Posted by: anniebutts | November 10, 2010

The Female Athlete

While reading Barry Reay’s piece on “Feminizing Men,” I was struck by the part about the female acrobat. Describing child gymnast Nathalie Foucart:

“Munby also saw her at the Alahambra, in male clothing, and with a figure ‘that was of a boy’. She dazzled him with her acrobatics on a trapeze. Familiar themes emerge: gender ambiguity in forms and actions; strength (‘muscular power which would have been wonderful in a man’); bodily contortion, recorded by Munby in sketches of these ‘most unnatural’ positions…Like actresses, female acrobats ‘defeminized’ themselves on the public stage.”

Last semester, I took a class with Laurie Priest called “Women in Sport”. We studied many influential female athletes and discussed in depth the role of the media in the portrayal of strong women. If you go to Google right now and type in “female athletes”, two of the first pages that appear are “The 15 Sexiest Female Athletes” and “Hottest Female Athletes.” In an arena that is predominately masculine, something must be done to compensate for the lack of femininity in female athletes. The media exploits the woman’s body in order to appeal to the masses…these women are not appreciated for their talents, but for their “sexiness”. But something interesting happens when the feminine ideal is not present in the female athlete….

Take, for example, Babe Didrikson:

“That she was female, androgynous to the point of boyish-looking as a youth, coarsely spoken and physically brash made her fame and popularity all the more unique. In the years immediately following the Olympics, there was a double-edged reciprocity between Didrikson and the press. Her “deficient femininity” and “disturbing masculinity” sparked constant fears of lesbianism, or worse yet, the existence of a “third sex” in women’s sports. Babe played a fascinating role in all of this. She revelled in the (early) persona of the boyish, brazen, unbeatable renegade, but cringed at the innuendos of abnormality. She was the consummate tomboy–beating boys at their own games. In fact, “boyishness” was tolerable and even engaging; “mannishness,” on the other hand, insinuated a confirmed condition out of which she would not grow. The latter charge was the greater of the two insults and confirmed her abnormality. One Associated Press release comforted the reader that “she is not a freakish looking character . . . (but) a normal, healthy, boyish looking girl” (4). Babe was keenly aware of how these portrayals cast her outside of the female gender. Poisonous stories flowed from journalists’ pens, likening her to Amazonian creatures. These renditions were so vitriolic that they evoked mother’s warnings that they would “not let their daughters grow up to be like Babe Didrikson.”

This brings up some compelling questions about boyishness vs. mannishness, uniqueness vs. freakishness, and this notion of a “third sex”. Just something to think about…


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