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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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What are the social and cultural costs and benefits of an individual entering a non-traditional sport for their gender/sex?

Adrienne Leonard

Throughout history, society has clearly defined the roles that men and women were expected to play. In these roles, men were seen as both physically and mentally stronger, and women were seen as more gentle, caring and physically and mentally weaker. As such, men participating in sports which demonstrate grace and elegance was not, and to some extent, still is not considered to be the norm. Likewise, women participating in sports which demonstrate or require a great deal of physical strength is considered to be un-ladylike.

Additionally, there has been a certain physical image associated with both men and women, and when a person is physically different from what is considered the norm, then they are open to ridicule and prejudice from society. Traditionally, the image of women is that of curvaceous, maternal-looking people. Thus a woman who is exceptionally physically fit, or who has large and well-defined muscles is seen as strange. In fact, an "overly" muscular woman is generally seen as very masculine, or as someone who is trying to be manly. It is for this reason that many female athletes have been branded as "butch" or as lesbians.

Conversely, men who do not carry the image of testosterone-filled, macho, muscular and physically strong people are seen as less manly than they should be. Society seems to believe that men should participate in sports which promote the macho image, such as those sports which have a violent aspect to them, and those sports which base themselves in a demonstration of physical strength. As such, men who participate in sports such as boxing or power lifting are far more easily accepted than men who participate in sports such as synchronized swimming or dance.

Society views people partaking in sports not traditionally associated with their gender as people who are attempting to cross gender lines. In other words, they are seen as men who are trying to be feminine, or women who are trying to be masculine. Thus, if they do not fit the image associated with the ideal man or the ideal woman, then they are branded as homosexual. This can be clearly illustrated by looking at various female tennis players, Martina Navratilova being the obvious example.

Martina was the first female tennis player who really began to play tennis more as a power sport than a sport of technique. Thus she was seen to be playing in the style of men instead of playing women's tennis. Because she did not fit society's image of how a woman should look, behave and play tennis, she was ridiculed and branded as the proverbial bad egg when compared to her contemporaries. Additionally she was branded as a lesbian, which caused more hardship for her as she was forced to face a world which was much more homophobic at that time than it is now. Her sexual orientation is not really an issue here. It was just something that was used against her, and something that was assumed about her simply because she did not portray this feminine image that is expected of women.

However, female tennis players who have continued to portray the feminine image in addition to being athletes have never been victim to the sort of ridicule and prejudice that Martina Navratilova was subjected to. In fact, it can be seen that women in all sports who portray a very feminine image and who are physically attractive are given more beneficial press coverage. Thus women are accepted in sports if they are still able to portray this traditional feminine image, and if they are still seen as physically attractive.

The distinctive male and female roles extends far beyond the realm of sports. There are still many jobs and fields of study which are traditionally seen as "male" fields or "female" fields. The image of a woman is that of a caretaker, and a person who is physically and mentally weaker as compared to men. Thus nursing is considered to be a woman's profession, whereas the position of medical doctor is something which is considered a man's job.

Additionally, the sciences are for the most part still considered to be male-dominated fields. More specifically, the fields of Astronomy, Physics and any of the branches of engineering are considered fields of study that are better suited to men than to women. Conversely, fields such as the humanities and social sciences are generally more evenly spread and secretarial jobs are considered to be women's jobs.

There are many incongruities between what is considered acceptable for men and what is considered acceptable for women, and this can be seen in all walks of life. It stems from the traditional images of what men and women should look like and how they should behave which have been imposed on us by both our society and the traditions passed on to us from our ancestors. These incongruities and prejudices are most clearly seen and acknowledged in the world of sports, but in truth they pervade almost every aspect of our lives. This is not an issue which has an easy solution, but it is an issue which must be addressed if there is to be an end to the ridicule which many people are subjected to as a result of following a career path or making life decisions which do not conform to this set of unspoken rules.

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