Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The Future of Welsh Rugby Part I: Nude Ohio 'Babes' and Naked Frenchmen

Pictured above: Agustin Pichot from 'Gods of the Stadium' French Rugby calendar 2004; The semi-nude women's rugby calendar that led to upset in the Maori community; Ohio Oberlin naked 'babes' crouched in a scrum.

[Welsh Rugby, Coal Miners and Male Choirs -- all sacred symbols of national identity? This is Part I of an article which examines the mythos of iconic athletic maleness in Wales.]

Much has been written about the importance of rugby in Welsh society, as part of the construction of masculinity for a post-industrial society.

Now the icon of the rough, scruffy, muddy-faced rugby male is being exploited and challenged.

David Beckham has turned the male footballer into a male object of desire, first plastered on walls in Paris and Milan, and soon to be exploited by Hollywood.

Is this the future of rugby in Wales?

And what does the apparent morphing of Welsh Male Rugby Icon into a male sex object have to say about modern Welsh nationalism?

For example, a French male rugby team's members have been producing a calendar for several years, which was first a run-away best seller with the worldwide female 'Play Girl' audiences.

The calendar is called the 'Gods of the Stadium' or 'Dieux de Stade' in French.

Seduced by their success the French rugby players have intentionally enlarged their appeal by filming two years of DVD documentaries called the 'Making of Gods of the Stadium'.

This has catapulted the French male rugby players to international stardom, mostly because of their popularity with gay men in North America.

Not to be out-done, women at Oberlin College in Ohio have been making their own rugby calendar for several years.

(Oberlin College is famous as being the small, liberal arts college in the U.S. which graduates the highest percentage of students who go on to finish Ph.D.s)

Rugby is important to the construction of the Welsh male identity, and has reached iconic statue, mostly carried by the unexpected commercial success of a film by BBC director John Hefin called 'Grand Slam (1978)'.

'Grand Slam (1978)'.

According to a synopsis written by Reece Lloyd for IMDB:

"A group of Welsh rugby fans go over to see Wales play France in the final match of the Six Nations rugby tournament. Caradog Evans (Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith) goes there also to seek an old flame from his wartime combat in the 1940s."

"His son, finds a love in Paris too. Contains very frequent nudity, some bad language, and brief violence."

In Welsh academic circles, a discourse about the shattering of the traditionally male and iconic identity of the rugby player, has been developing over time.

This specifically Welsh, filmic and gendered discourse has only just started, with the Cyfrwng Welsh Media Journal’s examination of Welsh masculinity in Stanley Baker’s ‘Welsh Western’, Zulu (1964) (Cyfrwng Journal -- Shail 2002: 11-25), and in Peter Jachimiak’s examination the Welsh film Grand Slam (1978) (Cyfrwng Journal -- Jachimiak 2006: 91-106).

John Hefin produced for the BBC, Grand Slam (1978).

Grand Slam has been called the ultimate Welsh 'Lads' video, and is celebrating its 30th anniversary with brisk DVD sales continuing unabated.

Many Welsh female partners tell stories about their husbands 'stocking up the house for the weekend with cider and sarnies', and then inviting a crowd of men over to watch Grand Slam 'several times in one weekend' -- almost like some modern, Welsh male tribal bonding ceremony -- a Welsh male rite-of-passage that re-affirms Welsh heterosexual maleness, while it reinforces a Welsh national and individual sense of 'Welsh Identity'.

Grand Slam is among the best-known Welsh films with domestic audiences, and holds an iconic place in Welsh history and culture Grand Slam (directed by John Hefin, 1978) is not only a film of Welsh origin primarily aimed at a Welsh audience, but – in relation to the reproduction of Welshness and Welsh masculinity in particular – is often seen as a celebratory cultural event (Jachimiak 2006: 91).

Jachimiak’s analysis and conclusions about Grand Slam are built upon some the same generalizations about constructions of masculinity described by John Beynon in his recent book on 'Masculinities', upon some specifically British imperial / post-imperial constructions described by Canadian scholar Christopher Gittings, and upon some specifically Welsh constructions, as described by Welsh scholars Charlotte Aull Davies and Stephanie Jones:

"I believe that in Blaengwyn, masculine identity formerly associated with mining in the community has been transmuted into a masculinity expressed through playing and supporting rugby, the identification of the rugby sport of Wales" (Jones and Davies 2003: 27).

Cyfrwng Welsh Media Journal Online

We mentioned the possibility of seeing in these Welsh films, evidence of a trajectory, revealing an evolution in the ways in which sexuality and gender are treated.

This trajectory might parallel or inform another longer trajectory of Welsh masculinity, as it relates to and constructs a sense of Welsh nationalism.

For example, Davies and Jones noted above, their theory that the fiercely independent and proudly autonomous coal miner, (which was a long held construction of Welsh masculinity, which has come to symbolize Welsh nationalism and historic degrees Welsh political and economic independence), and has since morphed into the activities and male-centric mythos of rugby.

So we have Frenchmen appealing to their gay audience with videos and posters on E-Bay, and even women in New Zealand have stripped off their rugby jerseys for charity.

The New Zealand women went too far, and offended native national identity:

According to the BBC:

"An English women's rugby team caused upset in New Zealand's Maori community when their fund-raising calendar included a picture of a topless haka. The team said the image was based on the ceremonial war dance but they did not mean to offend, and apologised."

Read about the semi-nude Oberlin College women who play rugby here in the Oberlin Review

According to an article in the Oberlin Review, the mission of the female rugby players was to challenge the 'male myth' of what constitutes 'female beauty':

"Part of this statement (which is on the cover of the calendar) disassociates the rugby calendar from stereotypical Playboy calendars:

“In a society that brands female competitive sports athletes as masculine, this calendar parodies the standard beauty myth, by juxtaposing the concept of the seductive and submissive pinup with images of women who assert themselves not only as strong athletes, but also as empowered women.”

The Oberlin women are intentionally shattering the myths around male-dominated rugby, and perceptions of women in sports. But what does this do to the traditional Welsh icon of maleness, wrapped in male rugby jersey (or now, shirtless men in France)?

Some men in Wales might be asking, "Is nothing sacred?"

Others might ask, "What could be next? Gay Welsh Rugby?" More in Part II . . .

Gyda bob hwyl i bawb, Mark

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© 2007 Mark Leslie Woods

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