Julie Mannell is a Fonthill, Ontario born, Montreal-based poetry and prose writer. She is President of the McGill Creative Writing Society and has published several pieces in various Canadian publications. She is currently living in Vilnius, Lithuania where she has received a fellowship from Summer Literary Seminars. Julie is also the first female to be published in The Barnstormer.
IN JUDITH BUTLER’S NOVEL Gender Trouble she claims that masculine/feminine divisions were built upon homophobic cultural taboos that inform strict societal regulations of individual sexuality. These hetero-normative acts serve the purpose of ratifying day-to-day expressions of our individuality as natural identifiers of our gender, and furthermore to marginalize and subjugate desires and expressions that fall outside of these artificial boundaries.
When I was 12 years old I knew nothing of Judith Butler. That was, however, the first year I learned about sexual desire. It began innocently enough. I dreamed of being the first figure skater at the Pelham (Ontario) arena to make it to the Olympics. Fulfilling such a lofty ambition entailed hours on ice, practicing before and after school, special off-ice rehearsals where we jumped in shoes, and learning how to dance with a partner. For a while my partner was an older coach from the former Soviet Union who would say “last chance” every time I went through my waltz routine. One day I thought I’d call him out on giving more chances after saying each was the last, to which he responded, “In Russia when they say last chance, they mean last chance… and then they shoot you.” He scared the shit out of me that day and I was excited when I was paired off with a younger boy instead.
His name was Isaac Molowenski, and he was the first boy to put his hand on my hip, rest his chest on mine, and evoke all the passion that could possibly transpire when you’re in the sixth grade at a civic center with both of your mothers watching from the wooden bleachers. Even with his shimmering suspenders and elastic waisted technical knit pants, I knew he was the sexiest thing. I felt it might be love.
On the ice he was some sort of free dancing God. He’d just landed his double axel and rumour had it he was starting work on his triple-toe-loop, an elemental feat comparable to driving a Ferrari. Yet, off the ice, the hockey players in neighboring change rooms would mutter “faggot” as they strapped cups on their crotches to protect their balls from one another. The other mothers would whisper over hot chocolate in the lobby, “How could anyone do that to their son?” And at school he was just another kid with an elaborate collection of Pokemon cards. I’d felt I’d discovered a hidden gem in my practices. I may not have been the queen in classroom politics but on the ice I could do a mean flying camel that would even have enticed Rudy Galindo during his sparkly-onesie “Send In The Clowns” phase.
I’d made a plan to coax Isaac’s attention by coyly performing backwards spread eagles as he tried to work on his gold skills number[i]. This merely annoyed him. Then I decided to tell my crush to Dolly Laverty who then told her Mom who told Isaac’s Mom who giggled about it with my Mom. The plan worked and I’d earned an invitation to his thirteenth birthday party—a hot tub party! I remember braiding my hair in pigtails like Britney Spears in the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video and purchasing a brand new bikini at the local Giant Tiger. These things meant I was taking the party very seriously. I had sat up late at night dreaming about how the party would go and for some reason I’d made an unfair assumption. With all of the flak poor Isaac had received for somehow breaking with conventional notions of male-normative behaviour, I had assumed that I was the only girl who knew the truth—that he was the sexiest 12 year-old in the history of forever (or at least in Pelham in the spring of 2000). The strength of this assumption had planted a very solid image in my mind of us alone in his jacuzzi, sipping ginger ale, professing our undying passions to each other. Who else knew and could aptly appreciate the decadence of his Russian split or the suave curves to his twizzles?
I arrived ten minutes late and his mother offered me a bowl of chips. “Hurry on outside,” she said, and hurry I did—through the living room, the newly refinished kitchen, the set of sliding doors, up the patio steps, and there he was, at the center of the hot tub in all of his white chested titillation. Surrounded by the entire synchro team.
That day Isaac broke my heart. The other girls’ chests had filled out more and they too wanted a chance with the boy who could throw them, lift them, and death spiral them into a national championship. I would find a way to get over him, but the feeling would never leave: figure skating is the most masculine sport there is. Figure skating is the sexiest thing a man could do.
I believe the first time I wanked off it had something to do with a fantasy of Elvis Stojko and I behind a Zamboni on our wedding night, but I digress. I do feel inclined to mention that figure skating has a bad rep. Surely there is a place for our Rudys and our Johnny Weirs and of course they are masculine as well. This has nothing to do with a specific aim of attraction, it’s more in the essence of sexuality as a whole, as an energy you put out into the world that then draws people in. When you are skating you are not an opinion, you are not a conversation, you are a body spinning, a body antagonizing gravity, a body alone against the elements. There are no team members, there are no supports. To watch male singles is to watch a solitary man with the force of the world on his back, a man tied to razor-thin blades, a man at war with nothing and everything, a man and physics, a man and cold air, a man as only a man—fighting himself, fighting the universe.
AFTER ISAAC, I moved on to the gutter punks at the local skate park. What amazed me was how, except for the clear disparity in musical accompaniment, what skate boys did after school was very similar to what we did after school. Their jumps had different names, their movements had a different aesthetic, and their tools were boards with wheels—but in essence they were still men jumping and twirling. The evidence is even in the lexicon: “figure skate” abbreviated to “skate,” as if they wanted to exclude the bodily element, the figure, and hide what they were doing so that it would somehow be less sentimental, less attached to anything human or feeling. These boys were the cool boys and their coolness came with their blatant disregard for chivalrous conventions—spitting on curbs, showing off scars, and smashing bones against concrete. How were their anti-establishment personae any less anti-establishment than a man putting on a sequined unitard and shamelessly shimmying to “The Samba?” I admire both for their individuality, however I must confess that I’ve always been partial to any man who can wear lycra with confidence. For myself the difference was in the fact that the skater boys were members of a collective with a similar semblance. The figure skaters, like Isaac, often stood alone—talking during ice time was frowned upon, and there was usually only one male anyhow—there wasn’t necessarily a community, there wasn’t any one ice-skating outfit that they all wore and fit them all. They were artists who used their body like a brush, artists who fashioned their routines and their outfits according to the colors of their movements. There is a sort of bravery in the solitude of men’s singles.
IN 2010 SKATE CANADA, basically figure skating’s equivalent to the federal government, announced that they were planning to make men’s singles more masculine. Essentially their aim was to “degay” the sport in order to attract hockey fans. There are several reasons such a statement is ludicrous. The first that comes to mind is the thought of my homeboys in Pelham — slightly balding, beer-bellied potato people in hockey jerseys, munching nachos on a Saturday sitting on some couch and loudly applauding the footwork of Alexei Yagudin. While the thought brings a smile to my face, it isn’t realistically going to happen. These are men who grew up on hockey, men for whom it is entirely an issue of regional pride, familial alliance, and communal tradition, and not about gender performance. To assume these men would switch sports, renegotiate their fandom, simply to inhabit some ideal of their sex is a slap in the face to hockey fans, figure skating enthusiasts, and Canadian sports followers everywhere. I wouldn’t want it anyhow.
Instead this assertion reveals our own assumptions of gender. That for one reason or another we’ve ascribed certain cultural practices to men and women as implicit aspects of who they are as people — then gone so far as to project these assumptions onto sports. The proclamation that figure skating needs a “masculine makeover” in order to draw audiences then illustrates a society where love of sports is less of an individual autonomous act, and more of an effort to exert one’s self as a certain kind of person to others. This seems absurd, and when contextualized within the framework of changing certain sports’ traditions to better accommodate societal insecurities about sexuality, ultimately the message Skate Canada broadcasts to sports followers everywhere is that masculinity always wins and femininity loses. That the sports we love reveal the people we desire. As if a hockey jersey or a costume can dictate where we put our penis, non-penis, half penis, penis ambition, and so forth.
Both figure skating and hockey have an important place in our collective Canadian nostalgia—a time before we spent nights in Budget Inns, drinking cheap wine and proving some sort of point about who we are as men and women. They conjure memories of a world with twenty-five cent hot chocolates, pay phones, wooden bleachers, smelly change-room showers and being people with people, doing what they loved because it made them feel good, because it made them a part of something, and for the pure reason that the arena was the center of most communities, a place for mothers to gossip, fathers to drink, and kids to be kids without the pressure of enacting prescribed gender codes. This is in an ideal world.
I WON’T EVER MARRY Isaac Molowenski, not because he’s gay (he’s not), and not because I find him emasculated or defeated (he isn’t). I won’t ever marry Isaac Molowenski because he’s now a successful computer programmer who makes good money, and I’m a lowly writer, with little to give but my words and little to gain but the (maybe) occasional twenty-five dollar cheque from some “up-and-coming” publication. He still skates, he gets many women, and I am happy for him, and would have been happy for him otherwise as well.
Sometimes I still think of Isaac as he was then, and the fact that, however light what I’ve written might be, I remember the real and excruciating pain he went through at a young age, simply because he preferred toe-loops to slap shots. I also remember how sexy he was to me and to other girls who hung around that rink, how my attraction revealed sexuality’s multidimensional character, that it takes on many different forms — and how masculinity and femininity are never fully one or the other, and most certainly not static binaries.
Maybe you have a son who favors blades with picks. Maybe you have a daughter who’d rather hang around boys who can dance than boys who can spit, or do kick-flips in Volcom caps. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they’re really good at what they do and actually make it out of your small Ontario town and into the cast of Stars on Ice. Maybe. Just know that whatever any of it means, none of it is certain, and there is more to all of us than a sequined bow-tie or a goalie mask.