On sport: detached genitalia and other gendered concerns

The F-Word Blog’s weekly round-up references The Nation magazine’s article about women ski jumpers: Women Break an Olympic Barrier, Keep Reproductive Organs Intact. It shows how lacking I am in information that I was not aware that this was a thing or that people believed such nonsense as:

the pseudo-scientific belief that repeated impacts could dislodge female reproductive organs. “I’ve had people ask me had my uterus fallen out yet,” American ski jumper Lindsey Van, who has been at the forefront of the fight for inclusion, famously said about such claims.

On the other hand, I started to imagine if men were the “unsporty” sex and seeing the headline with the sexes reversed. And then what the same quotation would look like. Perhaps a male Lindsey Van would say, “I’ve had people ask me had my balls dropped off yet.” It makes as much sense to suggest that damage to the testes or sperm tubes could occur as that damage to the female reproductive organs could.

But then I started thinking a bit about what sports would look like that would exclude men on the grounds of spurious so-called medical concerns. Because of the privileged status of maleness and the association of masculinity with physical confrontation or contest (more on which later) it isn’t a thing that we tend to see in the real world, but surely there are activities of a physical nature that men are just less well equipped to perform (and I’m not talking about those relating to reproduction, such as pregnancy or breastfeeding, thanks)?

Of course, one the obvious objections to men playing sports and needing to be protected, are the ball sports. Yes, it’s standard for cricketers for example to wear a protective “box” over their genitalia for both sexes, but when you look at the most ubiquitous ball sport of all, association football (soccer), is it not obvious that men should be kept from playing a sport where their reproductive organs are so vulnerable? I mean to say, have you seen those poor men lining up to face a free kick and nervously putting their hands over their delicates? And the rest of the time, isn’t there such a terrible risk that the ball might hit them and render them infertile or something? To say nothing of how fragile their faces, their ankles, and their shins seem to be: the number of times I’ve seen men rolling around in OBVIOUS agony clutching these parts after an innocuous encounter with another player. It’s high time we protected these poor creatures properly and stopped them from putting themselves at risk by playing such an obviously dangerous sport!

Alas, my imagination runs dry for inventing or reimagining sports such that men should be excluded on “medical” grounds. I don’t know enough about anatomy, and in particular, muscular and skeletal anatomy as it differs between men and women, to answer the question. But the thought itself is worth having for as long as such ridiculous notions are entertained about women’s bodies and their capacity to compete.

Today’s headline from The Guardian newspaper reads, Women should try cheerleading and ballet, says sports minister. The minister in question is Helen Grant, minister of sports, equalities and tourism.

Naturally, there were objections:

But she faced criticism from gender equality campaigners, who said she should not suggest that the “only way for women to get involved in sports is to be girlie and feminine”.

Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project said: “It’s actually discouraging for a minister to say this. With our great athletes performing fantastically at the Olympics, we still see media outlets focusing on the looks and femininity, which the comments seem to do too.”

If the headline had been accurate, then this would be absolutely fair. It is still a comment worth making and one that is pertinent to the overall effect of the Minister’s comments. But here’s what actually was said:

“It’s having a good spread on offer. For example some girls may well not like doing very traditional hockey, tennis or athletics, others might, so for those who don’t want to, how about considering maybe gym, ballet, cheerleading? It’s not just schools, it’s clubs, it’s being innovative. Actually looking at our women and our girls and asking, what do they want?” she said.

In an interview with the Telegraph, she added: “You don’t have to feel unfeminine … There are some wonderful sports which you can do and perform to a very high level and I think those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating.”

Perfectly reasonable, really, don’t you think? Women who want to be feminine can do physical exercise and competition, too! Everybody’s happy!

Well, no. Not really. Making such statements, while seeming to be about choice and promoting sporting involvement, are more likely to send the message not that it’s okay to be feminine and look “pretty” and perform for the boys, but rather that these are the things that women should concentrate on, and if you want to be that freak who’s playing the boys’ sports, well, you can do that, but you’re not being a very good girl, are you? So Laura Bates is actually right on the money.

(It’s interesting that Grant references sports that are associated with women anyway, as the confrontational ones: hockey, tennis and athletics – never mind that it’s the England Women who won the Ashes in the cricket, or that we have in this country a broad base of women’s football with hundreds of matches played each weekend.)

I wouldn’t mind so much, but no one ever makes a similar statement about men who don’t want to be involved in the confrontational performative masculinity of most sports. That’s how Grant’s comments are sexist: it’s because they take as read that a female sportsperson is an aberration, not the norm. A woman who wants to compete is someone who must be indulged, rather someone that we expect, and we must encourage all those good little girls who want to be pretty to do pretty types of exercise and competition. It is similarly taken as read that men want to do sports and that choosing gym, ballet, cheerleading, or roller skating is not something to be encouraged for them (Bart Simpson and Billy Elliot notwithstanding). Heck, competitive or display ballroom and Latin dancing would be a great thing for boys who don’t want to do sports to have available (I’ve seen Strictly Come Dancing and the celebs’ remarks about the amount of work involved and how much weight they lose is astounding).

Helen Grant’s comments do nothing to help our female athletes and sportswomen.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Body, Gender, Politics, Sport and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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