In 2004 I wrote an essay called “The Lance Effect: American Symbolic Masculinity and Lance Armstrong” for which I can only find my old notes. This annoys me to no end. But I like the idea of sharing my notes and thought process. So I thought I would publish them here… please forgive my naive grad-student feminist politics and rhetoric, and please forgive that this is an un-finished and slightly disorganised brain-dump.
The Lance Effect
My contemplation of this topic began when I was riding the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic in July of 2004, just following Lance Armstrong’s initial Tour de France 2004 attack in the mountains. During the ten-some-odd hours of my ride I was constantly reminded of this cycling superhero by the Foundation bracelet that loosely clung to my sweaty and road-grime spattered arm. It struck me as ironic that I, an aficionada of masculinity in crisis discourse, would be wearing a bracelet largely supporting the research in finding a cure for testicular cancer. I have never worn any support or ‘cure’ ribbons, so my initial reasoning for wearing this one was brought about mainly by my general support for Lance Armstrong as a truly amazing cyclist and human being rather than for support of the organization or its cause. To defend myself momentarily, I certainly agree that all the various ‘cures’ are needed and have donated my small share, but I have tried to maintain a large amount of impartiality to wearing those symbols employed for their support. It is also my belief that many of those people wearing the Foundation bracelets wear them, at least in part, for similar reasons to my own: simply that Lance Armstrong has captured the imagination of Americans, cyclists or otherwise, and to show their support for his accomplishments and endeavors. I venture to suggest that “Lance” is no longer just a man, but an icon signifying American masculinity as a whole, supported not only by his devoted fans, but by the whole symbolic system devoted to the promotion and maintenance of masculinity in this society plagued by a crisis in masculine gender identity.
Although it is just one of the many areas of cancer research funded by the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and certainly not the most serious of cancers suffered by the cyclist, most people only really pay attention to his battle with and recovery from testicular cancer. In many ways, he is just as famous for recovering from testicular cancer as he is from winning six back-to-back Tours de France following that recovery. Next to castration, testicular cancer is one of the most prevalent symbols for lost masculinity. Testicular cancer, while being a very real, and deadly problem, is embedded with moral and social meaning beyond its status as a physical ailment. It is, in effect, symbolic for the gradual usurpation of a solid, controlled, masculine gender identity by all things feminine or feminizing. Testicular cancer is symbolic, not of a singular incidence of lost masculinity, but in the case of Lance Armstrong, of an American national crisis of masculinity. Lance’s has become that body which stands in for the American national body as a whole and as such carries the symbolic weight of the whole of American national lost masculinity.
Mention of testicular cancer brings to mind the images and symbolism of testicular cancer found in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, and the subsequent David Fincher film based on that story. “Men remaining men, together,” proclaims the sign for Jack/Tyler’s testicular cancer self-help group. One of the primary features and evidences of masculinity in crisis, as articulated by writers as diverse as Robert Bly and Susan Faludi, is the reemergence and maintenance of homosocial activities where the function of the homosocial activity is the symbolic establishment of a masculine identity that is free from its socially bound opposition to femininity. In that sense, men can identify themselves as masculine without the need for women to identify as feminine. The project to deconstruct gender as a performed and performative activity has been central to much feminist and philosophical discourse, primarily forwarded by the gender performance theories of Judith Butler. Her claim is that gender, like so many other social roles, is a performance, articulated and constantly rearticulating itself in order to make sense within and to the world surrounding it. Performance theory is premised on the notion that there is nothing inherent about gender beneath the surface plethora of images and symbols apparently designating between the sexes. A biological woman can identify and appear as feminine, in much the same way she might identify and appear as masculine. She is thus articulating femininity in her performance of her female gender, just as much as she may be articulating masculinity in her performance of her male gender. This is not to simplify gender performance to acting “in drag,” where one sex literally puts on the social mask of another, but that gender is something that needs continuous rearticulation and must therefore be maintained in the everyday activities designated to and designating of gender specificity.
The dichotomy of femininity and masculinity is thus performed as a binary opposition, maintaining each other as they simultaneously maintain their own. Masculinity in crisis discourse has, in response to this claim, established that masculinity, in the face of performed femininity, is exposed as merely a performance rather than something inherent within men. Masculinity thus loses its claims over its own identity: men lose their “manhood” as they lose their ability to know what it really means to be a man. If men are not masculine in opposition to femininity, then men must remain men together through homosocial activities.
Professional road cycling is one of few remaining sports exclusive to men in the world. There is almost no professional road circuit, at least nothing close in magnitude to the size and importance of something like the Tour de France exists for women. As an avid road cyclist, I find this point rather frustrating, but my own feminist investments demonstrate one reason perhaps, why it is a professional road cyclist rather than a soccer player, climber, hockey player or otherwise who has come to the forefront of determining an American sense of masculine identity. Cycling, like American football, is one of the few remaining professional sports designated to the realm of male homosociality, totally exclusive of women. Professional road cycling, and its ultimate instantiation, the Tour de France, is made up of individual competitors, coordinated and sponsored within multinational teams. Each stage of the race, and the race as a whole is all about personal survival, but also involves a high degree of dependence upon
The Lance Effect
In the study of popular icons, academics and cultural critics frequently confront a conflict between their own person investments in a field or discourse, and their own personal feelings about the subject in discussion. This conflict is often reflected in the enthusiastic, deconstructive measures taken to dissect the very core of the being at the center of the discussion, and the simultaneous attempts to admit the very humanity of that given celebrity. [Example needed] It is, in fact, difficult to separate oneself as an academic and cultural critic from a subject at hand enough to analyze and understand the effect that person has on the society and culture within which the icon lives. I identify my personal investments first and foremost as those of an amateur cultural analyst, and second as an amateur triathlete and cyclist. Thus, when I stumble quite unexpectedly upon the subject of Lance Armstrong and the multiple effects he has had upon American society and its culture, I am torn by my strong desire to leave the topic alone, as sacred, somewhat untarnished iconography, and by my inner instincts to rip open the topic and uncover some kind of meaning buried beneath its apparently pristine surface.
Professor Michael D. Bristol, one of my most cherished mentors, once asked whether or not Shakespeare was “just hype,” or if, in fact there was something more profound about the effect Shakespeare has had upon society at large. It is the same question I pose with regard to Lance Armstrong, not simply as a man, but as a cultural effect raising him and the idea of him to level of the “big time,” to the level at which he ceases to be a mere celebrity, but becomes a phenomenon that changes the way a society interprets itself both as individuals and as a whole.
Critics and writers as diverse as Susan Faludi and Robert Bly have generally agreed that over the last fifty years, in particular, American culture has suffered from and attempted to cure itself of what is typically understood as a ‘crisis in masculinity.’ This ‘crisis,’ has been located in different fields of study and has various different interpretations based upon the analysts’ own individual investments; however, the general consensus is that some kind of masculine identity crisis has challenged American masculine culture as a whole, most acutely following the Second World War, and has grown in intensity with the rise of feminism since the late ‘60s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Lance,” unlike the celluloid icons of the Reagan era or the earth-splitting warriors of the subsequent Bushes, has answered, if not fully attacked the crisis in masculinity in America more effectively than any icons or ideologies to date. “Lance” is no longer just a man, but is an icon signifying American masculinity as a whole. This phenomenon is supported not only by devoted fans, but by the whole symbolic system dedicated to the promotion and maintenance of masculinity in this society plagued by a crisis in masculine gender identity.
The first thing most American people think of with regard to Lance Armstrong is that he recovered from testicular cancer. In most of Lance’s publications the topic is cancer, or surviving cancer, whilst winning six consecutive Tours de France comes across as a side note, or moreover, as proof of his recovery from cancer.
The Lance Effect Doc 2
-The lack of a father:
The waif from the father (estranged) has the same affect as “princesses” (like Diana) who are uninhibited by the parental figure- uninhibited by the father and able to overcome that overwhelming presence in an Oedipal relationship. The successful son is necessarily the son without a father, but this simultaneously leads to a crisis in masculine identity. There are no homosocial (father/son) paternal bonds. Man is left to become a man by himself, or, with the help of other men in his life.
In that sense, he is not betrayed (read: castrated) by his mother, but by his absent father. The totally absent figure.
Chuck Palahniuk: “men remaining men together”.
Total symbolic castration. But also a de”manning” or emasculinating of the father/son relationship.
-“the Uniballer,” “Lone Star,” “One Star,” etc.
-Who is this really? This is the National Body. The body of America. “Lance” is the body of national masculinity in crisis in an attempt to rise to its challenge.
-Texans and the National Body: GWB and Arnold?
The Hard-bodied cowboy. Alone on the road (range). This is a maintenance of solidity (being alone –without women). Lance’s is one of both legitimate and illegitimate fluidity. Sweat is legitimate, even his semen is legitimate, because it has resulted in the form of two sons. (Imagine the different effect if Lance had a daughter?)
Nostalgia: the cowboy myth what has been lost? Masculinity.
Lance’s response is the response of America: eradicate fluidity in identity: disavow loss, disavow fluidity; eradicate both literal and symbolic cancer that eats away at a “solid” masculine identity. (“Solid,” because it was never solid to begin with.)
So, what are the symbolic mechanisms at work?
- Lack of a father role of mother and (ex)wife
- Testicular cancer (Tex-ticular)
- His name: “Lance” (the phallic object itself) and “Armstrong” (Nostalgia of the first man on the moon- the original modern cowboy)
- Cycling itself: having something hard between one’s legs (the fetish), and the peloton, the homosociality of it all.
- The Lance Armstrong Foundation (what the hell is this about Golf??) Why Golf?
-Homosociality and its role in society (replacement and symbolic initiation acts between men) “men remaining (becoming) men together.” Eve Sedgwick
Texas as the “masculinity in crisis” state: It suffers from mass nostalgia (a mass awareness of something lost in the past –such as the latent memory of castration does) but this nostalgia is a different lost past: it is one of losing the lone ranger, John Wayne, so they have replaced him with Big Tex: Lance. In his own right, Lance is a cowboy but has replaced the horse with a bicycle. Either way, the animal or the machine is a fetish, a replacement, one such that he cannot cope with the loss without something extraneous to fill the role of the phallus.
-The lack of a father (his status as unimpeded by obstacles [read: Oedipal relationship to his mother] is simultaneously what creates his celebrity status as well as his crisis in masculinity.
-Superfluous replacement fathers in the book, Images of a Champion: his coaches, agent, teammates (especially those whom have been lost), his mother, Eddy Merckx, the photographer (who thus technologically mediates the distance between the spectator and Lance).
This whole modus operandi is what turns Lance into “Lance,” that phallic weapon appropriated, then alienated by those technologies around him to stand in as a replacement for symbolic lost masculinity in America.
-A movement from plurality to singularity is taken not as a weakness, but as a strength. His singularity is thus his honed masculinity.