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Entering Non-Traditional Sports

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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
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Entering Non-Traditional Sports

Claire Reilly-Shapiro

Because of stress from families, grief from peers, or doubts from coaches, it is difficult for an athlete to enter a sport that has traditionally been classified as a sport of the opposite sex. Athletes love the challenge of sports, the thrill of competition, and the benefits of achieving – all qualities that men and women share – however, certain sports also exude qualities of femininity or masculinity, grace or sheer power, and these qualities complicate the qualifications to enter specific sports. On the surface, ballet is graceful, soft, and poised, and a "real man" would never possess such characteristics. Ballet, in reality, requires strength, stamina, balance, but because the jumps and turns of a dancer appear to be effortless to the audience, the work and strength behind ballet are rarely recognized. In boxing, the athlete's skill is evident by his or her strength and fighting ability, but traditionalists do not believe that women should display such aggressiveness. Individuals who enter into a non-traditional sport for their sex do have opportunities to excel in what they are passionate about, although these accomplishments often come with notoriety, labels, and sometimes even the loss of support of their family and friends.

The difference between sports that are traditionally women's and those that are traditionally men's comes from historical thoughts about women's ability to endure physical activity. One of the dominant myths surrounding women was that they were inherently weak, and if they tried to become active, they would destroy their reproductive organs, and thus fail at their foremost occupation (Hult 84). This myth has been debunked, however the mentality remains. The opinion that women are not as mentally or physiologically strong as men continues and has divided sport into two categories: that of "traditional men's sport" and "sport for women." While traditional men's sport is characterized by dominant, risky, and aggressive behavior, sport for women is safer, with passive and subordinate behavior (Oglesby & Shelton 8). Today, sports that are more graceful and seem to be safe are identified as women's sports, distinguished from men's sports that involve the strength necessary to be active and aggressive.

Challenging this binary classification of sport is threatening and comes with social and cultural costs, although breaking into the sport of the opposite sex has its benefits also. More men and women are entering non-traditional sports for their sex in an attempt to blunt the sharp division between men and women's sports. The effect of their brave efforts is twofold: it asserts that women are just as capable as men of playing traditional, active sports, and it redefines women's sports as strong, not weak, and as equal, not inferior. Nevertheless, most men and women think that the risks of social isolation, a lack of opportunities to excel, and the constant questioning of sexuality outweigh the long-term benefits that come with challenging tradition.

It takes the strong will of a woman like Diana Guzman from the movie Girlfight to break into a sport that is aggressive and dangerous, and thus usually reserved for men. Diana also displays an enormous amount of dedication to boxing, evident in her pursuit to compete, despite the many obstacles and prejudices against her. First, Diana must prove to her brother's coach, Hector, that she will train as hard as any of his male students just to receive good coaching. Once she proves herself to be a competent boxer, she must force her way into amateur competitions against the wishes of many other coaches in her division. With her strong spirit and dedication, Diana manages to break into the competitive arena; and as for those who did not believe that she could ever box at the same level as men, she does, as the film's slogan states, "prove them wrong" (movie Girlfight). In this movie, Diana triumphs in winning her boxing match, in finding a way to express herself, and in gaining self-confidence, yet these accomplishments do not come without a price

For Diana, the benefits of challenging the gender role in the sport of boxing exceeded the costs, although unfortunately, this is not always the case for all women who enter into traditionally male sports. Diana did not have the support of her father, yet she developed the strength to defend herself and her mother against his attacks. She did not break into the popular crowd at school, yet she gained the ability to control her anger so the retorts of her peers did not bother her, and she proved herself superior to them in gym class. Diana's sexuality was never in question, even though she participated in a "masculine" sport, because she found not only a boyfriend, but also the pride to exhibit her strength in a feminine manner (for example, replacing baggy sweats with sports bras and shorts). Diana prompts change in the world of boxing, however she does not present a threat to the feminine, heterosexual convention as "images of muscular women" do.

These images are "disconcerting, even threatening" because "they disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations, and that has by now come to seem familiar and comforting" (Holmlund 302). Again returning to the binary classification of sport, muscular women challenge the idea that "sport for women" is subordinate, because these women obviously have the strength to dominate many men. Women in traditionally male sports also question the relationship between femininity and women: are these dominant and muscular women feminine, and if they are not feminine are they women? (Holmlund 301). Most of society, men and women alike, is afraid to redefine femininity because this "will entail the loss of love, power, and privilege" (Holmlund 304), and society is simply not ready to introduce "butch" women into the spectrum of degrees of femininity. While "the American public is eager for strong, aggressive, competitive, female role models" (Banet-Weiser 417), it must limit these role models to heterosexual women who do not look anything like men.

In the same way that society is hesitant to question the model of femininity, and with the same frequency that butch, muscular women are stereotyped as "what a lesbian looks like" (Holmlund 303), men who enter into traditionally women's sports are attacked as weak, effeminate, and homosexual. One of the most blatant examples is that of a male dancer. In the sport of dancing, particularly ballet, men are ridiculed for their grace, elegance, and style, and criticized for not being aggressive or "masculine" enough for a "traditional men's" sport. It is a common misassumption that ballet does not require strength, skill, or stamina, but only the ability to tiptoe around onstage; in reality, ballet is an extremely athletic sport. Dancers spend years training their bodies, developing muscles that are long (as opposed to bulky) for a more aesthetic line, yet with the strength required to jump, turn, and support their bodies in difficult poses. According to Peter Darling, the choreographer of the film Billy Elliot, "ballet is as close to an athletic sport as anything ... the best ballet dancers combine grace with athleticism." To combine grace, strength, musicality, and endurance becomes the main goal of the protagonist of the film, Billy Elliot, after he discovers his love for ballet.

The film traces Billy's discovery of ballet after one of his boxing lessons, through the dance lessons he keeps secret from his father, and ends with his success of admission to the finest dance school in England, the Royal Ballet. Discovering ballet as a means to express himself is not easy for Billy, as he must confront his father about his true passion, find his place in an all-female environment, and work hard to discover his talent and confidence, many themes echoed from the movie Girlfight. "These two movies are mirror images of each other: dead mothers; frustrated fathers; tough, kindly mentors; and main characters whose ambitions fly in the face of expected sex roles. The accents are different; the characters in "Billy Elliot" speak in the Scots-inflected dialect of northern England rather than in the Spanish-tinged rhythms of Red Hook. But the narrative idiom is the same" (Scott). Unlike Diana, Billy must also grapple with the issue of sexuality. Billy stresses that "it's not just for puffs, dad. Some ballet dancers are as fit as athletes," yet his father is firm in his belief that ballet is "for girls, not for lads, Billy. Lads do football, or boxing, or wrestling, not ballet" (movie Billy Elliot).

Billy's struggle reflects the experience of many boys who love to dance, and also parallels some of the experiences of the actor who played Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell. In an interview, Jamie states that he was hassled by his classmates who said, "you shouldn't be doing that, Jamie, it's not for boys, it's more for girls. They said I should be playing football or rugby so I just didn't tell them where I was going after football practice and went to my dance lessons" ( Unfortunately, many men and women who enter non-traditional sports have to keep their passion a secret for fear of derision or criticism, or for fear that they will have to stop their sport all together. This can be frustrating, and if athletes do not have the sheer dedication and love to continue with a sport for which they will receive little recognition, there is not incentive enough to persist. For this reason, and because it is hard for athletes to break into non-traditional sports in the first place, the progress to change the stereotypes of feminine or masculine sports is slow. Nevertheless, to excel in a non-traditional sport is a huge accomplishment for the few individuals who confront historical prejudices, and it is an important step in challenging the traditional characteristics of men and women's sports.

Works Cited

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. "Hoop Dreams." Journal of Sport & Social Issues. Volume 23,
No.4, November 1999: 403-420.
Billy Elliot. Universal Pictures, England: 2000.
Girlfight. Screen Gems, New York: 2000.
Holmlund, Christine Anne. "Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex,
Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films." Women, Sport, and Culture. Eds. Birrell, S. & Cole, C. Human Kinetics Publishers: 1994.
Hult, Joan S. "The Story of Women's Athletics: Manipulating a Dream 1890-1985."
Women and Sport: Interdisciplinary Studies. Eds. Costa, M. & Guthrie, S.R. Kinetics Publishing: 1994.
Oglesby, C.A. & Shelton, C.S. "Exercise and Sports Studies." The Knowledge
Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship. Eds. Krammarae, C. & Spender. Athene Series, Teachers College Press: 1992.
Scott, A.O. "Billy Elliot: Escaping a Miner's Life for a Career in Ballet." New York
Times, New York: October 13, 2000.



Continuing conversation
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09/27/2005, from a Reader on the Web

i am wanting to send this letter off to some people what do you think? Dear sir or madam, I am writing to you to complain about something that happens in my school. I am a girl, 15 years of age, Year 10 and this year I was allowed to choose the subject that I wanted to study for physical education. I haven’t taken G.C.S.E P.E so I only have a lesson once a week. I have chosen rugby because I am passionate about the game. I was put with the boys which is not an issue as I regularly play rugby with boys anyway. I have always played full contact rugby for many years with boys. I am annoyed because I am in the lesson but yet do not get to fully partake, not through any choice of my own. Every week I arrive with the correct equipment (gum shield). One of my arguments is that some of the boys in my group are a lot smaller and less physically developed than me and regularly complain about being in pain even at non contact points of the lesson therefore I feel that they are at as much risk as I am. This makes me feel very isolated and victimised because of my gender which as I understand means that people aren't living in equality which surely does not comply with the equal opportunities act. I think that if they would prefer girls to do the sport separate from boys, then rugby should be introduced into the curriculum for girls. So then girls can experience what rugby is like and then decide for there selves whether or not the sport is for them, after all football is in the curriculum so why shouldn’t rugby be introduced? I am not blaming my school for the issue as I know they are complying with the rules that have been given to them but I am wanting to achieve something and even if I don’t get to study rugby at school then maybe future students will.



June C.'s picture

Been there, done that

It's a blessing and a curse. I did both men's football and wrestling. I still suffer from the politics, the isolation and everything else this article talks about, and it's been over 6 years. I can't wait for the day when things are equal.