You Play Like a Girl

With the women’s NCAA Final Four upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about sports and gender. Courtney’s post over at Feministing asked the question Is it sexist to not watch women’s sports? A lot of familiar answers popped up–Men’s sports are more exciting! Women can’t dunk! Men are faster!–and suddenly they all started sounded very similar to arguments like There’s nothing wrong with me liking Asian women–I can’t help what I prefer. And, you know, they’re hotter.

(We could replace “Asian” with “blonde,” or “thin,” or any number of other qualifiers, of course.) People clearly defend their “preferences” tooth and nail. And, as we know, for a lot of folks it’s worse to be accused of sexism (or racism, or homophobia…) than it is to actually do or say something sexist.

Here’s my argument: I can’t say that “honestly preferring” men’s sports is necessarily sexist, just as I can’t say that “honestly preferring” blondes is. But just as I think it’s important to see that our attractions don’t exist in a vacuum–they’re colored by cultural factors, in this case a society that routinely objectifies women and fetishizes their physical and psychological parts–it’s important to see that our preferences for entertainment don’t, either. They live in a world where women’s athletics have never been given a fair shake.

This is a culture that still measures women’s success against men’s, because men are still considered the default. It’s also a society where women’s sports have never gotten the kind of institutional support that men’s sports enjoy, even with the existence of legislation designed to level the playing field. (I know, I’m hilarious.) And it’s a culture where traditional masculinity is supported, sometimes even defined, by physical and athletic prowess, whereas traditional femininity is undermined by it.

You don’t have to look any further than the recent ESPN Magazine cover story on Candace Parker to see what I mean. Although the piece doesn’t dismiss Parker’s achievements, from the very first paragraph the author constantly anchors her narrative in Parker’s femininity:

Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts. She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner. She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She’s nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.

This is not the way we talk about male athletes. True, they may be praised for their virility or good looks–Derek Jeter comes to mind–but these traits are seen as enhanced by their athleticism, not as necessary counterbalances to it.

For some reason, we must be constantly reassured that female athletes are still “real” women. You can see it in hysteria over trans or intersex women competing in women’s sports. Ostensibly the concern is for some unfair advantage, but at heart the issue is about permitting women in the male arena of athletics by demanding that they remain sufficiently feminine.

Just look at Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. Yes, I know that two-piece bathing suits are the norm for women’s beach volleyball. But did you notice while watching the last Olympics how often one of them clearly had a wedgie? That’s not practical for any sport. And camera footage featured their asses so prominently. Yes, I’m aware that partners communicate from the net with hand signals behind their backs. But baseball catchers talk to their pitchers with hand signals between their legs, and I’m not treated to dozens of closeups of Jason Varitek’s crotch every time I watch a Sox game.

I’m tired of hearing people say men’s sports are more exciting than women’s as if it were an objective fact. If it were, men’s gymnastics and volleyball would dominate airtime during the Olympics, but we know women’s events see much more airtime instead. In other sports, we simultaneously criticize women for not living up to men’s athletic standards (women can’t run as fast; they don’t dunk) while recoiling from them in horror if they do (female weightlifters can’t look too muscular; intersex and trans athletes wouldn’t raise any eyebrows if they weren’t also competitive).

Until the day when women have as many professional athletic leagues (and comparable salaries) as men, bars and restaurants broadcast women’s games as frequently as men’s, and all athletes can be evaluated on their athletic prowess independent of their gender identity and sexuality, I just prefer men’s sports will never be a neutral phrase.

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2 Responses to You Play Like a Girl

  1. Amelia says:

    Excellent post! I have recently been thinking along the same lines because America is finally giving professional women’s soccer another chance after 6 years when the last league failed due to lack of interest. I actually blogged about this topic to try to generate support for women’s athletics, something that is definitely missing in this country.

    I was actually talking to one of my male friends who said he would watch women’s soccer, but it just wasn’t as interesting as men’s soccer. It nearly drove me up a wall.

  2. pandanose says:

    Yeah, I’d heard the rumblings about women’s pro soccer returning. It’s so strange that we can’t get more support for pro soccer (men’s Or women’s, really) given how popular the sport is for kids here.

    (Though I’ll admit pro soccer holds little appeal for me–I’ve never really enjoyed the games when I didn’t know someone playing, and I find it deadly dull on a screen.)

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