Not Oprah’s Book Club: Welcome to My World

Cover of Jonny Weir's memoir, Welcome to my world. Johnny is on the cover, holding up a large disco ball with his high-heeled foot At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, figure skater Johnny Weir performed a short program that he titled “I Love You I Hate You.” In his new memoir, Welcome to My World, Weir writes that the name of the program “was a fairly accurate description of my relationship with the skating world.” It’s also a fairly accurate description of how I felt about Weir when I finished his book. For his refusal to conform to gender norms, for his insistence on expressing himself on the ice however he damn well pleases, I really admire the guy. For his lack of sportsmanship, and for behavior that is sometimes downright bratty, I really dislike him.

From the start of the book, Weir is very open the fluidity of his gender identity. The book opens with him kvelling as he meets Sarah Jessica Parker at a celebrity-encrusted party. He was thrilled to meet Parker, he writes, because “I have always wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw. The character informed a lot of my youth and fashion daring; she inspired me to be a New York-style single lady.” This is not, it’s immediately evident, going to be your average sports memoir. Sure, there are passages about training hard and overcoming adversity and the sacrifices one has to make for athletic greatness, but it’s clear that, partly because of the sport he chose, and partly because of who he is, Weir considers himself an artist as well as an athlete. It’s this dual identity that causes much of the tension in the book, and in his life.

This conflict isn’t Weir’s alone. That figure skating demands of its competitors a combination of artistry and athleticism sets it apart from almost every other sport (it also provides opportunities for subjectivity and politics when it comes to deciding who wins medals). Achieving a balance between the artistry and athleticism looks slightly different for each gender. As Daniel Eison and I wrote last year at Sociological Images, “Women’s programs emphasize a great deal of emotion when they skate, while men are expected to display their athletic strength and power. Artistry and flexibility are where women are expected to excel, while boys strive to jump higher and rotate more.” Weir, who was widely heralded as American skating’s wunderkind when he arrived on the competitive scene, is both athletic and artistic. He’s incredibly expressive – sometimes melodramatic – on the ice, with theatrical programs and costumes that are a far cry from the standard collared-shirt-and-black-pants numbers so many male skaters wear. He’s also incredibly athletic, with jumps and spins that make me groan in awe and envy. Like Evgeni Plushenko, the silver medalist in Vancouver, Weir is “the total package.”

So why is the way Weir skates and expresses himself so much more controversial than the way Plushenko does? Because Plushenko is Russian, and Weir is American. In Russia, figure skating is one of the most popular and revered sports, and skating champions are national icons. No one questions a male skater’s manhood, no matter how flowingly he skates or how sparkly his costume is. In America, most people only think about figure skating once every four years, unless there’s a metal baton and a kneecap involved. And while female figure skaters are admired and reasonably well-known, male skaters aren’t so lucky. Gay jokes are made frequently, aspersions on manliness cast fairly regularly. So when a male skater like Weir, who is particularly artistic, comes along, people get nervous.

Some of those people are officials at the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA). As Weir tells it, the USFSA finds his “girliness,” from his costume choices to his focus on fashion and celebrity off the ice, rather threatening. Throughout the book, Weir clashes with the USFSA on multiple occasions, and it’s clear that it’s not just because of his habit of making outlandish and controversial comments to the press. It’s because he doesn’t toe the line when it comes to how he expresses his gender, whereas other skaters, most notably Vancouver gold medalist Evan Lysacek, whose image could best be described as “well-groomed and bedazzled but still totally manly, dude,” do.

For those of us who think a lot about gender identity and how gender is performed in American culture, and who see real problems in how restricted those performances often are, it’s hard not to admire Weir’s bravery and his lifelong determination to go against the grain. When he was seven, his mother bought him a bike with streamers on the handlebars – a purchase his father opposed. When the neighborhood boys teased him about it, Weir replied, “Well, I like it.” The next day, “I returned to the boys’ hangout, riding my new bike, only this time I braided the streamers to make them even prissier.” As an established skater, he continued to push gender boundaries. At the Torino Games in 2006, he skated his short program to “The Swan,” by Camille Saint-Saens. It is a piece of music steeped in ballet history, and one to which only women had skated. “Before, I had hesitated to play the part of a dancing female swan,” he writes. “Gender bending would take me into a whole new and very taboo arena, where I would stand totally alone.” Into that arena he went, in a feathery and glittery costume, with one red glove that was meant to imitate the beak of a swan. It was this program, he writes, that “untethered him from his last remaining inhibitions” about being himself on the ice, and that completely changed the public’s perception of him.

Weir has a lot to say about how gender and sexuality play out in the skating world, and none of it is good. Despite the fact that most Americans view figure skating as “the gayest sport in the universe,” or, as InfoMania’s Bryan Safi memorably put it, gayer than competitive ass-fucking, Weir observes that those within the sport, “rail against that image.” As a result, “homosexual skaters are terrified of announcing or showing any signs of their sexual orientation since the judges, many of whom are gay themselves, will hold it against them… Even skating in a ‘feminine’ way tantamount in their rule book to declaring yourself gay.” He doesn’t have much love for the mainstream press, either, which he views as rather homophobic. After he debuted The Swan, he writes, the press stopped describing him as “artistic” or “elegant,” and almost uniformly used the word “flamboyant.” “The sexual connotations of the word annoyed me because sex, as much as I might enjoy it, has nothing to do with how I skate,” he writes. “But even more than that, it implied a lack of seriousness and I was just as serious as any skater out there, just not as boring.”

He might be just as serious as any other athlete out there, but he lacks the kind of sportsmanship we expect from athletes. At the Russian Grand Prix in 2002, he faked sick and refused to compete because the USFSA wouldn’t let him wear the costume he wanted to wear. At a competition in Paris a few years later, the USFSA asked him to let another American skater stay in his hotel room, and Weir kicked the poor guy out while he was still dripping wet from the shower. At another competition, he fell at the start of his program and faked an injury to cover the mistake. When his coach, the woman who had trained him since the first time he set foot on an ice rink, caught him smoking and reprimanded him, his response was to say “Fuck you,” and walk away. And this is the Weir-approved version of events, the one he wants us to know about. It’s hard to look past this kind of behavior, no matter how talented and thrillingly transgressive Weir might be.

Weir insists that he is both an artist and an athlete. For an artist, the tantrums, the selfishness and bratty behavior, and the wholehearted embrace of the title of “Enfant Terrible” might be acceptable. It’s the kind of thing we expect from artistic types, as an unfortunate by-product of their creative genius. For an athlete, though, they simply aren’t acceptable. We expect more of athletes. There were moments in this book when I was rooting for Weir, thrilled by his refusal to conform to the kind of masculinity that was demanded by the USFSA or by American culture. When he described the moment he realized he was gay, and his first kiss, and went after the culture of homophobia within the sport, I loved him. When he described, seemingly proudly, how he threw a Team USA jacket on the ground and walked over it in his skates, or made excuses for a botched performance, I felt my respect for him slipping.

Weir is most likely finished with competitive skating (though recently, he’s been suggesting that he might try to make the 2014 team and compete for the US in Sochi, Russia). These days, he seems to be devoting himself less to athletics and more to artistry, dipping into the fashion world and planning a stage spectacular that will feature dancing and singing as well as skating. That means more time for gender bending fashion spreads and skating programs that aren’t judged by any federation and can therefore be as out-there as he wants. Personally, I’m hoping for a comeback, and it’s clear that Weir, who calls Russia is second home, would love to compete on Olympic ice in Russia. Then again, if he’s done with the sport, at least he’ll no longer have the chance to demonstrate his near total lack of sportsmanship.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 24, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I see your point about Weir sometimes displaying a lack of sportsmanship. However, I think we raise the bar way too high for our athletes, and many of those who seem to be living up are in fact just not being honest. (Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Bret Favre, etc make Weir look pretty good.) Weir is refreshingly honest, and many of his transgressions seemed to have occurred when he was very young– 18 to 21 or so. As you say, if Weir was an artist, or even a ballet dancer, he wouldn’t be held to such impossible standards. In his book, he admits that much of this behavior was “stupid” or showed “incredible hubris.” He won’t say he regrets anything, but he learns from his mistakes. And although his lows can be quite low, his highs are extraordinary. The maturity and self-awareness he shows during interviews, speaking to fans, and giving speeches and press conferences (the famous post-Olympic one, anyway) is impressive for a 26-year-old. I think he’s still growing and maturing. I’m interested to watch his journey continue.

  2. Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I strongly disagree with holding athletes to a higher standard. We don’t hold athletes to a higher standard, especially professional athletes. The examples above all show how athletes are no better than anyone else and just because you are really good at a sport does not make you some sort of role model for others.

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