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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Topic #2: Gender and Sport

Katie Lefebvre

Question 2: What are the social and cultural costs and benefits of an individual (male or female)
entering a non-traditional sport for their gender/sex?

Sports become stereotyped as gender-neutral, feminine, or masculine based on conceptions regarding gender, gender differences, and beliefs about the appropriateness of participation due to gender (Colley et al., 1987; Csizma, Wittig, & Schurr, 1988; Koivula, 1995; Matteo, 1986). Sports labeled as feminine seem to be those that allow women participants to act in accordance with the stereotyped expectations of femininity (such as being graceful and nonagressive) and that provide for beauty and aesthetic pleasure (based on largely male standards). A sport is labeled as masculine if it involves the following: 1) attempts to physically overpower the opponent(s) by bodily contact; 2) a direct use of bodily force to a heavy object; 3) a projection of the body into or through space over distance; and 4) face-to-face competition in situations in which bodily contact may occur. These characteristics are believed to be appropriate expressions of masculine attributes such as aggressiveness, effectiveness, and power (Metheny, 1965; Koivula, 2001).

In a recent study, 403 participants were first asked to answer a short questionnaire regarding their gender, age, and physical exercise habits. They then completed a questionnaire regarding perceived characteristics of a sport. In this latter questionnaire, the respondent was asked to rate to what degree the descriptor is characteristic of the sport or those practicing the sport using a seven-point scale from 1 (“Not at all characteristic of the sport/sport participant”) to 7 (“Very much characteristic of the sport/sport participant”). For each participant, the sport to be rated was randomly selected out of 41 different sports, 19 of which had been previously labeled gender-neutral, 7 of which had been labeled feminine, and 15 of which had been labeled masculine. (The 41 sports were gender-labeled according to categorizations made in a previous study on gender-labeling of sports based on a Swedish sample (Koivula, 1995)) (Koivula, 2001).

Principal component analysis performed on the second questionnaire resulted in twelve factor-based scales: 1) Aesthetics and Femininity; 2) Danger/Risk and Violence; 3) Team Spirit; 4) Fair Play and Morals; 5) Speed; 6) Advanced Skills and Precision; 7) Commercialism; 8) Strength and Endurance; 9) Equipment; 10) Masculinity; 11) Excitement and Challenge; and 12) Cognitive Efficiency. All sports labeled as feminine scored high on scale one, Aesthetics and Femininity. Attributes such as “aesthetical”, “beauty”, “graceful”, and “sexy” loaded on the same factor as “feminine” and “womanly”. In contrast, the sports labeled as masculine scored high in Danger/Risk and Violence, Team Spirit, Speed, Strength and Endurance, and Masculinity (Koivula, 2001).

This study reveals much about the attitudes that persist in society today regarding sport and gender. Early on, sport was created to serve men, evolving as a celebration of maleness, valuing strength, power, and competition. It idealized, promoted, and rewarded successful, elite athletes, established “the dream” as a professional career in sports, and viewed mass participation in sport as a tool to weed out the weak (Hill, 1993). In contrast, women’s sports originated to “address the expressed need for healthful exercise” (Huckaby, 1994). Unlike the competitive warrior mode characteristic of men’s sports, women’s sports were rooted in philosophies of participation, cooperation, and play (Koivula, 2001).

The pattern revealed by the Koivula (2001) study is in accordance with male hegemony in sport and this archaic perception of the (differing) function of sport for the two sexes. When a man chooses to take part in a stereotypically “female sport” or when a woman participates in a largely “male sport”, he/she is often met with opposition. It is acceptable for women to participate in sports such as gymnastics, swimming, and tennis where the female form is revealed and movements are, by definition graceful and non-confrontational, but involvement in sports with more body-to-body contact such as football, wrestling, and baseball is met with disapproval. Oppositely, traditionally male sports must be based upon some degree of face-to-face interaction and aggression.

If either of these two principles is violated, sexual orientation is always the first aspect brought into question. Based on large-scale observations of sport today, women who choose to participate in sports like boxing or wrestling are immediately branded as a lesbian, whether it is true or not. This has resulted in a two-fold repercussion: 1) heterosexual women are deterred from pursuing involvement in male-dominated sports for fear of being exiled from their peers and potential mates, and 2) women who are gay feel extreme pressure to remain closeted, for fear of persecution. The same holds true for men wishing to participate in sports such as synchronized swimming or ice skating.

In today’s society, men who desire to pursue achievement in a sport lacking in aggressiveness and male camaraderie are viewed as having been stripped of that bit of power that elevates them from the status of women. In essence, when men choose to participate in a traditionally female sport, they are putting themselves on equal ground with women. The converse holds true when women participate in sports dominated by men; the entire misogynistic hierarchy is debased. When women demonstrate that they are capable of competing on the same level as their male counterparts, all the old beliefs and theories are dispelled and men are left with little defense of the argument that they are physiologically superior.

A predominating fear regarding bi-gender participation in sport in the loss of femininity, esteemed in most cultures and societies. Women have always traditionally been the peacemakers; they are mothers, they are gentle and kind, and they are always “ladies”. Many opponents of female participation in more aggressive sports fear that women will lose their “higher moral ground”. In the same sense, it is feared that men who choose to play in female-dominated arenas may become “soft”; they will lose their “edge”, which is believed to be the key to their obtaining power in the world.

Another concern is that, if men join a predominantly female sport, the female athletes will face an increase risk of injury due to excessive aggressiveness, thought by some to be inherent in the male. The reverse also poses a problem: men worry that having females on their teams will force them to “take it easy”, preventing them from playing to their full potential. As a result of these concerns, many athletes competing in a non-traditional sport based on their gender often see very little play time, thus detracting from the essence of sport.

The biggest culprit in maintaining the stratification of the sexes in sport is the media. The fact that the media dedicates only a small fraction of its time to covering women sports shows almost directly the value that female-dominated sports hold. In a study by Duncan and Messner (1994) it was found that in Los Angeles, 70% of the local sportscasts contained no coverage of women's sports, and devoted 5% of airtime to women in sports but tended to cover only visually entertaining sports or gag sports (e.g. nuns playing volleyball against bikini-clad women). Whenever there is a story concerning a female athlete achieving a milestone in a sport that is traditionally played by men, and vice versus, the attitude is commonly one of novelty and amusement, not one of respect and admiration.

This view is carried over into areas of funding, where women are compensated drastically less than their male counterparts for athletic participation. If a woman were to enter the NBA today, one can be almost positive that she would not receive a salary anywhere near that of a player such as Kobe Bryant or even a bench-player, regardless of her skill level. This can be seen with regard to academic athletic funding as well. At the University of New Hampshire, total expenditure for men's athletics compared to women's athletics is 1.7:1, even though the male/female participation ratio is 1.4:1 (UNH, 1994).

Despite the negative consequences often associated with crossing the gender line in sport participation, things are starting to take a turn for the better. One of the most important results is that women are establishing, indisputably, that they are equal to men. When there exists concrete evidence of women’s athletic ability, all formerly held notions concerning female frailty are dispelled. Another important aspect is that, despite the hardships they may have had to endure, there have remained a good number of male and female athletes who have continued to break down the sex barriers in sport and, because of those men and women, acceptance is growing. In a Sports Illustrated forum on women’s boxing, the majority of posters voiced their support of the female participants (Sports, 2000).

We must foster participation in co-ed sports, in order that men and women may learn to accept and understand one another better. Sport has historically been a good starting ground for relationships between people of different ethnicities and different races, why not between the sexes?

Colley, A., Nash, J., O'Donnell, L., & Restorick, L. (1988). Attitudes to the female sex
role and sex-typing of physical activities. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 18, 19-29.

Csizma, K. A., Wittig, A. F., & Schurr, K. T. (1988). Sport stereotypes and gender.
Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10, 62-74.

Duncan, M. C., Messner, M. A., Williams, L., & Jensen, K. (1994). Gender stereotyping
in televised sports. In: S. Birrell & C.L. Cole (Eds.), Women, sport, and culture (pp. 24). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Hill, K. L. (1993, November/December). Women in sport: backlash or megatrend? The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 64(9), 49-52.
Huckaby, A. M. (1994). Women's athletics. Unpublished Manuscript: Kenyon College Athletic Department.
Koivula, N. (1995). Ratings of gender appropriateness of sports participation: Effects of
gender-based schematic processing. Sex Roles, 33, 543-557.

Koivula, N. (2001). Perceived characteristics of sports categorized as gender-neutral,
feminine and masculine. Journal of Sport Behavior, 12-01-01, 337.

Matteo, S. (1986). The effects of sex and gender-schematic processing on sport
participation. Sex Roles, 15,417-432.

Sports Illustrated (2000). Reactions: Women’s boxing.
UNH President's Commission on the Status of Women. (1994). Report on the Status of Women Profile of Women Students at the University of NH.

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