Conan the Barbarian, Sir Percival Blakeney, and the Cult of Machismo in Historical Fencing

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There are times when our lives in and outside the sala intersect. Recently I experienced this with regard to advocacy for women’s rights, equality, and representation. Whatever one’s politics—mine are apparently less clear than I thought—this is an issue not only as an instructor and fencer, but as a human being, especially one living in the topsy-turvy world of the United States in 2019. There’s no middle-ground—either you believe in equality and fight for it, or, you don’t. There’s no fence-sitting, because by definition—in this case—inaction is tantamount to action: it is to be complicit in those customs, laws, and attitudes that are prejudicial. As a middle-aged white male, though, it’s often difficult to appear to be an advocate; I look like “the enemy,” after all, and though I do my best to support anyone really who’s not an a-hole, only continuous action might convince those who think otherwise.

In fairness, our attempts to advocate for others can fail, we can be taken for what we’re not, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. It’s all the more important to me as an instructor, because in my own, small way I have a chance to make a difference. The adults who train with me are, not surprisingly, on much the same page.[1] Preaching to the chorus is affirming, but it’s work already accomplished. With my younger students, however, I can do a lot of good, or, a lot of harm. I have an opportunity to make a difference, but I also feel I have a duty to make that difference, to create a safe, encouraging, and supportive spot for everyone. This I try my best to do. In part this is a carry-over from parenting—my wife and I are keen to raise our boys to be part of the solution, not the problem—but it also comes of seeing the damage bad coaches can do over a life-time of watching it happen.

From the adults, feedback is constant, and I’m thankful for that. At present we have one adult woman who regularly attends and happily she’s a good gauge for how well we’re doing, how well I’m doing, to create a safe spot. She has suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of men in fencing, from disregard to the actual threat of violence, and it’s a testimony to her strength and passion that she didn’t just quit. A long-time friend, she has been a good guide for me, not only from what I’ve picked up in trying to help her through so much b.s., but also in the fact the she has shared her ideas, experiences, and feedback. She speaks her mind; she will call me on poor choices and then it is up to me to be a large enough human to consider what she says. My younger students, most of whom are between the ages of 9 and 16, are less forthcoming with feedback, less capable of that insight as yet, and so I have to do the heavy-lifting for them.

Conan and Sir Percy

Sir Percy
Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy in the 1982 “Scarlet Pimpernel”

Anyone who spends much time in historical fencing is going to run into the Janus-faced Macho “HEMA Bruh.” He isn’t confined to our community; wherever there are combat-related past-times you’ll find this guy.[2] On the one hand he exemplifies the most facile, shallow notions of western masculinity—one sees this in the focus on victory above all, physical strength and size, his romanticism of violence, and a misplaced sense of his own ability. On the other hand, the second face is often more subtle. It’s homophobia expressed in humorous attempts to belittle other fencers. The math here, such as it is, reads like this: smaller sword = weak, “gay,” lesser, etc. If HEMA Bruh is Conan the Barbarian, then as far as Bruh is concerned smaller men, especially if they fail the big-sword test, are all the public persona of Sir Percy Blankeney-as-dandy, i.e. cowardly snobs who hide their weakness behind fancy dress and witticisms, or in this case, avoid “real” sword-fighting by using less scary weapons.[3] Wimps like that, so Conan thinks, have as much business pursuing “MAN” activities as women do. The 1950s middle-school nature of this thinking is sad, but they’re telling too coming from grown men. For those of us teaching later aspects of the Art, for example, the fact we don’t wrestle or use big swords makes us easy marks. Teach foil or smallsword in HEMA-land and you’ll see what I mean. Among adults it’s easy to see this and avoid such people, but what about for kids?

Instructor as Role Model

Like it or not, if you coach younger people you’re a role model; not the most important one in most cases, but one example of an authority figure that can have significant influence on a young person’s development. Acting the part of Conan the Barbarian, even making room for the HEMA Bruh or similar clowns, are all detrimental to any training program—the best such programs create are future HEMA Bros and considerably more people turned off to the Art. That is a net loss for everyone. I’ve watched this happen. [4]

Instructors must be ever mindful of how they act, what they say and how they say it, of the example they set. One of the ways this is made easier in fencing (of any kind) are the niceties and cult of manners inherent in the tradition. We salute in and out of class, we address people politely, we comport ourselves in the sala with self-respect and respect for others. All these things help but on their own are not enough. Just as old as the salute are double-standards, and though these are less evident today than they once were, they’re still around. For example, there are still instructors out there that either believe or unwittingly apply double-standards to female fencers, who think they can’t or shouldn’t do X. Claptrap. They can do whatever they want, and like anyone who applies themselves, do well.

Is Conan Really so Bad?

Arnie as Conan (1982)

How is the Cult of He-Man detrimental? Starting with the less pernicious effects, focus on facile notions of masculinity—strength, aggression, dominance, power, fame, victory, etc.—undermines the value of these concepts and removes them from what they should be.

  • Strength one develops for health and to practice the Art
  • Aggression, in a sportive context, is better developed as appropriate offensive strategy
  • Dominance of self outweighs any other version
  • Power should be a measure of control over the weapon and ourselves, so modulating not only one’s strikes, but oneself
  • Fame, like anything that serves ego alone, takes one’s attention away from the Art—if you bump into it, fine, enjoy it, but keep it in check
  • Victory is a diagnostic tool for measuring growth, tactics, and identifying areas for work.

I’m not trying to take the joy out of a win or suggest we all meditate in the ring or on the piste rather than fight. I’m suggesting that we get far more out of the Art, out of all our hours and training and hard work, if we look deeper.

Another issue is that these same He-Man values favor only one type of fencer—the larger, stronger, brutal fighter. Is there room for him? [5] Yes, but only if that same fencer is keen to grow beyond what nature provided him. He will be a liability otherwise. The instructor’s job with this fencer is to impart more of the Art to him, to round the corners off him, and teach him to harness and make the best use of those natural gifts (if he’s up for it). This is, in essence, what the instructor should be doing with each student, but that’s easier to do if one’s values extend beyond the physical. Focus on the big guy as a way to gain tourney gold and reputation at the expense of also putting in as much time with smaller, less powerful fencers might bring short-term gains, but at great cost.

To name one current example from one of my kids’ classes, there are two elementary school girls who are picking up technique quickly, but also who understand what they’re doing and why. Will they continue to fence? I don’t know, but my job is to give them all I can to help them find out, to encourage them, improve what they do well, and help them build those parts of the game they are struggling with. I also have a male middle-schooler in that class as tall as I am, and while strong that asset is little use to him in foil. With him my job is to help him channel his size and strength into more effective uses, in this case reach and stamina. Whatever size they are, whatever sex or gender, they’re my students and my task is to share the Art with them, to help them grow.

Put short, whatever a student’s gifts, whatever their challenges, we work with them—we do not favor one type over another. To do so limits us, limits the students, and sets a poor example. The motto of my school is Vis enim vincitur Arte, “For strength is conquered by Art,” because the Art can aid the powerful, but it can make the weak fencer overcome the powerful one.

How I treat them individually, but also as a class, is important too. I’m an adult teaching them something very complicated and difficult to do–that is challenge enough without inane ideas about boys being better at this, girls better at that. To me they’re potential fencers, fellow students only younger, and I must strive to set the best example I can for them.

The Truth about Attribute Fencers

The truth is that one can go far embracing the Conan the Barbarian approach—not everyone responds to them well and they can easily overwhelm many opponents. That doesn’t mean one is successfully expressing the Art, however, and while that can correlate with skill, they’re not one in the same. This is to say just because one is fast and powerful doesn’t mean one has good technique or understanding—you can win through intimidation and power too.

The half-life with this approach is short. If injury doesn’t take one out of things, burn-out will. Some experience that burn-out as frustration when they reach an opponent who’s a better Conan than themselves. Others quit at whatever it is they consider the top of their game convinced there is no one left to beat. The first can be fixed, the second is a sign of deeper problems. This same type of fencer is demoralized or becomes convinced things are rigged if a smaller, but more skilled opponent beats them. This is much the instructor’s failure as the fencer’s, more so for it shows the instructor failed to teach them one of the more important lessons we learn in the study of arms—how to lose with grace and use that loss to improve.

Attribute fencers often do well, for a time, but the longer they stay in the game the more they’ll discover that reliance on their speed or strength is limiting. Skill will win out in the end. One doesn’t stay strong and fast forever. This will sound funny to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but if you face an opponent over 70 you’re in trouble—no matter how fast you are, how strong, etc., if that person is still fencing at that age then they know something, a lot of somethings, and you’re going to have your work cut out for you. The best losses I’ve experienced were to opponents over 70—they were great lessons. He would be 106 now if he is still alive, but being bagled 5-0 by the then 80 year old Fred Razor in 1993’s Hack und Slasch tournament in Victorville, California, was an indelible lesson for me.

The Deeper Danger of Conan

Robert Mark Kamen as “Johnny” from Cobra Kai in the 1984 “Karate Kid”

The real evil in this Cult of MAN is that it fosters unhealthy attitudes and beliefs. It provides an arena for those to grow. When this happens, people get hurt, but more than that, the same fragile notions of masculinity carry over into other areas of life. If the example we set for younger fencers is that might makes right, that our genitals determine our success or suitability for X, and that the gifts of nature in terms of size or strength outweigh the hard road of study, then we do more than create Cobra Kai fencers—we help shape, even if in small ways, the same monsters who plague our society at large. This is as true if we ignore it–it’s tacit approval.

This is not just “liberal propaganda” either—there is science here (nb: science, contrary to public opinion, is not a liberal conspiracy). Reinforcing pernicious social mores across activities, locations, and populations helps solidify those ideas. With fewer areas of life demonstrating competing views it is easier, especially for the very young, to accept those ideas as normal. Each of us in our own way, to the degree that we can, is responsible for the world we live in; we have a choice in how we engage others, what we accept and reject, and if we truly believe that equality matters, that respect for others and ourselves is worth cultivating, and that these values make for a better society, then everything we do, from how we vote to how we approach a sabre lesson echoes. This isn’t to say a fencing instructor makes or breaks things, but it is to say that it matters—if the Art is more than a body of technique and tactics, if it does relate to our growth as individuals, then it matters. [6]

I’m not an enemy of big dudes–some of my closest friends are big dudes. I also value the role that wrestling and grappling have played in the Art; more than that, I like to dabble in longsword too, and if the chance came up to take a class on spadone/montante, I would. Interest and pursuit of these is fine, perfectly awesome really, but like anything it is how we go about it, how we treat others, and all of these aspects of the Art can be approached sans Conan’s fur speedo.

———–

Notes:

*Photo of Dodgers player Kiké Hernandez and reporter Kelli Tennant. This photo was widely shared and the subject of a popular meme. It’s been cited as classic example of “fragile masculinity,” but there is evidence–in this case–to suggest that Kiké, a notorious prankster, might have been up to something else. At the very least he shared the same photo himself in 2017 as a short-person joke.   For the initial photo–see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2018/07/13/a-baseball-player-stood-on-a-bucket-and-sparked-an-online-debate-about-masculinity/

See also, https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/heidi-stevens/ct-life-stevens-tuesday-kike-hernandez-bucket-masulinity-0710-story.html

[1] I’m lucky to work with good people. Among the many civic and socially minded examples of their excellence, one even serves as an escort/guard for any woman fearful of protestors wishing to go to Planned Parenthood.

[2] “Bro” culture is rife in sports as it is in most places. Historical fencing, because it has larger weapons, because so many of the traditions dealt with war as well as the duel, and because physical size can make more of a difference in grappling is perhaps more prone to this sort of machismo where other branches of fencing—saving perhaps Bohurt—are less likely to see it.

[3] For those unfamiliar with the character, Sir Percy is the hero of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), a wonderful tale of an English aristocrat who hides his heroic rescue of the French noblesse from the guillotine behind the mask of a dandy among other personas. There are a number of film versions of the book as well (my favorite remains the portrayal by Leslie Howard’s from 1934). There was, it seems, a popular trope in swashbuckling literature of the inept, questionably hetero hero who adopts this persona to hide his more “manly” heroics. The other classic example being Zorro. It is telling that in 1981 “Zorro the Gay Blade” made this suggestion overt. Conan the Barbarian was the creation of Robert E. Howard whose series of stories first appeared in 1932. The most famous film version, recently remade, is the 1982 “Conan the Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwartzenegger. Both big-bad-ass-barbarian and sly-dandy films reflected, and helped cement, ideas about masculinity, sexual orientation, and what was and wasn’t acceptable: modern audiences (hopefully) will experience these older movies differently.

[4] It can be easy to forget how long childhood extends. Teens can look older, present older, but are nonetheless kids; even those in their early twenties have brains still in development. In the few instances where I’ve seen adults forget this, I’ve tried to help both the child and the coach, but sometimes the issues those adults face can blind them to the reality of the situation—kids, even 17 or 18 year olds, do not think or act like adults, so expecting from them what one does from a 30 year old is misguided at best.

There are also schools, some infamous in the States, for encouraging “Bruh” culture, but not so surprisingly they’ve run into more and more trouble. If you don’t play nice, people won’t want to play with you. Guess they never learned that.

[5] Yes, “him.” I try to use gender/sex neutral language as much as possible, but in my experience to date the worst offenders of macho-man syndrome have been male. Naturally there are fencers who identify in other ways that may be just as annoying to deal with.

[6] One standout example of a fencer’s moral choice during trying times is Nedo Nadi who repeatedly refused to join, represent, or work with Mussolini’s fascist regime. See Richard Cohen, By the Sword, New York, NY: Random House, 2002, 326 ff.

NB: My friend, and a gracious Big-Dude, Mike Cherba of Northwest Armizare, is using this post in class, so I have edited some of it, mostly removing excess words, repetition, and trying to tighten up the sentences a bit. What, I’m long-winded, I like long sentences…. I blame Latin. [4-8-2020]

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