Feminizing female athletes

13 September 2010

When it comes to diagnosing our crazy, conflicted relationship to powerful women, what better subject than female athletes?  These women can kick just about anyone’s ass, yet somehow discussion of their talent now has to include catty comments about their clothes and personalities.  Some athletes themselves seem to get caught up in this, wearing tight designer dresses and improbably small bikinis when playing their sports, makeup, and distracting nail polish, as if to feminize their hard muscles, aggression, and athletic superiority.         

Case in point:  Caroline Wozniacki’s US Open dress (designed by Stella McCartney!) was so tight that it persisted in riding up her butt during each point, requiring vigorous tugging down afterward.  Did it occur to no one that she needed to play tennis in this dress, because she is a world-class athlete, not a pretty plaything?  I vote that McCartney be banned from designing athletes’ dresses until she can be bothered to show that women can move while wearing them.  I became so annoyed by this display that I vented on the phone to a friend that if it’s all about pleasing male TV viewers, they should just make all women tennis players wear bikinis, as in beach volleyball.

But although that comment was intended to be a joke, it wasn’t a joke to the Olympics in 1994 and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) in 1999, which passed rules that female beach volleyball players had to wear bikinis of a certain skimpiness, while men wore baggy shorts and sometimes t-shirts.  That rule seems to have been relaxed in recent years due to vigorous objections by various international teams.  During the height of this controversy a few competitors, most notably Holly McPeak, shilled for the FIVB by insisting these “uniforms” are both practical and comfortable, but most admit it’s about drawing a large TV audience of men.  Really, “comfortable”? 

And then there’s the makeup, which for me is most objectionable on the girls who participate in international gymnastics.  It’s not just that the makeup and sparkles in their hair makes me wonder what ranking these competitions have amongst pedophiles (whose other favorite show might well be “Little Miss Perfect,” the reality TV show about pre-pubescent girls’ beauty contests).  It’s that these diminutive girl gymnasts are getting the message that if you’re going to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to girl-ify yourself — but for whom?  The judges?  The TV audience?  Please tell me they’ll keep bikinis off gymnasts, at least. 

Finally — and most revealing — are those female athletes who don’t play nice and prettify themselves, but embrace the fact that they’re blazing new ground for gender performance for all of us would-be tomboys.  There’s Brittney Griner, the sophomore basketball star from Baylor University, who decorates her own webpage with this (decidedly un-girlie) photo showing off her 6’8″ lankiness.  If I were to read the message of this photo, I’d say it tells us that she’s going to be sexy on her own damn terms.  (Ahem:  it’s working.)  Yet just last winter the New York Times put an entire article in its sports section asking a series of designers and modeling agents how they might prettify Griner.

Finally — and perhaps most special to my heart — there’s Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner and winner of the gold medal in the 800 meter race at the 2009 World Championships.  After winning last summer, she was forced to undergo a series of tests — mysterious ones at first, as they didn’t explain to her what was going on — to determine whether she was really female.  Despite worldwide controversy over this incident, it took the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) almost a year to clear her for competition.  (Nota bene: when she was finally cleared, she immediately won two races in Finland.)  Despite having undergone perhaps the most  excruciating and potentially career-killing gender scrutiny of all, Semenya’s race appearances show her to be the super-human being she is.  She’s all about streamlined power and muscles.  I’m sorry, TV viewers, if that doesn’t seem quite feminine enough for you.  Women’s sports doesn’t have to be a site for confirming mainstream notions of femininity, much less pornified notions.  So let me suggest you just get over it.  

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4 Responses to “Feminizing female athletes”

  1. Hattie Says:

    Wow. Great post.
    I’m linking, of course.

  2. JE Says:

    Oh, don’t get me started on the beach volleyball. In the 2002 Athens games, NBC (in its regular non-cable TV broadcasts) seemed to play nothing but women’s beach volleyball (and Michael Phelps). Every once in a while we’d get about 10 seconds of some other sport, then it’d be back to the bikinis.

    Hooray for Griner! I hope she keeps up the good fight.

    There have been a couple magazines or newspapers that produced Semenya makeover photo shoots. Because heaven forbid someone doesn’t conform to gender types. Google “Semenya makeover” if you want to get really REALLY depressed.

    • didion Says:

      “Makeover”? JE is right — Semenya seems to have gotten caught in the “don’t worry, I’m very girly and therefore won’t challenge your masculinity!” mental space that apparently women need to be in all the time. Let’s hope she’s out of it now, at least insofar as it’ll allow her to win more races. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that stories like this aren’t satirical, like some perverse all-gender version of The Onion. Oh, if only The Onion would do a story about Glenn Beck’s need for a makeover.

      The worst thing about the bikini/beach volleyball issue is that it’s actually not that bad to watch, and excruciatingly hard to play. But dammit if the bikinis don’t muddle the athleticism entirely.

  3. HassanAli Says:

    You are calling Semenya a “super-human” when the simple truth is that she has enormous hormonal advantages over her female competitors. The South African athletics officials knew before Berlin that she would come under heavy scrutiny and they had serious questions about her gender themselves.

    But the allure of a gold medal for South Africa was too much for them to resist. The “mysterious tests” you allude to were conducted in South Africa prior to the World Championships. The subsequent IAAF tests weren’t mysterious at all.

    A report leaked in September 2009 showed that she has internal testes but no womb or ovaries. Her voice is low-pitched and her muscle build and bone structure are completely unmatched by any other female 800m runner, even Maria Mutola.

    Her progress in racing times has been absurd. They only make sense if you compare her to boys of the same age with similar limited running experience who suddenly start a tough training regimen. Her running style is highly masculine and at times she displays weird running patterns to the point where it seems like she is holding back to not beat the opponents by too wide a margin or set too fast a time.

    In the first stories about her, it was revealed that she went to school in a boy’s uniform and that people were surprised when she started competing against girls. So much for the revisionist spin that she always identified as a girl – now that greed and nationalism have taken over.

    I’m not implying that she has the full advantage of a man participating in women’s sports, but she does have a rare gender anomaly that makes it unfair for her to compete against other women. Hardly anything to celebrate.

    Interestingly, you fail to mention that a magazine asked her to do a makeover to make her looks more feminine – something which she claimed to enjoy.

    This was of course designed to quell some of the criticism and help her case with the IAAF who eventually cleared her to run without explaining why. However, one of their experts made the blanket statement that someone identifying as a girl before puberty should be cleared to compete as a female in cases such as this – not taking into proper account the hugely unfair innate advantages present in Caster Semenya’s case.

    You observations about Wozniacki’s dress I find prudish seeing that she has biker shorts underneath. Maybe it was poorly designed, but sexy and comfortable are not mutually exclusive. Less fabric will usually be advantageous in a wide array of sports. Looking at her statements, Wozniacki is one of many female and male tennis players who enjoy looking sexy and attractive on court.

    You seem to imply that there’s a double standard where only the women are expected and pushed to be sexy. If you followed men’s tennis to any extent, you would know that sex appeal is also a huge part of it. Nadal’s tight shorts and sleeveless shirts are an ingrained part of his image. Marat Safin was perhaps not the most successful player, but hugely popular due to his looks, while someone like Davydenko is virtually ignored.

    Brittney Griner? Yes, she was certainly blazing new ground when she viciously assaulted an opponent and broke her nose. Maybe it’s a little unfair to bring this up, but you seem to imbue her with a lot of positive traits due to her masculine appearance. However, I doubt that extends into her violent macho rage displayed on court.

    I really can’t grasp why you have a problem with beachvolley attire either. The women have perfectly normal clothes for a beach sport. Take swimming for instance. Before the revolution in high-tech swimwear, men would usually wear nothing but a tiny pair of swim trunks. This was perhaps the most revealing attire in all of sports, yet I can’t recall anyone making an issue if it. Because it was perfectly fitting for the sport.

    Yes, the female volleyball players certainly display feminine curves in their bikinis, but they are after all playing a sport on the beach. I don’t think any male players would object to a change in their attire to make it more sexy.

    Sex appeal just happens to be a big part of that sport – if not every sport. Buy why is that a problem? You think that a guy or a girl admiring a woman for her beauty can’t admire her athleticism and skill at the same time?

    It baffles me that feminists frequently side with religious fundamentalists when it comes to views on sports clothing. Tennis player Sania Mirza from India has been condemned for playing in a skirt as it was deemed too revealing. Much like Wozniacki, she is just a young, confident woman who enjoys looking pretty and athletic at the same time. And, lo and behold, even sexy.


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