XFL Degrading to Men and Women
By Jackson Katz

A slightly modified version of this
column was first published in
The New York Daily News
February 18, 2001, Sunday
Sports Section; Pg. 86

The marketing minds behind the XFL, Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol, have clearly demonstrated their lack of respect for women. But few critics of the embarrassing new football “league” have noted that these two wealthy, white, middle-aged businessmen have equal contempt for young men.

McMahon insists that the XFL’s detractors “don’t know the first thing about our demographic.” He likes to boast that he knows what young men want to see, and if the World Wrestling Federation’s ratings are the only barometer, it’s hard to argue with him. In an era when young men are facing challenges from their female peers in areas that their fathers and grandfathers weren’t – in education, athletics, and the blue and white-collar workplace, he has built the WWF into a highly popular cartoonish male fantasy world where men are men, might makes right, and women are unthreatening, highly sexualized playthings. When the Smackdown starts, it’s as if that annoying women’s movement never even really happened.

The XFL marketing strategy assumes that young men will tune in for the same reason many of them watch pro wrestling – for the soap opera theatrics of macho bluster and exposed female flesh, all under the guise of a “populist” version of professional football.

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize that a significant number of adolescent males will tune in to see scantily clad strippers in hot tubs. But as many commentators have predicted, after people’s initial curiosity fades, and the football proves uninspiring, to keep viewers’ interest the XFL will have to resort to increasingly graphic displays of on and off-field violence, and ever more obvious sexual titillation.

Why is this contemptuous of young men? For one thing, the XFL policy of not providing players with health insurance coverage clearly sends the message that they are expendable, interchangeable parts who can easily be discarded. (While it insures its players, the NFL is guilty of this as well.) If the league doesn’t respect its own adult male employees, who thinks it respects its young male fans?

But the league’s lack of respect for men can also be measured by its portrayal of their sisters, girlfriends, mothers, and daughters. For a generation, discussions about pornography and the stripping subculture have focused, rightly, on the exploitation and degradation of women. But men and boys are the primary consumers of sexualized images of women. What they’re turned on by says more about them than it does about the women. In the first few weeks of XFL telecasts, the announcers shamelessly hyped the paired themes of violent masculinity on the field and silly, submissive, sexually available femininity on the sidelines. As a former adolescent male who played football, I was saddened and angered by the assumption that this was all it takes to attract young men and keep their attention.

Contrary to McMahon and Ebersol’s cynical vision, millions of young men today — cutting across socioeconomic class, race, and ethnicity – are groping around for ways to be better human beings than the stereotypical roles the popular culture incessantly offers up as examples of “real” manhood. An ever-growing majority of their girlfriends and wives simply expect this of them.

Unprecedented numbers of young men study, work, and socialize alongside their female peers, taking for granted a degree of gender equality unknown to previous generations. And in spite of the bright spotlight focused on hypermasculine tough guys in the WWF and XFL, or misogynist bullies like Howard Stern, Dr. Dre and Eminem, a growing number of young men are finding the courage to speak out in support of women, not against them.

It might be wishful thinking, but wouldn’t it be a sign of progress if when the XFL goes out of business due to bad ratings, opinion makers around the country attributed Vince McMahon’s flamboyant failure to the fact that young men were embarrassed to be seen watching it not because of the inferior football, but because of NBC’s insulting caricature of 21st century manhood?


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Kristine M. Zentgraf
Assistant Professor of Sociology, California State University, Long Beach