Women Athletes, Not Eye Candy

Imagine the NBA being ordered to sex it up a bit by showing some upper thigh and ditching the long baggies now ubiquitous in basketball. Or perhaps Major League Baseball athletes should start playing shirts versus skins to get the straight gals and gay men to start paying more attention to what some of us believe is a pretty snoozy pastime.

That’s essentially what just happened in women’s badminton before a global chorus of women shouted sexism and stopped the latest madness in women’s sports.

Just in time for the promotional campaigns for the 2012 Olympics get in gear, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) decided to create a new dress code for women players “to ensure attractive presentation” by forcing them to wear skirts or dresses, no shorts or trousers allowed. Needless to say, no rule changes were proposed for men.

Hello?—the Eisenhower era just called, they want their stultifying gender norms back.

After female players from around the world protested, including Muslim women who would have been forced to wear skirts over the leggings they wear for religious reasons, the BWF backed down. They hadn’t bothered to check with many female players ahead of time, only two are represented on their 25-person governing body.

Maria Sharapova, seeded ninth in women’s tennis, recently graced the front page of the New York Times‘ “Fashion and Style” section for her own self-rebranding as a fashion icon. Injuries have at times waylaid her tennis career in recent years, but this conventionally beautiful tall blonde woman is far better known for her looks than her game.

The image of Sharapova’s derriere graces the wall of more than a few sports bars. That lone image of her ass, the only female athlete pictured amidst easily 100 photos and murals of male players, sent me into a rage one evening with the manager of the Hop Haus on the far north side of Chicago. He insisted his customers enjoy the decor, at which point I took an informal poll of the female diners who were about as enamored as I was. (It’s unclear whether I’m banned from there, boycotting or both.)

Let’s face it, treating women athletes like eye candy is nothing new. But its persistence nearly 40 years after Title IX’s passage is that much more chilling. Two generations of women have come of age since that act was passed, which altered many of our bodies and boosted our confidence and self-perception as women.

Yet professional sports and most media that cover them—with some exceptions—still treat fitness and competitiveness in women as reducible to the means by which some become toned and thus more physically appealing to a straight male gaze. The years of hard work and all of the fierce drive behind competitive athletes’ achievements are diminished, even nullified by this sexist treatment.

It’s enraging, really, to see female athletes who’ve busted their asses to compete at the top levels of their sport judged purely on their ability to appeal to some straight male desires.

As with all things American, a good dollop of racism is served up with this sexualizing of female athletes. Take a gander at Psychology Today‘s ode to 19th-century eugenics, “Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women,” and you get some sense of how odious our culture continues to be. (I’m glad the magazine apologized, but WTF?!)

We’re unlikely to ever encounter a full spread in the Times‘ “Style” section on Danielle Adams, for example, but anyone who watched her bring the Texas Aggies women’s basketball team to victory this spring can’t deny her power, speed and ball-handling abilities. Adams is the six-foot-one Black female dynamo whose athleticism far outshone anyone who played in the men’s NCAA finals this year.

Danielle hasn’t got the model-thin looks and demeanor for Vogue, but I’d pay to watch her play professional hoops any day. She’s off to a career that I hope will be magnificent, but it is unlikely to be lucrative as women players in one of the few sports where they can play professionally earn a mere $35,190 as rookies. The maximum annual salary for any female basketball player in the WNBA is $101,500—slightly more than the fine Kobe Bryant just paid for screaming “faggot” at a referee. (Please see my upcoming piece in the Nation on “Why is the Locker Room America’s Deepest Closet.”)

There’s much more to say about all of this and I hope to explore the persistence of this toxic sexism—on the courts and off—in coming months. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t be happier that at least now there is a budding new women’s movement hitting the streets with all the irreverence and ferocity that decades of getting slapped back has produced.

I fully support the SlutWalk protest in New York City this August 20. Perhaps I wouldn’t have chosen that name, but who cares? Focusing on what we call it seems to be placing the emphasis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. There’s a fightback on the rise and it’s about time!

What do the titles: “‘That’s not art’: An analysis of modern art,” “Out on the street: The housing crisis and the movement against foreclosures” and “Will China rule the world?” have in common? They are all talks at Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air, July 1–4, Chicago. I’ll be there, don’t even think of missing it.

5 responses to “Women Athletes, Not Eye Candy

  1. Good article. My recent contribution to this cause was to replace the Danica Patrick poster in our car club building of her in a swim suit by one of her in her race car. There was much protest but I insisted it was important and that it was harassment against our female members or our spouses/girlfriends. It’s the same reason why offices don’t allow photos like that anymore.

    I think that at the very least women athletes should be respected for their abilities during competition or at places and evens that promote sports (bars, tennis clubs, etc). I’m not sure if there is an answer to women marketing their beauty through magazines to gain publicity and make money. I don’t see the demand for that decreasing from the make population. Do you see that as a problem?

  2. Greg-
    That’s a thoughtful question. There are several issues at play here, not the least of which is the market that shapes our notions of beauty, a culturally constructed concept if ever there were one.

    Among the many problems is the disparity between the way the sports market encourages us to think of female athletes in terms of their looks (NFL stars certainly aren’t marketed that way) and then they’re underpaid—if they’re fortunate to get paid at all—for their athletic work, making self-marketing inevitable.

    There is much to be critiqued about the politics of sports, but it would be a nice start if women could be taken seriously, have their games promoted and end the kinds of enforced sex-segregation in professional sports that keeps women in a sports ghetto and denies all athletes fair competition. I explore this issue here, “Playing With the Boys,” http://www.isreview.org/issues/72/rev-athletes.shtml

  3. I feel sorry for Greg who has been made either to feel guilty about his sexuality or to lie about it. Apart from the obvious idiocy of forcing women to wear clothing to enhance their sexual attractiveness as distinct from giving them choice to do so or not, this article is completely misguided. Women’s athleticism enhances or even creates their beauty. Sharapova understands this and so does Greg. If some women don’t want to be attractive to men who cares? Plenty do.

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