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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Blurring The Lines

Jenny Simon

As it becomes increasingly acceptable for women to be athletic in American culture, a new question arises: in which sports should women be allowed to participate? From a physiological standpoint, it has been scientifically proven that female bodies do not differ significantly enough from male bodies to prevent them from participation in any "male" sports. This division between "male" and "female" sports clearly stems from age-old, socially constructed norms of femininity and masculinity. When women attempt to challenge these societal molds by participating in sports that are traditionally male, the intricate web of norms is disrupted. Like many other instances where traditional social constructions are tinkered with, individuals and communities are forced to reevaluate how they think about and categorize their surroundings. I would argue that women's participation in athletics, especially in non-traditional sports, is instrumental in breaking down stereotypes and social confines that have plagued women for centuries

As social theorist Nancy Fraser explains in her book Justice Interruptus, men have been historically considered to be the "universal breadwinners."* In other words, a man's responsibility was to succeed in the public sphere, working outside of the home to financially support his family. The term "universal breadwinner" also speaks to the male's role in sport. It was considered acceptable for the man of the house to be competitive in sport just as he was in the workplace, and to bring home recognition or a medal as he would an income.

Women, however, have had the very different role of the "universal caretaker." This translates into the woman being responsible for all that is within the private sphere, including bearing and raising the children, and maintaining the home so that the man can support the family financially. Women are expected to be more passive than their male counterparts. When a woman participates in sport, she challenges many aspects of the gender role that has been defined for her. First, she is taking time away from her family to do an activity that is outside the home. Second, in sport, she is behaving in a more aggressive and competitive manner, which contradicts the meek feminine mold to which she is supposed to adhere. Furthermore, when women compete in public, suddenly the lines begin to blur. Men no longer have the monopoly over the role of "universal breadwinner." Challenging these socially constructed lines works as a catalyst for social change. All women athletes, both in traditional and non-traditional sports, play a pivotal role in instigating this change.

Female bodies were traditionally expected to be small, slender, soft, and pretty, while male bodies were supposed to be muscular, large, solid, and handsome. Sports such as gymnastics and figure skating allow and almost require that women maintain such "feminine" physical qualities. Athletes competing in sports such as power lifting and rowing are encouraged to increase muscle mass at a rapid rate thereby acquiring a physical stature that society deems "masculine." Furthermore, while technique is essential to these sports, there is a significant emphasis on brute strength. Brute strength contradicts the passive femininity that is expected of women.

Women's participation in rowing, as a nontraditional sport, is a poignant example of how the integration of gender roles can instigate social change. Traditionally, rowing was an elite male sport. It is only in the past 50 years that is has become socially acceptable for women to participate. As an increasing number of women become integrated into the culture of crew, more and more women begin to challenge the feminine mold. Slowly the stereotypes begin to disintegrate.

Every year, hundreds of women show up to crew tryouts at colleges and universities across the country. As a result of the socially constructed gender roles, many freshmen women come to college with histories of eating disorders, body image issues, and low self-esteem. Some women, who have been deemed overweight, "solid," or too "masculine" throughout their lives, arrive on campus and are immediately recruited by the freshman crew coaches. Often this is the first time these women have been praised for their "unfeminine" bodies. Similarly, the small and silent freshmen girl who was overlooked in high school is recruited for the leadership role of coxswain.

Within weeks of the initiation into the microcosm of crew culture, women's mindsets begin to change. All of sudden, the woman on the pedestal changes from the slender and meek adolescent who was popular in high school, to the desired muscular and confident rower. Women who struggled with how they looked for so many years are coming to appreciate, the strong, healthy musculature they once loathed. When these women reach their senior year, they walk with an air of confidence in their bodies, their strength, and who they have become. And the silent freshman who was recruited to be a coxswain four years earlier is now running the show. Now she leads all of those who used to intimidate her.

Just as these mindsets were quickly adopted by incoming freshman rowers, they will begin to spread to classmates and co-workers, and eventually breakdown the rigid lines that divide feminine and masculine roles today. Hopefully, the next generation of young girls can aspire to be whomever they want, without the gender prejudices imposed on those who came before them.

* "universal breadwinners" is a term used by Nancy Fraser in "Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the 'Postsocialist' Condition" (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997) pp. 51-62.