The Female Athlete: Dualisms and Paradox in Practice

By Clasen, Patricia R. W. | Women and Language, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Female Athlete: Dualisms and Paradox in Practice


Clasen, Patricia R. W., Women and Language


Abstract: The paper answers the question, "Why is it that women who compete in highly competitive physical activities need to express their femininity so overtly?" I argue that traditional Western dualisms have created a paradox for women in athletics. Because sports is a masculine social environment, the presence of women threatens definitions of masculinity. As a result, women have needed to emphasize their femininity to the point of commodification. Women and surrounding institutions have perpetuated the paradox both historically and presently. Feminist and gender scholars must be aware of the current ways in which paradoxes function in society in order to promote change.

If you grew up in America, you heard this: Sports are unfeminine. And this: Girls who play sports are tomboys or lesbians.... So you didn't play or you did play and either way you didn't quite fit.

If you grew up male in America, you heard this: Boys who don't play sports are sissies or faggots. And this: Don't throw like a girl.... So you played ... and felt competent, strong, and bonded with your male buddies. Or you didn't play and risked ridicule (Burton-Nelson, pp. 1-2).

In the summer of 1996, I spent countless hours watching the Olympic Games as well as interviews with the athletes on talk shows. As I watched, I was struck by the irony in the depiction of female athletes. While the performances of the women were strong, capable, and competitive, the color commentary and surrounding discussions of the female athletes focused on ideals that seemed to reinforce their femininity. On talk shows, I saw women discussing their hopeful modeling careers and families. It seemed ironic to me that women's athletic performances became secondary to their outside interests, particularly when those interests seemed to reinforce traditional feminine roles. Four years later, I again glued myself to Olympic coverage. This time, competition was a focus in women's sports, but so was the nude or adorned female body. After Jenny Thompson appeared nude in Sports Illustrated, some feminists were enraged that she would display her body in that manner (Reilly, 200).

My interest is in understanding why this contradiction occurred. Why is it that women who engage in highly competitive physical activities needed to express their femininity so overtly? This essay attempts to answer that question. Through an examination of the literature on sports and women's athletics, I argue that the label "female athlete" is a paradox grounded in traditional dualisms of Western culture. This paradox creates a problem for both the athletes and the media discussing them. Because of the traditional dualisms in U.S. culture, as women's sports become commercialized, traditional roles for women must be accentuated in the discursive environment that surrounds them. To understand this relationship, I first define significant dualisms in Western thought. I then describe the paradox of the female athlete. I also provide an examination of that paradox in practice both historically and presently. Ultimately, I argue that if the surrounding discourse and communicative climate of athletics does not ch ange, increasing access and attention to women's sports will perpetuate the paradox, making it impossible for athletes to compete based solely on their merit. This essay comes at a critical time for women's sports and gender research. With the development of the Women's National Basketball League, the victory of the Women's World Cup soccer team, and even the launching of a Women's Sports Network on the web, popularity of women's sports is rising (Petrecca, 2000). We must focus our attention so that we may better respond to paradoxes and dualisms which limit women's potential.

Dualism and Paradox in U.S. Culture and Athletics

Cirksena and Guklanz (1992) explain the nature of dualism in Western thought. They state that the dualistic assumption places terms on polar opposites and ". …

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