Last week at Feministing, I reviewed the new book by figure skater-turned reality TV star and fashionista Johnny Weir. Weir has long been a controversial figure in the skating world, and last year he came to the attention of the feminist blogosphere when some Canadian radio personalities suggested that he was so feminine, he should be made to take “a gender test.” Weir’s gracious remarks and his insights into gender identity and heteronormativity impressed a lot of people, myself included. His book includes similar insights into how our culture approaches sex, love and gender identity and why that approach is so very limiting. For this, I give Weir a great deal of credit (unfortunately, the book also includes insights into Weir’s lack of sportsmanship, his bratty behavior for which a nuanced approach to gender and sexuality can’t entirely compensate). Despite the diva antics that make him a poor competitor and that erode the reader’s respect for Weir as the book goes on, it’s a fascinating look into how gender and sexuality play out within the culture of American figure skating, and in American culture more broadly:
From the start of the book, Weir is very open the fluidity of his gender identity. The book opens with him kvelling as he meets Sarah Jessica Parker at a celebrity-encrusted party. He was thrilled to meet Parker, he writes, because “I have always wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw. The character informed a lot of my youth and fashion daring; she inspired me to be a New York-style single lady.” This is not, it’s immediately evident, going to be your average sports memoir. Sure, there are passages about training hard and overcoming adversity and the sacrifices one has to make for athletic greatness, but it’s clear that, partly because of the sport he chose, and partly because of who he is, Weir considers himself an artist as well as an athlete. It’s this dual identity that causes much of the tension in the book, and in his life.
This conflict isn’t Weir’s alone. That figure skating demands of its competitors a combination of artistry and athleticism sets it apart from almost every other sport (it also provides opportunities for subjectivity and politics when it comes to deciding who wins medals). Achieving a balance between the artistry and athleticism looks slightly different for each gender. As Daniel Eison and I wrote last year at Sociological Images, “Women’s programs emphasize a great deal of emotion when they skate, while men are expected to display their athletic strength and power. Artistry and flexibility are where women are expected to excel, while boys strive to jump higher and rotate more.” Weir, who was widely heralded as American skating’s wunderkind when he arrived on the competitive scene, is both athletic and artistic. He’s incredibly expressive – sometimes melodramatic – on the ice, with theatrical programs and costumes that are a far cry from the standard collared-shirt-and-black-pants numbers so many male skaters wear. He’s also incredibly athletic, with jumps and spins that make me groan in awe and envy. Like Evgeni Plushenko, the silver medalist in Vancouver, Weir is “the total package.”
So why is the way Weir skates and expresses himself so much more controversial than the way Plushenko does? Because Plushenko is Russian, and Weir is American. In Russia, figure skating is one of the most popular and revered sports, and skating champions are national icons. No one questions a male skater’s manhood, no matter how flowingly he skates or how sparkly his costume is. In America, most people only think about figure skating once every four years, unless there’s a metal baton and a kneecap involved. And while female figure skaters are admired and reasonably well-known, male skaters aren’t so lucky. Gay jokes are made frequently, aspersions on manliness cast fairly regularly. So when a male skater like Weir, who is particularly artistic, comes along, people get nervous.
You can read the rest of the review here.