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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Individuals Entering Non-Traditional Roles in Sports

Erin Murphy

Sports provide an amazing outlet for people of all ages. It has been proven that sports help focus and concentration as well as improving ones physical state. It is a beneficial pastime that all should be allowed to enjoy. Up until that age of 12-13 both genders are invited and welcomed to play sports. After this point something changes, it is not really talked about but pressure is effectively applied and society somehow manages to push people into very gender orientated and gender specific sports. The question is, what happens when someone doesn't succumb to the pressure and actively participates in what it referred to as a non-traditional role in a particular sport? This idea applies to both sexes, not just females. We are talking about how society reacts when women compete in body building competitions and when men become figure skaters. I believe that the root of our problem lies within the biases of our society.

The first major question that should be answered is why does society believe that people entering non-traditional roles as such a negative occurrence? I think that the root of this belief is buried in the past and has matriculated down through the generations. In the early history of sports it was believed that women were too delicate to participate in sports. The thought was that if women participated in strenuous activity that they would damage their reproductive organs, which would ultimately not fulfill an absurd belief that the primary role of women in society was to have children and care for the men. Back then sports were also used as an arena for men to test and publicly display their masculinity. Open acceptance of women in sports at that time would have posed as too much of a threat to the men's masculinity, therefore many years went by which allowed the practice of only traditional roles being witnessed and accepted.

On a more personal level, it has been my observation that up until the junior high level both boys and girls are actively engaged in sports, but once the boys start to get bigger, the adults in the society become apprehensive about allowing mixed gender play. I feel as though society has a tough time embracing the possibility that women might get hurt if they play sports. It is at this point in a student's career that a great division occurs, all of a sudden innocent games become strictly regulated and boys and girls are separated. Girl's sports although athletic are still deeply rooted in tradition, many requiring a uniform consisting of a skirt. Where as the same sport on the boy's side becomes more intense and more aggressive. Or the girl's are pressured into more of the supportive roles to play such as cheerleading. But what happens when these line are crossed by the different genders? I know that when I was a figure skater my male friends would always comment on the males on the ice. Comments consisted of questions including sexual preference and level of masculinity. This reaction is representative of how society plants preconceptions into the minds of the younger generations.

Society is uncomfortable with this cross over because they don't know how do deal with the element of the unknown. I find that this response is very childish and one that I would expect from a young child that didn't know any better. As opposed to trying to commend this athlete for having the courage to take a personal risk and put them at the center of attention, society blatantly points out that this person must have something wrong with them because they are not conforming to the mold that was laid before them. A prime example of this non-conformist action is Bev Frances in Pumping Iron II; she was non-traditional in the way that she presented herself as a body builder, traditionally as men's sport. She was a textbook definition of a body builder, every muscle was defined and toned, but when she went to the competition she was not judged on her ability as a body builder but instead by how feminine she could be while still having muscles.
The public recognition of individual female athletes attends much more to their feminine beauty and objectified status as particular kinds of commodities than to their athletic skill. (Banet-Weiser, p.411)

The judges were not judging on athletic ability, they were judging societies definition of a strong woman. Bev's physical state was threatening to the gender roles that had been set before her and she was publicly punished by for that in the form of not winning a competition she had won from the start. It was without a doubt that she was the most highly defined body builder in the competition.
Images of muscular women, on the other hand, are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations, and that had by now come to seem familiar and comforting to both men and women. (Holmlund, p.302)

A topic that is often discussed while talking about athlete's crossing the traditional boundaries is sexual orientation. There is something about a male figure skating and a woman being a body builder that makes society uncomfortable and the first defense mechanism that comes to mind is to question that sexual orientation of that athlete. The issue suddenly takes a very negative turn, this topic is something that everyone whispers about but will never talk about up front. I personally believe that many straight athletes over exaggerate their own gender stereotypes to avoid the topic, whereas gay athletes don't talk about the issue because there is still such a negative aura that surrounds non-heterosexual orientation.

The social and cultural costs that result from an athlete participating in a non-traditional role in sports are simple: the experience is highly detrimental to the athlete but ultimately positive for society to be exposed to the change. This is not to say that exposure will solve the problem of biases toward non-traditional things, but I do think that the more exposure that one has to something, the more mainstream it becomes. Another extremely important step that must be taken is teaching openness and understanding to the younger generations. I believe that people are starting to be a little more accepting and I think that this is a big step in the right direction.


Banet-Weiser, Sarah. (1999). Hoop Dreams Professional Basketball and the Politics of Race and Gender. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 23 No.4, 411.

Holmlund, Christine Anne. (1989). Visible Difference and Flex Appeal: The Body, Sex, Sexuality, and Race in the Pumping Iron Films. Cinema Journal, 28, 302.

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