Gendering Women’s Athletic Performances

Women’s participation in athletics has been one of the victories of the feminist movement.  Policies like Title IX demanded equal access and funding (even if that hasn’t yet been realized) in federally subsidized programs.  Though the amendment had to do with much more than women’s participation in sports, this is what discussions of Title IX are often all about.   Title IX stated,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… (Title IX)

The bill says nothing about which sports women would be allowed to play, or how they would be allowed to play them.  There are lots of small differences between men’s and women’s sports.  But, while women’s basketballs are slightly smaller, softballs are much larger than baseballs–a feature that necessitates differences in pitching, hitting, and throwing the balls.  Men’s and women’s athletic outfits also differ.  Consider men’s vs. women’s professional tennis clothing.  But, gendered performance expectations are also lying behind many of the rituals and traditions we hold most dear in many sports.

In watching 2012 Olympic trials for gymnastics, there was one moment during Anna Li’s routine on the uneven bars that caught my attention in the sportscaster conversation following the judging.  We often don’t think about gender performance expectations; we simply don’t have to.  They don’t even typically feel like expectations because many of us are eager to take part in them.  But when gender expectations are disrupted, we know something significant happened, and there is typically a great deal of collective work done to repair the breach.  Anna Li did just such a thing.  I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about gymnastics, so I missed it when it happened, but the significance of the event was not lost on more seasoned fans and commentators.

Anna Li, already “old” for female gymnasts as she’s in her 20s, made the alternate team for the London Olympics this year.  During Li’s uneven bars routine she performed one release (see an image here) that the commentators classified as “a men’s gymnastic move” following her routine.  One of the commentators was surprised by her low score, and the other said that Li’s decision to incorporate a “men’s release” into her routine has caused her to be more harshly judged for it.  Women’s gymnastics–when compared with men’s–does have a lot of differences.  In the floor routines, the women (and girls) are required to incorporate some dance elements to illustrate strength, dexterity… and possibly femininity?  Men’s bar routines are not composed of two, uneven bars.  Rather, men have one bar that enables greater speed on the tricks and dismounts than the two bars allow.  Not knowing a great deal about the sport, the decision to penalize Li for performing a “masculine” release seems like gender policing of the sport.

Similarly, the call to remove grunting from tennis has a more vocal group of supporters for women’s tennis than it does for men’s (see here, here, and here for details).  Part of this plan involves the use of technology for measuring the decibel levels of women’s auditory emissions during matches–something to be watched by umpires who can penalize players for “yelling.”  But the plan also involves educating players about how to play at this level of physical exertion without grunting.  The cited reasons for ridding the practice in the WTA is the vague statement that “some fans find it bothersome.”

SIDE NOTE: This seems like some of the same ideas that inform Mike Messner‘s idea of “soft essentialism.”  While we no longer support the primacy of men’s sports (at least we pretend we don’t), men and women are popularly presumed to just “do” sports differently–and if they don’t do them differently naturally, we create rules to “help” them along.

These are just a couple of ways that we create spaces within which certain gender performances are demanded.  We may not always be aware of what is outside of those boundaries, but when someone steps outside, there are a variety of social mechanisms that come into play.

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