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Jewish World Review July 16, 1999 / 3 Av, 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Hypocrisy is rife
in womens' sports --

Women's World Cup frenzy swept across America this month, as giant crowds -- not just soccer-crazed girls and moms but boys, dads, and other fans -- cheered for their new heroines. The Women's National Basketball Association is in its third season, with a sellout crowd for its first All-Star Game last Wednesday. Women's tennis now generates more interest than the men's game.

The cultural implications are tantalizing: a new vision of womanhood that includes strength and competitiveness. Individual female athletes such as tennis players or runners have been popular for a while; but team sports, and especially contact sports, are much more of a metaphor for battle. Yet, while the rise of women's sports is rightly hailed as a triumph of womanpower, it is rife with paradoxes that challenge not only traditional but feminist assumptions.

For instance, women athletes can thrive in a "male" domain only as long as it remains segregated by sex. It's not that they're less capable.

Many male soccer fans have been greatly impressed by the women's level of play; women's basketball has no slam-dunks but hardly lacks in dazzling moves or intensity. Yet men are still bigger, stronger and faster. The female winners of the New York Marathon invariably come in behind forty-plus men.

The Gatorade commercial in which soccer star Mia Hamm takes on Michael Jordan in various sports, to the sounds of "Anything you can do, I can do better," is a cute fantasy. Yes, Billie Jean King trashed Bobby Riggs in 1973; all it proves is that a woman tennis player at the top of her game can beat a guy way past his prime. The "Battle of the Sexes" may have raised consciousness, but in a way it set the wrong standard for women's athletic achievement: in this kind of competition with men, women are doomed to inferiority.

As the example of tennis shows, women's play can be enjoyed on its own terms. Yet there are some provocative lessons here for feminists. Sex-segregated sports are clearly incompatible with the idea, popular among academic gender theorists, that the two sexes are not distinct biological categories but points on a "continuum" that includes hermaphrodites. (On a continuum, women are stuck in the basement.) One might also detect hypocrisy on the part of feminists who accept gender segregation in sports but reject it in the military, where the physical mismatch between the sexes can have far more serious consequences.

There are other paradoxical intersections between sports and feminism. Feminist principle often conflicts with pragmatism -- as illustrated by the rivalry between the WNBA and the American Basketball League, which folded in its third year last December. Many ABL supporters scorn the WNBA for playing a short summer season when the boys aren't using the gym. The ABL played in the same season as men, though in smaller arenas, and paid its players higher (though hardly NBA-range) salaries. The WNBA focused on marketing and getting its games on TV, which was far easier in the summer without competition from men's basketball. The rest is herstory. As the title of an ABL obituary in the women's basketball magazine Full Court Press summed up, "What's More Important? Political Correctness or a Thriving Sport?"

There's also the question of sex. Some controversy has surrounded the "soccer babes" image of Team U.S.A.: Julie Foudy in theSports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Brandi Chastain posing nude except for cleats and a strategically placed soccer ball in Gear magazine. A few feminists, such as writer and ex-athlete Mariah Burton Nelson, have criticized the WNBA for hyping attractive, feminine-looking, heterosexual players while downplaying the presence of lesbians in the league.

As long as female athletes rise to stardom on their ability, what's wrong with highlighting the fact that a few of them are gorgeous -- such as WNBA star and part-time model Lisa Leslie -- and most of the rest (whatever their sexual orientation) look, well, like women?

Sports have always had a sexual mystique, though the traditional stereotype is that athleticism enhances male sex appeal but endangers a woman's femininity.

Unfortunately, that stereotype still lingers. And fortunately, feminism or no feminism, most women will always want to be appealing to men. So if Brandi or Lisa can reassure us that women can be strong and sexy, athletic and feminine, more power to the sports marketing machine.

More annoying than the tendency to sexualize women athletes (at least to me) is the tendency to sentimentalize them as less egotistic and more emotionally bonded than men. Sure, the "girls of summer" don't have the oversized egos of celebrity multimillionaire male athletes; they're far from being multimillionaires, and they have just become celebrities.

Women's tennis, a far more established sport, has no shortage of spoiled brats. Women's basketball may be more team-oriented than the men's game, but the teamwork is meant to win, not to nurture relationships ( WNBA players who are traded to other teams compete against their ex-teammates, as in any pro league). Women athletes are fierce competitors and flawed human beings, not angels of the arena.

The encouraging news is that millions of Americans are watching women play without thinking of sexual politics. It's too early to tell whether women's basketball can duplicate the ascendancy of women's tennis or whether women can make soccer truly popular in the United States. But these sports have already become a part of mainstream American culture.

For all the compromises, that's revolutionary enough.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Cathy Young