‘White Collar Brawlers’: A Journey Into the Pathos of Modern Masculinity

White Collar Brawlers. It sounds like one of those fake reality TV shows from The Simpsons, like When Buildings Collapse or America’s Funniest Tornadoes, but it’s real — in fact, it premiered on Esquire‘s manly new cable channel last night. The show is exactly what its name suggests: two white-collar dudes punching the shit out of one another in a boxing ring. As a sort of comment on the conflict between traditional notions of masculinity and the sedentary, emasculating lives many men lead these days, it’s almost too perfect, so much so that your correspondent couldn’t help watching the show to see if it’s as ridiculous and/or fascinating as it sounds. The short answer: yes.

The premise of White Collar Brawlers is pretty simple: two Wall Street bros who have differences they’re too stubborn/headstrong/egotistical to settle by, y’know, talking about them instead resort to good old-fashioned violence. As far as the series’ first episode goes, in the red corner we have the pleasant but rather ineffectual Ryan, and in the blue corner we have the smug, egotistical, and utterly charmless Andrew. They work together at some sort of finance company, they used to live together, it all went sour, and now they hate one another enough to want to duke it out. They get six weeks of boxing training, and then they get thrown into the ring together to settle once and for all who’s the better salesman and who’s at fault for getting screwed over by the subletter at their old apartment. Or something.

There are many, many questions raised by all this: what sort of employer would let two employees attempt to beat one another senseless? (The duo’s boss appears on screen briefly, suggesting, “If the one thing Ryan takes away from this experience is to be more focused, it’s good for him and good for this company,” and reminding me again how happy I am to NEVER WORK FOR THIS SORT OF ASSHOLE AGAIN.) What sort of public liability does this require? And how is this actually a real show?

And yet, and yet. Unexpectedly, perhaps, there’s something perversely compelling about the spectacle. For a start, there’s the fact that Andrew is such a prize 24-carat dick that despite yourself, you find yourself hoping that Ryan gives him a good beating. (Spoiler: he does. Yay!) The show uses the sort of tightly packaged, emotionally manipulative formula that producers have perfected over the years — this is the kind of show you start watching on a plane because nothing else is on and, despite the fact that you know it’s stupid, you nevertheless find yourself staying in your seat once you’ve landed while everyone else is filing down the aisles, just to see who won. Reality TV is good at this stuff; even if your objective reasoning tells you a show is beyond stupid, that show can still deftly manipulate your emotional pressure points to keep you watching.

In this respect, White Collar Brawlers is like many other reality shows that have debuted in recent years: based around an outlandish principle, and capable of acting as a guilty pleasure. But beyond this, there’s something intriguing about this show: namely, the ideas it presents about masculinity. There’s clearly an appetite for this sort of fightin’-and-brawlin’ stuff — cf. the popularity of MMA, for instance, or the eternal supply of action movies and martial arts movies, etc… and, of course, Fight Club, which is what this show most closely resembles. But where does this appetite come from?

One of the most pernicious gender-role conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries (in first-world societies, at least) has been the decline of physicality as a way to define a man’s role in the world. The sharp reduction of jobs requiring manual labor — due to a combination of industrialization, automation, and outsourcing — means that there’s been a shift in what’s required of men to exist in this world. And for many, it’s been a traumatic shift — some of the most bitter labor disputes of the late 20th century revolved around the closure of factories and other traditional outlets for a man’s physical labor. (The Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire, for instance, once spoke movingly of seeing miners left out of work after the closure of the pits in Wales trying to retrain as call center workers, their calloused fingers too big and rough to punch the buttons properly.)

Suddenly, it’s better to be smart than it is to be strong; traditional perceptions of what it means to Be A Man, however, haven’t caught up with this shift. They’re still defined by traditional metrics whereby strong men are to be admired and weaklings to be ridiculed; these days, we assert our superiority through our capacity to metabolize alcohol, or know a great deal about football, or other such things. But the thing is, none of this is actually a great deal of use. The result is a conflict between different, equally powerful conceptions of what men should be. As Joe Jackson observed in “Real Men,” this conflict ultimately results in paralysis: “Time to get scared/ Time to change plan/ Don’t know how to treat a lady, don’t know how to be a man/ Time to admit/ What you call defeat/ ‘Cause there’s women running past you now and you just drag your feet.”

And into the midst of the gender-related mess wade our plucky pugilists, each trying to assert his own primacy over the other. They’re pretty typical dudes — they both work out and they’re both in decent shape, but it looks like neither has ever shoveled sand or pushed a wheelbarrow in his life. They both seem to exist in the perpetual adolescence so characteristic of men these days — there’s one pretty telling scene toward the start of the episode where Ryan’s interviewed in his sparsely furnished apartment, and all you can see on the coffee table are a couple of PlayStation controllers. Andrew, meanwhile, treats his girlfriend with an odiously petulant sense of entitlement, complaining that he doesn’t want her to move to California to go to grad school because, well, it’s no good for him. (At no point does the idea of giving up his job and following her there seem to occur to him.)

The show’s setup presents their rivalry as a classic contest to see who’s top dog; these days they’re sniping at each other about bonuses, whereas a couple of thousand years ago they’d have been whacking each other with clubs to see who got to marry the chieftain’s daughter. Only, there’s no resolution in their politely contemptuous verbal attempts to one-up one another — and so, along comes White Collar Brawlers, offering them a way to work things out once and for all, the old-fashioned way.

Part of the fascination of the show is their eagerness to buy into this idea. (Early in the show, Andrew says, straight out, “I want to put my fist in [Ryan’s] face.”) There’s a sense that this is the True Way that men resolve questions of primacy, and their boxing match is a way to remove the constraints of modern life (legality, societal disapproval, simple common sense) that prevent them from doing so. In leaving their air-conditioned office for the boxing gym, they step out of the modern world into a more primal environment, where men are men, and women cheer admiringly from the sidelines.

The duo’s initial boxing training finds them stumbling their way into the roles they both clearly want to inhabit: they’re clumsy, they’re clearly intimidated by the people around them, but they both do their best to fit in, to look like they belong. And sure enough, as the weeks go on, they begin to look more comfortable, bantering with their trainers, fumbling through their initial sparring bouts, exulting in their developing skills, apparently deriving a real sense of self-worth from being able to throw a right hook or a decent jab.

The show presents this journey as a sort of inner progress toward Manhood. When we get to the climactic fight, Ryan says to the camera that he’s “excited to get in the ring and see what I’m made of,” while Andrew sneers that “Ryan’s going to lose and he’s probably going to cry at the end.” Y’know, like a girl. As it turns out, Ryan wins in a split decision, but that’s almost beside the point; after the fight, Andrew’s trainer sits with him in the dressing room, and says, “I’m proud of you. You started taking your own blame. Before I met you, it was always your girlfriend, or your mother, or someone else. And halfway through the [training] session, you decided to man up.”

Man up. The implication is that both men went into the ring as soft, white-collar office types; they came out Real Men, melted down in the crucible of physical combat and reforged into strong, self-reliant adults. We’re even given the sense that this has some sort of real-world utility; the two combatants embrace, their grievances apparently forgotten, and the victor speaks glowingly of how his triumph will somehow augment his ability to sell whatever it is he sells: “What I think I’ll take from this experience is from working hard toward and giving it 100% comes confidence, and from confidence comes success.”

It’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as a sort of idiot macho fantasy. The whole idea that these guys couldn’t just work out their differences like civilized human beings, and that instead it took them six weeks of intense training and the risk of brain damage or death to do so, presents a pretty retrograde idea of masculinity. You might argue that Real Men would have just gone out for a drink or something and talked through whatever it was that was bothering them, and you’d essentially be right — part of maturity is not acting like a jumped-up adolescent, and Andrew, in particular, spends most of the show acting like a spoiled child who’s always been told he’s the best at everything.

And yet. White Collar Brawlers, intentionally or not, does touch on some deeper points, because there is something primal and visceral and, yes, potentially violent in the Y chromosome. It generally manifests in harmless ways, of course — I can’t begin to count how many men I’ve worked with in offices who are at their happiest on weekends when they’re pursuing hobbies that would once have fallen under the rubric of manual labor: carpentry, gardening, etc. And, shit, I worked as a bricklayer’s laborer for two years — a hilarious occupation for a skinny writer who would struggle to bench press the bar, let alone any weights — and despite my manifest unsuitability for throwing bricks and mixing cement, I enjoyed it throughly. There’s something deeply satisfying about exhausting yourself physically, about being able to point at a wall that wasn’t there at 7 am and say, “That‘s what I did today.”

This is something, I think, that tends to make modern men uncomfortable. Those of us who reject the ideas embodied in something like White Collar Brawlers do so because we have an underlying belief that we’re in a more evolved state, that it’s notions of masculinity that have to evolve to reflect us, not us who have to devolve into brawling to prove ourselves as men. Objectively, of course, this is true.

But as the Delphic oracle said, “Know thyself.” And weirdly, both Andrew and Ryan are more likable by the end of the show. It appears the experience has done them good. What does it all mean? That’s open to interpretation, of course — but I have a curious feeling that just maybe I’ll tune in next week to see what happens with the next pair of Wall Street pugilists. It’s a strange business, this.