Thursday, February 18, 2010

NBC: World's best girls give it their all in the women's downhill

As Julia Mancuso whipped around the gates during the women’s downhill at the Vancouver Olympics, the NBC announcers noted the icy and difficult conditions. “She likes a course that is rough and bumpy,” said analyst Christin Cooper. “She says that it eliminates some of the advantage of the larger girls that have more mass that can kind of go like freight trains down a smooth course.”
Later, Cooper said during Elisabeth Goergl’s bronze-medal run, “These girls have got to really nail it aggressively all the way down the course.”
In fact, Cooper repeatedly referred to the women’s skiers as girls, something that also appeared on NBC’s liveblog of the event, which noted that “it's scary to see these girls go down at such speeds.”
Calling the women’s skiers girls trivializes and delegitimizes women’s sports participation in two ways.
First, each instance in which the skiers were labeled as “girls” came at a time when the related description violated gender norms in some way. For example, femininity is at odds with the notion of a “big” female moving like a “freight train.” In the same way, aggression is culturally marked as masculine, and attacking a mountain at break-neck speed is hardly a traditional feminine quality. Calling the skiers girls in a context where they are being described in terms that often reference masculinity neutralizes that apparent oxymoron – and ultimately preserves a more traditional representation of gender.
Second, “girls” playing sports don’t violate gender norms in the way that “women” playing sports do. When you are a “girl,” it’s okay to engage in trivial and fun pursuits like sports; women, on the other hand, are expected to perform traditional forms of femininity, which is at odds with the masculine notions of competition and sports.
This logic also adds another level of explanation to Deford's question about the lack of attention given to the UConn women's basketball team. The undefeated Huskies do not enjoy the fan adoration Lindsay Vonn receives, which Marie Hardin notes is largely because Vonn participates in a sport that doesn't challenge gender norms in the way that contact sports like basketball do (see below).
Still, the Huskies have a much stronger following than any WNBA team -- after all, they're still college "girls," which makes their violation of gender norms in a contact sport less egregious than the professional women.
--Erin Whiteside

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Answer to DeFord: Why we're likely not to notice a women's basketball team excel

NPR commentator Frank DeFord today asked why women in individual sports more often get widespread public attention (and favorable media coverage) than do women in team sports.
Deford contrasted the recent hype around Olympian Lindsay Vonn, tennis star Serena Williams, and racing driver Danica Patrick against that surrounding the UConn women's basketball team to support his thesis that we're generally not willing to support women in team sports.
Deford is right -- women who play in team sports in the U.S. generally don't reach the same kind of "star" status as those who play in individual sports such as tennis. But the issue is more than whether women compete as a team or as individuals.
Team sports are usually contact sports, and that's the bigger issue, I think. Women in sports that involve varying degrees of contact -- from the individual sports of boxing and wrestling, to team sports such as basketball -- challenge traditional ideas about femininity. And that's why they don't get the media attention or public attention they might otherwise deserve. (Danica Patrick, who participates in a highly masculine, contact (car-to-car) sport, gets attention primarily because of her foray into a men's arena. Would we expect that an all-female auto racing circuit would get much media coverage?)
Sports like figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, skiing and snowboarding don't challenge gender norms for women nearly as much. To varying degrees they support them, from an emphasis on aesthetics in performance to the allowance for athletes to dress in feminine attire when they participate in these sports.
And that makes many people far more comfortable watching -- and cheering for -- these athletes.
-- mh

Friday, February 05, 2010

Commentary on SI's Vonn cover: Why the outrage?

A blog post earlier today by Nicole LaVoi, a researcher at the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, has drawn a great deal of attention from national and international media.
It has also drawn a great deal of rage aimed directly at LaVoi. To summarize the LaVoi's post: She suggests -- based on research and a well-documented pattern by SI -- that the magazine's cover photo of skier Lindsay Vonn continues a pattern of general objectification and sexualization of female athletes.
LaVoi's observation isn't a stretch at all for women's sports advocates well versed in the ways female athletes have been depicted for decades.
The vitriol aimed at her in response to the post has been swift and ugly, however. I won't belabor it here (You can read it yourself.)
Although some of the comments clearly reflect -- in a civil tone -- disagreement with LaVoi about whether this particular shot of Vonn is meant to objectify or sexualize her, many comments aim to completely discredit LaVoi with a range of ridiculous accusations.
The fact is that women who attempt to speak with authority about sports have often been the target of sexist attacks. That's because sports have been primarily defined as a male domain -- a place where traditional "tough guy" masculinity is reinforced. The rights provided to girls and women via Title IX have certainly started to challenge that assumption, but scores of studies show that we're far from equitable on many fronts.
Women's sports advocates who speak out, then, run the risk of drawing a great deal of criticism because they are asserting their voices -- against the grain -- in an environment where women generally sidelined from having any real power.
But it is the voices of LaVoi and many others -- including those on the Women Talk Sports network -- that continue to challenge the norms and chip away at constricting gender roles for men and women in sports and the larger culture.
They may make many people uncomfortable -- even outraged. But they are essential.
--Marie Hardin

When Sports Stars Become Authority Figures, Women Lose

By now anyone interested in sports knows about the upcoming Tim Tebow ad set to appear during the Superbowl. Feminists and other activist groups have critiqued the ad for providing unsafe and misleading information to women about their reproductive health (see here, here and here for more on that). But this is more than just an anti-choice ad: it’s the manifestation of a hegemonic system that creates male sports stars who in turn seem perfectly natural choices to sell any product or in this case, speak on any issue from the biggest mediated platform in American sports.

Tebow is a known social conservative, but just as importantly for this message, a star football player. There’s a reason Focus on the Family isn’t simply airing an ad with James Dobson discussing abortion. Rather, it’s because he is a football star that Tebow is the star of the ad. And it is because of his exploits on the football field, combined with a media system that privileges “power” men’s sports, that Tebow is a recognizable star in the first place.

And herein lies the problem for women: As long as sports – and especially football – are culturally understood as a space only appropriate for men, female athletes will simply never earn a comparable type of hero status, and therefore cannot enter the discourse to speak on political issues with the same kind of impact– even those central to women’s lives.
--Erin Whiteside