Monday, August 6, 2012

The Olympics and the spirit of sexism

The Olympics are interesting. Seeing the best athletes in the world compete is thrilling. For some reason during the Olympics people seem to feel that National boundaries slip away and the world comes together, which is kind of bizarre considering the athletes compete country vs. country. National pride during the Olympics is akin only to national pride during soccer tournaments, which can border on the absolutely insane. But people like to watch sports,and people like to have national pride so during the Olympics we have a healthy sense of cognitive dissonance and we pretend that the countries pitted against one another haven't fought wars, engaged in exploitative economic or political campaigns, or launched genocide.  The world has a lot of problems, so the Olympics is a nice distraction.

The one conflict we seem unable to give up during the Olympics is the gender war. The Olympics, more than sport general, is the battleground for gender as binary and only binary. Considering athletes bodies are put on a pedestal as better than normal, as beyond normal, as almost transcendent, people sure spend a lot of time trying to ensure that female athletes fit into a normative female gender framework. The most recent example of this is the Caster Semenya "scandal" in 2009. Semenya, a South African runner, a World Championship runner and gold medalist in the Commonwealth Games, improved her time on the 800m by a margin that made the IAAF(International Association of Athletics Federation) suspicious and when women improve vastly and quickly the first test that Officials do is the "Gender Test." In Semenya's case her gender testing was made public and she quickly became the target of intense scrutiny, sexism, racism, and moral panic. Semenya ended up withdrawing from competition for a period of time but was eventually "verified"as woman.

Here's the thing about gender testing, it isn't just a simple blood test or a peek under the skirt. gender testing today includes a trip to the gynecologist, endocrinologists, psychologists, and internal medicine specialists. All of this testing is extremely invasive physically and mentally not to mention it adheres to old and outdated considerations about gender. This testing reinforces the idea that there are two genders and that everything else is an anomaly that needs to be fixed. In fact, more recent scientific discovery about the genetic makeup of human beings has asserted that there are more than two genders and that, chromosomally and physiologically, the two gender model just doesn't work anymore. Ideas about gender, about femininity, have been used against women for centuries: your boobs are too small, your labia is too long, your clitoris is too big, your muscles are too manly, you have a mustache, you have internal testicles. This policing of femininity causes women to constantly be on guard, constantly defend themselves, or constantly be working to look more feminine; fuelling the billion dollar cosmetic/skinlightening/weightloss/plastic surgery industries. Considering we all grow out of the very same material, it makes sense that our bodies wouldn't be cookie cutter copies of "perfect genders"--which, by the way, have historical roots in colonialism, racism and slavery.  Women athletes have not only had to fight to participate in sport at all, but have had to battle stereotypes of women being incapable, too weak, of women athletes being unnatural, all to do what men are allowed to do naturally.

Unfortunately, the Olympics has a long and disturbing history with gender--up until 1992 gender testing was compulsory and once included female athletes derobing and being examined by an Olympic board in the nude to ensure their "female-ness". Apparently this comes from the fear that males will pretend to be women in an effort to win more medals for their nations. I think it's more likely that it stems from a fear that allowing women to be fully athletic undermines the carefully cultivated control over women's bodies, that if we accept that there is no such thing as "female" and "male" then we can no longer put men at the top of the hierarchy of strength.

It is with all of this in mind that I stumbled upon a surprisingly disturbing article in The Toronto Star yesterday."Some sports-like women's boxing- don't belong in the Olympics", written by Cathal Kelly. To be honest, I saw the headline and ignored it. Generally speaking when there are articles about a sport that shouldn't be in the Olympics it's because it hasn't been developed to a high enough level, there aren't enough competitors, or that there aren't enough interested spectators. When I actually read the article today I was surprised that it had made it into the Star's official coverage of the Olympics because it reads like an opinion piece. Kelly's premise is that women's boxing doesn't "belong" in the Olympics because watching women beat each other up is "distasteful" akin to "bear baiting and gander pulling."  Interesting, both of these examples are considered cruelty towards animals so... are two women boxing like two animals being pitted against one another? I'm so confused.

Kelly claims that once the women's match started the audience went silent  and "several thousand people were having a simultaneous internal ethical discussion, trying to figure out if it’s OK to enjoy watching women beat each other up."  Not only is it pretty presumptuous to assume you know what everyone else is thinking, but it's pretty telling that Kelly assumes those thousands of people are thinking what HE is thinking. I'm going to guess that somewhere in that gigantic crowd there were people enjoying the sport, cheering for the women, impressed by their skill, and not experiencing sexist tension around whether or not it's okay for them to watch two amazing athletes compete at a high level.

Kelly rips the "post-bout" drama of "one day old" women's boxing, comparing it to a Soap Opera. Has he ever watched men box? Men's boxing is all about the drama, it's about posturing and showmanship, it's about constructing rivalries. Only when it is two women boxing does a mainstay of the sport become catty and silly. Women's boxing, somehow, is "kitschy" and Kelly doesn't seem to recognize that it isn't a new sport at all, it's just new to the Olympics.

Kelly continues his embarrassing tirade: "If this is about inclusiveness, the International Olympic Committee will cave to the British male synchro swimming team that is lobbying for a spot in Rio. Since no one will watch guys in nose plugs doing pas de deux, the IOC is not going to cave. Some sports just don’t translate across the sexes, however long we hold our breath and wish for a perfect, genderless world."

Why doesn't synchronize swimming translate across the sexes? Most major synchronized swimming competitions allow men to compete and it makes no sense that no one would want to watch men in this sport when they already DO. Some people value the skill that synchro swimming demands, and those same skills have been valued in male gymnasts and male dancers. Ballet translates across the sexes, and hundreds of thousands of people watch men without nose plugs do a pas de deux  so why wouldn't they want to watch them in the Olympics?  Nobody is holding their breath, wishing for a perfect genderless world. Men being able to synchronize swim at the Olympics doesn't symbolize a "genderless world". People have desires and wants, they fight for the right to fulfill those desires and wants, and what we get is a more balanced world where people are just people doing what they like to do.

So, Kelly doesn't want to watch a sport that doesn't reinforce traditional gender roles. Watching women beat each other up is distasteful to him because women haven't traditionally been encouraged to beat each other up in the ring. Well, if Kelly wants to watch sports that only make sense in terms of gender maybe we should have child birth as a sport. Or rape. Maybe we could build a complex arena that simulates a city, fill it with predators, and have female "athletes" traverse it. Maybe women could compete in "who can change a diaper fastest"? Who can roll their hair in curlers the fastest?  I'm not trying to be facetious here, I just really want to point out where a statement like "women's boxing doesn't belong in the Olympics" comes from and what kinds of stereotypes it upholds and perpetuates. Just because something is accepted or traditional doesn't make it right or natural. It is only distasteful to watch women beat each other up in a culture that feminizes women as weak caregivers, who are innately more loving and nurturing than men, and that strength and aggression are unnatural. If you aren't a sexist, then watching two women compete at the highest level at their sport doesn't throw you into "ethical" turmoil.

What is truly distasteful is a white, privileged man assuming that he knows the thoughts of thousands of sports spectators. It is distasteful for a male journalist to devalue a sport that demands rigorous training and dedication, to relegate it to the realm of a circus act. Just because this is the first time women are boxing in the Olympics doesn't mean it's the first time these women have boxed at all. These women are world champions, they are incredible athletes, they are disciplined and focused and for some journalist sitting in the crowd to pompously proclaim their sport as garbage simply because of their gender is truly shocking. 

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