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.  

Un-fu¢king-believable.  The New York Times writes about Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 female basketball star at Baylor University, simply in terms of her attractiveness.  How does the author, Guy Trebay, make this into a news item?  By celebrating how female athletes are expanding our ideas about feminine beauty!  Yay, feminism!  Let’s look at his tally of feminist triumphs via women’s sports:

Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.

Now that you put it in such a sensitive manner, Trebay, I see more clearly how much women have succeeded in making thick thighs and an “Amazonian” physical presence completely mainstream.

Clearly, when presented with the topic of female athletes, our sole question should be:  am I attracted to them?  And thanks to Trebay, we know the answer is yes.  Never mind that Griner has an “attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features,” he attests; she’s gorgeous!  And he quotes a lot of model casting agents, stylists, and scouts to confirm that fact.

Thus, with our coltish legs and thick thighs, we resolutely take 10 big steps backward.  And I thought it was cool that Griner can dunk.