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
Traditionally, sports and athletics have been limited to males. Recalling as far back as the Grecian Olympics, public sporting events have afforded men both fame and fortune while women have been either completely excluded from play or forced to play under male rules. Until recently, male athletes and the general public have viewed successful female athletes as exceptions to the widespread rule that women cannot and should not compete along side men in traditionally male sports. Females who chose to be athletic were required to follow the examples of male athletes that were already established and accepted by both the sports community. Consequently, female athletes were confined to a narrow and rigid expression of physical ability. There were no female standards to follow until a few women were able to perform at or above the performance level of their male opponents. But the reactions these women received were a mix between awe and disbelief. The public was in awe because women were performing the physical activity that was thought to damage their reproductive organs. And as a result, the public was in disbelief because women were excelling in these activities. They had stepped out of the traditionally narrow playing field and defied the commonplace idea that women would hurt themselves if they engaged in physical activity. What is most important about these women is that they began to show the world that females could and should be involved in sports. But there was no female arena to play in. Consequently, they were forced to enter male sports and perform by male standards.
Once more women began to challenge these gender standards, the popularity of women’s sports grew. But the development of women’s sports did not happen smoothly or suddenly. The women allowed to participate and excel in sports that men did not already dominate. Tennis, for example, became very popular for women because it was not a traditionally masculine sport. Therefore, tennis was an unclaimed arena that provided the room necessary for the development of women’s sports. But there still were restrictions that women had to follow even in tennis. For example, women had to wear a skirt while playing. Women still had to follow traditional gender roles that required them to wear skirts, be ladylike, and god forbid, not to sweat. Although women were allowed to participate in sports, there were still many constrictions and narrow parameters that they had to stay within.
The development of professional women’s sporting leagues illustrates the progress that female athletes have made over the last century. But some of the old gender stereotypes are still prevalent even today. While women athletes are gaining more and more recognition for their physical abilities and strength, male athletes who wish to enter into traditionally female sports suffer the same difficulty women experienced gaining recognition for their abilities. As shown in the movie Pumping Iron II, the female bodybuilder Bev was subject to criticism of her crossing the gender boundary by developing strong, large, and masculine looking muscles. The difficulty with her situation was that she had obtained a highly visible, masculine appearance, and consequently, her success in a traditionally male sport was difficult to deny. She pushed the gender boundaries, and in the eyes of some critics, become a man.
Similarly, male athletes who enter traditionally female sports are viewed as feminine and womanly. Sports are not always expressions of physical ability; frequently, sports are expressions of masculinity and manhood. Consequently, male athletes are under pressure to succeed so that they can maintain an image of masculinity, whether this is their desire or not. For example, one of the greatest insults an elementary student can give is to say that “so-and-so throws like a girl” or “so-and-so runs like a girl.” Poor male performance in sports is equated with a female’s natural performance. As a result, males who enter traditionally female sports are considered women or only able to compete at a woman’s level. I believe that the difficulty male athletes face when involved in female sports such as field hockey or synchronized swimming illuminates the socially constructed gender bias still prevalent in sports today. But I would like to think that these male athletes would benefit from the progress that female athletes have already made. The pioneering women who showed the public that they were capable of crossing gender boundaries in sports have demonstrated that gender stereotypes in sports are not necessarily accurate. While ideas about masculinity are just as difficult to topple as ideas about femininity, the first public athletes have opened door of opportunity for females and have forced everyone to rethink stereotypes about gender and sports.
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