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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Black Women in Sports: Sexuality and Athleticism

Kayan Clarke

Men and women who chose to engage in sports from which they would traditionally be discouraged because of their gender, particularly as professionals, redefine the sport. The social and cultural "costs" are not the result of the individual's participation, but rather the way in which sports have been socially, politically, and economically constructed. Gender is only one of the few ways in which people are categorized according to their proficiency for some athletic activities. Race and class are also factors which may prevent individuals from engaging in sports that have been traditionally excluded to them. Socially constructed notions of race, class, and sexuality compound the way in which the history of sports has developed. For example, black women athletes may be more accepted in certain sports than in others, i.e. black women in the WNBA might seem as less an anomaly for black women than for white women, and yet the success of the Williams sisters in tennis may seem more out of the ordinary for many Americans than the success of their white counterparts. Race, class, sex, and sexuality are the operative notions in which certain sports are less "traditional" for certain groups.
Black women have a long history with such sports and track and field. Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee State University) led the nation as powerhouses for the production of Olympic competitors from the fifties to the seventies. Despite the relative lack of funding received by these schools as compared to white schools in Jim Crow Alabama, their track and field programs flourished. Perhaps this is because track and field did not require expensive equipment to train and play. While white schools were concentrating on expensive male dominated sports such as football and rugby, track could prove the a sport in which black women could excel. Women have a special aptitude for track because they have greater flexibility and their smaller bodies make them able to run for long distances at a faster rate.
Black women track athletes were also confined to popular notions of female sexuality. Cleveland Abbot, the formidable Athletic Director of the Tuskegee women's track program said in the documentary "Dare to Compete," a documentary film on the history of women sports, that he wanted "foxes not oxes." Black women athletes had to look attractive as well as be good athletes, unlike their male counterparts who just had to concentrate on bringing home the trophy. However, although black women had to concentrate on being attractive, the standards that dictate black female sexuality are different in different arenas and in comparison to different groups. Black "femininity" has never been given the same credence as white "femininity," and perhaps mainstream preoccupation with racial stereotypes of black athletic prowess superceded the perception of black women's sexuality. In other words, black women track athletes were probably seen as more "athletic" than the average (i.e. white) woman, and therefore, their femininity was discounted as irrelevant. Moreover, track, like many other sports at this time was seen as a masculine sport. During the thirties and forties, women's track was virtually ignored. Black women, throughout US history, were not sexualized in the same way white women were, and thus comparisons or grouping of women of color with white women when looking at sports can be simplistic and misleading.
Venus and Serena Williams domination of tennis illustrate this dichotomy between race and sexuality in sports. Tennis has been a sport that has been a sport that has traditionally excluded minorities. Despite the definitive accomplishments of Althea Gibson during the fifties and sixties, women's professional tennis has been almost all white since its induction. Tennis has also been a sport that has been feminized in a particular way in comparison to other male dominated sports in which women have a relatively high rate of participation, such as track. Tennis, unlike other sports encourages women to wear feminine attire, i.e. the short white tennis skirts. Thus women tennis players, particularly with the popularity of Anna Kournikova, have been bombarded by the image of the "blond bombshell/model/athlete," and it has been noted by several sports commentators that Kournikova's media exposure is disproportionate to her talent as a tennis player. Yet she has also attracted more people to women's tennis. Many women tennis players see this as a tradeoff. Perhaps Kournakova's popularity is due to the fact that many Americans do not view women athletes as particularly attractive, but the questions then becomes: What are the standards that make female athletes, and women in general, attractive? There won't be any black women blond bombshells anytime soon, and with sports as one of the remaining bastions of male supremacy in which black men are seen to excel because of their stereotyped athletic masculine prowess—where do black women athletes' sexuality fit within this spectrum? Perhaps black women can be more free to develop their game plans rather than their outfits before the match, but hopefully their sexuality will not be completely submerged by the game either. In an article entitled, "Absent Anna Has Sexy Impact," it was noted, "Serena Williams has no problems with Kournikova's beauty bringing a tennis boost even if the subject herself cannot take a title....The majority of the credit pretty much goes to the Williams sisters and Kournikova. Those three have really made the biggest difference in the amount of publicity, the amount of popularity in the sport." Hopefully, there will come a time in women's sports when all women will be recognized for their superior athleticism, and the unique sexuality of each individual female athlete will be appreciated for how it transforms, challenges, and redefines the social, political, and intellectual dimensions of sport.


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