These days, the pit bull is a symbol of hypermasculinity: an ideal that includes physical strength and agility, endurance, resistance to pain, and aggression. This is well-illustrated by the rapper DMX, who uses the reputation of the pit bill to suggest that he is powerfully and unpredictably violent. Nick-named "Pit Bull" or "the dog," his first single was "Get At Me Dog," and his album titles include "Year of the Dog, Again" and "Pick of the Litter." He is rumored to have a tattoo of a pit bull on his back and uses images of snarling pit bulls on his album covers and his website, which describes him as "growling."
The recent gruesome allegations against Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick's participation in dog fighting emphasize the way in which pit bulls are used by men to bolster their own masculinity. Men train their dogs to be as hard, mean, and vicious as they can. When their dogs win, it reflects on the men who trained them. Paraphrasing former Cowboy Deion Sanders, NBC reporter Kevin Corke wrote: "...the meaner [your] dog, the more respect you get from the hood..." (NBC News, August 23rd, 2007) Or, as another suggested, "You're tough because it's tough."
This connection between the dog and the man explains why DMX and Vick torture and even kill the animals that embody the hypermasculinity that they "respect" so much. When dogs lose, they threaten their owners' own sense of masculinity. Since empathy is equated with weakness, to show empathy for these dogs would be social suicide. So the dogs are brutally punished for failing to be the hardest, meanest, and most vicious. Vick, DMX, and other violent abusers of fighting dogs abuse them precisely because they are invested so intensely in their own hypermasculinity.
The irony here is that, while DMX and Vick -- both Black men -- may be using pit bulls to bolster their masculinity, they share the burden with these dogs. Black men, too, are symbols of hypermasculinity in our culture. This is especially true in rap and pro-football. Speaking about the Vick case, Dr. Boyce Watkins said:
I've always kind of felt that the black male, to use a pit bull analogy... We're sort of like the American pit bull. You know, the pit bull is a kind of animal where you can sit back and relish in its strength and beauty...(National Public Radio, August 6th, 2007)
The performance of hypermasculinity that we see by (overwhelmingly Black) men in arenas like rap and pro-football serves to reify men's physical prowess and naturalize male aggressiveness. Like the man who watches his dog win a fight and then claims "respect" for himself, men all over the country watch football and say to themselves: "We men are so strong and powerful. Look how hard we hit. Look how much punishment we can take." When (overwhelmingly Black) athletes display strength, agility, and aggression in the game, all men (even those who are slowly but surely imprinting their backside on the couch cushions) can claim those characteristics as somehow essentially "male" and not "female." So pit bulls are serving the same function for people like Vick that people like Vick are serving for the rest of America: the dog and the man are both ways to prove that men are bigger, stronger, and meaner than women (and other men).
However, unlike pit bulls, Black men get it coming and going. We expect them to display hypermasculinity and then hate him for doing just that. While it is expected that they perform hypermasculinity, they are demonized as soon as they demonstrates that their aggression can't be controlled by their handlers. Dr. Watkins notes: "I find it awfully ironic that, typically, the most hated athlete in America is always a black man."
This is what commentators are trying to explain when they say that the outrage directed at Vick is about race. It's not necessarily that Vick is being targeted because he is Black, it is that the outrage over his acts is tinged by a perverse pleasure in bringing down a Black man. When a white person acts badly, however famous, it is never interpreted as a blight on white people in general. But when Black men act badly -- Dr. Watkins mentions Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds, Ron Artest, and OJ Simpson -- it is an opportunity to put Black men back in their place. We hold Black men responsible for safeguarding our sense of masculinity and when he acts it out in ways that we do not endorse, we act shocked and horrified, we revel in his disgrace, and we shame his race.
*** Special thanks to Gwen Sharp for suggesting that I write about dog fighting and masculinity and helping me along as I thought through this essay.
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