Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The privilege of outside status and a narrow view

Until yesterday morning, I had not read anything about how Brittney Griner of Baylor has been treated by the fans and by the media. And I don't mean the reaction to her punching a Texas Tech player a couple of months ago. We all know that. I meant the reaction to HER as a very tall, slightly androgynous, deep-voiced, woman of color with a so-called aggressive style of play.
But I knew that similarly situated players, like Courtney Paris, experienced racialized and sexualized taunts from the crowd. And I heard that from a fan, not from the media.
This recent NYT article reported that Griner has been the subject of web chatter over her sexuality and gender (which is tied up in her race as well, though the NYT fails to note this). (Little aside: check out Dr. Lavoi's report on the experiences of two high school players on their meeting with Griner down in San Antonio last weekend.)
But despite this information, the writer seems to think that Griner is part of a group of female athletes who are helping change "feminine beauty ideals" which "have shifted with amazing velocity over the past several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports." Also part of this group speedily changing the standards of beauty: Maria Sharapova, Misty May, Kerry Walsh, and Mia Hamm (who is described as "thick thighed").
Let's note for the record that this article appears in the Fashion and Lifestyle section of the paper--not the sports section. And this is very obvious throughout and certainly by looking at the above group of thin, mostly tall, women with long hair, some of whom compete in little bitty bikinis.
Give me a break. These women are not challenging the feminine beauty ideal--they are reifying it. I don't care that they merely have muscles (and Hamm's thighs are not that thick!). They have socially acceptable muscles. They have toned muscles and very little body fat. They have what all those women who go to "sculpting" classes in the gym are after. Why isn't there a hockey player on that list? Those women have mad muscles--everywhere! Of course you don't get their full effect under all that padding, and maybe that's why we don't really see them--or want to see them. What about speed skaters or bobsledders? Note that even Serena Williams, whose muscles are considerably larger than those on that list, is missing from this discussion.
Sure, feminine beauty ideals do change over time. So do norms of masculinity, though. Let's remember, NYT fashion people, that it was men who first wore shoes with heels.
And maybe androgyny is making a comeback as the writer and some of the quoted experts suggest. I don't know. I have the privilege of living in an area and a community where androgyny is always in fashion. But even if it is coming back, is it the Brittney Griner version of androgyny? I happen to think she is attractive. But my aesthetic has never been much in keeping with these normative "feminine beauty ideals." When the fashion world says androgyny is in, I think about models who cut their hair short, ditch the red lipstick, and wear more "masculine-looking" clothes and pout like slightly fey teenage boys.
But even if it is coming back, and even if Griner is part of this new look (and if she is, let's just state again for the record that Maria Sharapova is certainly not), it is just a different standard that women will conform to. Androgyny, when it's the norm, is not empowerment. It doesn't present a legitimate challenge to hegemonic femininity or the gender binary when it is anointed as the latest version of femininity. Because there will be rules about how to "do" androgyny.
What this article seems to ignore is that there have been androgynous women in sport since--well forever. But also that while sport and culture are mutually constitutive, there is a specific sport culture, one that can be very rigid; and it is one that does not get enough attention in this article. You cannot ignore that a lot of people care and think about Griner's sexuality and gender presentation or that Paris, who I would not label androgynous, was subject to what amounts to hate speech; and that all this is tacitly sanctioned in women's sports. Fighting for access to sport while trying to adhere to social standards of femininity (which again don't change that much) has resulted in interesting negotiations and concessions and, as a result, a complex history--a history that has more influence than the current fashion trend.
Do we really believe that if androgyny had been en vogue when Jennifer Harris--or any of the other dismissed or ostracized players--was playing basketball for Rene Portland at Penn State, she wouldn't have been told to wear less baggy clothes or take her cornrows out and subsequently dismissed from the team? I don't.

1 comment:

Diane said...

And why isn't Sam Stosur on that list? Stosur is naturally (beautifully) muscular, and says she doesn't work out nearly as much as people assume.