Sports and the Single Girl

One of the things I really love about Jezebel is their ongoing discussion about women’s sports and female athletes. I’m not that interested in sports, personally, but I am very interested in the role of women in sports, and the editors at Jezebel have done a really great job of highlighting the objectification and sexism which goes on with female athletes. And in covering women’s sports in general despite the fact that the media doesn’t seem to be that interested, by and large, in the amazing things that women athletes do, because they are too busy covering men’s sports.

The latest big eruption in women’s sports was the admission by Wimbledon officials that they were taking less “attractive” female athletes off center court because “attractiveness is a factor.” Scheduling for male athletes, of course, is based on ranking. But female athletes, evidently, can be objectified by tennis officials. Officials argued that they took this step because they wanted to get casual sports fans engaged, and they have been rightly called out on this in a number of locations.

In fact, several people have specifically pointed out that objectifying female athletes doesn’t actually turn “casual” male fans into more dedicated devotees of a sport. All it really does is promote sexism and underscore the idea that women are objects of public consumption. And it turns off some fans of women’s sports who do not enjoy having sports matched turned into porn fiestas.

I find it very interesting that the spectrum of male athletes we worship and turn into celebrities is pretty broad. A lot of very famous male athletes are not conventionally attractive, and they are not expected to be so. In fact, were one to criticize the body type of a male athlete, or his physical appearance, people would probably fight back with comments about how the whole point is that he is in the peak of physical condition, and is very talented, and how looks shouldn’t play a role. How, in fact, altering his body to meet beauty standards could impair his athletic performance.

Not so with female athletes. By and large, the celebrity female athletes are conventionally attractive women who are often distinctly feminine, and they are subject to the same sexist coverage endured by female celebrities who work in other fields. It’s not enough for a female athlete to be a fine-tuned machine in tip-top shape. She also has to be pretty, and specifically feminine. She needs to wear sporting clothing which highlights this fact when she’s competing, and when she’s not, she should be bedecked in something appropriately feminine because she’s a woman first, not an athlete! Sheesh. Oh, and she should of course plan on ending her career early to have children.

Talented female bodybuilders and other female athletes who are naturally larger, such as swimmers and discus throwers, don’t get the same coverage that beach volleyball players and tennis stars do. One might argue that this has to do with the overall popularity of a sport, except that swimming is pretty darn popular, as exhibited with the Phelpsmania which swept America last summer. No, these athletes are allowed to be celebrities because their body types fit within accepted norms for female beauty, and therefore their bodies can be safely exhibited before the public.

The great grunting controversy in tennis was also very much based on “unfeminine” behavior by female athletes. I’m not a tennis superstar by any means, but I freely admit that I grunt when the racket connects with a ball. I think most people do. I think that when you’re deeply focused on the sport and also hitting a ball with tremendous force, you’re probably going to grunt pretty loudly. But, because grunting and “shrieking” aren’t acceptable feminine behavior, female athletes are expected to be silent on the court. (As an aside, I think there’s a clear parallel here between vocalizing while playing sports and vocalizing during sexual activity.)

One Jezebel article on the assorted Wimbledon controversies also pointed out that there’s a long history of fear about homosexuality and female sports, and that female athletes who look sexually androgynous are hard to find in popular sports coverage. Feminizing women’s sports kind of reinforces the idea that playing sports won’t turn women into lesbians, and sports which are heavily associated with lesbianism, like field hockey, don’t get a lot of popular coverage. Yes, friends and sports fans, it’s not enough for female athletes to be in insane physical shape and also totally feminine, they must also be straight!