Been a long day introducing all three of my introductory World History sections to structure/agency analysis, Rachel isn’t home yet, so I’m vegging out, grazing on bloggery and half-watching the Carolina Hurricanes play the New York Rangers. It’s intermission and the standard star interview with Eric Staal.
Staal has two brothers who also play hockey in the NHL, Marc with the Rangers and Jordan with the Penguins, who the Hurricanes beat recently. The interviewer wants to know why Eric seems to play with special intensity against his brothers’ teams. Eric chuckles and says something about being competitive and not wanting to be beaten by your siblings.
There you have it, the old sibling-rivalry cliché. One of many readymades in a routine sports interview. Hardly worth noticing, so why did I notice it?
Well, I’m also paying some attention to the Australian Open. Among the tournament’s attractions are the Williams sisters, two of the best tennis players in history, and normally it’s a great pleasure to watch them work. Yet I consider it merciful that Venus Williams was upset early, because now they won’t end up playing each other and we won’t have to listen to yet another tiresome rehearsal of how hard that is for them when they love each other so much and feel the pain of each others’ losses so keenly.
One situation, two diametrically opposite clichés: fun to beat siblings, painful to beat siblings. Both presented as if they’re self-evident.
I don’t question the emotional authenticity of either side. The Staals and the Williamses are by all accounts both loving, close-knit families. There’s no easy win for one of these perspectives on a family values basis. Nor am I ethically moved by the Williams sisters’ narrow show of empathy. Like hockey, tennis is a competitive sport; their success in it depends on beating other people’s sisters every day. I imagine the Staals would consider fretting about each others’ delicate feelings a bit insulting. Bring it, dude.
In short, I’m inclined to consider this one of those instances of genuinely arbitrary cultural style, like whether there are one, two or six sexes or whether we can eat cows, dogs and beetle larvae. But there’s more. It’s also worth considering that the two discourses might be gendered, with the Staals performing tough masculinity and the Williamses emotive femininity. Race and class also raise the stakes: the farmboy white guy Staals have no need of categorical solidarity in a working-class white guy sport, whereas the poor, black Williams family have always understood themselves to be embattled outsiders in a rich, white, country club sport. In fact, my impression is that their narrative of family solidarity has faded in direct proportion to their sense of success and acceptance.
Does any of this explain why both family values narratives can be unproblematically presented as self-evident? That’s what fascinates me, and I’m not sure I understand it at all.