‘There is no law that is not inscribed on bodies.’ 1
Michel De Certeau
The world of wrestling is not a sport, but a spectacle – ‘as valid as that of Molière or Racine’2, Roland Barthes declared in his opening Mythology. What is more, this choreography is acknowledged as such. For the spectator this admission does little to diminish its validity. Rather, the motives and actions of the performers are rendered inconsequential to the proceedings laid bare by the drama in the ring. The public abandon themselves to the ‘primary virtue of the spectacle… what matters is not what it thinks but what it is sees.’3 That the charade continues with mutual recognition of the implicit and explicit roles of performers and spectators reveals the underlying nature of sporting practices as models of social behaviour, the acknowledgement of the performative aspects of all social behaviour, as well as the hidden potential to ‘play’ and ‘perform’ within this prescribed arena. Sport, and consequently spectacle, here represent a discursive field, both literal and symbolic, highlighting the cognitive and (visually) linguistic functions which govern and proscribe our everyday lives, while simultaneously offering the social and visual imaginaries necessary to transgress these dominant ideas and identities.
The work of photographer Alejandra Carles-Tolra represents a documentary practice that challenges the primacy of these established practices and behaviours. Her 2015 series The Bears, portrays women from Brown University’s rugby team in the United States during and between practice sessions, the year prior to Women’s Rugby competing at Olympic level for the first time. The images represent a watershed moment in both sport and photography and the potential to re-evaluate the normative values prevalent in male-dominated arenas. By focusing on the rehearsal, Carles-Tolra lifts the curtain on the drama unfolding behind the scenes and casts a harsh spotlight on the performative actions of everyday sporting activities and their relation to gender roles within wider society.
In conversation with Carles-Tolra’s images, this essay explores the terrain of delineated social practices, the role of the gendered body as it navigates this space, and how their corollary reflect upon everyday practices, both on and off the field. The demarcations of these spaces – physical, social, psychological – serve as exemplars for the performative nature of the gendered body and reveal how adherence to visual regimes delimit through repetitive behavioural practices.
Through the delineation of physical and psychic spaces within a given cultural field, gendered bodies appear and are determined by the constraints imposed by established social practices and visual regimes. These boundaries are maintained through the repetition of discrete behaviours, which characterise the wider regulatory framework determining which bodies are permissible within these spaces. By adherence to strict disciplinary mechanisms, subjects are deemed to embody the criteria necessary to be intelligible within this schema. This internal logic deems which bodies are legitimate and which are not.
For representations of the body within cultural phenomena – fashion, sports, advertising – the visual aesthetic stands in for, and becomes the model of, acceptable bodily function within popular discourse. To be accepted within a particular socio-cultural narrative, the subject must satisfy the criteria required for admittance into the arena or onto the stage. Furthermore, the body must exhibit these qualities – the visual projection of accepted criteria – in a convincing and consistent way to avoid disapproval, condemnation or violence. Appropriately, Carles-Tolra’s photographs embody the required visual aesthetic of sporting behaviours necessary for acceptance onto the stage. The series of tightly framed ‘action’ shots and accompanying portraits reveal the performative functions required to legitimise the subject within the given space, while highlighting the mythology, the performance, and the roles required of performer and spectator in both sport and everyday life.
Access to these spaces and stages requires not only bodily fulfilment of the principles of one’s chosen field of play, but also the ongoing discipline that sustains the regulatory framework required of the game. In sport, this requirement includes the material aspects of bodily function in addition to the embodiment of the aesthetic regime. Alongside the characterisation of discursive practices within the regulatory field, the subject is required to perform outwardly and publicly. Here photography plays its part in propagating the familiar roles apparent in the codes and conventions replicated through play. In addition to promoting the leading lights of the game, the image stands in as a visual cue for the performers. Sports bodies and their champions become the blueprint for ideal physical form and role models for novice performers as they practice their moves and hone their techniques.
For the purposes of this essay, the archetypes of artist and athlete present a useful dialectic with which to explore the dynamic of performance and performativity. On the one hand, the sports player: a primal force of nature, tamed, trained and equipped, symbolic of desire itself. On the other, the artist: driven to dismantle and denaturalise, poke and prod, reveal and reflect.
For the sportsperson, the ritualised practices synonymous with rehearsal, training, and the requirement for instinctual behaviour, assume a precognitive naturalism reinforcing the notions of preternatural determinism that govern these performances. As such they are rigorously subjected to the demands of long-standing scripts, routinely replayed ahead of the final performance in a spectacle of sporting and sexual triumph.
For the photographer, the harsh flashlight, seemingly remote and disconnected from the narrative of the spectacle, at once highlights the position of the subject matter and our expected response, while drawing attention to the presentation being witnessed. In The Bears we are clearly positioned in the midst of a performance that sufficiently captures the visceral realism required to tether us to familiar visual territory. We are on the front row within the narrow confines of the frame, close to the action, imagining the next line, act, and ultimately the final scene. At once dispassionate, but aware of the emotional intensity of both the play and its players. While staged (self) portraiture has been the mainstay for critical analyses of gender roles in photography, here we have a series of documentary images which similarly reveal artifice by utilising the stylistic demands of the genre. It is the ‘truth’ of these images that allows them to expose the facade of the performance.
Sport, by virtue of its essentialising and spectacular character, concentrates the subject of masculinity in representation like almost no other image-based sphere. Within male team sports, there exists not only the fight between opposing teams, but the one to prove the sexual identity of the players and the behaviours they promulgate. Against the backdrop of established psychoanalytic schema, the male body seeks to reproduce the primacy of male heterosexual desire, while prohibiting the homosexual other from the scene. The construction of masculine identity, in the Lacanian sense, seeks to create and internalise these social boundaries at the psychic level, by constituting normal and abnormal roles, as well as the limits of permissible heteronormative behaviour. This process imposes itself on the body as both language and law and is systematically maintained through adherence to strict performative behaviours, reified through visual imagery, and endorsed by the absolute threat of symbolic violence.
Through its depiction in sport, this persona reaches an apotheosis of representation, while its idealised construction proclaims its status as the ultimate form of male power. Ironically, despite being understood as the most naturalised expression of the male condition, this exaggerated example constitutes the most constructed of gendered bodies. As icons of heteronormative behaviour, sportsmen display their identity to the outside world and must fight (and win) to maintain its supremacy. However, this exclusion, of the homosexual other, is always nominal and reliant upon its performative reproduction within the extant regime. Heterosexuality, therefore, is always marked by an identification with that which it seeks to exclude. Paradoxically, the visual depiction of masculinity through sports photography mimics the homoerotic ideals of beauty reminiscent of classical antiquity and beyond. This serves to simultaneously propagate the myth of the body ideal, while revealing the potential for its subversion (as many artists have before). As such, the sports field becomes a playground for deconstructing the gendered body and its performed identity.
The psychological imperative invested in the men’s game and its milieu produces unintended consequences, which sow the seeds of its own vulnerability. This arbitrary logic, and the very act of prohibition, inadvertently produces the potential for transgression. By creating the strict boundaries that seek to resist the eroticising of rituals of male bonding and expressions of affection so depended upon by men’s sporting and social networks – often sustained by declarations of homophobia – the latent desire for rule-breaking is revealed. The recognition, of the mutual dependency of homo and heterosexual identities, reveals the central conceit through which performative actions manifest and sustain legitimacy through a heteronormative framework, which subsequently fractures the mechanism through which this framework is established. Conversely for much of the women’s game, the ambiguities of sexuality are permitted to play out both on and off the field. As the team plays and practices together, the underlying notions of sexuality, though still incumbent on their environment, are not inherent to the game.
For The Bears, their proximation, both as team players and close-knit within the visual field, is perceived as intrinsic to the unity of the game and the image. The apparent naturalness of their positioning, the ease at which they perform roles previously deemed the exclusive domain of the male subject, at once exposes the normalcy of women in contact sports and the absurdity of gender roles prescribed within the heteronormative framework.
The arbitrary nature of sports posturing is revealed through a series of portraits at once awkward and conventional. The subjects are harshly lit and seemingly lost in space or nature. Ambivalent, yet emotionally charged, they personify the customary accents of male sports photography, but without the psychological precondition that would ordinarily render the images natural and unequivocal. Mimicking the striking poses and symbolic violence of their male counterparts, they expose the masquerade of the performative gesture and the underlying visual regime. By resisting the formal categories of sports photography the images undo the distinction between staged public performance and everyday practices and offer a critical insight into the naturalisation of gender performativity revealed through sporting practice as spectacle. In common with Catherine Opie’s influential 2007 series of portraits of male (American) football players, Carles-Tolra subverts the central conceit and constructedness of gender roles within sport and reflected in wider society.
A tactical reading of Carles-Tolra’s images attests to the fiction of identification of bodies through positioning and posturing within this heteronormative framework. Her previous series Fall In (2012-13), similarly documented rehearsals conducted by American military cadets. The requirement to ‘fall in line’ and therefore (re)enact the role to which they have been assigned, prior to and following their enrolment, marks the boundaries onto which each body must perform and regulate. Here too, the rehearsals mimic the essence of their live counterparts, complete with military fatigues and manoeuvres defined within a real theatre of war, albeit minus the weapons deemed necessary for conflict. Reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s (2000) Man with Rifle, the subject’s hands are positioned to ‘hold’ the imaginary prop required to enact or threaten potential future violence. By re-appropriating the physical and psychological spaces hitherto employed to impose social, and therefore visual, hierarchies, we can see these acts of creative resistance as a set of tactics that can be used to counter the structural strategies employed to reinforce normative values and behaviours.
The images presented are grounded within a critical realist dialogue that exposes the limitations of documentary photography, while highlighting the need to engage with the genre at a new and more critical level. They are at once within and devoid of the contextual alignment incumbent upon the genre, allowing the viewer to re-assess the exigent relationship between the photographic medium and reality. In much the same way that Barthes advocated for theatre4, we are afforded an opportunity to realise photography’s potential to affect our critical capacities, not by telling us what things mean but revealing how meaning is produced. In doing so, Carles-Tolra opens up a dialogue between spectator and spectacle, disclosing the visual regimes rendered by the camera’s gaze and the mythologies that dictate our everyday lives.
1 Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, University of California. London, 1984 p 139.
2 Roland Barthes, Mythologies Vintage. London, 1993 p 15.
4 Roland Barthes, Critical Essays Northwestern University Press, 1972. – Barthes terms ecriture – the social use of literary form – as an application for both literature and theatre.