This year, as part of my module called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ I gave my students the option of writing a philosophical analysis of a sports film. Below is one of the best ones, written by Jehmeil Lemonius (and is reproduced here with his permission).
A Philosophical Account of Summer Storm: Masculinity, Identity and Coming out in Sport.
Traditionally, participation in sport has been viewed as the epitome of masculinity. Research has suggested that, in western societies throughout the twentieth century, sport has become a proverbial litmus test for what it is to be perceived as ‘manly’ (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1992), creating an institution where hegemonic masculinity, heterosexism, and homophobia continue to fester (Anderson, 2002; Connell, 1995; Hekma, 1998). As a result of the apparent hostility to behaviour not usually associated with masculinity, openly gay people continue to be hugely under-represented in sport, and those hiding their sexuality are subject to a range of pressures to conform which have otherwise been brought close to extinction elsewhere in society. As a result of the uniquely challenging experiences of gay people participating in sport, a minority of films have aimed to address the issue head on; ‘Summer Storm’, a coming-of-age movie and the subject of this essay, is an example. This essay will seek to examine the film’s portrayal of sexual orientation and sport in the context of wider academic literature.
Summer Storm (Sommersturm), a German movie released in 2004 and directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, is a comedy-drama which follows Tobi, a confident, popular teenager who is the captain and social leader of the RSC rowing team, set to the backdrop of a yearly rowing regatta. Tobi and his best friend, Achim, are team-mates, and share a close relationship, at times bordering on physical intimacy, but always falling short of direct sexual contact. Whilst Tobi harbours strong feelings toward his best friend, Achim’s affection lies elsewhere with Sandra, a fellow rower and participant in the competition, and Tobi himself is the subject of advances from Anke, the attractive female friend of Sandra.
The story unfolds at the summer rowing camp, where teams from all across Germany descend on the ground for a week of training in the lead up to the final rowing race. Behaving stereotypically, the male team are excited at the prospect of camping with a female rowing team from Berlin. However, the girls’ team cancels, and are replaced by “Queerstrokes”, an all-gay youth rowing team who take vocal pride in their homosexuality. As hostility and competitiveness between the two groups becomes fierce, Tobi is forced to confront his feelings for Achim, come to terms with a blossoming relationship with Leo, a member of Queerstokes, and declare his sexuality to his team-mates.
Superficially, ‘Summer Storm’ follows a generic ‘coming out’ story narrative, structured around successive periods of tension, crisis and resolution. The predictability of such storylines are reflected in commentary; Gove (1996) argues that films dealing with teenage representations and ‘coming out’ narratives almost universally deal with gender stereotypes, given the symbolic value of adolescence as a key moment in the development of a person’s gender and sexual identity. The genre of films dealing with revelations of sexual orientation during adolescence are, by their very nature, concerned with positive representations of gay people – Bronski (2000) goes so far as to argue that such films are ‘inseparable from the idea of pro-gay propaganda’ (P.20). Homophobia is portrayed exclusively as backward and unacceptable in the film, with Anke even commenting, on hearing Achim express his need to be ‘informed’ of a rower’s sexual orientation, ‘Why don’t we just ask them to sew a pink triangle into their jackets?’ (25:28).
Bronski also views the experience of protagonists in such films as unrealistically positive, with the story failing to reflect the harshness of homophobia in the real world, and ending conveniently after the triumphant declaration of the characters’ sexual orientation without any exploration of its possible consequences (Bronki, 2000). This opinion is reflected in much critical commentary on Summer Storm, with many criticising its unoriginality, predictability, and over-emphasis on wish-fulfilment rather than reality.
However, in many such films, gay teenagers are represented as unpopular, sidelined, and lacking in confidence – their emotional journey leads them on a journey of discovery and eventual belonging to a gay subculture. Summer Storm not only portrays its central character as a popular, masculine, and confident with women, but it does this in the context of sport, a rare backdrop for the genre, and one which provides a variety of challenges for Tobi to overcome. Sport has, in the past, been seen as the bastion of traditional masculinity; Davis & Weaving (2010) suggest that the sporting environment facilitates the reproduction of masculine character qualities which are embroiled within a patriarchal society. These qualities consist of behaviours that are stereotypically associated with alpha males such as aggression, competitiveness, and suppression of emotion. With these attributes being closely associated with success, this discourages participation from those who do not identify with such qualities, reaffirming an environment which can be considered segregated, homophobic, and sexist, and glorifying masculinity through a thinly disguised misogyny (Anderson, 2008).
Such behaviour is portrayed in the movie, when many of Tobi’s teammates talk openly and explicitly about their intentions to seduce female participants at the regatta, and the initial reaction, on Queerstokes members revealing their sexuality, is one of repulsion and hostility. If gay people do participate, Price (2003) argues that they resort to extensive measures to present an image of “normality”, conforming to traditional heterosexist structures and endure discriminatory practices to maintain acceptance in this setting. With Tobi’s adoption of a role as the class clown and alpha male, and his efforts to maintain a heterosexual relationship with Anke and avoid socialising with Queerstokes, the viewer is confronted with the intense pressure to conform as a player of a team sport. The matter of conforming is also the subject of some conflict within the Queerstokes team, with one character commenting that his team-mate should exercise more control over his propensity to ‘behave like a girl’ (40:05).
Georg, a member of the RSC rowing team, represents Anderson’s (2008) classic archetype of traditional masculinity – he is openly hostile toward the Queerstokes team on account of their homosexuality, objectifies women, and engages in traditionally masculine banter with fellow teammates. Georg engages in an open conflict with Queerstokes’ own captain, Malte, who pursues Georg sexually in response. However, rather than portray the relationship as a one-way educational experience for Georg, the film shows Malte as a direct reflection of him – his overtly sexual, humorous, sporty, and domineering personality illustrates all the hallmarks of the same hegemonic masculinity adopted by Georg. The film is therefore unafraid to portray the alpha-male equivalents in both the heterosexual and homosexual groups, and the resulting relationship between them, culminating in Georg feeling horrified by Malte’s eventual sexual advance, is amongst the most interesting in the film. At this point, the only thing separating the two characters is the gender of their sexual targets – stereotypes about sexuality have been broken down entirely.
One of the film’s major dramatic plotlines comes from the central friendship between Tobi and Achim. Many such films contain a similar relationship, some of which serve to portray the heartbreak of unrequited love, with others providing the plot device through which the protagonists romantic dreams are fulfilled. Summer Storm represents this differently – whilst Tobi’s sexuality is not openly acknowledged, the two share explicitly intimate moments, and Achim is on some level aware of Tobi’s proclivities. The storyline eventually climaxes as Tobi leans in for a kiss, but is spurned by Achim who, tellingly, responds with ‘You expect too much of me’ (45:00). The viewer is efficiently made aware that, whilst potentially experimental, Achim is heterosexual, and is unable to fully reciprocate Tobi’s feelings. The film demonstrates restraint in refusing to portray the advance as a shock to Achim, and, whilst the friendship begins to break down in the final act, this can be attributed to Tobi’s jealousy of his friend’s relationship with Sandra, rather than any genuine homophobia on Achim’s part. Such a representation – placing the emphasis on the protagonist as the engineer of his own problems in the face of a relatively accepting response – is an original take on a common story arc, and presents the idea that gay people can experience the same inner turmoil even in the absence of strong intolerance. This is shown most effectively in Anke’s barbed response to Tobi’s continued efforts to hide his sexuality, after Tobi had confided in her his secret: “I have to accept that you are in love with a boy – I cannot compete with that. But do you want to make a comical act out of yourself? Do you want to continue lying to the others?” (1:04:45).
Having been spurned by Achim, Tobi joins the Queerstokes team for an afternoon by the lake. In this scene, the audience witnesses a traditional moment of belonging and realisation – the character feels kindred to those around him for the first time. He develops a relationship with Leo, and shares his first gay kiss. With an employment of pathetic fallacy, against the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm, tensions result in Leo confronting Tobi about his homosexuality in front of his fellow team-mates. Back at the camp, as the storm threatens to destroy their tents, a tree is uprooted, crashing to the ground and separating Tobi from the rest of the camp – Tobi looks at his team-mates through the rain, the imagery reflecting his feelings of isolation and loneliness. The group eventually find shelter in a local hostel, where Tobi argues with Achim, and ends up in the arms of Leo.
The next morning, Tobi arrives in the breakfast lobby to be greeted by two tables – one occupied by his RSC team-mates, and the second by Queerstokes. After a moment of hesitation, and with the audience expecting him to choose the group who reflect his new-found homosexual identity, the film surprises when Tobi sits with his original circle of friends. At the table, Tobi kisses Anke on the cheek, and asks, casually, ‘What, I can’t kiss girls now, just because I’m gay?’ (1:22:40). His team-mates react with bemusement, but give a wary smile of acceptance, before Toby returns to his leadership role by giving a motivational speech to his team. The scene is in keeping with Summer Storm’s alternative take in choosing to represent sexuality as incidental to personality, and, suddenly, Tobi’s ‘act’ appears real. This challenges the viewer’s own stereotypes that his role as alpha-male had to be a pretence due to his homosexuality – Tobi is able to be both gay and traditionally masculine. As the film ends, Tobi and Achim reconcile, and in a final nod to acceptance and diversity, a last-minute injury results in the gay and straight teams mixing for the regatta race.
Although Tobi’s experience of acceptance has been the subject of much criticism by reviewers, many of whom have declared it unrealistic, the storyline’s realism is actually supported in recent academic research. Studies have attributed homophobia in sport to the lack of experience of, or knowledge of, openly gay male athletes (Wolf Wendel, Toma, & Morphew , 2001), implying that the introduction of even a single gay athlete could produce a significant reduction in homophobic attitudes. Anderson (2009), historically a major advocate of sport being inherently hostile to homosexuality, has noted a significant and recent change in attitudes to gay people within sport. He now refers to many sports as being ‘inclusive’, and considers the hegemonic form of conservative masculinity to have lost its dominance. This assertion has led to Anderson developing newer theories on an ‘inclusive masculinity’ – and that numerous masculinities can co-exist without any hierarchical arrangement. The theory supports the existence of multiple masculinities, and the rejection of homophobia, compulsory heterosexism, stoicism and sexism (Cashmore & Cleland, 2012). Further, Clayton and Harris (2009) state that males who now engage in behaviour which, in the past, would have been deemed to be homosexual, do not face any threat to their heterosexuality. This build up in new evidence goes some way to suggesting that attitudes across sport and wider society may be changing.
In this vein, criticism of Summer Storm’s representation of a gay teenager’s coming out in a sporting environment may be unfair – in some ways, despite following a predictable broader path, the film presented an entirely original philosophy of homosexuality in sport. The concept that traditional masculinity is present in both the homosexual and heterosexual male communities, for better or worse, suggests that far more unites male sport participants than divides them. Indeed, Tobi’s internal melodrama, which continued to exist despite no genuine hostility from his best friend, his girlfriend, or his team-mates, presented the idea that the process of coming to terms with homosexuality can be independent of homophobia – this point is a brave one to raise. Regardless, in choosing to address the issue of sexuality in male sport, Summer Storm is a member of a very small club, and one which should grow if the stereotypes and clichés associated with gay teenagers, in part propagated by coming out films themselves, are to be challenged and abandoned.
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