Something that highlights the difference between men and women even more than partisan politics is often how they’re depicted. Sensory synecdoches such as grunting, a sound commonly heard at gyms, during sex or in action sequences come from men, and rarely anyone else.
Take, for example, generic superhero films. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s showdown, Ben Affleck’s Batman painfully grunts six times. Superman: four grunts. Female superheroes, in comparison, are often far more quiet. Throughout the DC franchises, Wonder Woman lacks the verbal exertions of her male counterparts, bar one battle in her namesake blockbuster where she also grunts four times as she slices through her enemies. Marvel’s Black Widow, on the other hand, remains strong but silent in her fight scenes. One reason for this, as Dr. Bruce Isaacs, a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Sydney believes, is that not all superheros are created equal.
While entertainment companies are slowly variating representations of minorities, archaic signposts of gender traditions remain the same “Hollywood is a patriarchal institution, it always has been,” Dr. Isaacs reflects.
“The grunt thing seems to me to have a connotation of something animalistic or primitive and “it’s definitely more common to have the idea of strength and violence associated with men,” he says.
To further understand the primitive roots of grunting, USyd linguistics professor Nick Enfield says the noise is associated with larger animals, since “you couldn’t really say a kitten grunted.” He says that grunting is made possible by a combination of having lungs and a large body. So women with larger bodies grunt too, but perhaps the reason women don’t grunt as often is because it’s just something that we don’t see ourselves doing consciously or subconsciously while exerting force, and that’s because of societal expectations of women.
Michigan Institute of Technology Professor Shigeru Miyagawa’s 2015 research finds that grunts or non-linguistic sounds were not something human ancestors used as a form of communication. Rather, there was another system that developed language as we know it today.
Research from Rockerfeller University suggests that for the vervet monkey, different grunts communicate specific needs, depending on the situation, the body, and their pitch. The same can be said about other aspects of human life.
Sophie* used to be a full time sex worker but changed her line of work to erotic massage parlours, sometime last year. Reflecting on her time in the industry, she says that “the closer a guy is to orgasm, the more they will grunt, and become much more vocal.” While it is hard to pin exact figures, Sophie believes that 90 percent of the 300 clients she’d spoken to since 2017 grunted during sex.
When clients hold her from behind, simulating sex as she leans on the massage table, they grunt a lot more. “I think a lot of it has to do with… asserting dominance, because you don’t get it from women,” Sophie observes. However, the opposite stands true when her male clients don’t feel in control: “When you have a man laid down, facing upwards, it doesn’t seem to happen as much… I’m standing up and they know they’re not in a power position at that point.”
Grace Sharkey, a lecturer on Bodies, Sexualities and Identities at the University of Sydney, agrees. “It’s safe to say that men are considered to be more dominating in relationships than women”, and expanding thought into general existence, points to feminist theory that stipulates “men have power over women even if they want it or don’t want it, or know they have it”.
Similarly, men and women are socialised in different ways, and “men grunt more than women not so much because men have to but because women are told not to.”
It gets trickier in situations where the body is pushed to the limit, such as the mocked noises from star tennis players at grand slam tournaments. Quan Tran, an instructor at Fitness Playground in Surry Hills, says “grunting is basically trying to get exertion out of your body”. He’s noticed that grunts are more common at powerlifting gyms, but “if you’re grunting that much you’re probably not lifting right.”
For the sound of grunting to be distracting, regardless of context, it must take up some aural space, just as ‘manspreading’ takes up physical room—both are ways to express how we occupy our bodies, according to Sharkey. It’s a noise of force.
Sharkey says “I think that it’s a combination of two things: men are grunting in those spaces in part to perform a certain kind of masculinity… and women don’t because it’s an unfeminine thing to do.”
Grunting is both a natural phenomenon, and a socialised expectation that works to favour some groups over others. It is an aural expression of control, yet also release. Despite its paradoxical nature, grunting shouldn’t necessarily be gendered. Perhaps the essential nature of what it is to be a woman needs another update wherein we are depicted like real humans, with real lungs rather than benchmarks for the ideal damsel. And maybe men don’t always need to be shown as muscular machos who have it all when they’re exerting some force. Yet, for those out of the heteronormative bubble, depictions are a whole other discussion altogether.
*Name has been changed.