Sport minister, Helen Grant MP, has just given an interview to The Telegraph newspaper stating that women should be given more opportunities to participate in feminine sports, such as cheerleading. The article goes on to quote that it enables “those participating [to] look absolutely radiant and very feminine”. And the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation have released a statement agreeing with her.
The problem is however, that it perpetuates gender stereotypes that suggest female = feminine and male = masculine. And it is these stereotypes that have held women in sport back for so long and led to years of people (mainly men) suggesting that sport is bad for women. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of weeks that we saw comments made by Russia’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, who said that women should not be participating in ski-jump because “Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”
So however well intentioned Ms Grant’s comments were – and I do not disagree with the fact that everyone (male and female) should have an opportunity to participate in a range of sports and exercise activities – unfortunately they were completely misguided. The headlines that have been drawn focus upon the notion that women and girls should (as a moral imperative) be emphasising their femininity through participation in particular ‘feminine’ sports.
What we really need to be doing (and this has been a focus in Parliament recently) is trying to dispel the gender stereotypes that begin at birth and are enforced throughout childhood. We need to stop ourselves saying to girls in particular ‘that’s not for girls’ or ‘that’s not very ladylike’ in the way that we expect them to behave where we have no issue with ‘boys being boys’ and playing roughly or getting muddy. This is what will help to change attitudes for girls participating in sport and exercise, so that when they get to secondary school they don’t feel that sports which leave them hot and sweaty aren’t for them.
Yes there should be a range of activities for both girls and boys that enable them to enjoy physical activity, but focusing upon ‘femininity’ just seeks to preserve the same old stereotypes.
Hours prior to the women’s 800 meter final, the IAAF released a statement asking South Africa to determine the gender of their athlete, Caster Semenya. Semenya had already breezed through the semi-finals and was expecting a podium position in the final, but the timing of the IAAF statement was heavily criticised as wholly insensitive and unnecessary. The IAAF conceded that questioning the sex of an athlete is a very difficult issue but they appeared to demonstrate further insensitivity to Semenya by suggesting that she hasn’t been accused of cheating as she may be unaware that she is not female.
Whether Semenya was aware of the media furore that was being created over the IAAF statement is not known, and fortunately it didn’t appear to have a detrimental effect on her result in the final as she finished first, a full two seconds ahead of her nearest rival. But the effect that the statement and interest subsequently generated from it is sure to cause concern, not least to Semenya herself. Since sex and gender, in our society, is one of the most fixed categories since birth and one of the fundamental tenets of our identity (nearly everything we do is labelled by our gender) to cast aspersions on it is to challenge the very core of who we are. This whole case, unfortunately, highlights the problem with maintaining the binary categories of male and female; categories challenged recently by Gerald Callahan in ‘Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the myth of two sexes‘. Callahan provides solid evidence that sex is a spectrum not a binary (or tri, if you want to include hermaphrodites) category. Taking Callahan’s argument seriously would cause serious problems for international sport which relies heavily upon the premise that only two sexes exist. This accounts for the IAAFs awkward and clumsy defence of their statement when faced with what they view as a someone who doesn’t fit the ‘standard’ mould.
This case highlights two issues; first, the problems that occur when we divide the world into fixed categories leaving no space for grey areas in between, and second, and more importantly, the insensitivity that is created when a real, feeling, human being is questioned over a core part of their identity based on such interminable categories. The IAAF needs to realise that whatever their rules and world view, athletes should still be treated with the respect and dignity that all sentient beings deserve.