Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Violence in Women’s Sports: Part of the Game, Transgressing Gender, or Sexy Catfight?

Video clips of Elizabeth Lambert, a soccer player from the University of New Mexico, putting the hurt on BYU players during a game over the weekend has attracted some serious attention from all corners of the sports and social media. Reactions to the video clips are fervent and widespread. If only people paid as much attention to women’s sports on a day to day basis. Has there been this much reaction to women’s soccer since Brandy Chastain ripped off her jersey to celebrate winning the World Cup in 1999?

First, I have to say, Elizabeth Lambert’s violence was over the top and I wonder where the refs, the coaches and her teammates were. She is being demonized and has been suspended from her team indefinitely, but only after the video went viral. She has apologized publicly and it actually felt like a real apology. I am not saying what she did was acceptable (especially that vicious ponytail jerk from behind), but she was not playing that game on her own. There were lots of other people there who bear some responsibility for letting things get out of hand. Where is the conversation about coaches and referees and what their responsibilities are?

I am as disturbed by some of the reactions to the video as I am by Lambert’s actions. If this had been a men’s game, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The kind of physical, dirty play in the video is an accepted part of the game in men’s sports. Maybe the eye gouging incident at the University of Florida was a little over the top, but generally, we don’t even bother to comment on similar levels of outside the lines play in men’s sports. But when women engage in shady physical intimidation practices or a fistfight breaks out during a contest, all hell breaks loose. Some people want Lambert banned from ever playing soccer again. We have a clear double standard here for the violence in sport we are willing to accept.

The overblown reaction is based on so many sexism notions. First, there is the idea that women are the kinder, gentler sex who don’t (shouldn’t) engage in violence on the field or even rough physical play that falls within the bounds of acceptable standards. Women are supposed to be nice and fragile. In the male world of sport fandom the absence of violent collisions, elbows flying, jersey pulling and punching are just another reason to dis women’s sports as inferior. I’m not saying I love violence in sport. I’m just saying we should have the same standards for all sports whether it’s about expectations about tough physical play or intolerance for violent play.

Other reactions include people who are supporting Lambert for her aggressive play and claim, with some credibility, that rough play happens in women’s soccer all the time. Why has this incident provoked such an outcry? Is it just that there is this video montage all over the internet?

But here is where it gets creepy. When this kind of play does happen in women’s sport, it isn’t often hailed as evidence of women’s tough competitive play as it is for men. Instead it is sexualized as really hot, a turn on, a catfight. There is a titillation factor that makes me very uncomfortable. A little woman on woman action becomes a show for the purpose of gratifying men’s sexual interests. The competitiveness and athleticism of women athletes are eroticized and in the process women’s sports are trivialized. Read some of the comments on men’s sports blogs or news coverage of this.

I also see a lesbian subtext in these reactions. A staple part of pornographic material is woman on woman sex staged for the gratification of men. Are men who think two women fighting or women being violent with each other is hot and sexy treating the incident like woman on woman porn? Is that what this incident has tapped into? At the same time, the prospect of actual lesbians playing sports is framed as a complete turn off for the same male demographic. These are the guys who hate the WNBA with such a passion that it feels almost pathological.

I would like to think we can take this as a great opportunity to have a conversation about sexism in sport, violence in sport, heterosexism in sport. My fear is that the titillation factor will win the day and the “catfight crowd” will enjoy yet another moment of sexualizing and trivializing women athletes. I also worry that the only outcome will be that Elizabeth Lambert will be demonized and banned for her rough play without examining the deeper manifestations of sexism embedded in our response to this incident.


EL said...

Thank you so much for writing about this. I've been so disturbed by the "catfight" labels and missing commentary of women's (acceptable) tough play. The inherent sexism in almost all of the coverage isn't being discussed - thank you for calling it out!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Pat. I was just in a huge discussion with "Joe Fan" yesterday about this very thing. I was pointing out these same issues with him and he just could not take it in at all or understand the connections. There is not even a section for women's soccer on the main ESPN web page and you have to dig really deep to find anything women's soccer at all. But this "news" is what ESPN and other stations choose to show on TV as far as womens soccer. Reminds me of last year when ESPN kept showing the brawl between the WNBA's Detroit Shock and LA Sparks. To me, it's all just another example of society's uncomfortableness with seeing women as athletes and can only be watched when they are being recognized for doing something other than the sport, (i.e. fighting, posing nude etc.) Thank you Pat. I'm feeling a little less alone after reading your blog.

lisa said...

Thanks for your post. I really agree. The whole discussion of women and violence in sport is often disturbing. I do some boxing. I love being able to actually feel and use aggression and violence in my sport... all within the rules of course because I am also a good sports person. I get so frustrated though by the treatment of women in boxing and other contact sports. A quick Google of 'women' and 'boxing' will show what I mean. So will a viewing of a BBC story on granting women boxers access to the Olympics. The footage of this story is of a beautiful, athletic women throwing brilliant punches. The commentary/interview is embarrassing and makes me feel like I'm in some kind of timewarp. The story is here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/olympic_games/8196879.stm
(Check out the left jabs at about 1.43. Lovely!)

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