These are basically quotes from coverage of the women’s Wimbledon final match between Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki. I have never seen the word quirky used so frequently and so transparently as code for weird.

Marion-Bartoli-v-Flipkens_2967859For example, USA Today’s headline, “Quirky Wimbledon Deserves Quirky Winner in Marion Bartoli.” This article proclaims that “quirky is too easy a word to describe” Bartoli, but:

sometimes the easy word is the best word. Bartoli looks like Luis Tiant when she serves, bounces around on her feet like Muhammad Ali before a title fight and takes practice cuts like she’s on-deck at the Home Run Derby. She’s had public fallouts with her father/coach, claims to have an IQ higher than Einstein’s and gives interviews that are actually insightful, a rarity in the modern tennis game.

Other writers (like in The Guardian) use eccentric and/or unorthodox. “She’s a woman unlike any other,” Chris Fowler said uncomfortably on ESPN after her win today. Others call her Marion the Contrarian or openly mock her oddness, like Sports Illustrated.

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The quirkiness, according to received wisdom, is thoroughgoing. Her doctor-father taught himself to play tennis by reading every book he could find; he taught Marion. Her training includes boxing, far afield from typical tennis stars’. She uses two hands for both forehand and backhand. She moves without grace; when she beat Kirsten Flipkens in the semifinal, she dropped into the awkward position you see above. Even the generous Chris Evert frequently describes her as “not a natural athlete.”

I admit, I don’t quite know how she serves (she has an excellent serve) — her serving arm stretches straight back from her body in a way that exaggerates her physical awkwardness. The commentators seem to see her as an embarrassing quirk of the women’s game.

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Unlike her opponent Sabine Lisicki, the smiling, large-eyed, blonde girl (who, ahem, cried during the match when things went badly), Bartoli doesn’t girl it up on the court. Instead she pumps her fist after every won point, never cracking a smile or dropping the slightly dour look to prettify herself for tennis audiences looking for smiling blonde girls. There’s no makeup, unlike the heavily applied eyes of Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska.

Marion Bartoli

Bartoli’s body also sets her apart from virtually all the top players aside from Serena Williams. Shorter than many (she’s 5’7″), while also bigger/stockier, she doesn’t cover up the roll of belly fat around the middle.

The news that she tested at genius level as a child has not missed the commentators. “She’s very smart,” they often say with considerable skepticism. Alternately, they note that her IQ has been claimed but never proven.

One keeps waiting for someone to point out that she hasn’t bothered to shave very carefully.

marion-bartoli2_2608816bYou know what? Thank heavens we have major athletes like Bartoli who show that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for success. Why aren’t we having a conversation about how great it is that a normal-looking woman — at age 28 — who “isn’t a natural athlete” has won Wimbledon? Isn’t this the best possible inspiration for all of us?

I say it again: our culture has such issues with female athletes who sit outside the “norm” — a norm that seems to be defined by beach volleyball players. Get over it, folks.

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Why do female athletes become involved in prettifying themselves for cameras?

It’s one of those questions that dogs me. The tennis players who wear too-tight dresses. The gymnasts who wear exaggerated eye shadow and sparkly dust in their hair. Sometimes those prettifications get in the way of the athlete performing. Why do they acquiesce? In what way can this help their performance?

All the more reason for me to be riveted to the soccer player Caitlin Davis Fisher, who’s now a Fulbright fellow in Brazil where she has played professionally for years. Fisher’s TED talk analyzes the body image of female athletes, and in less than 7 minutes she explains how her fellow players went from being ignored by most of the public — and thereby feeling free to perform their femininity in whatever way they pleased — to prettifying themselves once the women’s sport began to accelerate in popularity over time.

To underline their new popularity, they were offered new uniforms — that is, uniforms that weren’t 6-yr-old hand-me-downs from the men’s team — but the tops were so tight “we couldn’t move our arms to run.”

The women players begin to believe that in order to maintain the sport’s popularity — to increase the acceptance of the women’s game — they ought to change their appearance to be friendlier to public preconceptions/ prejudices (preconceito) about female attractiveness.

What’s happening is the women’s game in Brazil is being feminized, wherein only a feminine version of the game is being accepted, and only only this female player is being allowed inside, if she re-creates her identity in this manner. So although the cultural stigma is starting to fade, the exclusion, the preconceito, is reconfiguring itself and imposing itself on the only place left: the female body. The body of the female athlete is being policed. It’s being shaped, regulated, and controlled by the intensification of feminine expectations.

Davis Fisher smartly probes the ways women athletes themselves get bound up with the promotion of their sport in such intelligent, articulate ways that I’m tempted to welcome her as one of us academics — except I hope she directs her work toward a broader audience than merely an academic one.

Why should we care that colleges have found ways of shirking Title IX rules that seek to create greater equity for women in college sports, as reported in last week’s New York TimesBecause those rules never demanded true equity to begin with. Everyone needs to stop acting as if colleges have been under some crazy burden to give women 50% of all resources. Title IX was never intended to deliver exact parity. To offer an analogy: it’s as if the federal government passes an equal pay act and 50 years later women are still only getting paid 77% of what men make, only to have men argue women are getting paid too much and stealing resources away from men. (Hey, wait a second…that’s pretty much true, too!)

First, a few truths about Title IX: this law does not demand exact equality between men’s and women’s sports. Rather, colleges can comply with it in one of three ways:

  1. by showing that the number of female athletes is in proportion to overall female enrollment
  2. by demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women
  3. by proving that they are meeting the athletic interests and abilities of their female students

Considering that women make up 57% of college student populations nationwide, it’s obvious that colleges are not complying via path #1. I know of no school that gives female students a majority of funds and resources. Instead, according to the best statistics I can find:

  • Division I institutions: women make up 53% of college student bodies but only 46% of athletes
  • Universities overall: women make up 57% of college student bodies but only 42% of athletes
  • Female college athletes receive 42% of athletic scholarship money
  • College women’s sports receive 36% of sports operating funds
  • Women’s teams receive 32% of recruiting funds

Again, all of this is legal so long as colleges show that they are doing their best to increase athletic opportunities for women or are otherwise meeting the athletic interests and abilities of female students. There is no equality for women’s college sports. Men’s sports still get the vast majority of university funds. And this does not count the vast amounts of booster funds that come in to support specific sports, creating vastly disproportional funds going to football and basketball. (How else do you think top-shelf football coaches can get paid $5 million per year?)

Title IX has been fought from the outset. The NCAA went to court in the 70s fighting to be excluded from the law but was denied a victory. Instead, many colleges simply disregarded the rules since there was no governmental regulation or punishment for noncompliance until 1992, when a Supreme Court case determined that individuals could receive monetary damages in court. In 2003 and 2004, a public battle took place again over Title IX, resulting in the Bush Administration opting to soften the rules even further. The Obama Administration quietly reversed that decision in 2010, returning Title IX to previous rules and seeking more enforcement of the law. But now it seems colleges are at it again, giving college women’s sports short shrift.

Here’s a quick rundown of the story (with quotes) from the NY Times: colleges have found ingenious ways of flouting the rules. Some schools count male athletes as women: 15 of the 34 players on Cornell’s women’s fencing team are men, while “Texas A&M, which just won the women’s Division I basketball championship, reported 32 players in the 2009-10 academic year, although 14 were men.” Or schools populate women’s teams with ghost players, as at the University of South Florida, where only 28 of the 71 women on the cross-country roster ran a race in 2009. “Asked about it, a few laughed and said they did not know they were on the team.” Still other schools engage in voodoo math: Quinnipiac University was found guilty last year of “requiring that women cross-country runners join the indoor and outdoor track teams so they could be counted three times,” according to the Times‘ story, and guilty too of adding names to a roster in time for the count but cutting those players a few weeks later.

Are colleges engaging in this duplicity because they can’t find women interested in participating in sports? No: they do it because they must submit annual reports listing the total numbers of women and men in athletics, and whereas it costs money to start a new team that women might want to sign up for, it costs a college nothing to add names, however fraudulently, to existing teams (honestly, 71 cross-country runners?). No one has shown that college women don’t want to engage in organized sports.

Nor should we confuse the question of whether a sport earns a profit in ticket sales with its value to the university. I understand the impulse to celebrate football teams that earn money for their universities, but not only is this relatively rare, but most men’s teams are as equally unprofitable as most women’s teams. Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, much of that income goes back into the coffers of profitable teams; it’s not distributed widely.

These facts make it all the more aggravating when journalists on the ever-reactionary, often anti-feminist Double X podcast (you guessed it, Hanna Rosin again!) last week offered this slew of false information and misinformed commentary on the issue. Rosin is introduced by her colleague Jessica Grose by saying, “So, Hanna, you have done tons of research on this topic. Can you tell us a little bit more about college women’s sport and Title IX more generally?”

Rosin: “Yes. I did not have the expected response to this article. You’re supposed to have the expected reaction of, just, you know, isn’t this is terrible, how could they be fudging the numbers, they’re giving it to the boys once again. But I raise my hand in exasperation and, just had the words Title IX reform! It’s time for Title IX reform! This is a law that was passed in the 70s that really doesn’t seem to any more reflect the reality of American colleges and there’s so much shenanigans they have to go through in order to comply with this law that it seems like we need to rewrite the law. Now that’s not to give credit – not to take away credit from all the amazing things that Title IX has done in terms of making it possible for women to be competitive and aggressive and participate in sports the way they never have been. But, like, if you’re padding the running team with people who have never run a race in their lives, like, what does that mean? You should force the women to run the race? I just, I just don’t know a way around this except to say, you know, ease up on the proportionality a little bit! It doesn’t have to absolutely be exact. Like, isn’t there a way to rewrite the law in which it’s not exact? So am I being, like, a crazy anti-feminist [unintelligible] here?”

Well, yes, Hanna, you may be a crazy anti-feminist, but mostly you’re a bad journalist who offers up false information about the subject you’re discussing. I’m not a journalist, but was able to find this information and statistics using reliable sources online in a single morning. Next time you use your journalist credentials to spout off — especially after being introduced as having “done tons of research on this topic” — do just a tiny amount of research ahead of time.

Brittney Griner!

21 March 2011

Apparently if I want to achieve true popularity as a blogger, I’ll stop talking about silent film and focus on women’s basketball phenom Brittney Griner, who’s a sophomore at Baylor. Yesterday 150 people came to this site for Griner alone — and they didn’t get here due to searching for more info about her amazing basketball chops, or even just her physical dimensions (she’s 6’8″, wears a men’s size 17 shoe, and her wingspan stretches to 86″). No, the Google searches that bring people to my site have to do with gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation:

  • brittney griner a man
  • is brittney griner a man
  • brittney griner girlfriend
  • brittney griner makeover
  • brittney griner in a dress
  • brittney griner gender
  • brittney griner lesbian?
  • is brittney griner xxy
  • brittney griner in regular clothes
  • brittney griner dressed up

This isn’t new. Ever since reporting on Griner a couple of times last year I’ve seen searches like this. So the question is, should I get cranky about these searches, or view them with a certain optimism? Should I explode and yell, Do you honestly think that anyone who plays basketball this well must be a man? Do you honestly think that this fact would have slipped by unnoticed by the NCAA, just like Barack Obama’s “Kenyan” birth supposedly slipped by US Constitutional rules?

On the other hand, maybe people read this blog and conclude, “Hey, maybe it doesn’t matter whether she’s XXY or gay or whatever, and I can just focus on thinking she’s awesome!” Or that women search for brittney griner lesbian? because they’re hoping they might have a chance with her. That they look at this image above, which I found last year on her personal website, precisely because it doesn’t try to prettify her according to some Vogue magazine version of sex appeal — instead it shows exactly the kind of female masculinity that Judith/Jack Halberstam discusses (and embodies).

Most of all, searches like this are a reminder to me that women’s sports remains one of those weird zones where a lot of people want to police gender lines and norms for femininity. Get over it, people, and — in the immortal words of En Vogue, free your minds, and the rest will follow. (But damn, remember how much En Vogue traded on their Vogue-ready looks and hotness quotient? Why oh why must it be this way?)