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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
On Serendip

Women Athletes in Male Dominated Sports

Jennifer Banas

Sports are one of the great American pastimes, but the reality is that sports have encouraged a very distinct separation between males and females in the American society. The attitudes acquired through sports are learned on the field and breached into the real world to create conflict between the sexes. The issue of gender inequality goes far beyond the sports world, yet male dominated organizations form and support the sexes. With this separation of sexes we see the social and cultural strain on athletes participating in opposite gender sports, because society frowns on women participating in male dominated sports.

The idea of sports has always had a masculine viewpoint. It has been seen as unladylike for women to participate in certain sports, let alone those that are primarily male dominated. The American public's fascination with female athletes: tennis players, professional golfers, figure skaters, and gymnasts. These sports demonstrate the agility and elegance "natural" to women and although athleticism is clearly a major aspect of these sports, the individual stars are known, culturally at least, more for their "feminine" attributes like self-sacrifice, glamour and grace (Banet-Weiser, p 411). From the article by Banet-Weiser, we can see society and the general public recognition of female athletes has always been based on their feminine beauty and objectified status, rather than their athletic skill, which becomes a major drawback to women's sports and probably a significant reason why many women drop out of sports or have their sexual identity questioned when they try to prove their athleticism.

This issue of gender in sport occurs all the time. The masculine assumptions of team sports challenge the individualist and moralist ideology that constructs sports such as figure skating and gymnastics. The women of the WNBA have had to manage a contradictory set of cultural images and strategies are needed to reassure fans that although they are not dancing gracefully over the ice in designer outfits, professional female basketball players are feminine beings (Banet-Weiser, p 412).

What happens when society cannot accept women as athletes and feminine beings all in one package? This has a dramatic affect on athletes as Cahn (1988) points out, "the lesbian stereotype exerts pressure on athletes to demonstrate their femininity and heterosexuality." So, instead of athletes concentrating on training and competition, they have to spend their time defending their personal lives and sexuality, also reassuring their audiences that women involved in sports are indeed women.

It is not surprising that sports such as hockey, boxing, and weightlifting, which resemble masculine athletics, have the greatest need to attract audiences and the fear of lesbianism are most prominent. Take, for instance, the video Pumping Iron II, where we see women involved in bodybuilding and entering a bodybuilding contest. This is not a women's sport traditionally and the women who enter these contests are judged not only by the audience, but the judges that score them in the contest. Now, the contestants should be judged on muscle tone of the body right. Wrong. In order to define which woman has the best and most well defined body, the judges feel compelled to define "body" in relation to "woman" (Holmlund, p 301).

Bev Francis clearly had the most muscle definition and was a favorite of the crowd, but surprisingly finished in 8th place. The only reason she finished so low was the fact that she displayed androgynous characteristics, rather than feminine characteristics. Even though she had the most muscle tone, the judges were not looking for this, but rather they wanted someone who was more feminine and graceful in her presentation. This clearly discriminates against Bev based on her body image alone.

Although women athletes have many drawbacks to concentrate on, there are positive aspects to women competing in non-traditional sports. They open the door to something new, that although it may not be socially acceptable right now, may be in the future and they are working towards providing younger generation women more opportunities in sport. Eventually, the hard work and effort they put in will make it easier for women to enter into sports that they typically wouldn't and maybe there will even be more funding for women's sports and organizations.

It is clear that the sports experience for girls and women has greatly enhanced in the past decades with the issuing of Title IX. A variety of women's sports have generated attention in the media and many women actively participate in local sports groups or clubs as well as join local gyms. Sports have become an essential part of the culture for women. Health issues are always important and let's face it, everyone whether male or female needs to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine. Without it, we would not be able to participate in athletics and so what if a woman sweats when she is at the gym or playing a sport, it just proves that she is working hard at what she is doing. So, in a way, sport provides communication with other people and improves the physical, mental, and emotional well being of a woman.

I think we just need to look past the negative aspects of sport because they can distract athletes or even cause them to stop doing what they love. Pressure from society to fit in is always a hard thing to deal with and those that overcome the remarks from audiences or critics become the better person in the long run by looking back at what they accomplished and what they have left behind for many other generations of women athletes to follow.




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