Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Atalanta Syndrome

When the e-journal The Scholar and Feminist Online came out with their latest issue last week I was very excited because it was devoted to women, sport and culture. When I read the title of the keynote address by Catharine Stimpson that inspired the issue, I was ecstatic.
The Atalanta Syndrome: Women, Sports and Cultural Values is an excellent piece of scholarship that succintly and intelligently (while remaining very accessible) addresses the major issues in women's sports and the historical and current conflict between feminism and sport.
Stimpson incorporates a healthy amount of memoir regarding her own athletic endeavors and her immerson in feminism which provides a frame for two critical issues: sport and its (in)ability to overcome gender norms; and the role of feminism in sport.
The issue is entitled The Cultural Value of Sport: Title IX and Beyond. And so Title IX here serves in part as an historical marker. The articles all address issues in women's sports in what has been deemed the post-Title IX era (I always am a little nervous about that phraseology because I think in "post" there is an implication that we no longer need Title IX rather than it simply being a signifyer of time). So some of the articles do not extensively address Title IX but in any discussion of the current state of American women's sport the value of Title IX is implicit.
And Stimpson acknowledges this value in her address.
But Stimpson's first contribution is the naming of the conflict in which women athletes are engaged. The Atalanta Syndrome is "a cultural illness in which women are vulnerable and devalued." The term comes, of course, from the Greek mythological figure Atalanta who, though strong and swift and intelligent, was forced to conform to societal pressure (in the form of her father in the story) and marry.
The Atalanta Syndrome is something many scholars have been talking about, without naming it as such, and which this blog seeks to address from time to time as well. "Conformity to the prevailing rules of femininity" explains many of the limitations on and conflicts for female athletes. The examples are numerous in the speech and many of us can probably add more than we want to to the list.
Stimpson's other contribution, and indeed it is the contribution that the whole issue focuses on, is a discussion of the intersection of feminism and athletics. Other contributors take up more narrow aspects of this intersection but Stimpson offers the grounding for these with an explanation of radical and liveral feminism in the 1970s and the historical uneasiness among feminists in embracing sport because of its ties to war, violence, and masculinity.
Despite this, Title IX, which comes from a liberal feminist tradition, has increased women's particiaption in sports incrementally, Stimpson notes.But also it has created a shift in the version of Atalanta embodied by contemporary female athletes.
Though there is general public support for Title IX (despite its many "near-death experiences") Stimpson says that increased visibility alongside traditional gender norms has resulted in the overtly sexualized Atalanta and an even greater pressure for conformity to traditional conceptions of womanhood.
There is much more to Stimpson's speech that I cannot summarize here but is very much worth reading for its discussion of historical factors that have shaped female athletes as well as shifts in technology and ideology that construct today's version of the female athlete.


EBuz said...

Re nomenclature: I once referred to the "post-Title IX era" with the same qualification you made, and someone helpfully suggested that the opposite of "pre-Title IX" is simply "the Title IX era." I found that helpful, and thought I would pass it on.

Refering to now as the "Title ix era" allows us to reserve the phrase "post-Title IX era" for that future date when true equality reigns and all all traces of the atalanta syndrome have vanished.

Diane said...

Some of these issues are addressed in the excellent HBO documentary, "Dare To Compete," which chronicles every excuse ever used to keep women out of competitive and professional sports. One of the interesting points made in the documentary is that African American women rose to the top in sports first because their community was not obsessed with culturally-dictated concepts of "femininity."