Gender Binarism and the Willful Abjection of the Traceur

By Andy Tran. Despite Parkour culture recognizing that Parkour itself is a means of locomotion for all able-bodied human beings, regardless of sex, there has been no attempt at deconstructing...

By Andy Tran.

Despite Parkour culture recognizing that Parkour itself is a means of locomotion for all able-bodied human beings, regardless of sex, there has been no attempt at deconstructing the dichotomies of gender within the sport. These binaries are the very obstacles that lead to the gross male overrepresentation in the discipline and the deterrence of women from participation. As with any subculture and counterculture, the structuring of the community is a microcosm of the hegemonic dominant culture. And because the workings of hegemonic cultural values are so democratic insofar as they receive the subconscious support of the public, they will always feed directly into any subculture that does not take the time to deconstruct its own values. In this paper, I will be assessing the gender constructions of dominant culture that apply to Parkour, as well as what has become inherent in Parkour to counter the gender binaries of dominant culture. By deconstructing gender binaries as they apply to Parkour, the Parkour practitioner can be seen as an abject body in liminal state – a being who willingly accepts being “in-between” all possible binaries and boundaries of dominant culture as a statement. The traceur is an agent of the public, reclaiming private space for the public, and standing as a testament to the social construction of gender by becoming decidedly genderless.

Parkour is a methodology that involves the mapping of the psychological landscape. It is, in its own way, an evolution of Guy DeBord’s thoughts and his Situationism. While the Situationist’s derive explored the city’s architecture within the confinement of the laid out paths, he still mapped the landscape based upon his own intuition, rather than allow the described map lead his feet. It is here that Situationism and Parkour most significantly intersect, as traceurs map the urban geography based upon spontaneous intuition, as well. Additionally, both Situationism and Parkour reclaim the urban geography from privatized spheres into public. Where Parkour steps away from Situationism is in its active pursuit of moving upon liminal spaces in the public sphere. Situationists resign on navigating through conventional spaces for movement, albeit remapping these spaces, whereas traceurs navigate spaces that are “between” those conventional spaces. Traceurs move upon rails, barricades, borders, walls, etc. These liminal spaces, often-invisible barriers to the public, become realized as spaces where movement actually is possible. Traceurs are inherently agents of the public, not only prescribing new maps to pre-existing geographies, but also standing as attestations that space, even in liminality, belongs to the public.

However, the traceuse, or female Parkour practitioner, stands as a particular statement about this psychogeography. She is not only an agent of the public, but an agent of the feminine. While she brings private space into public consciousness, she also contributes to bringing in more traceuses. Her very existence testifies that women have claim to public space, as well. This is significant only because her traditional role, according to the dominant culture, rests almost exclusively in the private sphere – the domestic sphere. Her movement is expected to rest within the walls of the domestic. Her movement belongs to the gym. There are thousands of Yoga and Pilates classes available, and yet she is confined by no walls, no class structure, no teacher. Rather than be subservient to roles that have been thrust upon her, she defies. The traceuse chooses a path that allows her to be both free and capable of accepting a role as master, rather than student or servant. She becomes master of her body as well as agent of the public. In short, the traceuse acquires agency.

The body is a cultural site, and Parkour maps out the geography of the body in particularly different ways, as well. While traceurs adamantly promote inclusion, stating that all people can practice Parkour, there are two types that are severely overrepresented in Parkour. The first is the extremely fit, which are more likely to appear in media. The second is the pale and frail body type most often associated with the “outsider” cliché of Western youth. These are typically the vast majority. As far as male practitioners go, if even all bodies can begin practicing Parkour, there is a slant. As with any athletic discipline, the body must be changed, must be altered and remapped, as to promote health and peak performance. The peculiar effect of this is that the thinner practitioners, who sport a much more androgynous body, are rendered more masculine through the practice.

On the other side of this are the traceuses who practice. The dominant cultural paradigm for women is sedentary. Their fitness is regulated to treadmills, which stay in place, or Yoga or Pilates, which teach very slow and controlled movements, often stationary as well. A woman’s role, even in fitness, is immobile. And while the physique of a woman who becomes fit through a discipline like Yoga is, visually, similar to the physique that Parkour practice would deliver, the traceuse is often immediately stigmatized. She is seen as masculine, not because of her body, but because of her movement. To the spectactor, the traceuse’s musculature is unfeminine, and yet the gymnast or the trampolinist or aerobics participant maintains her femininity. The body of the traceuse, then, is a cultural site of cultural defiance not because of how it appears, but because it moves.

The practice of Parkour extends into the mental application of movements onto the external world. Traceurs promote two central ideas in Parkour: an inherent philosophy and an obligate altruism. Often, media portrayals will overlook these aspects, but when they are covered, it is much more frequently that the philosophic aspects are seen and the philanthropic are not. These two loves are integral to another gender binarism in Parkour: the love of knowledge has been historically a masculine trait while the love of fellow human has been historically feminine. Even in the regard of philosophy, Parkour has more of a spiritual philosophy compared to a pursuit of knowledge. All the same, a male practitioner may be forgiven that, with the masculinity of the philosophy upheld, whereas a traceuse speaking of the mental application of Parkour may be seen as being “spiritual.” Even regardless of the gender binary that exists, the classifying of Parkour’s mindset as “spiritual” can often be viewed as belittling, as it can be linguistically framed with trivializing connotations. All the same, philosophic pursuits are culturally engendered as masculine. Philosophy is an inherently competitive discipline that revolves around whose view of the world can most accurately describe the world or which view can most constructively (or most critically) prescribe itself onto the world.

The philosophy of Parkour is most certainly prescriptive. Theories prescribe intent onto Parkour itself at the same time as practices prescribe psychosocial geographies upon the existing landscape. This is active, competitive, and masculine. Given the male overrepresentation in the Parkour populace, it is not difficult to understand why this is the focus of media outlets. However, immersion into Parkour’s culture reveals less and less a focus on active prescriptive philosophies, and more and more a focus on descriptive philanthropy. The question is no longer “How can I move so as to express my opinion onto the canvas of the landscape?” but rather “How can I move so as to be useful? To be helpful?” Parkour is suddenly extremely dichotomous. It is always the will of the traceur to focus on the philosophic or the philanthropic, and because of this, the spectator who inspects carefully will see two Parkours. The first is immediately visible. It is the active and masculine Parkour that triumphantly and nonchalantly moves upon described geographies with its own prescriptions; the heroic agent of the public who reclaims private space. The second is the more passive and feminine Parkour that quietly and privately conditions for movement, but rarely engages in it. This feminine spirit of Parkour is the discipline’s altruist who prepares to aid others in solitude, no longer interested in the glamour of moving so actively for self-expression or countercultural statements. She is the other agent of the public who passively watches and prepares, but serves others in their time of need.

A practitioner of Parkour can find relief in both. Carl Jung, in The Psychology of the Unconscious, writes of two fundamental aspects of the developing psyche: the Animus and the Anima. These are engendered halves of a person and are often in tension. The Animus is the masculine aspect of the female psyche, and the Anima is the feminine aspect of the male psyche. Culture dictates that a male must be masculine, a female feminine, and so the balance between these aspects is lost over time and exposure to Western dominant culture. Jung theorizes that a male needs Anima to become whole, and that a female needs Animus. We must be aware and accept the other gender’s traits that exist within ourselves, rather than reject it as the dominant culture demands. If we follow these Jungian psychodynamics, then Parkour is a practice that consists of both Animus and Anima. The practitioner is free to appropriate either spirit. The traceur, then, can resolve hyper-masculine tension thrust upon him by dominant culture. The spectator may even still see a hyper-masculine athlete due to the dichotomous nature of Parkour, but there is internal resolution between Animus and Anima as the traceur accepts the feminine spirit of Parkour into his methodology. Simultaneously, the traceuse through Parkour can become more active, accepting the masculine spirit of Parkour. He can be her Animus, resolving for her the hyper-femininity expected of her through modern cultural values. As such, the practice of Parkour can certainly resolve psychodynamic tensions between the desire to balance the self (or to simply resolve Freudian complexes) and the pressure of the dominant culture to be typified as masculine or feminine.

However, this presents an interesting problem. If most traceurs and traceuses (as there will always be some who become more hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine respectively) find resolution between Animus and Anima, then what does the Parkour practitioner become? Practitioners willingly thrust upon themselves the title of “abject.” By recognizing the binaries of gender that exist within Parkour and accepting them, the Parkour practitioner becomes the ‘slash’ between “traceur/traceuse.” Is it desirable to become the abject? From a feminist perspective, Parkour may very well be one of the answers for Western culture. It is a radical thought: Become the /. The abject carries with it negative connotations, especially for the feminist as images of the “monstrous feminine” and “vagina dentate” surface. However, it is precisely the aim of Parkour and of the feminist agenda to allow people to become non-gendered entities. Chromosomal sex and the physiological differences therein are not ignored, but there becomes a window to entirely deconstruct the social construction of gender identities. Then, Parkour’s gender binarism, due to its unique nature, ultimately stands as a very particular counter-culture: rather than entirely dismiss gender, it resolves the tensions between them. The abjected traceur/euse becomes a testament to all spectators who care to look that gender is a social construction, and that we can all become the /.

Parkour has always existed in flux, however. The movement on liminal space is indicative of the inherent liminality of Parkour itself. It not only moves upon the boundaries of movable/usable space in a literal sense (moving upon walls, rails, and borders), but the space between what is qualified as private space and public space. Then, Parkour is a deconstructive commentary on dialectics between human and environment. It is a natural progression that Parkour also deconstructs gender binaries. The risk of the willing abject is that, being neither subject nor object, the abject is placed beneath the gaze, othered, and rendered object. The gaze is repulsed by the abject. Dominant culture is repulsed by the androgynous traceur, and so masculinizes practitioners regardless of sex, and disregarding the feminine characteristics of Parkour. By throwing out Parkour’s Anima, the camera gaze is free to project its will upon the object. The risk of Parkour is that even in its attempt to deconstruct gender as social construction, it becomes a spectacle. It is appropriated by consumer culture and repackaged as a spectacle. And at this point, the Anima dissolves entirely. The gaze glazes over the androgynous, over the majority of practitioners, and fixates on the hypermasculine. Within the Parkour community itself, however, is a conscious effort to reject the camera gaze. The inclusive nature of Parkour, its willingness to bring every human being into its fold, comes with the ability to project the intra-diegetic gaze outwardly. The spectator, then, becomes the traceur. And then, the traceur becomes the ‘slash.’

Parkour itself is the ‘slash.’ This occurs both in the practice – specifically in the manner in which the practice interprets and deconstructs spatial boundaries – and in the very nature of being a traceur. Parkour is composed of two spirits – Animus and Anima – that work in tandem rather than oppose each other. There is no “opposite” sex or gender, just other. The binaries in Parkour complement each other. They act as the resolving counterparts to the female and male psyches respectively. Practitioners of Parkour are then capable of resolving developmental conflicts that arise from the binarism of dominant culture. The male feminizes himself by introducing culturally feminine characteristics and beliefs, such as that of philanthropy. The female masculinizes herself by engaging in what is viewed as a culturally masculine activity, being physical and active sport that engages in agency in the public sphere. On a cultural level, Parkour produces abject citizens; agents of the public, but not members of the public. At the risk of being othered or retaining the abject’s normal negative connotations, the traceur willingly accepts upon him/herself the state of being in-between. Because of this, the mere existence of the traceur acts as a form of resistance against dominant culture.

DeBord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, New York : 1995.

Jung, Carl. The Psychology of the Unconscious.

Moffat, Yard and Company, New York : 1916.

This article was originally published with The International Experimental Cinema Exposition 2008′s Cine Parkour II exposition and supplement. Publisher: TIE. Paonia, Colorado

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