Student Guest Post: Play Ball, But Stay on Your Own Team!: Language and Gender Differences in Athletics

Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly. 

The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.

This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).

This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.

More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.

Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹.  A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.

Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?

The ball is in our court.

 

Bibliography

  1. Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
  2. Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.
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