Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.
P.E. -- to me there was nothing closer to my seventh-grade conception of hell than that infernal class. There, wearing the requisite blue short-shorts and pulled up tube socks, facing forty-five long minutes of humiliating (to my adolescent sensibilities) sweat-inducing activities, I learned it would be better to be a lousy jump-roper, dodge-ball player, or atrocious relay racer, than to actually attempt excellence at these endeavors.
Even at such a young age, I already knew that it simply "isn't attractive," to exert oneself physically in front of the opposite sex, unless, that is, the exertion does not detract from culturally-accepted ideals of beauty -- after all, cheerleaders, gymnasts, and figure skaters could be pretty (perhaps because all of those sports involve a dance-influence and skimpy uniforms...but I digress). No, I knew it was better to be pretty. No one is pretty in gym shorts, basketball jerseys, or hockey masks.
That I held such views of sports and their incompatibility with "attractiveness," is hardly surprising. All that is necessary to consider is today's popular public discourse surrounding women's professional sports (of the non-prancing variety), especially in light of the controversy surrounding the mere existence of the women's professional basketball league, the WNBA.
On April 24, 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved the concept of a Woman's Basketball Association of America to begin play in June 1997. The immediate reaction was one of tremendous public debate and controversy. Although, hardly surprising, this controversy was not based on issues of "ability," alone, but instead reflected deeply-rooted social ideals about femininity, sports, and sexual-orientation.
Although often begun, or masked as a conversation concerning the viability of a national sports league as a commercially sponsored and televised entity, the level of argument often disintegrates into allusions, or even outright musings or opinion on the "femininity" of players -- especially in reference to body size, appearance and attractiveness. Further, the subject of homosexuality is often raised as well, both as an issue in itself (with regard to both team members as well as the attending audience), and as a reflection of the social idea of the mandatory "de-feminizing" that must be involved in professional basketball.
One of the most common issues raised in the "WNBA" debate was the issue of financial viability of the institution. Time and time again, writers and commentators made reference to their concerns of whether a women's basketball league could garner enough interest to secure them the television coverage and corporate sponsorship they would need.
Often this question was raised as a "practicality" argument, i.e. "I have nothing against women in professional sports...but do you think they can attract the sponsorship money, or the ratings they need to sustain that money when people could watch the real thing?"
In a real sense, these commentators were correct, and they had a great deal of impartial "case-study" to draw on in support of their pessimistic view. As Allison Newton of the women's studies department of Iowa State University writes:
While women in the sports of golf and tennis have proven successful, other leagues such as softball, basketball, and volleyball have not. Every professional team of this type has been unsuccessful since the mid seventies. In many cases these teams were drawing fan support, but were unable to get the support needed from sponsors and TV. In some cases these women teams were not able to get fans, sponsors, or TV support. One common feature of all of the women's professional basketball and volleyball teams was a man (Newton).
I would go farther, perhaps than Newton in my analysis of the common feature of all of the women's professional teams, and assert that the common element was "man," and its views on the "place of women."
Gloria Steinem writes in her work Revolution from Within:
Once we get a grip on an understanding that, for males or females, standards of beauty are really about what society wants us to do or not to do, then we can affect them by taking power into our own hands and altering the way we behave...behind the form of what is considered beautiful, there is always the function of what is considered acceptable to do (Steinem 202).
If Steinem is correct in her "form and function" theory of the conception of beauty, the level of discourse in the WNBA debate seems to strongly apply -- a fact we see almost always reflected in the line of reasoning most commonly taken after the "sponsorship and TV argument."
Logically, when the question of the perceived lack of commercial sponsors willing to make the investment necessary to the support of a national professional basketball program for women is raised, the next question must be, "...But why? Why don't fans want to watch female sports in the huge numbers enjoyed by comparable male teams?"
The response to the "but why" question seems always come in layers.
The first layer is almost always the strident, often unabashedly gleeful requisite diatribe against the inherent "weakness of women," first in the game of basketball, and, usually later, in general.
The discussion commonly resembles the following, taken from Debbie Schlussel's Jewish World Review article, "WNBA 'players' are the female firefighters of pro-sports:"
What's the WNBA? Never Will Be Accepted? Could be If you're not "into" sports, don't stop reading here. This article isn't really about sports. It's about the ludicrous notion that mandates equal rights for women in every arena, including those where they are clearly not equal. Not because of "patriarchal standards"-but because immutable physical constraints make it so....Where are the slam-dunks? There are none. No plain dunks, either. There's no Michael Jordan in the WNBA. (The only thing that comes close is player Sheryl Swoopes' baby boy, Jordan, and he can probably make better shots than the women in his mom's league.) Why pay these boring, physically inferior athletes the same as their lustrous, male NBA counterparts (Schlussel 4)?
Yes, women are inherently lacking," according to proponents of the above argument, "No one wants to watch women's basketball when they could watch "real basketball," -- that's all, "it's natural...." Perhaps I would believe their assertion that the physical inequality argument is their only concern, were it not for the strangely hostile tone that seems to run rampant in the discussion...a tone that is all too common among the anti-WNBA camp, and a tone that hints at a second layer beneath the "physical reality" argument.
Where is this hostility coming from? It almost seems that the individuals, themselves, don't seem to know.
Take for example, Chris Martin, writer for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, in his diatribe against the WNBA, "I've had enough...I'm bitter and tired of the NBA and the corporate powers that shove the most God-awful basketball ever played down my throat...(Martin 1).
It is interesting. Is it possible that Mr. Martin really is "bitter and tired" because WNBA basketball is being "shoved down his throat?" Are WNBA games taking over the broadcast times of the NBA? Are WNBA officials really tying down unsuspecting Arizona sports fans and forcing them to watch?
Similarly, what is it behind anger one senses in Debbie Schussel's tone when she writes in her article?
Do you know who Chamique Holdsclaw is? Or how about Yolanda Griffith? I wouldn't know, either. Except that in the place of the real professional sports that I usually watch, they've been foisted upon me...(Schlussel 1).
Here, too, Schlussel seems to be operating under a similar understanding that her "real" NBA basketball is being "taken over" by the WNBA.
Of course, one knows this is not the case. One only has to look at the "no ratings" argument these opponents take during the first stages of their discussion to know this would never be the case. According to their own argument, it would simply not make economic sense for the television networks to do so. Why then, are they so angry?
The answer to this question lies in the same writer's subtle, and not-so-subtle, commentary on the players nature as 'mannish' (Cahn, 1993) -- a nature that, once perceived, results in intense disapproval, and in allusions to female "weakness," as a negative fact.
We see this in Schlussel's reference to Swoopes' baby in her argument, a subtle remark on her female "weakness," in the title of her article, itself, "female firefighters," and in the comment, later in the same article, "There's a sexual attraction there, and you'll never find that affinity, from members of either sex, for the WNBA's average alien -- a 6'3," muscular woman with which there's no identification," and in her observation,"...Real women don't play pro-basketball. They watch men (Schlussel 5).
Could the real reason many in the Anti-WNBA camp are so angry be precisely because of the lack of conformity to the "form and function" that…