Posts By Ellie Gordon-Moershel

“No One Wants To Watch It” : The Year of Women in Sports

Originally posted at Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sport and Society 

If had a nickel for every headline this past year that claimed 2012 was the “Year of Women’s Sport” I would be able to buy a hefty bag of candies from Seven Eleven. This has even come from heavy hitters such as NPRTimeCNN, and The Advocate among others. Many of these proclamations were sparked by the 2012 London Olympics for its various milestones. All countries represented had female and male competitors for the first time; the US even had more female than male athletes in attendance. Women’s boxing made its debut as an Olympic sport. In Canada, we voted national soccer team captain Christine Sinclair as Canada’s Athlete of the Year. Those of you who caught Sinclair’s performance in the recent summer Olympics will not be surprised by this award selection. Her performance was simply mesmerizing. CBCSports.ca soccer writer Ben Rycroft has said, “For Sinclair, it was the best year by the best player Canada has ever produced — on the men or women’s side.”

I have, indeed, swooned over Sinclair’s moves and swooned over Canada’s swooning over this deserving soccer player. I had goose bumps when hearing 17-year-old boxing gold medalist Claressa Shields explain that she was “so mad” when she was told as a little kid that girls couldn’t box. And, I’m not the only one. That story won the best radio documentary of the year at the esteemed Third Coast Festival. The public are rooting for these women. I mean actually rooting – there’s no paternal “ain’t that sweet” sentimentality surrounding these athletes.

I do think the excitement around these stories is a marker in a cultural shift, of sorts, in North America. These female athletes are legitimate athletic role models.

However, this shift (as pleasing as it is to this sporty feminist’s eye) seems to be merely a chip in the facade of a greater and firmly rooted patriarchal foundation. I was thinking about this recently when my news alerts brought me to an article which rightfully pointed out that considering all the recent athletic achievements of women in sport it is pretty appalling to witness the stats associated with its media coverage. A 20 year study (1989-2009) by University of Southern California found that “women’s sports accounted for less than 2% of network news and ESPN’s SportsCenter.” I’ve seen these stats before so I don’t find them shocking any longer. What I am increasingly having a hard time digesting is how ordinary and banal people seem to find these facts. As one commenter under the above mentioned article wrote, “It is simple really. No one wants to watch it.”

It’s become a kind of cognitive dissonance. We can adore and give the highest acclaim to Christine Sinclair and at the same time we understand that it’s perfectly natural that she should never be able to make a living at soccer nor enjoy a supportive viewership year round.

How did we get here? To an era that seems to celebrate women in sport at the same time we expect it to remain second class. Well, I have some theories (with a little help from some wise sports scholars).

Theory 1: We keep putting all our equality eggs in the Olympic basket. 

It’s no secret that I find much about the International Olympic Committee and its reign to be problematic to say the least. But, this does not mean every person involved in every level of Olympic organizing consciously believes that women’s sport should remain a substandard spectacle. It does mean that any progress around gender equality will never be led by the IOC unless it happens to coincide with a presumed increase in profits or a benefit to the Olympic brand.

At the London Olympics opening ceremony IOC president Jacques Rogge said that the participation of at least one female athlete per participating country was “a major boost for gender equality.” As I mentioned above, this is one of the main cited reasons for 2012 being the Year of Women’s Sport. Last summer I asked Kathleen Lahey, a law professor and sport equity expert, about these declarations of equality in the Olympics. She responded, “I have likened that to saying: Oh well then women in Canada must be equal now because we have at least one woman MP sitting in the Canadian parliament from each province and territory. That is a very superficial definition of equality.”

To give further perspective, the first female IOC member was not accepted until 1981. Not exactly trailblazers of women’s inclusion. According to a recent IOC fact sheet, “more than 18.8%” of the current membership include women (4 of which are “honorary” members). Pardon me if I don’t rejoice in the apparent brag-worthy percentage of 18.8679 as marking some sort of dawning age of equality.

The IOC is not a democracy. It does not have internal laws like Canada’s Charter, the U.K.’s Human Rights Act 2010, or other non-discrimination provisions. In the words of acclaimed sport journalist Laura Robinson, the IOC is “powerful men who answer to no one [who] decide whether women can participate.” However, due to the hard work of canoeist Samantha Rippington and her legal team we may yet see some movement in the IOC’s and host country’s human rights accountability in the near future.

Theory 2: Ending homophobia in sport is seen as unrelated to ending sexism

“The usual way the people are taught to think in amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no relation to any other subject.  For the most part, we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern.  It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated.” – Assata Shakur

A happy thing has occurred over the last couple years in men’s professional sport – homophobia against men (lesbian/queer women are largely ignored as all women in professional sport) is slowly becoming unacceptable. A few NFL players have come out in support of gay marriage and Patrick Burke’s You Can Play Project, dedicated to “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation” has seen much press and support.  

A couple months ago I attended a small workshop on the topic of homophobia in men’s professional sports. There were a few very young women in attendance who made it obvious that their participation was contingent on an extra credit for a first year undergraduate course at the host University. However, as the workshop progressed I could tell that the topic was exciting their interest. The facilitator took us through some examples of instances of homophobia in men’s sports – most notably Blue Jays player Yunel Escobar’s anti-gay slur written on his eye black – as well as acknowledging that derogatory terms used against gay men are often synonymous with slurs that have been used to put down women.

During the discussion period one of the young women offered that rejection of homophobia is much easier to embrace when one knows a gay person. She admitted to saying things like “that’s so gay” before two of her close cousins ‘came out.’ I thought this the perfect opportunity to tease out some of the issues for this young woman who initially seemed entirely bored by the subject. I said to her that surely she has women in her life that she is close with; she’s a woman herself. Homophobia against men is rooted in a devaluation or hatred, even, of what we understand to be feminine traits: sensitive, physically weak, superficial, materialistic etc. So, you’re a “fag” and therefore not a ‘real man’ because you’re behaving like a ‘woman’ which is the ultimate insult for a boy or man. This is entirely related to society’s devaluation of women. She gave me a blank stare. I looked to the facilitator for help and when it didn’t arrive I tried to get him to talk about the significance of Escobar’s defenders who said that the Spanish slur written under his eyes actually translated to “pussy” not “faggot” and therefore was obviously more acceptable. He acknowledged that that was interesting but could not help me break down the significance for the young woman. Too bad Hudson Taylor wasn’t there.

I have thought about that moment a lot and what it says about how we’ve come to understand sexism in contemporary times. It’s important to stop using anti-gay slurs in the fight to end homophobia but if we’re unwilling to talk about why gay men so wholly offend the status quo, especially in a uber masculine environment like men’s professional sport, then we’re at best simply treating the symptoms instead of the cause. The resultant disease is that sexism remains unscrutinized, difficult to challenge, and largely invisible.

Theory 3: The sex binary myth has been replaced by ‘mutant women’ myth

Sport is organized around the celebration of masculinity (i.e. traits we socially prescribe to men). Due to this, female athletes occupy an uncomfortable social space because their very existence confuses traditional notions of femininity and masculinity.  What this means is that the treatment of female athletes is a useful barometer for the status of women in society as a whole.

As elite female athletes continue to push the gender expectations the last several years has seen a pushback against this challenging of the status quo. Only this time around the conversation has changed.

Last summer I interviewed sport scholar Sandy Wells about recent developments in the language around gender in sport and continued debates in sport about sex testing. An important fight in feminism has been pointing out that the sex binary is a myth. To quote the linked article by Melissa McEwan, “Every time one sex has assigned to it a particular trait or behavior or emotion, then the other is assigned its opposite, or merely its absence—and a failure to demonstrate its opposite or absence, as prescribed by one’s own gender, thus results in a deviation of which our gender-obsessed, binary-obsessed, gender role-enforcing patriarchy will not approve.” Fortunately, as mentioned, female athletes by mere existence have busted many of these binaries. This makes me think of people like Kathrine Switzer (first woman to run the Boston Marathon) whose own track coach didn’t believe women had the physiological capability to run a marathon until she proved him wrong one day at practice.

When controversy exploded over the gender/sex of South African athlete Castor Semenya, Sandy Wells analyzed reactions on a track and field listserv on which she is a subscriber. She made some interesting observations. She noted that, “people were very knowledgeable about biological myths about the sex binary.” So, unlike more sensationalist headlines concluding that Semenya must be a “man” because she competed so well, these track experts believe that her biology merely gives her an ‘unfair’ advantage over other women (this accusation was thrown on basketball player Brittney Griner more recently – read linked post to see why I believe it’s no coincidence that these two high profile cases were centred around women of colour). This unfair advantage being her “abnormal” testosterone levels. As Sandy Wells points out, this is no less sexist as “the result is that women are still compared against a standard of athleticism that is defined always as being outside of their capacity.”

In other words, the dialogue, in the institution of sport (Wells noted these conversations in the IOC level as well), has changed from blatant refusal to believe that any woman could compete at a high level at all (and therefore must be a man if they actually did) to a proposed desire to ‘protect’ female athletes from abnormal outliers that make the playing field “unfair.” Sandy Wells reiterates why the latter is still problematic by explaining that the demand for anatomically and hormonally equivalence in sport is only demanded in women’s sport because “men who play sports are just exhibiting maleness.” Standing at 7 ft 6 inches, Yao Ming’s hasn’t been barred from basketball in order to level the playing field. He is just using his ‘natural’ characteristics to his advantage as is expected from any male athlete.

Theory 4: Sex segregation in sport cements notion that women are worse than men at sport

Dividing sport based on sex relies on a lot of assumptions on sex differences in performance. It seems like a useful marker because it is believed that men are generally better than women in sport. I can’t think of any other institution where blatant proclamations of women’s inferiority are taken so wholly for granted.

Despite this ingrained sense of female inferiority, progressive sport experts have been questioning the usefulness of sex segregation for years. As early as 1985, Bruce Kidd (former Olympian and current University of Toronto professor) was reported to have said that, “there are little or no physiological reasons to exclude women from participating with men in most sports. Given the same training, time and resources women could learn to play most sports as well as men.” In 1988, after battling for 3 years in court, young Justine Blainey won the right to play in the boy’s Metro Toronto Hockey League. In a Globe and Mail article from 1993, sport journalist Laura Robinson explains that Blainey’s win, unfortunatlely, has not been enough to change attitudes. She ends the article by writing: “1947, Jackie Robinson bravely challenged the colour barrier in sports. Today it would be unthinkable to segregate people by race in sports. Isn’t it time we took the same attitude toward segregation by sex?”

Some of you may be thinking, well, race is different. We know that the fastest man is faster than the fastest woman; the strongest weight lifting man is stronger than the strongest weight lifting woman etc. To begin, these kinds of stats are pulled from a tiny minority of the all ready tiny minority of elite competitors based in a world that does not make it easy for women to live and train solely as an athlete. Additionally, most sex segregated sports have stats that are not so easily comparable. Rules in women’s sports tend to be ‘lighter’ than men’s (e.g. best of 3 sets in women’s tennis vs. best of 5 sets in men’s). Even so, any results we have deemed comparable do not prove that this will be the way things are forever or that these differences are based solely on inherent ‘man genetics’ and not cultural expectations.

Cordelia Fin writes about how sensitive our mind and performance is to the social environment in her illuminating book Delusions of Gender. Through simple manipulations of social context social psychologists are disproving many long held beliefs on gender differences of cognition and at the same time showing the power of ingrained stereotypes. Historically, mental rotation performance – a type of test linked to spatial intelligence – has been the most consistently measured aspect of cognition that invokes male superiority. Higher levels of testosterone in boys and men have been a popular explanation for the results. This 2010 study in Physiological Science journal supported this theory by hypothesizing that female twins from opposite-sex pairs will “show a large and robust male advantage, such as the mental rotation task” due to their prenatal testosterone exposure. So how big exactly is this large and robust male advantage? In her book Fin points out several social cues that adjusted these results. The most staggering involved 3 groups; the first was told that men perform better in this test, “probably for genetic reasons,” the control group was given no information about gender and the last group was told the blatant lie that women perform better in this test. In the first two groups the men outperformed women in the usual way but the last group, the “women are better” group, the women performed just as well as the men.

This does not prove exactly what biology is behind success in the mental rotation performance but it does prove that our social expectations, especially when triggered, appear to greatly affect performance. If our social expectations are strong enough to change actual performance then it’s a safe assumption that dividing all sports by sex (as a way to mark general skill level) will reinforce the societal expectation that women’s sports are lower status.

Anybody remember this poster?

Writers and scholars Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pannano explore the sex segregation issue more deeply in their book Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport. They do a convincing job of explaining why these assumptions create a near impenetrable cycle, “…the initial assumption that women are inferior to men in sports gets institutionalized not only by the way sports is coercively organized on a sex-segregated principle, including sex segregation in the monetary rewards for playing sports, but also in the way these principles reproduce the initial assumption of women’s inferiority in the first place.” That’s a bit of a mouth full but it explains the catch-22 of “little demand for women’s sports = low monetary investment/low monetary investment confirms women’s sports as low-grade = little demand” reinforced by the assumptions for dividing sexes in the first place.

I do not have room in this piece to discuss the various forms and ramifications of taking away the sex dividing line in sport (e.g religious requirements, maintenance of safe trans/women’s/girl’s only spaces etc). I do not think any feminist minded sport enthusiast is advocating to do away with this division in every circumstance. Women/trans sport spaces will remain important fixtures in our communities as will discussions led by Muslim feminists on Right To Wear campaigns. Conversations on how to change the sport institution to be more fair and equitable have been going on for years and what better time to bring them to the forefront than in the post-Year of Women’s Sports era.

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Navigating contradictions of progress in hip hop and pop culture.

“We would know far more about life’s complexities if we applied ourselves to the close study of its contradictions instead of wasting so much time on similarities and connections, which should, anyway, be self-explanatory”
-The Cave by José Saramago 

Last week, a wonderful string of news was catalyzed by 24 year old hip hop artist Frank Ocean’s open letter which revealed, in beautifully written words, a past romance he had with another man. His mother responded to the news saying he’s the “most incredible human she knows” and powerful hip hop mogul Russell Simmons even wrote a letter of support. A big day for hip hop.

Ocean is attached to hip hop collective Odd Future. I was interested in the buzz around Odd Future about a year ago but I promptly stopped seeking them out once I discovered that the collective is led by Tyler, The Creator a lyricist who is known for excessive use of the word ‘faggot’ and the graphic description of rape scenarios. One of the lone voices of public criticism was Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara who rightfully called out the industry’s refusal to condemn such lyrics.  Tyler responded with the following tweet, “If Tegan and Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” Can’t speak for T&S but nothing displays thoughtfulness to me more than use of the phrases “hard dick” and “hit me up.” It would be more funny if he didn’t have over one million followers. Despite this hateful rhetoric, Tyler, perhaps surprisingly, came out in strong support of Ocean in the wake of this announcement.

While this support may seem incompatible on a personal level, it does serve to provide an illuminating window into the current confusing and contradicting climate of hip hop, a fact not lost on long time writer and hip hop insider dream hampton. In her thank you letter to Ocean she writes:

You fulfill hip-hop’s early promise to not give a fuck about what others think of you. The 200 times Tyler says “faggot” and the wonderful way he held you up and down on Twitter today, Syd the Kid’s sexy stud profile and her confusing, misogynistic videos speak to the many contradictions and posturing your generation inherited from the hip-hop generation before you.

Syd tha Kid is the only female member of Odd Future and if you’re wondering what misogynistic videos dream hampton is talking about this would be one of them. It starts out cute and queer and ends with Syd pulling her coked out date out of her car and leaving her passed out the gravel road while Syd drives away. Again, the critique around this video seems to be fairly quiet save for this piece at Afterellen.com (granted this is old news by internet standards). I was pissed when I saw this video. The last thing we need is one of the lone queer women in popular hip hop normalizing the degradation of women. This, though, was obviously not Syd tha Kid’s intent as she stated, “I decided to do [the video] because I wish I had someone like that [an openly gay female artist] while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me.” I thought about it and realized if my 18 year old (then closeted) self saw this video I would have found it exciting to see two queer girls flirting and kissing on screen. I was so used to misogynist music at that age that the last scene probably wouldn’t have even phased me then. In fact, though it absolutely pains me to admit, my younger self thought The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up was edgy and provocative. I’m not even going to link to it because it so fully disgusts me now at age 27.

When I start to get into this rabbit’s hole of discerning meaningful progress from warped misogyny in hip hop and pop culture at large I often come back to dream hampton again. Last fall I saw her speak on a panel about “feminism and hip hop.” I have to admit from the get go I was highly skeptical of her. After all, she co-wrote Jay-Z’s biography and was close friends with Notorious B.I.G. for a number of years. I danced to their songs all throughout junior high but I would never say that either of them are feminist champions or close to it. On the panel dream hampton was the last to introduce herself after each of the other panelists had, right off the bat, confirmed that “I’m not actually a feminist” (if my recorder wasn’t stuck on the table I would have walked out at that point). I figured that hampton, surrounded by the major players (mostly straight, rich men) in hip hop for many years would also try and dance around the title of feminist or calling out misogyny in the industry. Fortunately I was entirely wrong. This is a 3 minute clip of dream hampton talking during that panel about how she keeps herself and her politics in check:

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Is it all about balance? Can you really ingest misogynist music one day and then lead an anti-violence against women’s march the next day without being a hypocrite? I think more than the balance issue is the importance of fighting the urge to be dogmatic. That is, adhering strictly to a set of cultural beliefs. More and more studies show that people from all ends of the political spectrum seek out self serving information to further entrench their beliefs and in many situations will ignore or justify away facts that counter their beliefs. In the NPR interview I linked one researcher was asked if this was more of a problem with religious fundamentalists and he answered, ” I don’t think so. There are people who have made that case in the psychological and political science literatures, but I think the jury is still out. And, you know, the conclusion that my co-author and I came to is that this is really a human problem.”  This is what I enjoy about people like dream hampton―she has no willful ignorance. As a hip hop insider and a cultural critic she’s not afraid to call bullshit on what she loves. This idea reminds me of a discussion in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna where two characters disagree on the role of the artist (including writers like hampton).

- Well, but suppose the artist’s job is just to keep everyone amused? Maybe get their minds off the stink, by calling it a meadow. Where’s the harm?
- Nobody will climb out of the pile. There’s the harm. They’ll keep where they are, deep to the knees in dung, trying to outdo each other remarking on the buttercups.

So maybe the problem isn’t feminists and progressives ingesting pop culture in the first place but our likelihood to defend our favourite pet TV show to the death or to dismiss an entire genre of music  as being anti-women. While I still don’t agree with everything dream hampton represents I felt myself move over the week from being horrified at Syd The Kid’s video and therefore this young artist herself to thinking about how confusing and contradicting her environment must be. I still think the video’s message is terrible but you can see her working her way through some important youth outsider issues in her lyrics ”She shaved off all of her hair…cause she don’t give a fuck…some people seem to think she needs changing but they don’t know the struggles that she was raised with so shut the fuck up…Stop thinking that you know everything.”

She’s not worth writing off and neither is the movement of this music either. It just takes one look at d’bi young and Invincible to realize that we have lots of positive growth worth spreading.

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‘Big Babe Tennis’ and the Pitfalls of Liberal Feminism

Originally posted at Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sport and Society 

Taking in coverage of women’s professional tennis is a little bit like watching “Sex and the City” for a feminist.  On the one hand, there are moments worth celebrating.  Think of Samantha calling out a prospective employer for denying her a job opportunity because, years ago, she slept with one of his employees, saying: “if I was a guy, you would have shaken my hand, bought me a scotch, and given me a key to an office.” A statement like that would be virtually inconceivable in prime time television before the show.  These moments are almost - but not quite - good enough to forgive its favouring of white, upper class, materialistic, and heterosexual culture as the main ambition for independent women.

Similar to “Sex and the City,” women’s professional tennis also has its feminist celebratory moments. The history of women’s tennis is enriched with stories of women fighting and succeeding to be treated as respected elite athletes. The most prominent story is of the Original 9, who recently reunited, breaking away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) and boycotting a 1970 tournament that offered a women’s purse at an eighth less than the men’s final prize. The USLTA responded by suspending the 9 women from all their tournaments. The two Australians in the group received suspensions from their tennis association and were refused entry to all tournaments in their home country.Instead of submitting to pressure the 9 women started their own tour, with symbolic $1 contracts, which eventually led the course to a USLTA sanctioned women’s tour and the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association. Today, women have pay equity in all four Grand Slam events. An astounding achievement considering the income disparity in all other sports (let alone across the planet in all aspects of society).

I soaked in this history while watching the women’s finals at the French Open this past week with my 92 year old tennis-obsessed Oma. I was delighting over unparalleled achievements in women’s sports: equal prize money, professional and dynamic coverage, individual player promotion (many of these women are household names) and full stands. What first got me to pause was when the camera panned over to the stands and showed Monica Seles taking in the game. Seles, a former world number 1 player, was to be presenting the trophy at the end of the match. What gave me pause was that she was so done up I could barely recognize her. I don’t want that to be misread as a personal criticism but it did bring me back to my “Sex and the City” woes.  That much of contemporary women’s “success” is only celebrated if it fits within a narrow image of feminity and consumerist goals.  This was not the tennis of Billie Jean King’s era.

Mary Carillo, the only woman commentator during the women’s final game at the French Open (though she barely spoke), is famous for coiningthe term “Big Babe Tennis.” This is the dominant modern style of women’s tennis, encapsulated by the Williams’ sisters, which favours strong, powerful women delivering strong and powerful shots. This is in itself is an exciting development as former champion Martina Navratilova has said, “These girls have no fear. They’re positive, they hit out on every shot, they don’t play scared. I love to see that. It’s ‘Big Babe Tennis.’ “

What’s less exciting is calling a group of some of the most impressive athletes in the world “babes.” Imagine “Super Stud Hockey” or “Pretty BoyBasketball.” It takes any attention away from athleticism and focuses it on physical and sexual appearance. What is worse, this is no isolated event – it happens all the time in women’s sports.  It functions as a way to put women athletes ‘back in their place,’ that is, in an inferior gendered status by way of existing predominantly as a sexual object for men.  The fact that, in this particular case, the terminology was created and spread by women in tennis is even more notable as it points to the insidious nature of this sexist culture.  The more successful the female athlete becomes, the more pressure she faces to appear non-threatening by emphasising her “feminine” traits, such as sexual availability or emotional vulnerability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sport news coverage favour photos of female athletes crying after a win over fist pumps in the air.

Tennis, with its lack of equipment and individual focus, is an easy product for marketers and management teams to vision a female player in line with society’s demand for the “feminine” female athlete. The marketing surrounding the Williams sisters is symbolic of these pressures.  Not only are they occupying a revolutionary space by merely being women who are elite level athletes they also have to face additional judgments reserved in our racist society for women of colour.  Our notion of womanhood is still based on white ideals so while all female athletes bend gender expectations, women athletes of colour face a disproportionate amount of blunt accusations accusing them of being “men in disguise.”  Most recently we can look at the cases of Britney Griner and Castor Semenya to see this patriarchal racism in fruition.  How to combat these prejudices while maintaining an acceptable public image?  Serena Williams’ marketing team had her do a video game commercial that was so pornographic that it had to be pulled from TV.

Considering these realities of our time, I was still able to see a light at the end of the tunnel as I watched Maria Sharapova celebrate her French Open final win.  It was sparked from an unexpected source: John McEnroe.  McEnroe is a former tennis champion himself, though he was most famous for his fiery temper on court.  He has also said some very uninspiring (not to mentioned untruthful) things about women’s tennis in the past.  Men like McEnroe are often given expert status over women’s sports.  But, these men have had to face women like the Original 9 who continue to inspire tennis players and female athletes alike to demand the respect they deserve.  And it’s working.  As I listened to the live commentary during the trophy ceremony, McEnroe couldn’t help but keep remarking that Sharapova is a “real tennis player.” He didn’t use gendered language because he was obviously so impressed with her tennis skills as an athlete that he wanted to display his respect for one of the best players in the world.  If he is starting to wake up then I have some hope for the rest of our society for the treatment of our female athletes.

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How a female athlete’s body became a battleground for gender assumptions (again).

For those of you who follow women’s basketball you will have already heard of Brittney Griner. Though only 21 she has been making waves the past few years most recently having received Associate Press’ Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Like many elite level athletes Griner possesses some unusual physical traits (think swimmer Micheal Phelps with his wingspan as long as 26 monarch butterflies lined up in a row…or more simply, 6’7”). Standing 6’8″ tall, Griner wears a men’s US size 17 shoes.

The use of the word “unusual” over “unnatural” is an important distinction and kind of the crux of what this blog post will be about. I recently read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It’s a young adult historical fiction novel about a upper class white girl who finds herself as the only female passenger on a voyage across the Atlantic in the 1800s. As she transitions into a competent member of the crew the antagonist Captain Jaggery attempts to squander any solidarity she builds with the other crew members. In a particularly memorable scene Jaggery accuses Charlotte of a crime using an argument about her “unnaturalness”:

“Doing her part like we all was,” the captain echoed in a mocking tone. “Mr. Barlow, you are not young. In all your years have you ever seen, ever heard of a girl who took up crew’s work?”
“No sir, I never did.”
“So, then, is it not unusual?”
“I suppose.”
“You suppose. Might you say, unnatural?”
“That’s not fair!” I cried out. “Unusual and unnatural are not the same!”

The captain goes on to say that due to Charlotte’s obvious “unnaturalness” it was the duty of the crew, of the men, to “protect the natural order of the world” by getting rid of her.

Bringing this back to Brittney Griner (…and Caster Semenya and all the other female athletes that have been scrutinized for their “unnaturalness”) her most recent splash in the news was about her decision to remove herself from consideration for inclusion in the London 2012 Olympics. She cited school obligations and family health issues as her main reasons. What caught my eye in this Women Talk Sports article was the author stating, “I saw pokes and jokes about the fact that she’s afraid of genetic testing and that’s why she doesn’t want to play for the USA, because she’s actually a man.” I thought, oh shit, here we go again. So I searched “Brittney Griner+gender” to see what the media and sports pundits had been saying.

At the beginning of April after Griner’s team won the Women’s NCAA Championship game the opposing coach (a woman) said of her after the game, “I think she’s one of a kind. I think she’s like a guy playing with women.” Apparently referring to Griner’s gender was not a new thing at this point but this coach’s comment is important because it led to many articles devoted to Griner’s gender appearance. The articles ‘defending’ Griner are what prompted me to write this blog. Save for this excellent piece at Fit and Feminist I was sorely disappointed and surprised given the excellent progressive articles written about Caster Semenya and the shit show around her “gender testing.” The author of the CBS article titled Questioning Griner’s gender? Please, just shut up and go away is rightly very angered by the scrutiny of Griner’s gender but his conclusion is, “If you think Brittney Griner is a freak, or not a woman, or something other than what she purports to be, either bring proof or shut up. And since you don’t have proof, you’re really left with Option B.” Similar is the attitude behind this Washington Post article titled Brittney Griner’s gender? Shame on those who even ask the question which starts her defense by remarking that Griner didn’t “ask for” a deep voice and size 17 feet. I’m happy that these mainstream journalists are condemning offensive comments about Griner but the conversation is severely lacking in an analysis of gender policing in sport and why this keeps happening to female athletes (especially non-white female athletes). This has nothing to do with the exceptionality of Griner and everything to do with patriarchy and racism as played out through the institution of sport.

The “institution of sport”― this is something that Dr. Ian Richie from Brock University emphasised while I was interviewing him about the history of sex testing in international sport. He started off the interview with saying, “The reason I think sex testing is so interesting is because it really provides a lens into the institution of sport. And, we have to remember that sport is an institution, a social institution created by human beings, it’s not grown out of the natural earth so to speak. There’s no any one way that sport has to be done…sport as an institution was created around gender lines and assumptions about gender.”

Richie went on to remind us that this resulted in sport being raised out of the celebration of masculinity. Masculinity being socially understood as synonymous with strength, speed and all other manner of athletic prowess. This is why it’s foundation shattering to have elite female athletes existing and why, Ritchie and others argue, sex testing―something so fundamentally at odds with human rights―is acceptable in the institution of sport and nowhere else.

This ideology of “natural” gender roles was furthered propped up by the institution of science during the 19th century . A most hilariously ridiculous example being the ‘research’ that found that bicycling would cause a woman’s uterus to implode – it being such an unnatural act. Science was not only interested in proving the naturalness of social gender roles but also white supremacy. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Hilter’s Germany he shook up racial assumptions. The response of science and society as neatly summed by PBS’ excellent documentary Race: The Power of An Illusion, “How could a society steeped in the science of racial inferiority reconcile itself to Owen’s four gold medals? By conceding innate athletic superiority to African Americans while denying them so-called civilized capacities.” i.e. black athletes were bigger and stronger since it wasn’t that long ago that they were living in a jungle running from animals.

“Experts” may not say such things out loud anymore but these are the assumptions that sport and our society were built on and it will certainly take more than a few decades to be rid of these deep seeded prejudices. Gender and race are not genetic and there’s nothing “natural” about society’s expectations of either. These systems of injustice are what need to be scrutinized and the institutions that keep these ideologies the norm through such behaviour as the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to completely abolish sex testing. Brittney Griner need not enter the conversation unless we’re remarking on her amazing slam dunks.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

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Let’s Get Yiddish In Here!

I’ve been frustrated with a language trend over the last few years: the revival of using the terms “retard(ed)” and “bitch(es)” as common accepted slang.

When I was a little kid in the early 90s calling someone a “retard” was the go to insult. It was used as a synonym for stupid, loser, loner etc. The thing about this slur was that as you got into your teens it became an embarrassing insult to use ― it was so obviously juvenile. One of those rare instances where maturity simply wiped out a harmful use of language.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon for me to hear adults who are otherwise mindful of harmful language spit out the r-word in regular speech. I very non-scientifically attribute this change to the popularity of 2003’s hit single Let’s Get It Started In Here by the Black Eyed Peas. Of course many of us know the original title was Let’s Get Retarded in Here. I think this song subtly changed the slang definition of “retarded” enough to make it appear to be more politically correct. Among adults, not sure about the child-folk, it’s now sometimes used to describe a ‘crazy’ situation rather than stupid person.  The “crazy situation” can even be a positive like, “bro that party was retarded!” This usage makes it doubly hard to eliminate from common usage since it does not appear to be harmful. Of course if this were the case then there wouldn’t be massive campaigns like R-Word: Spread the word to end the word.

The “bitch” issue is very similar and, of course, even more relevant for discussion on a feminist blog. I’ve seen change in usage which has made it more widespread in circles I had not seen before. Historically it has been used and continues to be applied as a put down for women. Often reserved for women behaving outside of their expected gendered norms (i.e. being aggressive, assertive, domineering etc.) This is not news. But, what I’ve noticed in the last couple years is a prevalence of men (and women) saying bitch in reference to some sort of perceived “unmanly” action. For example, a group of friends scolding a guy for wanting to go home instead of having another drink, “don’t be a bitch, have another drink.” Another interesting manifestation has been using the term “bitches” to refer a group of people (of any gender) in a mainly positive spirit kind of way, “what’s up bitches?” or in a pumping up exclamation about something a group of people should be excited about. See banner from a bar in my neighbourhood:

Slightly different is the boasting usage that I will, again, non-scientifically attribute to the popularity of the terrible song I’m in Miami Bitch. LFO may have met their match with such lyrical gems as “Anna wants it bad she’s got some big kahunas, but I say I’ll be back gotta get some more coronas.” I’ve seen this usage extend to even the most inane situations: “I made cornbread bitches!” (I didn’t actually hear this specifically but you get the idea..) This one bothers me the most because, to me, even within the “lightheartedness”  it feels very similar to the idea of “take it like a bitch” which is pretty much saying that women are bitches who deserved to be raped so you better “take it.”

I know language is highly complex and that behind closed doors with folks we know well the most progressive of folks (myself included) jokingly use a lot of these terms. I’m not even going to try and get into reappropriation of terms because each “reappropriated” word requires a thesis worth of arguments on whether it’s possible or not. But I do think it’s a simple request to stop using terms in public spaces that were historically used to denigrate a group of people if you are not a part of that group of people. Even if the newer uses of it seem somehow less harmful.

Fortunately there’s a solution since I actually love to curse and throw insults at people (playfully of course…). I don’t recommend watching or re-watching 1996’s Independance Day but it holds a dear spot in my heart for introducing me to Yiddish. Jeff Goldblume’s father is fussing over meeting the president and he says, “If I knew I was going to meet the president, I would have worn a tie. I mean, look at me: I look like a schlemiel.” Schlemiel!? What a lovely sounding word to my  11 year old ear. My German speaking mother told me it meant a sloppy person.

I was mulling over my frustrations with the trendiness of the new usages of the r-word and the b-word whilst strolling through a bookstore when I came across this new graphic novel: Yiddishkeit – Jewish Vernacular & The New Land.

Thus I was reunited with my love for Yiddish. The following is from the introduction of the book and it should get you started on your journey to Yiddish swears:

“Yiddish may be the most onomatopoeic language ever created. Everything sounds exactly the way it should: macher for a self-appointed big shot, schlemiel for the fellow who spills the soup and sclmazel for the poor guy who gets the soup spilled on him, putz for an active louse, schmuck for a hapless one (as in “poor schmuck”), shnorer for a freeloader, nudnick for a pest. The expressiveness is bound into the language, and so is a kind of ruthless honesty.”**

 

**For those of you interested in the basic etymology of a whole slew of English words of Yiddish origin check out this helpful wikipedia article.

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