Okay, I admit it, I was definitely one of those queer boys who got picked
last - or on a good day next to last - for every team sport except
square dancing, writes Tim Miller.
With that trauma lurking in my mind, I
approached Sportsex, a remarkable exploration of organized sports, erotica,
and culture by, with more than a little trepidation. Instead of having to relive the
terror of seventh grade I was delighted to discover in Sportsex a hugely
enjoyable, smart and sexy examination of the role sports and athletes play in the
contemporary lesbian and gay sexual imagination.|
With the EuroGames in Stockholm just upon us, Toby Miller guides us
through this tricky terrain with great joy and profound insights, fully aware of
the mine field he has found himself on as he's been explaining to me.
See below for ordering information.
OutUK: As I read your remarkable book Sportsex, I was struck that with all the
extensive intellectual and critical focus examining almost every aspect of
popular culture, sports has been largely left out. What led you to go to the forbidden
land of contemporary sports?
I have been very concerned that cultural studies has devoted a vast
energy and time to soap opera, reality TV, hanging out in shopping
name it, but has done very little about the most prevalent form of
culture in world history. Sport is so important, both as something
watch and something they do, as well. Bertolt Brecht once said a sports
was a place where you might start a revolution. Today, we're more
see a new cable channel! Either way, it needs to be addressed. Why the
of interest? I think this neglect has been because folks see sport as
anti-intellectual, right-wing, and unseemly. In gender terms, it's
by many people as misogynistic and homophobic.
| But I perceive major
in the way sport and sexuality are unfolding. We live in an era when
commercial forces have permeated sport so thoroughly that men are
exposed to a sexualizing gaze. Their bodies are objects of sale to gay
and straight female spectators. The pressure on the male body to look
beautiful is now beginning to approximate what women have suffered for
generations. There are some positive aspects to this change. Hence the
It took me thirteen years to get there, but now it's done!
OutUK: I was really haunted by what you wrote in the introduction to Sportsex
"beauty is as much a part of male sports discourse today as toughness,
grace is the avowed compatriot of violence." What did you discover
this dynamic tension as you wrote Sportsex?
Toby Miller: It is a dynamic tension. Sport is full of weird contradictions. We are
constantly told that it is all about competition, but of course it's
much about collaboration, especially in team sports. We're told that
place where the cream of talent and work rise to the top, but as the
of wealthy sports teams and the failure of poor ones shows, that
comes at a price. In aesthetic/sexual terms, we often associate sports
aggression and power--a fast serve in tennis, a right hook in boxing, a
defensive tackle in football. But it's also and equally about
mechanics of the tennis shot, the taut bodies in boxing trunks, the
pants in football. And the two tendencies have become intertwined. So
the American NFL advertises itself as a tough, "real" man's
it now markets its players as sex symbols whose mere appearance in
drag-like uniforms is a sign of beauty (supposedly!). Of course, the
is more complex than that--the beauty is not so easily divorced from
power. They work together.
OutUK: It's interesting to me that gay men's almost universally negative
of organized sports in childhood (the horror! the ball is coming to
frequently doubled in adult life with an erotic fascination for the
sports figures. The lesbian cliche of being in love with your gym
brings up a whole other angle of how sports play out--as it were-- in
lives. What did you observe about how sports both informs and provokes
and lesbian erotica?
Toby Miller: Well, it's pretty clear from a lot of lesbian writing that sports have
venue for meeting people, forming alliances, and creating community.
Conversely, as you say, the experience for gay men is often very
That changed, as the buff body of the '80s clone became fashionable,
reality of queer culture's ubiquity became clear. To hear a sports
commentator get excited over another man's performance is to hear
very erotic. 'Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. He's done it! He's done
Remind you of anything? To me, it's akin to a powerful orgasm.
OutUK: I love that! It does make me wonder what was I really looking at when I
Ian Thorpe's glamour shot in Newsweek which was on my computer screen
for over a year? His body? His Australian body? (My partner is Aussie, so
sucker for that.) His Australian swimmer's body? His expensive wrist
his Australian swimmer's body?
Toby Miller: Well your powers of observation, and pleasure in observing, are
remarkable! Of course, you'd not have seen the watch or the contours of
Thorpe's trim, taut, and terrific form if he hadn't been a swimmer of
exceptional quality. And you'd have seen much less of him prior to this
Before, swimmers were supposedly amateurs. Now, that hypocrisy has
they are up for sale. So that means you see him as a commercial figure
well as an athletic one, although they are interdependent. You see, as
were, more of him. And more of it is conditioned through the commercial
realities of his media persona and means of making money.
Ian Thorpe on the cover of Cleo magazine.
has three key audiences for its coverage of him--gay men, straight
sports fans of whatever orientation. That makes more money than just
appealing to the old sports fan, supposedly straight and drawn purely
athletic performance, not by looks (but who knows about that?).|
OutUK: Is there sometimes a pretty tricky "eroticizing the oppressor " stuff
on here. All right, I'll just speak for myself here. I was a bit
with myself recently when I clipped out the photo of the Croatian
Goran Ivanisevic who had snarled his anti-gay slurs after winning
and then proceeded to head back to Croatia and strip down to his bikini
briefs in public. Such a hot homophobe! He's still on my refrigerator!
sports the last refuge of un-politically correct erotica?
Toby Miller: Goran Ivanisevic is a very troubling character for many of us. Sports
dominated by conservatives--every golfer on the PGA tour is a
Republican voter. Tennis players, especially women, leave school well
have learnt the basics of social history. Most pro athletes subscribe
notion of natural ability added to hard work producing their success,
extrapolate from that to other activities. They're not prone to looking
inequality, oppression, etc unless it directly derives from their own
childhoods--and even then, they often understand their success as the
of a merit-based system. Plus, despite all the advances made to appeal
queers, pro sports is still resolutely homophobic.
Lennox Lewis and
Rahman had a brawl at an ESPN restaurant in August when they met to
their upcoming heavyweight boxing world title bout. This followed
referring to Lewis as 'gay' because the latter had used the courts to
initiate their contest. Weird to think of the law as a safe house for
But this tension, this dynamic, this need to define masculinity as
remains very very powerful indeed. That said, Lewis and Rahman are
our cultural tensions in a brutal way, living out the contradictions
(including the suspicion that part of this was a publicity stunt).
is everywhere. Queers grow up with it all around, including, many say,
themselves. It's a tough negotiation. There is a side to sexual
we all know, that is bad bad bad. Power is hot. Sanitised sex is not.
often dream about and get off on things we don't approve of or wish to
And sometimes we cross the boundary!
OutUK: Sportsex beautifully explores the complicated gender-bending that goes
sports: the butt-slapping, wild hugs, exaggerated almost drag-like
for the men and the critique sometime hurled at women athletes for
like a man?" What kind of genders are being "performed" by these
Toby Miller: These are means, I believe, of extending joy beyond the bureaucratic
everyday life. They reference a pre-adult, pre-adolescent moment, when
touching intimately has not been defined and theorized as
represent a wordless play of difference. Folks who would be
touching another man in any other context reach out to do so
joyously at play. When they do that, they open up our repertoire of
OutUK: Our experience of sports is inevitable very personal and embodied. You
some really lovely and honest personal narratives of your own
sports as you grew up. What did you discover about your own
the subject as you wrote the book?
Toby Miller: First of all, the book came out just after another one I did on
and sport. In each case, I'd been working on the topic for thirteen
I discovered relief and completion (a bit post-orgasmic!). On the topic
itself, I guess I confirmed that my own response to sportsex is highly
ambivalent. I loath the disciplinary sides to sports, the moralistic
attitudes, and the history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and
chauvinism. But I love the beauty and power. And I think that there are
progressive sides to capitalism, when it turns its eager eye on the
centuries, there has been an over-valuation of the gaze of straight men
women, as registered everywhere in our culture. Now, advertisers have
discovered a different gaze and they like how it looks. We can't be
the outcome will be, but sports are changed forever.