Thursday, September 24, 2009

The mommy discourse: Motherhood and sexification

Misty May is coming back to professional volleyball this month. May is the latest athlete mommy to return to competition. And thus the mommy discourse continues. Laura Pappano comments on May's return and discusses the other mommy returns. It seems like so many when you read them all in one short column, but there are actually many more than even Pappano recalls.
But, as she points out, when mommy plays beach volleyball, it's kind of a different dynamic. In beach volleyball, sex sells. (Of course in all women's sports there is a sex sells angle--just recall the calendar of nude female curlers a few years back.) But Pappano asks whether May and Walsh's mommy status (Walsh has a child as well) will hurt their popularity noting the limited role options for women: mother, bitch, bunny--she says. But things are not quite that limited--certainly not for white middle-class women. The stereotypes are there but even the image of motherhood has multiple sub-categories these days. And if fans are interested in keeping the sexy fantasies of May and Walsh going they will simply put them in that ever so lovely category: MILF.
Beach volleyball is an easy sell. Adding motherhood to it won't damage these particular players but neither will it offer than a reprieve from the sexification they have already experienced ( we can debate later about how much they contribute to this themselves).
We can look at the case of Kim Clijsters--who Pappano mentions, of course. Obviously sexualization of female tennis players is ubiquitous these days. But Clijsters was never a participant. And so in her return there was no worry about whether she had lost her appeal. Her appeal had always been based on her play, her professionalism, and her personality. And that remained when she came back this summer.
Of course Clijsters can put into one of those narrow categories of womanhood too: the good girl. She does not escape the labels just because she does not sell her sexuality. Let me be clear: the need to put women (and it happens and has happened to men as well but in different ways) into categories is problematic.
But if I had to be a heterosexual professional female athlete who wanted kids, I think I would choose Clijsters as my model. It seems so much less fraught.

1 comment:

Diane said...

Clijsters' return from motherhood mirrors that of the great Evonne Goolagong, who was also known for her personality. Of course, Goolagong also had to deal with racism, but the post-motherhood returns are otherwise similar.

Even Kim's "good girl" classification can't be left alone. Peter Bodo has never had anything but disdain for her because, he says, she "trades on her niceness."