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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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How the Introduction of the Individual into a Non-traditional Sport for His or Her Gender Affects that Individual and the Sport Itself

Elizabeth Godshall

A high school age boy makes the papers when he joins the girls' varsity field hockey team at his high school. A woman is judged according to femininity rather than muscle mass in a body building competition. An African American is thought inferior to his white counterparts on the sports field. A woman is discouraged from playing contact sports under the pretext of being too delicate. All of these events have one thing in common: they, in their own context, involve individuals entering a non-traditional sport for their gender or race. Over the years, events such as these continually arise causing either promotion of the evolution of this sport, or the destruction or discouragement of similar events occurring in the future. For the most part, such events are initially held in a negative light, only to become accepted over time, nevertheless showing the scars of damage and/or the reaped benefits.
The most immediate and perhaps most obvious cost of such an entrance into the untraditional is the questioning of the participant's sexuality. This inquiry is most common to women as they enter fields such as boxing and basketball. Men, however, undergo the same scrutiny as they enter traditionally feminine sports such as figure skating and synchronized swimming. The appearance of new genders in sport does however take a step in the right direction. Every opportunity seized to create some sort of equality between the sexes in athletics is a step forward for that individual, for his or her gender, and for the sport into which he or she enters. This idea is best shown through the actions of a high school aged boy who joined the girls' field hockey team at his high school. It seems that he was not taken seriously at first. After all, I myself would have been surprised if a boy showed up on the field one day wearing a skirt like the rest of the team and expecting to play in the game. Part of the problem is that it is so uncommon. People are afraid of things that they've never seen or done. Non-traditional athletes in certain sports are partially unaccepted due to the fact that they are a first. This is part of the reason why Bev (from Pumping Iron II), was so unaccepted by the judges of the women's bodybuilding contest: the judges were disgusted by her muscularity. "Images of muscular women... are disconcerting, even threatening... [she was a] threat to established values." (Holmlund 302) There is a first for everything, but firsts are always hard to accept and integrate into society.
There was, for instance, a single female member of the wrestling team at my high school. It was something that we'd all heard of happening at other high schools, but was never something that we'd anticipated coming to our high school. She was seen as being strange: butch, unlady-like, even ugly. I never gave her more than a thought because I felt the same. In this context however, of non-traditional athletes in sports, I see how hard she must have worked to overcome the obstacle of being the social outcast due to her perceived peculiarity. Wrestling must have been something that she loved to do. If I can respect women like Martina Navratilova or Tony Stone for being pioneer women in typically male sports (tennis and baseball respectively), I should have given the same respect to this single girl who dared to be different in a school where being different was the one thing of which everyone was afraid.
One characteristic that made this girl different was her "un-lady-like" manner. This, among other qualities of past female athletes, led to the qualification of femininity in sport. Femininity is something that has always been defined by the contemporary society or circumstances. Sports followed this trend, creating their own definition of femininity, this definition evolving with time. Presently, women have the most freedom that they have ever had to play sports without enduring criticism from society. Formerly, they were criticized for over exerting themselves, endangering their health, having manly appearances, and other absurd things. It is in this criticism that femininity became idealized. A great dislike was forming against the muscular and fit women in sports. Society created an image of a "perfect" woman: delicate and motherly, quiet and reserved, and by no means an athlete. This left the athletic women to be seen as anything but real women. Most often, they were even labeled as being lesbian. The public could not accept the idea of women wanting to define muscle and get down and dirty like men did through their sports. Sports had always been considered an arena in which men could act like men. With women crossing over into this sector, the two genders were perceived separately. Male athletes were seen no differently than they had been in earlier times. They were still seen as men: strong, tough, and wild. Women participating in the same activities, however, were seen as anything but women: strange, not feminine, and insane. With such divisions forming, it made it very difficult to ever consider all athletes in the same light. Society as a whole began to devalue women in sports. This debasement would make the future development of women's athletics an uphill battle.
The benefits of this progression are still being seen today. Sports are only expanded and made more widespread by the inclusion of both genders. The inclusion of all in sports creates unity between players of diverse backgrounds. This is the case with the WNBA. Its creation served as a

"challenge to the clearly male-dominated realm of team sports requires complicated cultural negotiations by both the league and its sponsors to establish that professional women's basketball is a legitimate sport." (Banet-Weiser 403)

This incorporation, in essence, was a difficult one. Overall though, this is an example of a positive change to the sport of basketball. The WNBA gives women equal opportunities to excel in basketball as it does men. This league diversifies the game of basketball and allows for women ball players to play in a forum equal to that of men, thus diminishing the differences between the two genders. It allows men and women the equal opportunity to strive for the American Dream.
Sports have typically been seen as an outlet by which men and women can attempt to achieve the idealized American Dream. African Americans are specifically referenced when discussing the achievement of the American Dream. Sports have been seen as the road that can lead you to a better life and a future. Sports are advertised as the means by which one can leave the lower class, leave the slums, or leave any bad situation behind and succeed. Considering how very rarely this fantasy comes true, it is quite a "dream", yet it has the ability to bring equality. It is an area in which those who are less fortunate are able to compete equally even with those who are most fortunate. "It is also inferred that such factors as socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and gender are of little consequence." (The American Dream and Sport 3) Any man or woman can go outside and start running or kicking a ball around. Those who put in the time and effort can be rewarded in the end regardless of where they had their beginnings.
It is typical that things that have never been seen or done before will be met with opposition. This is consistently the case in sports with the appearance of individuals in non-traditional sports for their gender. This gender battle is deep, sports being merely one of the many fronts on which these differences appear. On most occasions, this experience is difficult for the athlete. They are analyzed, questioned, and observed, all of which makes life very difficult. It is however, for the benefit of their gender, race, and for sport itself that such modifications are made, that such alterations in sport are evolved.

Works Cited

"The American Dream and Sport." ESS 200 Course Reader. 1-54

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. "Hoop Dreams: Professional Basketball and the Politics of Race and Gender." Journal of Sport and Social Issues. Volume 23, Number 4 (November 1999): 403-420

Holmlund, Christine Anne. "Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films." Cinema Journal. Volume 28 (Summer 1989): 299-310

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