Sports and eros, or why sex is more fun than gender

This is the fifth in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.

All posts in this series can be found here.


After she revealed the famous black sports bra that was dubbed “the cloth symbol of Title IX’s success,” World Cup-winning soccer star Brandi Chastain was rebuked by other women for showing a lot more than that before she ever became famous.

It wasn’t the provocative demonstration of underclothing following her clinching penalty kick in July 1999 in the Rose Bowl that drew the ire of some women’s sports figures. Instead, it was a pre-World Cup pose in Gear magazine in which Chastain was crouching and completely in the buff except for two strategically placed soccer balls.

Other photos in the spread showed off a ripped physique that symbolized Chastain’s arduous journey back to the U.S. women’s national team after she was dropped from the 1995 World Cup squad for being out of shape. Chastain was proudly defiant, and hoped it would inspire young girls:

“Hey, I ran my ass off for that body.”

More than a year later, as the American team prepared for the Olympics, the Village Voice rounded up the voices of disgruntled sports feminists — referred to fondly on this blog as The Sisterhood of Perpetual Indignance — to lecture a fully grown adult for apparently letting her entire gender down. Said Mary Jo Kane, an oft-quoted critic of such poses:

“If you’re a female athlete or you’re somebody who’s trying to promote a female athlete and you’re concerned that they might have the ‘wrong’ image, the easiest way to establish their so-called heterosexuality or their normalcy is to take their clothes off.”

Translation: Chastain was unwittingly implicit in media exploitation of her body. She didn’t know that she was buying into the twin evils of “heterosexism” and “homonegativism” that are rampant in American media culture. That’s why Kane had to speak for her. She and her ilk do this a lot, and they even conduct academic research into this subject, as I’ll detail below.

Here’s another former fan, so turned off by the “sexualization” of the U.S. women’s team, that she said she rooted for China in the finals.

For the love of God.

As I wrote yesterday, the anti-football fetish of some sports feminists signified a troubling new grievance on the gender equity front during the 1990s. But when it comes to the subject of sex, establishment feminists have an even greater level of discomfort than the clashing of shoulder pads. They’d rather talk about gender. Incessantly.


Representation obsessions

The 1999 Women’s World Cup might be regarded as highly as Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” win in 1973 over Bobby Riggs as a touchstone in the development of women’s sports in America. The U.S. team was seen as the wholesome girls next door, and as David Letterman’s “Soccer Mamas!” Even star midfielder Julie Foudy, later a president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, jokingly referred to herself and her teammates as “booters with hooters.”

William Saletan of Slate proclaimed this event had something for every feminist, which ought to have been a good thing. But the “difference feminists” were not amused, especially when it came to sex appeal.

For them, there is no such thing.

Kane is the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. She is frequently cited in major media outlets as an expert on sports and sexism, and was most recently an advisor for espnW, for which she was quoted in The New York Times. Like many professional feminists, Kane is very accomplished at being front and center on these topics. It all appears so mainstream and reasonable, until you look at what she and her Tucker Center cohorts are researching:

“Examining Online Intercollegiate Head Coaches’ Biographies: Reproducing or Challenging Heteronormativity and Heterosexism?”

“Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete”

And there also is a full-fledged lecture series with these headliners:

“Sex vs. Athletic Competence: Exploring Competing Narratives in Marketing and Promoting Women’s Sports”

“Images of Women, Sexuality and Nationalism: What’s (Olympic) Sport Got To Do With It?”

“Confronting the Triad of Violence in Men’s Sports”

To be fair, the Tucker Center also researches issues involving youth sports, sports and aging and sport-related health issues like concussions. Kane and her colleagues are professors of kineseology, which appears to have supplanted the traditional physical education curriculum as a hothouse for what they refer to as “sport scholars.”

But when it comes to media issues, this “scholarship” descends into insufferable, incomprehensible dogma. Here’s most of the background paragraph on the first title mentioned above, of which Kane was a co-author and which was presented in 2009:

“Past research in intercollegiate sports connects heteronormativity (i.e., societal and/or institutional assumption that heterosexuality is the norm) and heterosexism (i.e., prejudicial and discriminatory practices and beliefs toward any non-heterosexual identities and relationships) to the creation of privilege for the dominant group. Sport media scholars contend that coverage and framing of athletes and coaches present females in heteronormative ways in print, broadcast and new media. To date, research examining heteronormativity and heterosexism on university-sponsored athletic websites is scarce. . . . . Online biographies of NCAA Intercollegiate Head Coaches were examined for textual representations of dominant ideologies documented in sport media research — specificially heteronormativity and heterosexism.”

What the H?

Apparently, this is considered legitimate academic research.

‘A divine nimbus exhales from it’

This report came amid an outcry over the cover of an online media guide featuring players on the Texas A & M women’s basketball team dressed in — ahem — dresses.

Tasteful or oppressive?

The picture of heteronormativity?

Some of the same Aggies obviously felt so exploited by this that they went out the next season and won the NCAA championship. There was nothing in the way of what we in the South call “nekkidness” to this pose. It was along the lines of a James Bond theme. The fuss here was about all that heternormativity and heterosexism that’s supposed to signal a pivot away from lesbianism, all through mere representation. Some have even called it “drag” for women athletes.

Former Vanderbilt basketball star Chantelle Anderson begged to differ:

“It’s not about sexuality at all. It’s a photo shoot. As women, we want to show both sides. I don’t understand why it has to be us trying to prove we’re not gay.”

The official website for the Florida State women’s basketball team also got caught in the crosshairs two years ago when the players were depicted in senior prom photos — and sneakers. No nudity was involved here either, and there was nothing distasteful, except to those who think too much “beauty” is being peddled to attract new fans to the women’s game. The only plausible concern is that these are college athletes being made to represent their team in such a way, instead of pros able to make their own decisions.

Interestingly, the Seminoles had a rather rather unexpected defender in former National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland:

“We didn’t fight against dresses, but did fight against the fallacy that said if you wore a dress, you couldn’t be a competitor. To now suggest the opposite — that if you play sports you shouldn’t wear a dress — is the same kind of backward thinking that in the past attempted to block women from full equality.”

As someone who hasn’t worn a dress since, oh, high school graduation, I have just one question:

What the H?

There will always be feminist scolds to scream that women athletes are participating in the marginalization of their sisters. But iconic figures like Candace Parker understand better than most that sex and the body cannot be separated, and what’s more, this is a good thing. They are defining their own brand of femininity for themselves. Isn’t this what the movement was supposed to be about?

If a “Second Wave” feminist diehard like Ireland can come around on a subject like this, than anything’s possible, right?

Singing the body electric.


There wasn’t much of an outcry last fall when WNBA star Diana Taurasi featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue, with not even basketballs as props. I mean, honestly, how could you not marvel at all this, for aesthetic, athletic or sexual reasons?

The Mary Jo Kanes of the world want women athletes to be portrayed only as that, as hollow one-dimensional figures who reflect only a strict feminist visual ideal of what’s permissible to them. Judging from her comments and writings over many years, what Kane is suggesting is at the water’s edge of a certain kind of body fascism, but that’s a highly charged word and I’ll stop there.

Women’s sports, sexual expression and glamor do not have to be mutually exclusive, and I’m encouraged that the women who actually play the games, instead of those who theorize about them, are embracing that and ignoring the fusspots. They are athletes, and they are women. Thank God for that.

Sports historian Allen Guttmann, who’s admiringly chronicled the history of women’s sports, wrote in the mid-1990s that not only were feminist claims of “sexualization” passé, but the link between sports and eroticism can no longer be denied, especially where women are involved:

“Complaining that the media have portrayed Katarina Witt ‘as a sexy female’ rather than as ‘a serious, committed athlete with a discipline and desire for athletic excellence,’ Mary Jo Kane and Susan L. Greendorfer fail to acknowledge that Witt — like thousands of other women — is a serious athlete and a sexy female (who is very obviously aware of her attractiveness). . . . it is time to recognize that most of today’s journalists are more than willing to acknowledge the strength, endurance, toughness and skills of women like Witt.”

Now more than ever.

Coming Monday: Next week I’ll begin offering some ideas on what I call “The Next Frontier for Women’s Sports,” starting with the need to rework Title IX.

Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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One Comment

  1. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, since I’m a male, it’s hard to wade too deeply into this particular conversation. I would only ask what is / would be considered a responsible dividing line between a proper celebration of the female athlete’s body and objectification. Perhaps the question I’m meaning to ask is really this: Where is the dividing line moving, and/or where should it move (or be moved) in the future?