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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
On Serendip

Going Against the Grain: Athletes Changing Gender Roles

Alia Preston

It's not uncommon for male and female athletes involved in sports that "threaten" the traditional roles of men and women to be stereotyped and made fun of for being less than what a man or woman should be. It is not deemed "normal" for a man to be a ballet dancer, synchronized swimmer or ice skater because those are traditionally "feminine" sports. The barriers to men becoming involved in traditionally female sports may be harder to overcome than those in front of women participating in traditionally male sports because there is a certain level of novelty when a woman tries to participate in a male sport. She is tolerated because she is so "cute" or because she won't be good at it anyway; for a man in a woman's sport, it is not necessarily the women, but other men within society who pass judgment on said man's masculinity. For men and women athletes who are involved in a sport that goes against the traditional sex and gender roles there are benefits in the long run, but the costs and sacrifices are, on the whole, more prominent.

The benefits of a woman or man becoming involved and pursuing excellence in a sport that is non-traditional due to contradictions in gender expectations and roles may seem few and far between. The hardest stage of a person's involvement in said sport may be the beginning—just being exposed to a sport that goes against gender roles isn't enough because exposure may be as simple as national Olympic coverage or an invitation to a child's birthday party. Once person is exposed to a non-traditional sport, the first hurdle is getting over self-inflicted (which are directly linked to society-inflicted) gender stereotypes and having an interest in pursuing involvement in that sport regardless of it going against what is masculine or feminine. If we're talking about a child becoming involved in non-traditional sport at a young age (which is when many people become involved in career-oriented sports) the hardest part may be having a talent or interest tapped into and encouraged by those around the child. Once a man or woman becomes involved in a non-traditional sport the benefits of their involvement will most likely be more prominent when they get in the upper echelons of the sporting world and begin competing on a national and international level. By being involved in a non-traditional sport, there is a certain level of uniqueness that can be used in getting sponsors, publicity and support. An example of this type of benefit can be seen in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics that recently ended; the women bobsleigh team got a lot of endorsements before the Olympics even began, that was in part because this was the first Olympics that women would be competing in the event and these women were being praised and supported because of their involvement in a man's sport. This is a huge benefit for these women—they were pioneers in the sport and were gaining recognition within the sport and within society, in part for being women. Not only that, but they also help the sport by opening it up and stirring up interest in young people as well as athletes that have been involved in other sports, but may excel in a non-traditional sport.

The sacrifices that are made and the hurdles that have to be overcome by an athlete involved in a non-traditional sport are more visible because gender roles and expectations are so highly internalized within society. When those gender expectations are challenged, people don't know how to react because their ideal has been shattered, so many times that frustration is manifested through abusive channels. Often athletes who are involved in non-traditional sports are met with name-calling and accusations about their sexual orientation. A man who wants to be a figure skater will most likely be accused to being a homosexual because figure skating is considered a more "feminine" sport. These athletes may be shunned by their male or female counterpart within the sport because they consider themselves the "right" people to be involved or an athlete may be shunned by their other members of their gender as well as society at large. These sacrifices are very heavy on top of the pressures of being a competitive athlete, which in many ways is already isolating that person from the world because their focus is set and narrow. Being isolated within a sport because of gender is the biggest cost that the athlete has to pay—isolation is a difficult mental hurdle to overcome. In Pumping Iron II, all the women are going against traditional female stereotypes by being active at all, but a certain level of bodybuilding is "allowed" under the guise of health and fitness. The problem arises when Bev goes against the feminized standards of female bodybuilding and has a physique and workout habits that are like a man's and not a woman's. The cost that she pays for this is a certain amount of isolation from the other contestants (even though Carla does seem to support her and act in a "friend" capacity) and is instead accepted in to a male gym and gains the support of her male trainers, both of which are the height of masculinity and she potentially loses the competition because of her treat to traditional roles of women.

The costs may be greater than the benefits to the outside observer; it doesn't seem to make sense to the majority of society that going against gender roles is worth it because of the hardships seem to outweigh the benefits. However, it is the love of the sport and the love of participating in it that propels people forward, regardless of how it affects how people view them in terms of their gender. In many ways it is harder for women to overcome the expectations put on their gender, but once that barrier was broken the stigma that is attached to them is easier for them to bear. Men can easily participate in "female" sports, but they may be harassed more by male athletes and feel the pressures put on them by their gender differently then women. Looking at sports today, it is obvious that, even though changes still need to be made within society, progress has been made and the line between the genders is becoming more and more abstract in the realm of sports and athletics.

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