The Rise of the Jerk in Tights
A guy with a couple of decades of office avoirdupois pumps up on his $3,000 touring bike, sporting about $500 worth of highly flammable stretch material in 15 garish colors, covered with the logos of his “sponsors.”
“Passing on the left,” he quacks as he goes by on the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride. Then, nearly missing me, he cranks his head around and yells, “I SAID, PASSING ON THE LEFT!”
He’s beyond reach. No need to get flustered over a dude posing as Lance Armstrong. But another passes, and another, and it dawns on me that not one of these cyclists is wearing civilian dress—that the jerk in tights (JIT) is not the exception, but the rule.
From an historical perspective, a street full of JITs is an insignificant detail in the big picture—a conservative era in America, characterized by consumer culture, class stratification, corporate crime, high unemployment, evangelical Christianity, isolationism, terrorism, militarism, supply-side economics, and an Emperor who was high-chaired to power by his father, elected to office by a conservative Supreme Court and maintained in power by voter suppression and voting fraud. The historical perspective is summary, comprehensive, assimilative of cause and effect. The JIT, however, is a cultural manifestation, an experience that, in all its specificity, seems historically irrelevant. But is it?
When I was a kid in the 70s, the bicycle was an indispensable mode of transportation. Spaces were vast and forms of public transportation practically nonexistent. Yet in my everyday use of the bicycle, I can’t recall seeing a cyclist wearing a helmet. Even a friend of my parents, who was, in fact, a professional cyclist, often biked to our house wearing neither helmet nor sponsor-plastered team jersey. She might have worn them at her training camp in the Sierra Nevadas or while actually competing at lower altitudes, but how would the general public have known? Something has changed, because it is now commonplace to wear pro-cycling gear and tout the Snapple logo when your only relation the Snapple Corporation was your use of its product to lubricate Tuesday’s goat-cheese-and-avocado sandwich.
When the idiosyncratic becomes commonplace, it does so because it is acceptable. In the case of the JIT, one finds none of the sexual rejection, under-the-breath ridicule, and would-that-I-could-kick-your-ass-with-impunity glares that usually attend adult indulgences of comic-book fantasies in public. Do you see guys driving around in Batmobiles? Why not? Because that kick ain’t worth the one their asses would get. Meanwhile, thousands are imitating Lance Armstrong—gay men in strings of four or five, pumping arse-to-nostril with autonomic precision, straight people in matching in outfits, shouting directions as if recreation were the execution of a life-altering agenda: “Cut right at the overpass, fifty yards, left at the bridge!” No, there is simply no social deterrent against the JIT.
Fitness, which has hitherto justified a plethora of public displays of exhaustion (PDEs), does not adequately account for the preponderance of the JIT on America’s roads and bike paths. PDE buffs aren’t picky about whether they sweat through Lycra or Spandex, a rash of florescence or plain gray, so long as they sweat and the public knows it. But the JIT, though he or she may sweat profusely at times, seems to be more intensely focused on looking like a bass pro’s open tackle box. Furthermore, if the purported objective of the PDE is longevity, the JIT’s motives must lie elsewhere. I mean, who in their right mind would misconstrue obstructing traffic and clipping complete strangers on America’s most dangerous roads and sidewalks as the path to longevity? One must, therefore, leave the PDE, that purgatory of pain and redundancy, to those who practice it on stationary torture-rack-like contraptions in front of floor-to-ceiling windows.
Thorstein Veblen’s explanation of the prevalence of the JIT would probably suggest a motive of pecuniary display. Indeed, a Capitol Hill attorney in $7,000 worth of pro-cycling trumpery would make an excellent icon of superfluous expenditure. For only after spawning to a certain level of the financial fish ladder could anyone expect to exhibit such freedom of waste. Have you ever seen a poor immigrant, his genitals stuffed into iridescent-green stretch shorts, trolling his package up and down the aisles of Whole Foods? That’s a privilege for those who can afford it. But The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen’s definitive treatise on pecuniary display, only offers an essential motive behind the prevalence of the JIT. A more contemporary, qualitative analysis is needed to address the particular form of this pecuniary pretense—that is, flagrant posturing as a sports celebrity.
A guy in his mid-30s enacting a tour-de-France victory in public is very much like a guy taking his inflatable Pamela Anderson love doll to dinner. It’s something you don’t want the kids to see—not because it’s evil, but because it leaves you at a loss for an explanation. The media is not entirely exempt from blame for this bizarre public role-playing. In the May 12, 2003 issue of the New Yorker I came across an ad for the Subaru Outback. The page was divided in two—the top half featuring a photo of Lance Armstrong, teeth clenched, muscles flexed, pedaling right at you in a mania to conquer, and the bottom half featuring the SUV hybrid. Poised in the center of the page was a quote, which I assume came out of the pro’s mouth: “If you’re tough enough, every road seems flat.” It’s the old personal-relativity angle that most advertisers use to tenderize the guilty-but-self-indulgent nouveaux riche—the reality-is-all-inside-you scam. Like Bush’s juxtaposition of tax cuts and jobs, the old arbitrary association was there—in this case, between vehicular toughness, Lance’s toughness, and your toughness. Unfortunately, association of proximity is not association of causation: Bush is not rewarding the rich to hire people and the Outback is a car, not a bike.
Still, the JITs are biting. And their obtuse and puerile enactments of hero worship via the acquisitive means of the adult are doing wonders for the economy. I fear that if these superfluous spenders were to suddenly grow up and become sensible, America’s business model would collapse. So maybe I ought to be grateful to the advertising, sports and media industries for fostering this delusional impulse buying, credit-card debt and acquisitiveness—even thank Lance Armstrong for a far more effective extrapolation into jobs than any tax cut for the rich has been.
Yet there are some major drawbacks to widespread poseurism. Though entertaining when taken to extremes by an individual (e.g., Catch Me If You Can), phoniness cuts the connection between form and function, letting form drift into the zone of the arbitrary and tacky. For those of you who doubt this effect, I entreat you to go to your local bike shop and try to buy a plain, white helmet. You’ll find an array of aerodynamic dunce caps, of foiled, finned, beaked, ribbed and corrugated sauceboats in glittering purple and chartreuse—the sort of esthetic that appeals to the appetite of the largemouth bass. That the adult homo erectus must buy these things and wear them in public is like a preëmptive strike on esthetic maturity.
We know that children go after the sweet and bright because they haven’t undergone the mellowing effects of age. But in kids we expect increasingly complicated and mixed thoughts and sentiments to mitigate their susceptibility to balls-out corneal assault. Just as their appetite for savory food will supercede the narrow universe of the sweet, so their taste for the lyrical complexity of, say, Scarlatti, should supercede their taste for the next bad-ass motherfucker and his drum machine. We expect that they will grow to prefer the bold yet muted tones of Titian to the Nike logo pulsing on an iridescent blue buttock. Or is that a wish-case scenario? Anyhow, when little boys carry around plastic phaser guns and give each other the Vulcan salute, we accept it because we’re convinced that it will not persist into their twenties, or worse, their forties. And when it does persist, we take it out with one of those happy drugs they prescribe nowadays for an ever increasing array of psychosocial abnormalities. What, then, is the JIT’s excuse? Is it that, in all other respects, the JIT is considered a developmentally normal adult? Or is it that the JIT, when threatened, gets litigious?
These mock-heroes manifest a certain unfulfilled desire for potency that adult complexities have not yet mitigated. They also reflect an empire’s rut for omnipotence, as manifest in the individual heroic poseur—like Caligula doing his gladiator bit. It goes without saying that a society of these insecure potency poseurs living out their grade-school fantasies on America’s roads does not provide for increased safety. And though they may be keeping the economy afloat, they have turned our public spaces into battlegrounds of Dacron, Lycra, Teflon, Kevlar, Spandex, and the logos of the corporations who sponsor the world’s most powerful politicians. In this latter respect, which is the most frightening one, the rise of the JIT is not at all historically irrelevant.
- Jan DiVincenzo
© Copyright 2005, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.