Olympics Blogaround: The Good, The Bad, and The Sexist

Although gender politics in sports is an ongoing topic, the Olympics have a particular way of spotlighting just how much this is still an issue that needs to be discussed. I won’t go into all of the details since so much of it has been covered much more eloquently elsewhere but I would like to specifically cover, somewhat broadly, the different ways that we defend/discuss/tackle the issues of femininity in sports. But first, here’s some of the coverage from other blogs so far:

Bitch Media: Games On! The London 2012 Olympics: So Far, So Feminist? 

Ms. Magazine: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: A Feminist Look at the Olympics (So Far)

Crunk Feminist Collective: Olympics Oppression?: Gabby Douglas and Smile Politics

Racialicious:  Sexism, Racism, And Swimming At The London 2012 Olympics

Metro: What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?

So that’s a little roundup of what’s up so far, but for the rest of this post I wanna focus about the femininity shame train that seems to choo choo on with the same calls of indignant disgrace we hear every time women step out of the gender norm.

From Gabby Douglass’s Hair, to Zoe Smith’s overly masculine body, to Ye Shiwen’s “disturbing” performance, the rhetoric that keeps getting tossed around is problematic because:

  1. It comes from men AND women, which leads to shortsighted claims that the criticism is fair because “other women think it’s an issue too.” Just because other women also feel the pressures of a patriarchal society enough to defend its rules, doesn’t mean it’s not there or even close to “fair.”
  2. It is so old, irrelevant, and played out.  It is particularly discouraging to feel that at this day and age we seem to barely make a progressive dent. Especially when Olympian athletes’ still get the good old “get back in the kitchen” comments.
  3. It undermines the real feats we’ve accomplished. it is easy to forget that it hasn’t been that long since women weren’t even allowed in the Olympics, or to compete in sports at all. And it wasn’t until this year that ALL countries registered for the Olympics allowed women to compete, and that’s even with some serious restrictions. These are the things that should be discussed, but instead we focus on daintiness and make-up.

The comments are also particularly problematic when there’s a racial connotation embedded as well. This was definitely the case regarding gabby’s hair and there was definitely a some of that with the comments that Ye’s body is particularly large for a chinese girl.

So what have athlete’s done to rise against the commentary? UK’s weightlifter Zoe Smith had a great response on her Blog to much of the femininity comments on her twitter. Here’s an excerpt:

Zoe Smith

“we don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.

Oh but wait, you aren’t. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren’t closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”

Now THAT’s an awesome response. Although in some ways Zoe still conforms to femininity (she wears make-up and lip gloss) she is confident in stating that these are not the attributes that define her, or some standard that she feels the need to adhere to.

A different approach to this that might be a bit more conforming but still subverting in it’s intent is U.S. runner Alysia Montano’s flower:

Alysia Montano winning the 800 meter heat

As to why she wears the flower she has stated the following:

“The flower to me means strength with femininity… I think that a lot of people say things like you run like a girl. That doesn’t mean you have to run soft or you have to run dainty. It means that you’re strong.”

The flower comes from wanting in some way to own femininity as a sign of strength on it’s own terms. However, for some it also brings up the idea that feminine characteristics are still in some way required to be an admired female role model. This is the continuing argument among feminists of whether or not to embrace certain feminine aspects while at the same time knowing that they are oppressive in some respects. Is wearing a flower and claiming girl power just as feminist as refusing to shave or wear make-up in a defiant denial of gender norms? I won’t go any deeper into the complexities of this argument, since that can be a separate post on it’s own, but it’s something to think about.

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