This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Manly men play sports. Graceful little girls and dykes play sports too. There is no room for anyone in the middle. However they do not play the same sports, these three groups of people. The manly men play football, rugby, hockey, they box and lift weights. The dykes can play any sport because their breaking of the genderized sports barrier can be chalked up to the fact that they are lesbians, not real women anyway. Graceful little girls, they are the ones we can admire, they are the gymnasts, the ice skaters and the synchronized swimmers. Female athletes as they should be are epitomized in these little girls. These lines and more are what society has been fed concerning appropriate sports for men and women. Because of women's long time exclusion from sport, the games became gendered. Women still wear skirts in many sports; the rules of some games such as lacrosse are different for men and women. Muscles are sexy on men but a hotly debated issue on women. But what happens when the men want to wear the skirts and the women want to step into the ring? In most cases unfortunately there are bad repercussions along with the good ones. Sexuality is called into question when members of either sex compete in an unconventional sport. In the case of women, they are constantly compared to men, not being as fast or strong, therefore undermining their game and style. However, every time a man puts on skirt for a field hockey match, or a woman laces up her cleats for a football game despite society's ill will, all humans benefit.
When a man disregards the social pressure he feels to be on a field competing and decides instead to stand on the sidelines and cheer, many issues arise. While male cheerleading has become an increasingly common sight in colleges around the country there are still stigmas that come with those male cheerleaders, namely that they are all homosexual. Some of them probably are, just like some of the football players that they cheer on are. Northeastern male cheerleader Carlos Munoz had this perspective on the association cheerleaders get with being gay, "You can look at cheerleading in two ways: as 'OK, I wear a skirt and I jump around saying cheers' or 'I'm a big man that picks up girls with one hand,'" he said. "It depends which way you put it. You can make it look good or you can make it look bad." His point of view is encouraging however there are still the people who look down on men who take up unconventional sports.
In an interesting twist of irony, many football players are required by their coaches to take ballet, conjuring up images of hulking muscle bound men in tutus. However, there is no assumption of homosexuality with these athletes. Whether they enjoy the dancing or not they are socially cleared of any homosexuality on the assumption that since they play football they are not gay and that they would never take up dancing unless forced to do so. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that society on a whole does not think that "real" men would ever dance or cheerlead unless there was a way to simultaneously reaffirm their masculinity, in this case better play on the football field.
Charges of homosexuality can also be found in sports that are only unconventional in the United States. Men's field hockey was an Olympic sport 72 years before the same game for women and yet the male version carries the stigma of homosexuality. Since field hockey was allowed in the Olympics so many years earlier for men, the number of countries playing the game have to be historically greater than women. The United States it seems is lagging far behind however in allowing the desegregation of the sport. It might be many years until a college can boast of a male and female field hockey team without getting snide comments and knowing glances.
While men tend to have problems playing certain sports, women can have trouble playing any sports. Female athletes tend to be labeled as more masculine with lesbian undertones more often then men are labeled feminine with gay undertones. The only sports that women can safely compete in without those stereotypes are ice skating, gymnastics and synchronized swimming. There are many other sports that women play everyday without issue or concern as well, sports such as soccer, basketball and softball to name a few. While questions of sexuality can come up with athletes of these sports it is far less frequent than for women who try to compete in sports still carrying the baggage of being gendered. Female boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters, not to mention football and ice hockey players fight assumptions of lesbianism daily. Female athletes wanting to compete in male dominated sports can be written off as just another dyke trying to be like the guys. Gaining respect for women in these sports is an uphill battle.
Female body builders are perfect examples of women unable to break into traditionally male dominated domains as equals. While there are competitions for women body builders they are judged on very different scales than the men as was outlined in Pumping Iron II. Journalist Mark Meloon said, "I admire female bodybuilders because they have the strength of character to do what they want to in the face of awesome opposition!" He goes on to talk about the harassment that women receive that men would not ever be subject to. "Either the woman bodybuilder or the man are strong enough 'to deal with any trouble makers', however, hecklers seem to feel no fear in humiliating the woman." This ability to challenge the women comes from the belief that they do not belong, that they are infringing on an area that they should not be. Courage can always be found to defend ones territory.
Looking at the world of sports though one view gives a depressing look at the injustices and cruelty of the sporting world. Why would an athlete put up with the torment? Why should we support them in their efforts and not try to protect them from the harsh words they will hear? The answer for the athletes is simple; it is what they love to do. They care little about gender stereotypes or cultural norms; they are following their heart. For us, is just as simple, we should supports their fight to open up sports to everyone. The more pioneering effort is done to degender sports the more opportunities there will be for the children to come. Just as important however is the impact allowing everyone to play will have on our society. We live in a culture that is dominated by sports. A favorite baseball player would be more readily named than the president as a child's hero. Just as the physical education department in the 1920's inadvertently created a problem we are still fighting when they insisted on keeping women separate and therefore suspect to lesbianism, reversing that notion of some sports for girls and some for boys will better society on a whole. Freeing women of the burden of being suspected of lesbianism every time they pick up a ball or bat will open up opportunities for girls all over the country. And when men are allowed to follow their desire for sport, be it through baseball or cheerleading it will help break down the rigid rules of masculinity that exist today. As one varsity male cheerleader said, "Any man can hold a cheerleader's hand, but only the elite can hold her feet."
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