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

Engendering Questions in Sports

Paula Arboleda

When individuals, male or female, decide to enter a non-traditional sport for his/ her gender, there will inevitably be benefits and costs. Because sports themselves are divided along gender and race lines, one would expect that individuals who intend to play a sport deemed by culture and by society as counterintuitive are bound to be criticized and alienated because of their choices. Difference automatically threatens conventions, traditions, and expectations, and hence, it threatens the individuals who belong to that traditional sphere. Because sports are affected as much by funding as they are by issues of diversity and accessibility, the following questions address those issues: which group of people have access to what sports (the type of resources a school has determines the number of athletic opportunities and leagues that are available), what racial groups are represented more in which sports (African Americans are over represented in basketball but they are under represented in iced hockey, whites are over represented in winter sports but they are underrepresented in football), and how do those two questions overall affect a society and culture's response to "deviations?"

Generally, society has certain gender constructions that apply directly and indirectly to sports. Men are primarily thought of as physically stronger, more aggressive, and more physically active. Hence, men involved in sports are seen as fulfilling part of their experiences as men. Because they are men and because society has all these expectations about men and their physical abilities, sports becomes an arena in which men can prove, assert, and measure their manhood. In past generations, men could assert their masculinity by the type of labor they performed and by engaging in battle; however, in the absence of these activities, men have relied on sports to reinforce their masculinities.

Women, however, are perceived by society as the gentler sex. Women are thought of as nurturers, mothers, daughters, but they are not thought of as being physically strong or physically capable of being strong. Once women began to enter the sports world, their coaches and spectators had different standards for them. They were expected to look feminine, to wear feminine uniforms, and to compete against each other but to have no physical contact with other players. The fact is that when women first began to play sports they were still something to be objectified. They were something to survey, and they had to be pleasing to the eye (men's eyes). "I want foxes, not oxes" (Ed Temple, Tennessee State 1952). This statement reinforces society's expectations regarding not only the ways women are supposed to look as they are engaged in a sport but it also gives credibility to the type of sports women are traditionally allowed to play.

Because gender constructions have been so influential in deciding what positions men and women occupy in the world and what part of one's identity should be reinforced in the activities one chooses to engage in, men and women's involvement in sports that do not reflect cultural and/or societal expectations like weight lifting, body building, boxing for women, and synchronized swimming, figure skating, field hockey for men can result in a number of conflicts. It can lead to social, sexual, and cultural alienation. Part of the female athlete's alienation stems from the way other people perceive her sexual orientation coupled with their questions regarding her sexuality, which is made more visible through her defiance of her culture's concept of femininity, and through her views of herself. In the movie Girl Fight, Diana is perceived by her Puerto Rican community and especially by her father as pursuing a sport, boxing, that is predominantly a male sport. In this movie her sexual orientation is not questioned since she is having a relationship with a male, however, boxing is culturally unavailable to her because she is expected to be feminine (her father badgers her about wearing a skirt). In this case, a culture that perceives a woman's role as synonymous with a place in the household and where manhood is synonymous with strength and protection is threatened by Diana's sport. In Biv's case, however, she was a body builder, who had to adhere to notions of femininity even though she was involved in a very nontraditional sport. She was the most developed body builder, but she was the least "feminine" looking. Although she was engaged in a nontraditional sport, there was a standard she was not allowed to challenge or overcome.

Sexuality in sports has become a major factor especially in sports where women and men are not traditionally represented. For example, the sexuality of men in figure skating is referred to occasionally; while the sexuality of women is based on how "masculine" looking a woman appears to be regardless of the sport she is involved in. Although men and women will be isolated from the culture and society in which they reside and although men and women and their sexualities may be questioned and scrutinized by their peers, by family, and by society at large, it is important that men and women challenge society's convenient notions about masculinity, femininity, and culture. Men and women in sports must use their art and their talents to question not only the validity but also the premise from which expectations, criticism, and conflict arise. Being involved in sports, regardless of its effects on one's personal life and regardless of the barriers that are created especially to hinder individuals from making choices, opens doors to others who are interested in pursuing a nontraditional sport and who need the support of others like them. Ultimately, the sports world must help validate individuals and their abilities; individuals must defy the sports world and its expectations when its intent is to perpetuate and create divisions among men and women, among homosexuals and heterosexuals, and among races and ethnicities.

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