Amélie Mauresmo's Muscles: The Lesbian Heroic in Women's Professional Tennis

By Forman, Pamela J.; Plymire, Darcy C. | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Amélie Mauresmo's Muscles: The Lesbian Heroic in Women's Professional Tennis


Forman, Pamela J., Plymire, Darcy C., Women's Studies Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

On January 26, 1999, unheralded 19-year-old French tennis player Amélie Mauresmo upset the world's number one player, Lindsey Davenport, in the semifinals of the Australian Open Championships. After the match, Davenport told assembled reporters that Mauresmo's power and physique were overwhelming, that playing her was like playing "a guy" (Dillman 1999:D1).

Davenport's remarks might have passed with little notice, except that after the match, Mauresmo "leapt into the arms of girlfriend Sylvie Bourdon and was cradled with hugs" (Leand 1999:C3). Then Martina Hingis, the world's number two player and Mauresmo's opponent in the Open final, told Swiss journalists, "in a joking tone in German . . . [Mauresmo's] here with her girlfriend. She's half a man" (Clarey 1999:H10).

Following those exchanges, the women's final was played in an atmosphere of heightened media interest. Hingis won the match, but Mauresmo's time in the spotlight was not over. Shortly after the match, a New York Times reporter found a "calm and confident" Mauresmo outside the players' lounge. Mauresmo told the reporter she had intended to talk about her sexuality, even before the Open began, "not because she wanted to become a symbol or the focus of attention, but because she did not want to dance around the subject throughout her career" (Clarey 1999:10).

Athletes rarely speak publicly of their lesbian or gay identity. Thus Mauresmo quickly became an object of scrutiny not just in the locker room, but in the sports media and among tennis fans. Mauresmo is not the first strong women tennis player to have incited what Miller et al. (2001) call "moral panic." Women's sport has a well-documented history of sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia (Cahn 1994a, 1994b; Griffin 1998; Lenskyj 1986). Homophobia and sexism certainly endure in women's sports, and elements of the Mauresmo story read as a "lesbian panic." Therefore the Mauresmo story does not read as a defining marker of the progress of lesbian and gay rights in sports. Our study combines a critical reading of print media articles and Internet newsgroup postings about Mauresmo to suggest that the Mauresmo story raises doubts about the ability of globalized, commercialized sports to further either the liberation of sexual minorities or the deconstruction of norms of sex, gender, and sexuality.i We argue that Mauresmo does not represent a lesbian hero with political implications for women's tennis but is more of an underdog hero who can be adored within the context of commodity culture.

THE LESBIAN BODY IN SPORT: TRANSGRESSION AND COMMODIFICATION

Prior to the news conference at the Australian Open semifinals, the adjective most often used to describe Mauresmo was "unseeded" (e.g., "Williams Lets Her Hair Down" 1999:29). After the semifinal match with Davenport and the subsequent comments from Davenport and Hingis, correspondents quickly focused their attention on Mauresmo's body. For example, an Associated Press reporter wrote, "Mauresmo's thickly muscled shoulders bulge from her dark blue tank top, and she struts cockily around the court like a weightlifter in the gym" (Wilstein 1999:S6). Other correspondents reported that Mauresmo's body signaled the arrival of an era in which female players challenged traditional male terrain: "The Mauresmo style shows women's tennis has become a game for the super athlete" (Evans 1999). Mauresmo is a woman fit for "muscular combat" who could make top male pros of the past "look like a powder puff" and now "threatens to trample over all-comers" (Muscat 1999).

We can read these comments as part of a moral panic over the lesbian body. Earlier, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Renee Richards challenged not only standards of feminine strength and athleticism, as women like Jennifer Capriati, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, and Venus and Serena Williams have done, but their avowal of sexual difference challenged cultural meanings of womanhood in important ways. …

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