Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Biceps and arm candy: the female body in the sports world

Loren's editorial today discusses the sexualization of women in the sports world. There seemed to be several different arguments at work here, and I want to try and separate them from each other.

Men's sports get a ton of coverage, and their (mostly male) coaches are therefore in the spotlight. The wives of these men are often depicted as physical accessories to their husbands in a way that successful women's partners are not - because women coaches tend to be coaching less-covered (women's) teams, but also because of gender norms which more closely link a woman's worth with her physical appearance and husband's status (and, importantly, with her acceptance of a submissive relationship to that husband). The sexy/mothering dichotomy is interesting in this, but I won't get Freudian.

Jenkins' front-page Times article presents wives whose significance is entirely relative to their function in the lives of the men who comprise the legitimate event. They play the supportive wives of die-hard coaches, the mother figures and the nurturers to the team. More and more, they also represent the sexy hallmarks of the accomplishment that continues to define a woman's success as gauged by popular media attention: her ability to satisfy the heterosexual male gaze.

This expectation of women's "physical availability for men" extends to female athletes, who are photographed in hyperfeminine clothing and whose bodies become the main attraction, instead of their actual athletic accomplishments. I'd love to hear our female athlete readers weigh in: how can we navigate the tension between this physical nature of sports and the resistance to objectification we promote as feminists?


Anonymous said...

How can we navigate the tension between the physical nature of sports and the resistance to objectification of female athletes?

The answer to this question is simple. Be willing to accept a low level of commercial success.

The argument behind this might seem obvious to some, but let me try to elucidate it anyway.

First of all, let’s draw a distinction between college and professional sports. Your question, with which I began this response, doesn’t apply to college sports. By law, women’s college athletics are going to exist whether or not they bring in lots of money to the university. Because of Title 9, the future of college women’s athletics doesn’t depend on commercial viability, and for this reason it is very very easy for female college athletes to resist objectification as sex objects. This tension, in college sports, is easy to resolve. There's no pressure on female college athletes to wear "hyperfeminine clothing."

In professional sports, it’s a different story.

Let’s look at the professional women’s sports that are commercially viable. The most obvious examples are tennis and golf, and these sports “work” for totally different reasons, in my opinion. Let me explain:

I would argue that women’s tennis has been successful because its players are objectified as sex objects regularly. I don’t think I really need to offer much of an argument here. Kournikova, Sharapova, the list goes on. Women’s tennis is slower and less exciting version of men’s tennis, but this doesn’t really matter because there’s interest in the players for other reasons. In other words, even if the vast majority of tennis fans prefer the game of men’s tennis to the game of women’s tennis, there might still be a reason for some of those people to watch women’s tennis if they otherwise wouldn’t.

Women’s golf, on the other hand, has been commercially successful because the level of play is high by all standards. LPGA players, for the most part, are not sex symbols. And the best women’s golfers, such as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie, are huge sports celebrities because they are able to compete with any of the world’s greatest golfers, male or female. Indeed, Wie and Sorenstam have competed in professional men’s events with some success. They have big endorsement deals that are not contingent on looking sexy or wearing hyperfeminine clothes.

I would argue that in order for a professional women’s sport to be commercially successful, it needs to follow the model of either tennis or golf. Either the athletes need to succumb to objectification, or the game needs to be played at a high level by all standards.

The most prominent professional women’s sport that conforms to neither the golf model nor the tennis model is the WNBA, which has been a perennial money-loser for years. Even with uber-cheap tickets, a marketing scheme designed to appeal to families with young children, and lots of television time due to a powerful parent organization (the NBA), the WNBA is increasingly becoming a niche sport rather than a mainstream part of American sports culture. WNBA players are, for the most part, marketable neither as sex objects nor as high-level basketball players.

As much as WNBA executives want to expand the league’s fan base, it’s becoming more and more apparent that this isn’t going to happen. Most people just aren’t interested. Sadly, it looks as though professional women’s sports aren’t marketable as entertainment unless they follow the tennis model or the golf model. This is unfortunate, because the golf model is impossibility for the majority of sports.

I’m all for the existence of the WNBA and other professional women’s sports organizations that conform to neither the tennis model nor the golf model, but it’s unrealistic to expect such organizations to be commercially successful without reliance on objectification.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the above characterization of women's tennis as slower and less exciting than men's tennis. I prefer watching women's tennis exactly because it is slower. Serves are returned more often, rallies last longer, and points are won through positioning and shot placement rather than by simply overpowering your opponent.

Furthermore, beyond Kournikova and Sharapova, I can't think of any major female tennis stars who became culturaly sex symbols. And they also happened to be top-ranked players (although Kournikova was only number 1 on a doubles team). I can name famous, popular, successful players who challenged gender roles. Bilie Jean King beat a top-ranked male in a match, and Martina Navatilova held her own against Jimmy Conors.

One more thing: wasn't Andre Aggasi objectified?

Anonymous said...

Get your facts straight. Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973, when she was 30 and in the prime of her career (she won 2 majors in '72, I think). Riggs, on the other hand, was 55 years old, 20 years removed from his career as a "top-ranked player." I'm not sure about that Navratilova-Connors match.

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I think there is nothing wrong with women supporting her husband, or visa versa. A man supporting her wife, in her own sport. oh, well I gave it a shot.

Happy double oooh seven to you, and visitors.

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