppression of other "lesser people." The violence-prone masculine psyche drives us to racism, colonialism, imperialism and other types of oppression which are in fact extensions of the male-female pattern that lets us project the dark side of ourselves onto the other and so allows us to use/abuse other human beings for our own selfish ends.

At root, male chauvinism is a denial of our co-humanity with others and a rejection of the (masculine) animus and the (feminine) anima that reside in every individual. But the oppressor is also the oppressed. The male mystique is the instrument of the male’s bondage. It keeps him from realizing his full personhood. How then can American men change the basic myth they have been taught to live by? How can they begin to sense their self-worth according to another model -- that of the affectionate, nondominative, sharing, communal person? On their lived-out answers to these questions depend the survival of humanity and the restoration of their own personal humanness,


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