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Pro Patria(rchy) Mako Mori

I’ve written before about the Bechdel Test, a metric for measuring whether women are treated reasonably equally over the course of a movie. To recap quickly, the test asks whether a movie features (a) at least two women, who (b) have a conversation with one another, about (c) something other than a man. Any effort to recall recent films that pass the test tends to reveal its central point: there are shockingly few. Yet as a method for determining whether a particular movie treats female characters as equal to men (which, it should be said, was not necessarily its original purpose), the test has obvious flaws. For one thing, a film could pass the test yet still be misogynist in many ways. For another, relationships between men and women can be an interesting subject for a film, and it’s reasonable for filmmakers to allow viewers to presume that characters have conversations outside the course of the narrative – we might only hear two friends talking about their boyfriends, but we can presume they also talk about waffles, and Breaking Bad. Of course it can be damaging to portray women as only talking about men, but I don’t really want to hear conversations about things that don’t relate to the primary plot, and if the primary plot is about a male-female romance, I don’t need to hear too much outside of that.

 

Given these problems, Tumblr user chaila’s suggestion of an adaptation of the test, called the ‘Mako Mori Test’ after a character in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, provides some delicious food for delicious thought. (Mmmm, thinking). Chaila points out that although Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test, female lead Mako Mori, portrayed by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, is a strong character who has her own narrative which is based only on her own goals, and not on any male character’s. I haven’t seen Pacific Rim (because I didn’t think it looked very good), so I cannot defend or repudiate chaila’s interpretation of Mori’s role in it. I will say, however, that the new test, while remaining very much a rough and ready standard, has the potential to focus attention more on narrative elements, which seems to me to be a better arbiter of whether women are being treated fairly in a film than whether two women speak to one another. Passing the Mako Mori Test requires a film to, (a) have a female character, who (b) has her own narrative arc, that (c) is not about supporting a man’s story. It’s hard to imagine how a film that passed this test could be seriously misogynistic in other ways, and it’s also hard to imagine how a film that made a serious attempt to engage with female perspectives could fail it. Although more female-to-female interaction in cinema should be encouraged, such interaction would likely be a natural by-product of women having their own, independent narratives within a story, and would also result in women being viewed more as independent, self-determining entities.

 

Passing the Bechdel Test is the feminist cinematic equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time, which is both the point (in that the fact that so many films fail the test illustrates that most screenwriters don’t seem to consider women to have lives apart from their interaction with men), and the problem (in that if two female characters have an incredibly brief exchange about sandwiches being delicious, a film would technically pass the test without actively engaging with female characters beyond their status as sandwich-enjoyers). The added demand of the Mako Mori Test of providing female characters with their own narrative arc allows (and, indeed, encourages) moviegoers to determine whether a film is sincerely committed to exploring a woman’s experience. Ultimately, the problem with the Bechdel Test is that it is possible for sexist movies to pass it, and for movies that legitimately try to engage with female experiences to fail it. It’s useful as a tool for illustrating the vast and pervasive male bias that overwhelmingly characterises the entertainment industry as a whole, but in terms of allowing for serious analysis of movies in terms of their gender bias, it very much remains the blunt instrument it was initially intended to be. The analysis of feminist themes within a film could certainly do better than the Mako Mori Test. However, the test seems to me to be more likely than its otherwise worthy predecessor to spark such an analysis, rather than simply underlining how far the representation of women in film has to go.

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Another new post about another old post

The second and final bizarre coyote post was written the day after the first (as the first sentence suggests). Again, I told only three people. I enjoyed writing these first two posts, but as I thought about writing a third, I began to think that the chances of continuing to write successful jokes about being a coyote were slim. This one even contains a prescient prediction about my future failure. I eventually decided to start a real blog, and to tell real people about it. And this is that. But below is the second step I took towards that.

———-

It has been, I think, less than twelve hours. I am not sure, because coyotes do not wear watches. But it does not feel like it has been a long time since I last took up this virtual pen and wrote on this virtual page. I do not expect that the these missives will continue to be so frequent – these things change like the winds. Nonetheless, I will write while the winds blow this way.

Yesterday I returned from a city in another country. I wandered the streets with my companion, and without worry. She is a wonderful coyote: tall, beautiful and independent, but we roam together, for my company pleases her, and hers me. She led me from place to place – she has a nose for directions, and a head for guidebooks (and eyes for falling into). The people welcomed us, in a subtle way – no-one bothered us, two coyotes strolling paw-in-paw down the sun-soaked streets, breathing in the sites, eating leftover falafel found in the garbage (sorry…we are coyotes). My token attempts to growl the language I learned in my youth were quite well-received, and made me feel better about my companion’s leadership of our expedition.  Compasses and sextants will show you where something is, I told myself, but what use is that if you can’t find out where to get a sandwich when you get there?

This city that we visited is, in many ways, very beautiful. It is a city by the sea, with many strikingly unique buildings, largely designed or influenced by a single famed architect. This architect eschewed the straight lines and sharp angles we normally imagine when thinking of a wall or a building, in favour of flowing, fluid lines, rounded and naturalistic, forming broad spaces filled with light and air. For me, a coyote born in the wild but yearning for the city, it was a wonderful meeting of both natures. My companion, a city canid since moved to the country, seemed unsure at first, but she too grew to enjoy these structures that defined the city’s possibilities, and its limits. It had the feel, sometimes, of being underwater, but surrounded by a vast bubble of air.

These gorgeous buildings, however, were not alone in this city. There were also the pugnacious signs of modern industry – smokestacks among the silken castles, gigantic cranes perched beside satin towers, patching up the signs of the passing of the years. I once lived with an architect, during my years of formal learning, who taught me about what the space in which we reside can say about ourselves, about how the way we build can reflect, and determine, who we are (and how to resize an image copied from a pdf once it has been pasted into microsoft word without losing too much image resolution). These (the first two) were not things I had considered previously; to me, a building was simply somewhere to lay my head, a base from which to forage (or, as it was then, before my vegetarianism, to hunt). Did being reared in a forest or a desert or a city matter to how we think and feel? It made sense, once the thought took root. In my years of formal learning, I had studied figures of great intellect who formed theories of how we think, and environment, the things that surround us, has long been considered crucial to what we learn, and how we learn it. The Russian, Vygotsky, had told us this, in disagreement with the Swiss, Piaget, who had laid the foundations for this understanding. So what my friend the architect told me should not have set my prairie mind to spinning, for the architect was simply telling me to apply the things I already knew. This is something one sometimes forgets while one is learning; emerging blinking from a burrow into the desert daylight, the things you know can still seem foreign.

So I wonder now, what does the architectural confluence of modernity and antiquity of the city through which my companion and I so recently padded say about its inhabitants? I cannot say that I spent long enough there to presume to understand. With only my broken grasp of the language to sustain us, a true insight into their minds was, forsooth (though modern culinarily, I am nonetheless an archaic coyote), beyond us. All I can say is that the battle between old and new in this city seems present everywhere I roam. Humans are engaged both in modernisation, and in holding onto the past. Conflicting goals that may reflect a conflicted collective soul…a conflict that can lead a city to feel neither old nor new, but a jarring, alchemical mixture of the two. What this means I cannot say for certain. This coyote knows that the human mind lies outside the borders of his province; though I may consider it, conclusions are beyond my range. But I do believe that, as my friend the architect put it, the city says something about those who built it, and those who reside within it cannot help but reflect something of that. What of my rearing do I reflect? What motivates a coyote to turn from the dietary ways of his forbears? Why still do my hackles raise when confronted with things that would provoke such a reaction from my father, and his father, and his father before him? What is it to be a modern coyote, to wander in this changing nation? Again I confess, I do not know. But I will think about it. And I will think about it again.

I hear now that there are church bells ringing; the day has begun for some, while mine is but beginning. I must work until this city slumbers, when I will slumber too…after I wander in the streets and stare, with longing, at the moon.

Sorry…I am a coyote.

Ruck Marks – Ireland’s Autumn Series

Digging Like a Demented Mole

Amidst no small dollop of carping and moaning about what a pain in the arse it was, we mentioned at the end of the last Ruck Marks article that we’d try and run a similar exercise using Ireland’s November tests as our subjects. We surprised ourselves by actually carrying this through [just like we carried through our tag index … all the way up to ‘D’] with a Boxeresque appetite for dumb labour.

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A new post about an old post

A few years ago, when I first considered starting a blog, I was afraid. I wanted to start writing again, but I was worried that I would seem conceited, as if I thought my own thoughts were so fascinating, that the world couldn’t possibly do without them. The truth is that I just wanted to start writing because I enjoy writing. Furthermore, this wasn’t even what I thought about other people who blogged, but I have a habit of building up ideas of what other people might think about me. As a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’, I engaged in a minor act of futility: I started a blog and told only three people about it. And then I swore them to secrecy. And then I wrote two blogs about my life, as if I were an unreasonably articulate coyote. They were to be found at http://www.sorryiamacoyote.wordpress.com. You may be sensing a theme.

While I can identify the steps in my thought process, this decision remains almost impossible to justify. I feel more ridiculous for this surreptitious overprotection of my immodesty than I ever would have if everyone who read my blog had simultaneously told me to shove my pretentious musings back where they had come from. If you’re wondering why I’m so obsessed with coyotes, it has to do with a particular episode of The Simpsons, in which Johnny Cash voices a mystical and profound coyote hallucinated by Homer under the influence of excessively hot chili. I enjoyed writing as the coyote, but I could see that in the very near future, it would become difficult to justify the gimmick. However, as an exercise in imagining myself as a coyote, and in re-introducing to me the joy I feel when writing, I think the two blogs just about served their purpose, and so I present the first below the line.

———-

I am trying as hard as I can to write. I am trying because I used to know how to do this, and somebody suggested that I should try to do this again, and truth be told that thought had occurred to me more than once before. Furthermore, I am susceptible to persuasion.

The act of writing, of putting pen to paper, has come easily to me since I was young; despite my canid roots, words have long tumbled relatively coherently from my pen. Teachers, however, told me that they could not read my jagged and uneven script. One might have imagined they would be impressed that I could form even vaguely straight lines with the pen grasped loosely between my paws, but they demanded more – legibility was their requirement, and they cared not for the profundity of my insight into this prairie dog’s soul.

And so my inelegant cursive was abandoned for an angular scrawl, itself soon replaced with this very electronic script as I learned to spread my claws (and my horizons) wider, to click and clack on these plastic keys. I learned to write about things I cared about. I started briefly down the road of music journalism, and considered pursuing it as I once had so many cottontails and lizards. I soon realised, though, that I could not be satisfied writing within the form I had assigned myself, that I could not limit my thoughts to those requested of me, and that I could not remove from my mind the things I imagined as desirous to my superiors (as once they had taken my cursive from me, so now would their imagined spectres take from me the thoughts that same cursive should have given form to). Though I appreciated the simplicity of succinct expression, and though I believed in the eloquence of the shorter sentence, I nonetheless came to realise that I could not continue to write for others, that I could not simply declare things as though the truth inaccessible to philosophers were available to coyotes. If I was to write, I thought, I must do so for myself…

And so, for a time, I stopped. I lay and listened to the prairie winds, watched the tumbleweed rolling past. I thought, “Someday, I will write something built to last. I will write my mind unconstrained, and I will forswear, to the extent that I can, self-editing. I will allow my thoughts to swirl onto paper, real or virtual, as the sands swirl around the temple”. Now, I hope, that day has arrived. Now I will type my approximations of insight, my illusions of character. The years away have changed me. Though my teeth remain sharp, I have forsaken the consumption of flesh – the voles and squirrels of whom I would once have made a meal should feel safe here. I have mellowed, not just viscerally, but also philosophically, in the intervening period. I am no longer so sure of myself; flashes of certainty grow rarer with each passing moon, and I cannot tell, as I write this, what I will write next. My subjects will vary – it is my hope that this first post on writing will be the catalyst for further words on other things of greater meaning. All I can promise, the only thing I almost know to be true, is that I will ramble, I will wander, I will stumble and  I will ponder, in search of words of meaning, and the feeling of completion that I can only feel by the putting of pen to paper, and the howling at the moon.

Sorry…I am a coyote.

Fear and Clothing, Masks and Pagans

The nights are growing longer, the leaves are turning, and ‘tis the season to dress scary. Given the time of year, I have been thinking about where I was when my excitement for Halloween was at its peak (if mostly because my access to chocolate was not, at the time, my prerogative). The setting was appropriately spooky: I grew up in the shadow of a pagan mountain. Well, maybe a little bit outside the shadow; mountain is a slight exaggeration, so the shadow is relatively small. And while the tomb of an ancient Celt caps the seven-hundred-foot hill, which is known as Corrin, calling it pagan nowadays is probably a bit of a misnomer. The hill is dotted with gaudy, black marble Stations of the Cross, and the tomb lies side by side with an enormous plasticky statue of Christ upon the Cross.

For many of those living nearby, the final straw in this Catholic reclamation project was the appearance of a red and white sign at the bottom of my road for ‘Mount Corrin’, as though it were some pretentious half-cousin to Sinai. After a few weeks of even the most devout locals muttering to one another about the sign’s absurdity, I noticed one morning that only the post to which it had been mounted remained, along with a few splinters that looked as though they might have become, for the second time in their existence, closely acquainted with an axe.

To be fair to the local devotees, this hill has led me into greater confusions. When my teacher in Junior Infants asked us what mountain Jesus had died on, my hand shot up with the nerdy neediness that would characterise my scholastic interactions for the next seventeen years. “Corrin!”, I squeaked, with the confidence of an idiot. “Sure didn’t I see him up there at the weekend!”, I thankfully kept to myself. Frankly, I still feel that her look of appalled incomprehension was a bit much. As I mentioned earlier, there is a giant statue of Jesus up there, it is a mountain (kind of), and I was five years old. Cut me some retrospective slack.

My enthusiasm for Halloween has waned since that time of bonfires, limited chocolate, and complete misunderstanding of my hometown’s importance as a religious site. I’m twenty-six now, and I can buy chocolate whenever I want. I’m more concerned about my ever-impending mortality, and the prospect of a continuing recession robbing me of friends and employment, than I am about vampires, werewolves, and the possibility of being torn limb from limb by a marauding horde of zombies. (After all, don’t we all want to be wanted for our brains?) My indifference towards the unholiday has extended to my efforts when it comes to dressing up. Since I’ve become too old to trick or treat, I’ve only made anything approaching an effort once. After years of having my brown-hair-and-glasses look summarised with a gleeful, “Yer a wizard, Harry!” by random strangers, I finally embraced my magical side in third year of university and dressed as Daniel Radcliffe’s alter ego. My girlfriend joined me, donning a pointy hat and cloak not to support me, but to free Harry Potter’s platonic friend Hermione Granger from the constraints of her creator’s vision. In the books, Hermione ends up with Ron, the half-witted sidekick who can barely string two spells together. “Ron’s a dud’, my girlfriend explained. “Hermione should have ended up with Harry”. The heart wants what it wants, I thought but did not say. Who was I to argue? Better luck next time, Ron.

Deception

I think people underestimate how big of a problem it is that we can’t read minds. I mean sure, we survive without telepathy just fine for the most part, and I learned from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that if you actually could read minds, you would probably lose yours (and also, your friends would temporarily hate you until reuniting with you to battle evil). However, the advantages of private thought and intact mental health are heavily outweighed by the fact that we never know if anyone is telling us the truth.

From discussions with my friends, I have gathered that most people do not think this is a problem at all (or at least that’s what they tell me). And I’m mostly joking when I say that I think that it is. But I cannot deny that I find it slightly unnerving to think that all anybody has to do to deceive me is not tell the truth. Psychological studies on deception have demonstrated that people can only tell if someone’s lying about 54% of the time. In a world where the importance of most things is exaggerated beyond all reason, I feel like society in general is underselling how important it is that if you told me “My word is my bond!”, I would still have no idea if you actually even think honesty is important.

So at least part of me wishes that we could read minds. The level of trust we place in people whose motivations we have no way of knowing shocks me whenever I think about it. However, I admit that I have misled you slightly. While this kind of solipsistic fear is certainly a part of why I’d love to be able to read minds, I have a slightly more grounded interest also. The time that I’d really love to be able to read minds is when someone does something truly bizarre, and I ask myself, “Why on earth did they just do that?” The truth is that I want to reach inside the mind of the old man from my gym.

The old man from my gym is not actually that old. He looks like he’s probably between fifty-five and sixty-five, but in a gym that’s already impressively aged. The man’s face is lively and alert; his hair is silver, and his eyes are bright. His moustache is bushy and well cultivated. He is at the gym around seven every day, and he works hard. I admire this man, and hope that when I get to his age I will emulate his drive to stay healthy. But I know I can never truly be like this man, for one reason and for one reason only: I know for certain that no matter how I age, and no matter how much more relaxed I become, I will never stop caring what other people think of me enough to stand completely stark naked by the doorway of the changing rooms, scanning the length of my body with a hair dryer. While I’ll never quite forgive this man for the image that greeted me at eight o’clock one Wednesday morning and remains seared into my memory like a brand, I can’t help but admire him. I look at him the way I look at Antarctic explorers, or people who run marathons: the elderly naked man can be my idol, but I will never understand him.  At least, not until we learn to read minds.

Crispy Goat Meat and Workout Clothes

It is half past seven in the morning, and I am running on a treadmill. The girl on the treadmill next to me does not smell good. She is one of those people who comes to the gym in the same clothes day after day – or as I call them, truly terrible people. I’m running, and I don’t listen to music when I run. I listen to podcasts. This is because the gym plays deafening dance music all day long, and I can’t hear my own music properly, even at maximum volume, whereas words seem to cut through the thud and the hiss. So I am listening to an episode of This American Life. This American Life tells a variety of stories each week focused on a single theme, and this week they have chosen mapping. Each segment interviews a person who is trying to describe a portion of the world using a different sense.

 

I am running, and pushing myself, and my stomach is starting to quake in the way it sometimes does when I run too fast for too long. I feel that I am going to throw up, or at the very least start dry-heaving. And the particular section of the podcast that I am listening to as I pound my way up this imaginary hill, going nowhere and fast, is about a man who went to every restaurant on some lengthy, restaurant-filled street in Los Angeles, and created a map of  the dining establishments according to how he felt about them after eating there. In hindsight this is the least interesting part of the episode (another segment is about an electronic nose for crying out loud), but it’s also the part that, as I’m running, has the most visceral effect on me. As my heart rate rises, the voices I’m listening to thump mercilessly into my eardrums in an uncomfortable way, and all I can hear is this man describing some Guadalajaran goat dish he is in the process of devouring. I listen to how you first fill up on tortilla chips and beans, and then they bring out the crispy goat meat and put it down on your plate, and then they bring out some kind of a sauce to pour over it, and I can’t focus on what happens next because my salivary glands kick into overdrive and that crispy goat meat is all I can concentrate on. I can’t get the phrase crispy goat meat out of my head. I haven’t eaten meat in two and a half years, but crispy goat meat sounds delicious, even at half past seven in the morning.

 

I was running when I decided to become a vegetarian, too. I was struggling up a real hill, near the house I grew up in, the summer after I finished college, and I thought about rashers frying in the pan in my mother’s kitchen, and the pigs they came from, and I nearly vomited into the ditch. I ran home and ate a fry and became a vegetarian, immediately. I wonder now how much of my decision was influenced by the idea that people shouldn’t kill animals, and how much by the sensation of disgust I felt when running up that indomitable hill. Does it matter if disgust or reason changed my mind? Either way, I don’t chew on crispy goat meat, so I suppose not. I would like to think of myself as the type of person who makes my decisions based on reason, but I have studied psychology and I have read about studies that tell me that this is not always the case. It takes conscious thought to resist my urge to eat meat, but I don’t live in Guadalajara or Los Angeles, so not that much. So when I have finished running and resisting the urge to swallow an imaginary char-grilled goat, I climb down from treadmill and go to take a shower. Unlike the girl on the machine beside me, I value cleanliness. Eat all the delicious, even-toed ungulates you want, but if you wish to retain your righteous heart, don’t come to the gym in yesterday’s workout clothes.

Reminiscences of a Christmas in Cork: Part One

Two days before Christmas, I stay at one of my best friends’ parents’ house. To remove all ambiguity I should say – my friend is also there. He lives in a country in Eurasia now, teaching English, but he is home for Christmas. He tells me that the people he meets are unusually physically affectionate. The pupils in his school spontaneously hug teachers in the hallway. The food is heavily meat-focused, and he is a fan of that. Tonight we will be participating in a ’12 Pubs of Christmas’, a ritual of self-destruction wherein fifty people storm in and out of 12 pubs wearing Christmas jumpers and festive lights. I am happy to see him.

 

In his bedroom before we go out, a room in which we engaged in more meaningful teenage conversation and meaningless collegiate pre-drinking than I can reasonably summarise, we taste mezcal that he bought from a corner shop with a barrel of the stuff in Mexico. He had completely forgotten about it until he opened his sock drawer, which is exactly what I would have expected him to do. The mezcal burns in the same characteristic way as the vodkas and tequilas I have tried; I am not a connoisseur. We immediately eat dinner with his parents.

 

We meet our friends on the other side of the city; we have missed the first two pubs. This is not a bad thing, as my tolerance has decreased since I stopped regularly drinking with the people I will be drinking with tonight. I only drink in roughly every second pub, and my friend tells me that, although he knows that he promised not to pressure me to drink more, he still thinks that I should drink more. I talk to people I haven’t seen in years. Many of them are wearing the aforementioned jumpers and lights. I don’t understand how the lights work, even after it has been explained to me. People keep mentioning the word “transformer”, which is as meaningless to me now as it was when I studied physics in school. Those wearing the lights show an impressive degree of holiday spirit, but I think they must be overly warm, or at least headed that way.

 

One of our friends is removed from our final destination for dancing over-enthusiastically to Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name, which has apparently become a Christmas song of late. It has been a good night, and it ends with pizza outside the General Post Office in the rain, and I have been ready to sleep for an hour. We get a taxi back to my friend’s parents’ house, and drink water in their elegant kitchen.

 

The next morning I awaken and shower, and my friend and I make scrambled eggs and toast. He eats what he calls “pork products”, by which he means any part of a pig he can get his hands on. Pork products are hard to come by where he now lives, because most people there are Muslims. He only has until St. Stephen’s Day to eat as much of it as he can. He has to fly back then, because Christmas isn’t an official holiday where he lives. I have been a vegetarian since we left college, and so I eat my scrambled eggs on toast and he devours most of an omnivorous ungulate and we talk to his parents about how we really aren’t that hung over. It is Christmas Eve.

 

Another friend, with whom we played in a terrible band during school, comes over after breakfast and we play “Can’t Buy Me Love” in the kitchen. Every time we play guitar together I’m brought back to when we started playing together at sixteen. It’s cliché to say, but it seems inescapably true to me that the things you experience when you’re around that age influence almost every interaction you have until you’re at least twenty-five (which is how old I am as I write this, and is therefore the upper boundary of my speculation). So as my friends chop at guitar strings as we enter the short, staccato chorus, and as we strain our voices to the peaks of their intensity (and past the peaks of our ability to stay in tune), I feel a sense of comfort and understanding that I think you can really only attain with a limited number of people in your lifetime, and that I feel myself instantly fall back into whenever I see these friends.

 

I have to go to evening Mass with my parents and my sister, so I get a bus into town, and then another bus home.

 

Where the street had no name

 

It’s hard to write well about comedy. It’s hard to explain why someone’s funny without ruining them for everybody. But for someone as hilarious as John Mulaney, I’ll try. A writer for Saturday Night Live, Mulaney exhibits a love of language, timing and silliness that’s both captivating and disarming. I can hear his impeccably crafted jokes time after time; his punch lines ring clearly with the same joy on the fortieth listen as on the first.

However, listening to this clip embarrasses me a little, because, well…I did get lost in New York. Worse, I was twenty-four years old, I had a map, and I still got lost. The grid system was as easy to follow as Mulaney’s disbelief implies, but as I strolled along the Eastern edge of Central Park, marvelling at the cascade of autumnal leaves and acorn-chomping squirrels, I must have gotten distracted, because I ended up walking down a road with nobody on it. This was particularly disconcerting because Manhattan doesn’t really have roads – it has streets. Yet there I was, wandering from the East Side to the West on a tree-lined, high-walled, country-style road. I’m almost certain there was a better way to make this fifteen minute journey, because, of the borough’s one and a half million residents, I met three. And when I got to the other side, I realised that the place I wanted to go…was back the way I came.

So Mr. Mulaney, I love you, but please, suspend your disbelief. Your city’s grid system is ingenious, but not quite foolproof. To the hopeless and directionless, and to Macauley Culkin’s childhood self, your numbered, straight-line streets remain a mystery.

Everything in its place, and a place for everything: the role of position in modern sports

Everyone who has played a team sport is familiar with the concept of position – the idea that players are assigned to perform certain functions on the field of play, based on their physical and mental abilities. In ideal circumstances, the roles we choose or are given are the ones to which we are best suited. Certain tasks have to be accomplished, and our skills and natural attributes help to determine which tasks we are assigned to perform (or to which we assign ourselves). Positions lend clarity to the operation of an organisation, and allow a group working in concert to achieve more than a collection of autonomously operating individuals ever could. There’s a beauty to the sublimation of the individual in the service of the whole; there’s a poetry to members of a team embracing their roles and achieving things they couldn’t alone.

At least, this is true in theory. Anyone who has played in a highly structured environment can identify with the urge to break free from its restrictions. Furthermore, when a structural approach is widely embraced, an unintended consequence can be the homogenisation of style. If everyone accepts that a certain type of player should fit into a certain position, and accomplish certain tasks, we can end up with everyone playing in the same proscribed way. In other words, when the figures of authority within a sport all agree on what the right way to play is, even perfect and precise execution can become uninteresting and constricting.

This perspective has been most prominently championed by the now-defunct blog, Free Darko. The authors of Free Darko note that, as the athletes entering the National Basketball Association have grown more multi-talented, applying a traditional positional orthodoxy has made less and less sense. This observation led them to the concept of apositionality, or the positional revolution. Bethlehem Shoals, Free Darko’s nominal leader, describes apositionality as a tool for re-conceptualising the game, such that  “traditional positions are cast aside, or deconstructed, in favor of something both new and effective”. He suggests that, through the acknowledgment and celebration of individual differences and abilities within the structures of a team, new and potentially more exciting styles of play may emerge. In short, the idiosyncrasies of athletes, and the degree to which they differ from the archetypal player at their position, can be viewed as advantages rather than limitations. More broadly, abandoning established positions may encourage stylistic experimentation, and prevent the application of stagnating philosophies.

Some coaches are beginning to welcome the advantages that removing positional labels can confer. In basketball, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra recently admitted that he regretted thinking conventionally during his first season coaching LeBron James – the NBA’s reigning MVP and all-around dynamo (reported by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh). “I put LeBron in a box”, Spoelstra said of having played James at the position his size would traditionally dictate. In the 2011-12 season, Spoelstra asked James to play against larger, stronger players whose lack of quickness he was able to expose, and team success followed – the Heat won the NBA championship.

Miami’s flexible use of James is emblematic of how apositionality is most likely to find its home within the mainstream – as a new component that can be integrated into an existent strategy, rather than as an anarchic overthrow of positional dogma. In his 2009 essay collection Eating The Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman explains how, in American football, dramatic tactical shifts are often absorbed and refined by the mainstream, which nonetheless maintains its conservative appearance. Since coaches like to have some level of control, the Heat’s application of apositionality is the most likely to be widely applied: the more versatile a player, the more freedom they will be granted. While James is asked to play outside of his traditional role, for the most part his teammates fill the positions they would on any team. While the Heat don’t tread the beaten path, it’s not as if they’ve thrown away the map.

The truth is, however, that teams like the Heat, who already have an extraordinary level of talent, don’t need to completely overhaul their system: the game rewards them for sticking, for the most part, with the tried and trusted. The coaches who really stand to benefit by embracing the positional revolution are those whose teams suffer from a deficit of talent or athleticism. If two teams are applying the same positional and strategic models, the team with the more talented players will win most of the time – but a more complete version of the positional revolution envisaged by Shoals and his Free Darko colleagues might allow the less-talented team to even the playing-field.

In the NBA in the middle 2000s, the Phoenix Suns as coached by Mike D’Antoni, and the Golden State Warriors as coached by Don Nelson, both achieved greater success than their overall talent-level would probably have dictated, because their coaches instituted an ultra fast-paced playing style. Integral to this style was the ability of their players to cover the responsibilities of multiple traditional positions. As Shoals observes, although these teams represent the most recently prominent examples of teams that embraced the positional revolution in basketball, the application of apositionality does not have to be modelled on their success. The Warriors and Suns do, however, stand as shining examples for how re-thinking traditional positional roles can revolutionise both the aesthetic and competitive virtues of a team. Positions beget structure and guidelines, but also strictures and dogma. Abandoning, or at least re-shaping, the responsibilities and opportunities of players may lead to a more interesting and attractive game – as well as illuminating new paths to success.

Links:

Link to Bullseye with Jesse Thorn interview with Free Darko: http://castroller.com/Podcasts/SoundOfYoungAmerica/1011028

Link to Shoals on apositionality: http://freedarko.blogspot.ie/2008/07/artless-self-sabotage-and-other.html

Link to Haberstroh/Heat piece: http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/miamiheat/post/_/id/15523/it-all-starts-with-LeBron-james

Link to Klosterman – Eating The Dinosaur: http://www.amazon.com/Eating-Dinosaur-Chuck-Klosterman/dp/1416544208