Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Response to Joe, re: women and sport

This post is a response to my friend Joe’s post about roller derby. I suggest you start there.

The whole "sports but also sexy" aspect of women's athletics has always bothered me. It's like women have to be objectified to participate in organized sports or it's simply too boring for anyone to bother watching (men and women alike). Look at the WNBA- they aren't trying to be sexy or cute, just really awesome at basketball, but there's no dunking and I guess it's not as exciting or something, so no one watches.

Aside: I maintain that all sports are boring because every game is essentially the same: they run up the field/court, they run down the field/court, sometimes they defend, sometimes they try to score, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but really, blocking is blocking and scoring is scoring and how many times can I be expected to watch blocking and scoring before I want to die?

No one liked the LPGA until there were cute women to watch. My impression of women's tennis is that it wasn't an en vogue spectator sport until people were interested in catching a glimpse of whatever was under those short skirts. Also the grunting.

Aside: I also hate the L in LPGA. I get that WPGA would take too long to say as an acronym, but the seniors tour gets to be the PGA Seniors Tour, so why not have the PGA Women's Tour?

It all bothers me. It's shameful that for women, sport and sex are so intrinsically linked. I agree with you that Roller Derby is preferable to the utterly disgusting spectacle that is lingerie football, but that’s because lingerie football isn’t a sport at all; I would argue that it’s not even a pretense of a sport. It’s an outdoor strip club minus the nudity. And it’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with the presentation of women’s athletics. The majority of sports consumers are men, and ultimately, they would rather watch a football-themed floorshow than female athletes really playing football. In my head, I can actually hear the Western Male Psyche saying to me, “Women’s football league? Why do we need that? We’ve already got a football league.” (The more cynical part of me can also hear an ass being slapped and a demand to “get me some more beer, Sweet Cheeks.”)

My point is that I wish we were more careful, as a culture, about confounding sex and sport when it comes to women. I would agree with you that you’re a better man for being attracted to archetypes of strong, independent women, and for being generally uninterested in the assault on the women’s movement that is lingerie football. (Now, if you’re a dude who’s into it in the same way he’d be into a strip club floorshow, I think that’s an appropriate and understandable reaction.) But let’s be clear (and I think this is the point Beau was making before): you’re attracted to strong women, and roller derby is, in your experience, full of demonstrably strong women. That does not mean roller derby is an inherently sexier event. You’re also attracted to authenticity of experience. Lingerie football is a very poor football simulacrum. It’s not even a good stripper simulacrum because no one actually gets naked (I assume). And you saw real women doing real sport at the derby, so it wins on authenticity. But everytime we make a value judgement about which sport is better and include "which does a better job of turning me on" in the calculation, we're no longer talking about sports.

I don’t know if it’s possible for men to separate their enjoyment of athletic excellence from their sexual desire when it comes to women’s sports. But I do know that I don’t ever find myself thinking, “I prefer being forced to watch the Blazers over the Seahawks because they’re a better looking team and you can actually see their sexy, um… selves? …” even though that’s technically true, now that I think about it. But I do find myself thinking, every basketball season, “It could be worse. Pete could be a huge fan of the NFL, or baseball. ::shudder::” That is about sport: game length, game pace, frequency of scoring, and ability to see the action without six hundred replays. It does not occur to me that you could objectify male athletes while they’re playing because they’re too busy being, well, athletes. But it seems to occur to everyone that you not only can, but should, objectify female athletes. I assume, because they’re women. It would be dishonest of you to claim that you aren’t turned on by roller derby girls, and I applaud your honesty. But it would be nice if women's sports were as interesting to the general public on their athletic merits as men's.


Joe said...


1- I do think that it's unfortunate that womens' sports are so bound up in sex, and if I'd written about the WNBA the way I'd written about roller derby, that would have been sort of weird.

2- The thing about roller derby is that it does have a sort of sexy punk vibe to it. I wouldn't talk about the sexy aspects of, say, the WNBA because there's not really a sexual element to it (other than seeing very fit people do physically impressive things). Roller derby, though, does have a sort of flirtatious and sexy element to it. The girls wear fishnets and short skirts, and have names like "Joy Toy" and the like.

3- I would argue that that element is multifarious and women-generated, for the most part. The derby girls were all doing their own thing, and were authentic. The lingerie football girls, however, were not.

4- While I was writing the post I was thinking about how it is sort of Norman Mailer-esque for a single straight dude to write about his attraction to certain types of women. When straight dudes write about women, the specter of objectification looms.

5- Objectification and attraction are different. Objectification is when you see someone as, well, an object. Attraction is when you are actively interested in people as people.

6- I am more attracted to punk/DIY/indie/hipster/whatever girls in fishnets and black uniforms than I am to blond girls in white lingerie. They seem more interesting, and I such an aesthetic presents a cultural/social/political niche that I appreciate.

7- I have also become fond of hyphens.

8- In the post, I was more thinking about authenticity, aesthetic and cultural niches than sport. Specifically, I was talking about how those elements related to what kind of girls I think are neato. Perhaps I should have made that clear.

9- So... there! Yeah! Boop!

Dale said...

I've never seen derby, actually, but I know a couple women who skate, and my strong impression is that they have not the slightest interest in men or what men think of the sport. They have no objection to men enjoying it, but that's not what it's about. (For them, anyway. No idea if they're typical.)

Seph said...

Um, wow. Who knew my birthday party would result in not one but two blog posts. So, in response to a few points...

Lingerie Football is, indeed, nothing more than a big-scale strip show (burlesque show?) with a novel premise. I think that's kind of the point, and I don't think anyone involved has any illusions that it's a "real" sport. Arguing that it demeans women's sports seems a little silly, since I don't think anyone really thinks of it that way.

I can't speak to why women's sports haven't caught on as well as men (since I don't really watch any of them), although I assume it's essentially just that most sports emphasize physical strength and endurance, so men's sports will tend to be more interesting to watch. Much for the same reason that pro sports are generally more interesting than amateur. Although you could always ask why, I suppose, sports that women would tend to do better at aren't more popular.

Of course, there is some sexualization of men in sports as well -- David Beckham is supposed to be quite the sex symbol, I hear, as are myriad other male athletes. I agree that most sports fans (i.e., men) aren't watching sports because they find the men attractive, but arguing that there's no sexualization of men in sports seems a bit disingenuous. Of course, the way that they're sexualized differs (men are portrayed as powerful and aggressive, while women are portrayed as subservient sex objects), but that doesn't seem to be limited to sports, by any means.

It does bother me that, in general, women have to be sexualized in some way to become popular. Every actress under the sun has to pose for Cosmo or the like, female athletes can't just play well on the field, or, hell, even Rachel Ray ended up posing for Playboy a while back. That's annoying and I wish it would stop.

And finally, as to Roller Derby... Mostly I just find Derby fun as a spectator sport -- it's a lot more engaging than any other live game I've ever gone to, and the low-fi, DIY aesthetic is pretty neat. Also, the crowd (participants and audience) is just more in general to my liking than other sports.