'The League': Fantasy-Football Hilarity or Commentary on Masculinity?

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Well, both. Here's the scholarly literature on fantasy-football dude-bonding.

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FX

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: FX's comedy gem The League, whose fourth season premieres Thursday night, is about five guys and a girl who talk trash and compete in a fantasy football league.

BUT ACCORDING TO EXPERTS WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: The League is actually about five guys who reinforce hegemonic masculinity (y'know, the culturally normative ideal of male behavior) by talking trash and competing in a fantasy football league—and a girl who's expertly undermining it.

It's estimated that some 27 million people play fantasy football in the United States, and in 2005, Donald P. Levy of the University of Connecticut found that 97.9 percent of fantasy sports enthusiasts were men. If there's any way to show statistically that a phenomenon is a so-called "guy thing," this is probably what it looks like. (Studies show that it's largely a white-guy, educated-guy, pretty-well-off-guy thing, too.)

Today, some male friendships live and die by fantasy football rules. This week, for example, an anxious commenter asked Deadspin columnist Drew Magary, "Is it possible to kick somebody out of your long-standing fantasy football league and still remain friends with them?" (Magary admitted the situation was delicate—and, probably, no.) The season-long phenomenon in which groups of friends form leagues online, simulate games, trade players, and sign free agents—and sometimes get really, really into it—has created a new model for male bonding since its rise to popularity in the late 1990s.

In writing their 2006 "pro-feminist" look at fantasy sports called "Sports Knowledge Is Power: Reinforcing Masculine Privilege Through Fantasy Sport League Participation," Nickolas W. Davis and Margaret Carlisle Duncan observed fantasy leagues and their behaviors and concluded that fantasy football leagues have even become a "separate space" for men to practice masculinity. They act as an "Old Boys Club," the authors say,

that allows men to communally meet, bond, and redefine what it is to be masculine. Within this space, men can act like men without fear of feminization. Although on a less extreme scale, fantasy sport leagues may be compared to such movements as the Promise Keepers and the mythopoetic men's movement, insofar as they allow men the opportunity to reconstruct hegemonic masculinity in a safe environment, free from feminine influence.

Fantasy football, according to Davis and Duncan, favors the development of traits often recognized as distinctly "masculine": authority, competition, and sports knowledge.

A man in charge of a fantasy football team, they write, may feel he can "symbolically manipulate the athletes who, in a sense, play for him. This sense of control, provided by fantasy sports, allows men to experience the social power that ... owners of professional sports teams possess on a daily basis." Competition, too, "fosters an ideology of male supremacy by allowing men to celebrate their masculinity through verbal acts of aggression, emphasizing power and strength," while "men's sports knowledge and successful moves with player acquisitions act as a source of pride and empowerment, which is communicated in an overtly aggressive, masculine way." In contrast, they add, "individuals who are less well informed are often openly ridiculed for poor draft, trade, and roster structuring decisions. ... Sports knowledge is also used against others who are not statistically knowledgeable, in an attempt to emasculate them by ridicule or taunts."

Duncan and Davis write that league message boards also play a significant role in the exchange of trash talk—a hallowed feature of fantasy football. "Textual analysis of the message board as well as observations also indicates competition as a mode of fortifying masculinity. In particular, the message board offers members the ability to trash talk with one another without having to be physically present," say Duncan and Davis. But those infamous online message boards apparently aren't just a platform for inter-player trolling: They're also, according to Davis and Duncan, breeding grounds for "crude, misogynistic, and heterosexist vernacular as a means of articulating supremacy." According to the authors:

One mode men use to heighten their masculinities is the use of demeaning language to establish their dominance over other participants. These participants do so by putting fellow fantasy leaguers down, referring to them as women, subordinating them and objectifying women in the process by calling these inferior participants pussies. This is often a systematic strategy of reinforcing hegemonic ideals.

The League riffs on the message-board element on a regular basis—only the members use a video-enhanced one. Behold, the awesome, demoralizing power of message-board trash talk (totally not suitable for work, of course):

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. It's partly for this reason, Davis and Duncan posit, that things can get weird when the idea of female fantasy players surfaces. Focus-group research showed that the introduction of women who were knowledgeable about sports and fantasy sports to the male-dominated world of fantasy football would "create uneasiness, challenging the male's masculinity and supremacy in sport."

When the authors asked a fantasy participant named Tyler about how he'd feel about losing to a woman in a fantasy matchup, his response was telling:

I actually think it would be kind of weird. I would be kind of weirded out if a girl knew more about this shit than I did. I don't know. It just doesn't seem like that should be [everyone laughs]. I'm stuck in the Stone Age kind of. It's like, "Oh man, Vince Carter had a really good game today. He had like 32 points." [Speaking as a female fantasy participant] "Actually no, he had 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists." I would be like "Holy shit, girl! What the hell is that about! You're psycho!" [everyone laughs]. A lot of us guys are behind the times. I'm trying to be less pigheaded. I try not to generalize as much, but it still happens sometimes.

"In this response," the authors explain, "Tyler admits that he is being sexist because he believes that it would be unusual if a woman beat him in what he feels is a man's role in society."

Despite all the menacing misogyny that's supposedly bubbling just under the surface of FX's fantasy football comedy, the league from The League expands to include a woman in the second season: Jenny (Katie Aselton), the feisty, NFL-savvy wife of league commissioner Kevin. And the results actually follow pretty closely with Duncan and Davis's hypotheses about gender integration in fantasy football—things do, indeed, get pretty weird for a while (though the rest of the league is more bothered by the fact that Jenny is Kevin's wife than a female fantasy player).

The skepticism fades, though, when Jenny's team plays in the league championship at the end of her first season—and heading into Season 4, Jenny's inclusion in the league blends pretty seamlessly into the fabric of the series. Life goes on for the male members of the league, even though their "safe environment, free from feminine influence" has been breached—and for the most part, all six of the leaguers, regardless of gender, share in the passive-aggressive, quietly antagonistic "friendly alliance" resulting from fantasy football that Duncan and Davis credit with "increasing enjoyment of sport spectatorship."

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: Even though its dialogue is littered with magnificently rude female-anatomy slang words, The League actually subtly subverts some notions about the hegemonic nature of fantasy football—largely thanks to Katie Aselton's Jenny. Jenny isn't just an affectionate, potty-mouthed wife and mom. In her own sly, smack-talking way, she's also a gender-parity pioneer.

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Ashley Fetters is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers entertainment.

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