Playing at Being Men: Baseball and Masculinity in Michael Chabon's Summerland

By Colbran, Louise | Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Playing at Being Men: Baseball and Masculinity in Michael Chabon's Summerland


Colbran, Louise, Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature


The multitude of functions sport performs in contemporary Western society is well known. Sport is popularly praised for promoting health and fitness, individual self-esteem and community identity. However, such a picture ignores the destructive aspect of sport's cultural influence. Its link to aggression and discourses of superiority are particularly harmful to the images of gender sport perpetuates. Consequently, sport offers a profound insight into the simultaneous representation and construction of a dominant and, ultimately restrictive, masculinity.

In Michael Chabon's Summerland, we are presented with a critique of sport as it is popularly conceived in contemporary America through the proposal of a new kind of sport, one that is inclusive and dialogic. In Chabon's ultimate game of baseball, we find a sporting arena akin to Bakhtin's notion of the carnival. Chabon disrupts stable gender binaries and boundaries and proposes an identity that is constantly in negotiation. Consequently, masculinity is no longer a fixed category, nor is femininity, and in a liberating gesture for the individual, both become performative categories that can be used at will. Significantly, Chabon proposes solutions to the "problems" of masculinity, creating a new baseball, which encompasses and accepts differences. This new baseball is organized around principles of plurality and community rather than segregation and exclusion. His text exposes a binary gender division as unnatural and makes a gender hierarchy unthinkable. As a result, Chabon's world becomes a world of hope and regeneration.

The Bakhtinian theory of the carnival helps to articulate the hope and regeneration apparent in Summerland, for it is arguably the perfect place for the child to find his/her identity: for at least an instant, the child is allowed freedom and authority to negotiate his/her own subjectivity. Rather than simply exposing the destructive nature of existing gender norms, the novel provides baseball as a model for new gender relationships of equality, in turn, creating a version of baseball that is no longer unambiguously male. Chabon takes a traditionally masculine arena congenial to boys and men fiercely guarding their masculine identity, and uses it to suggest a new kind of gender interplay in which girls are sometimes physically stronger than boys and boys, better at feeling and utilizing their emotions.

Bakhtin argues that the carnival time was "the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance" (1) and that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed. (2)

It is through the carnivalesque space of the Summerlands that Ethan and his friends find meaning in their lives and find the identity that they can take home with them to the Middling. Summerland presents a narrative that does not even make issue of the fact that males and females play on the same sporting team. As children's fiction, an important cultural tool for gender socialization, it functions to naturalize a concept of gender equality rather than indoctrinating its readers with the common assumption of the fundamental differences between the sexes in terms of physical ability and strength.

Baseball novels traditionally follow a formulaic structure and Summerland is no exception to this conventional structure. Timothy Morris observes that this archetypal plot generally follows a set of rules:

   A team seems to be headed for failure(s) both on and off the
   field, finds inspiration, blends as a unit, and wins the Big
   Game for the championship. However unrealistically, the
   championship in a baseball novel tends to be decided by a
   single game on the last day of the season. … 

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