- Reviewed by
Artistic Impressions is an important book and a long-overdue contribution to the history of figure skating. Since limited scholarly attention has been paid to the 250-year history of artistic-skating, Mary Louise Adams has presented an especially detailed and layered analysis when compared to all previous skating histories. Clearly and concisely written, each page is filled with the building blocks of evidence that traces the transformation of an exclusive social custom of gentlemanly “grace” for proper eighteenth-century men into a modern twenty-first-century “performing art” for young “girls.”
The principal question asked throughout is “What happened to the men?” Adams’ clear compassion and love for ice-skating, and its male skaters, goes far beyond the standard feminist criticism of gendered sport, since by the end of the book she has made a convincing argument for an alternative masculinity rather than an alternative femininity. Readers will want to come to the aid of her argument that says we would do well to encourage more effeminacy in our culture. Who is not numb from the monotony of unnecessary violence in male sport? The shadow of deceased Canadian hockey “enforcer” Derek Boogaard in 2011 is a prime example of hyper-masculinity masquerading as sport that ruins the full beauty and art of men’s hockey.
Artistic Impressions is not a general history of figure skating but “a history that prioritizes gender—masculinity in particular” (p. 7). Immediately, the chapter “Tough Guys?” [End Page 325] sets the tone for the other chapters as Adams skillfully engages the reader with crafty descriptions of well-known “macho” Olympic skaters like Canadian Elvis Stojko. Throughout the book, Stojko is a key focus of comparison to those more effeminate male skaters who come later. By page 195, Stojko, now retired from competition, is criticizing the men’s 2010 Olympic gold medal event as “a recital” since it was noticeable for its lack of quad jumps. Silver medalist Evgeny Plushenko from Russia, fuming inside for losing to U.S. gold medalist Evan Lysacek, says, “Now it’s not men’s figure skating, now its dancing” (p. 195). The battle of the sexes seems like it is ready to heat up in the book, but the 1990s “macho turn” that initially motivated the study, thankfully became a short-lived phenomenon. Adams hopes that the lingering anxiety about skating’s effeminate reputation withers as well, predicting that “skating and figure skaters would be much better off if heteronormative expectations around gender stopped having such an important role in shaping” the sport (p. 237).
The heart of the book is rich in historical analysis of primary source data from chapter 3 “Girls’ Sport” to chapter 7 “Artistic Sport or Athletic Art.” They are too good to summarize and should be read by anyone expecting to be rewarded with the nuances of a subtle historical transformation. The final chapter 8 “Sequins, Soundtracks, and Spirals: Producing Gender Difference on the Ice” returns to the modern problem of how to remove the gender restrictions for both male and female skaters in the sport.
One reason figure skating has not generated a great deal of scholarly attention, argues Adams, is its modern reputation as a “girl’s sport.” Real male athletes are not attracted to a sport that requires they move gracefully and/or effeminately and are many times automatically presumed to be gay in popular culture. Mixing choreography with athleticism brands figure skating in North America with an effeminate conceptual image similar to its more commonly used European title, “artistic-skating.” Figure-skating does not easily fit into the common definition of sport. Its tradition uses classical music, odd costumes, sequins, and sometimes fancy feathers.
This tension between skating’s art/sport binary becomes the main battleground of discourse about the male skater who is elegant, effete, fey, and aesthetic, and the beautiful female skater who is naturally averse to participate in a sport contest that tries to “harden men.” When you add...