By Matt Ventresca
“Hey man, nice moustache.”
Throughout the month of November, this male-to-male greeting appears more common than any other simple platitude, salutation or secret handshake. It has become so ubiquitous that it almost needs no introduction: for the past month, countless men across the globe have grown moustaches to “raise vital funds and awareness for men’s health” as part of the annual tradition known as Movember. According to the Movember website, over 1.1 million participants have pledged funds and support for prostate cancer initiatives such as Prostate Cancer Canada since 2003. Yes, moustaches are back; “soup strainers,” “cookie dusters” and “push brooms” are no longer the exclusive domain of poindexters like Ned Flanders and Wilfred Brimley. Thanks to Movember, moustaches are cool again and have been re-affirmed as an appropriate way to express one’s manhood (at least for the thirty days between Halloween and December 1st).
Of course, we do not have to rack our brains to remember times when moustaches (and facial hair in general) were largely considered enduring symbols of manliness and masculinity. We can think back to Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Tom Sellick in Magnum P.I. (1980-1988) or the way Hulkamania compelled so many youngsters throughout the 1980s to draw replica moustaches on their otherwise smooth faces (I’ll leave Chuck Norris out of this). Yet a vast body of scholarship exists outlining how the 1990s ushered in a widespread crisis of masculinity through which understandings of what it meant to be a man became tenuous, fluid and fragmented. New trends in literature and popular culture made it appear possible for big guys to be sensitive and emotional, little men to be brave and heroic and (most importantly) the hairless to be rough and tumble. It suddenly became commonplace for sports superstars to be labeled metrosexuals and action heroes to have their faces waxed, plucked and exfoliated. Given the fragile state of contemporary masculinit(ies), facial hair can no longer be considered a ready-made symbol of strength, toughness and manhood.
The undeniable popularity of the Movember campaign, however, adds another layer to the complex nature of our understandings of masculinity, especially recognizing how National Hockey League (NHL) players (and coaches, broadcasters etc.) have been some of the most visible supporters of the campaign. While players’ participation in Movember appears to be separate from the league’s official Hockey Fights Cancer campaign (which is also affiliated with Prostate Cancer Canada), their involvement has been promoted on team websites and broadcasts. The Toronto Maple Leafs and former captain Wendel Clark have been the most outspoken promoters of the campaign (raising well over $100,000), while George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks has received a shocking amount of media coverage following the progress of his (in)famous moustache (even after he was sidelined with an eye injury five days into November). Meanwhile, goaltenders Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Parros’ teammate Jonas Hiller have sported Movember-themed masks throughout the month that have received considerable publicity and fanfare. By the time of this writing, the NHL’s Movember network is listed as raising over $175,000. Indeed, by all accounts the marriage of Movember and the NHL appears to be match made in philanthropy heaven.
But how can we explain the mutually beneficial relationship between Movember and the NHL? Why are NHL players considered ideal ambassadors for a uniquely male campaign that involves the seemingly trivial act of growing facial hair? At first glance, the connections may seem obvious; yet the cultural politics that underlie the league’s involvement in Movember are surprisingly complex and bound up in broader social forces.
The male bonding promoted as a key element of the Movember campaign complements the male-dominated culture of professional hockey. As detailed on the Movember website, the moustache wearing “Mo Bros” take centre stage, but are lovingly supported by the women in their lives, “Mo Sistas.” This patriarchal order of things is eerily similar to how the “male preserve” of professional hockey operates. As authors such as Gruneau & Whitson (1993) and Mary Louise Adams (2006) have written, hockey (especially at the elite levels) is currently organized as a cultural environment in which boys learn how to act like men, and women are largely relegated to “supportive” roles as mothers, wives and girlfriends. Given that visible roles for women in professional hockey are extremely limited (ice girls/cheerleaders, anthem singers and the occasional sideline reporter), it is not surprising that examining the NHL’s role in Movember leads us to consider the particular brand of violent, aggressive masculinity that is seen as a natural part of the game.
It also leads us to investigate the relationship between this ideal masculinity and facial hair. Of course, the NHL has a storied and much mythologized history of facial hair growth come playoff time (“playoff beard” has a Wikipedia entry for goodness sakes!). Credited to the New York Islanders of the 1980s, the playoff beard has become an annual rite of spring for players as they vie for the opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. The playoff beard’s symbolism has its roots in some of hockey’s most cherished and enduring myths. As hockey is seen as the product of our collective conquering of the unforgiving northern landscape, the sport’s players are understood as contemporary embodiments of the toughness and perseverance that led to this triumph over our natural environment. Thus, just as the brave explorer trekking through the wilderness would go days or weeks without a chance to shave, the NHL player displays his manhood on his face; it’s about toughness, determination and enduring the long and treacherous “journey” to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It is through the playoff beard that one of the game’s internal hierarchies is put on display throughout the NHL playoffs. While the “fresh legs” and enthusiasm of young players are considered assets for teams who advance into the later rounds of the playoffs, coaches and broadcasters continually reinforce how the leadership and experience of older players are the qualities that count the most in May and June. The grizzled and unkempt beards that adorn these players’ faces are dotted with flecks of grey and cover the scars from playoff runs of years past; these men wear their experience on their faces and distinguish themselves from the “boys” and “kids” who are prone to carelessness and undisciplined mistakes. These men are battle-tested, are veterans in every sense of the word (excuse the military metaphors) and are the “character players” that are said to win championships. Most importantly, they embody the hard, aggressive masculinity at the core of hockey’s value system. Meanwhile, despite the skill and athleticism of young players, their boyishness (and beardlessness) is implicitly equated with femininity and therefore associated with fragility, weakness and vulnerability. Good-natured jokes at the expense of the baby-faced Patrick Kane (he of the playoff mullet) and Sidney Crosby make powerful statements about gender that reinforce the cultural hierarchies that privilege traditional forms of masculinity while marginalizing the effeminate.
In many ways, the NHL’s association with Movember carries on this tradition (while also giving Crosby detractors another chance to ridicule the Penguins’ star for his meagre attempt at a moustache). These November moustaches (much like the playoff beard) reproduce gender hierarchies and reinforce our understandings of what counts in the culture of professional hockey: strength, aggression and, above all, manliness. I do hesitate, however, to portray this performance of masculinity as uniform or one-dimensional. The symbolic act of growing a moustache for NHL players is manifest in multiple and complex ways. As I have outlined, facial hair has long been understood as a way to display one’s manliness and hockey’s conservative gender politics have largely withstood concerns about a widespread crisis of masculinity. Yet, as detailed on the Movember website, one of the primary goals of this campaign is for its participants to have fun. Of course, hockey players are renowned for their locker room pranks and antics, a reputation that fits quite nicely with Movember’s goal to “create fun.” Scholars such as Michael Robidoux (2001) have looked to address this aspect of hockey’s ideal masculinity by portraying it as contradictory or two-sided. While players are understood as fierce, tough and determined on the ice, they are often described as playful and fun-loving off the ice (the “good guys” we hear so much about). Thus, the Movember moustache embodies this dual symbolism: it is a way to demonstrate the manliness required to play the sport, while also showcasing that players can be good-natured, playful jokesters off the ice (Robidoux goes on to outline how this complex performance of masculinity can be problematic in the day-to-day lives of professional hockey players).
This brings us back to our original question (after an admittedly long detour): why Movember, why moustaches and why the National Hockey League? What cultural or societal conditions allow NHL players to be successfully incorporated into a fundraising campaign for a distinctly male cause in a way that so readily embraces performances of masculinity? When situating the NHL’s connection to Movember (and Prostate Cancer Canada) alongside other sport-related charitable campaigns, it becomes clear that the league represents a unique cultural environment for the promotion of such a cause. This notion becomes even more apparent when comparing the NHL’s presence in promoting Movember to the most visible fundraising initiative in pro sports: the National Footbal League’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign (formerly Real Men Wear Pink). Every October, the NFL rallies its fans in support of breast cancer awareness; team uniforms are bathed in a sea of pink (and later auctioned off for charity), and pink ribbons are prominently displayed in stadiums and on television broadcasts. While each sport is premised on performances of a violent, aggressive masculinity, the stark difference between the two campaigns (one supporting women and emphasizing the feminine, while the other is in support of men’s health and emphasizes manliness) raises questions regarding the meaning associated with the players in each league.
In her influential book Pink Ribbons Inc. (2006), Samantha King outlines how the NFL’s annual breast cancer campaigns work to mitigate cultural anxieties about race, crime and violence that are commonly connected to professional football (and basketball). The criminalization of black masculinity is so pervasive that it induces widespread suspicion that all African American athletes are potential criminals. According to King, the NFL’s pink ribbon campaigns serve to combat these fears by softening the league’s image and portraying its players as benevolent and compassionate towards women. Although the NHL has also been involved in “pink” campaigns in years past (do pink sticks ring a bell?), these initiatives did not carry the same symbolic weight as those organized by the NFL. The NHL’s culture of whiteness enables particular discourses that construct its players as aggressive and manly, but not dangerous; this differs greatly from the racialized understandings of professional football’s violent masculinity, which is always seen as a possible threat to society. While the NHL’s happy marriage with Movember trades on popular constructions of the manly, yet playful, NHL player, it also relies on overarching understandings of the racial composition of the league that positions its version of masculinity as non-threatening.
Growing a moustache seems like a trivial, mundane activity that does not warrant much scholarly attention. But it is important to consider how a cultural phenomenon like Movember is shaped by overarching social forces. Hockey is made up of countless bodily practices (of which growing facial hair is just one) that promote a brand of masculinity that is quite distinct from other professional sports. The cultural environment of professional hockey privileges white, masculine (and heterosexual, and able-bodied…) men and the success of the NHL’s relationship with Movember needs to be understood through this lens. It is only then that we can truly understand the symbolism of the NHL player’s Movember moustache, and how the NHL’s association with the cause (unlike Sidney Crosby’s ‘stache) continues to grow.
Adams, M.L. (2006). The game of whose lives? Gender, race and entitlement in Canada’s ‘national sport’. In R. Gruneau & D. Whitson (Eds.) (2006). Artificial ice: Hockey, culture and commerce (pp. 71-82). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
Gruneau, R. & D. Whitson (1993). Hockey night in Canada: Sport, identities and cultural politics. Toronto: Garamond Press.
King, S. (2006). Pink ribbons inc.: Breast cancer and the politics of philanthropy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Robidoux, M. (2001). Men at play: A working understanding of professional hockey. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.