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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Against Gender Norms
A controversial topic that is prevalent in the sport world today is the gender division of acceptable sports for males and females. American culture places stereotypes on athletes who choose to participate in sports that are deemed as nontraditional for their particular gender. At the same time American culture is being broadened by these courageous athletes. These athletes are enduring criticism based on cultural norms as well as the social affects on their own personal lives. Female body builders, boxers, and football players to male cheerleaders are just a few examples of athletes who have decided to go against society's gender norm.
The movie "Pumping Iron II" shows the hardships and sacrifices made by a female bodybuilder. All of the women portrayed in the movie worked hard to become defined and muscular. However the one female who pushed the boundaries of cultural norms the furthest and was clearly the strongest and most muscular did not win the contest. Bev had worked to become as muscular as a male bodybuilder of similar size, but she did not win because of criticism she received for not being feminine-looking,
Female athletes are frequently stereotyped as being gay, and, when a female athlete decides to enter a sport that is non-traditional for their gender, they have to deal with a consent battle of declaring their femininity. Just because Bev did not look delicate or have a "Barbie Doll" figure, she was unable to win. It was a body building contest, not a beauty contest. Females should not have their femininity questioned just because they want to do something that is out of their gender norm. Nor should a male cheerleader have to declare their masculinity because society views male cheerleaders as effeminate or gay.
Female athletes playing sports that are non-traditional for their gender also pay a price in their personal lives. A female boxer is built a lot differently than the average female. As seen in the movie "Girl Fight", the main character has a very muscular body, which she attained through hard work and dedication. However, she looks nothing like the "ideal American woman," which in turn can cause her to suffer isolation and assumptions to be made about her sexual identity.
Culturally there are other costs associated with females participating in traditional male team sports. For example, at the high school level where girls have participated on football teams, physical and equipment modifications have to be made for the female athlete to participate in the sport. Coaches have to help integrate the young women into the team, by making adjustments on how the team interacts. When you add a new element to a team, for example a female to a male team, the chemistry of the team and the cohesiveness changes. Time and effort on the part of the team leadership needs to be applied to help the female become an effective part of the team.
Participation in non-traditional sports for an athlete's gender also have some social and cultural benefits. An athlete who endures hardship and ridicule has a new found confidence. An athlete who is successful at an athletic endeavor that is non-traditional increases their feelings of capability and becomes more adept to handling challenges and difficulties. Increased self-esteem arises from mastery over difficult and unusual circumstances. The athlete has also increased their ability to interact with the opposite gender in the playing arena as well as in other life experiences.
The cultural norms are broadened by an athletes' participation in a non-traditional sports. Tolerance for acceptable behavior by athletes who are defying gender roles is increased. In recent years greater media attention has been paid to athletes participating in non-traditional sports, particularly females. Ultimately this encourages and provides opportunities for other individuals to participate.
The standards for what is viewed as attractive are also modified. For example women who are physically strong, competitive and have high endurance are looked upon more favorably. The experience of competition and working toward a common goal helps to enhance the level of communication and understanding between the two genders. This can translate to other life situations where individuals of different genders need to work together on an equal basis, ignoring traditional gender roles.
Any athlete who chooses to take part in a non-traditional sport should be looked upon as leader who is willing to risk the social and cultural challenges to pave the way for other athletes in the future. Cultural attitudes change slowly, but ultimately the members will benefit from increased opportunities and tolerance. Even though social and cultural costs seems to be high in the long run the benefits provided to individuals and society will prevail.