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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Images of Athletes and the Binary Gender System

Rachel Kahn

According to a film produced by the Discovery Channel, "Is It a Boy or a Girl?," doctors perform genital surgery on newborn infants five times every day. What does this have to do with the cultural ideal of women in sport? Quite a lot.

A newborn with ovaries and a uterus is declared a girl, while a newborn with a suitably long penis is declared a boy. Sometimes the sex organs of a newborn are not definitive. For example, a clitoris may be "too long," or a penis "too small." The Intersexual Society of North America (ISNA) ( estimates that 1 in 100 people have bodies that "differ from standard male or female," and for every 1000 babies born, 1 to 2 receive genital surgery to "normalize genital appearance." These statistics indicate that the way we think about sex/gender (as a binary system: male or female) is severely flawed.

The two-gender system is an integral part of the way our culture works. Just as intersexual genitals are considered pathological, so are people who do not fit into the universal sex/gender stereotypes. We see this played out in sports: ice skating is a sport in which women have been completely accepted. Accepted, that is, wearing skirts, sequins and lots of makeup. Sports, such as football, which rely on strength, size, aggression and pain tolerance, are still dominated by men.

Why is it that we cling to the binary gender system so desperately that doctors feel compelled to uphold it by surgically altering the genitals of children who would not suffer physical consequences from having ambiguous genitals (and who risk loss of sensitivity and emotional scarring from a surgery they were too young to refuse)? There are many possible ways to think about this question. For one, ambiguity has never been popular. We like to categorize, and we don't like it when people do not fit neatly into our categories. The concept of a gender continuum with the societally constructed concept of "standard male" (as the ISNA terms it) at one extreme and "standard female" at the other has not taken hold because categorization would become far too difficult. Also, with no clear gender categories, heterosexuality would be nonexistent. The disappearance of heterosexuality is pretty frightening for an incredibly homophobic culture.

Recently, women have been starting to play more and more sports that have been, and still are, male dominated. This may seem like great progress, but there are clear indications that the binary is holding strong. Women who play sports are in danger of transcending the binary gender system. They exhibit many of the cultural ideals of a "man": strong, fast, aggressive, etc... Their bodies are built and trained. They don't fit neatly into their gender category. However, the cultural ideals of a "woman": domestic, passive, nurturing, pretty, "feminine", straight, etc... are cleverly upheld by the images of women in sports that are presented by the media. Pictures of male athletes most often depict them playing their sport, complete with muscles, sweat, aggression, and power. Female athletes, however, are commonly found in dresses, bathing suits, or nothing at all. Often they are at home, on the beach, or even in their kitchens. These are the images that people want to see because these are the images that allow athletes to remain safely categorized as their sex/gender dictates.

Sports will continue to be influenced by stereotyped images until we accept that gender is extraordinarily complex and that two limited categories simply do not begin to encompass its infinite possibilities.

(If you are interested in gender issues, check out "Sexing the body" by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Reading that book really helped me understand why the binary gender system exists and why it is so problematic.)

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