Thursday, November 12, 2009

Women’s Basketball Media Guides: Lipstick, Yes. Lesbians, No.

Here is a terrific article written by Jayda Evans for the Seattle Times about women’s college basketball media guides and a trend toward photo shoots that highlight the players’ femininity (code word for heterosexuality, in my opinion). The problem is that this is nothing new. Back in the late 80’s there were several media guide covers that featured players in sexy dresses and high heels or similar attire. The most offensive one was from, I believe, Southwest Louisiana that featured the women’s team dressed as Playboy bunnies in Playboy bunnyish poses. The copy read, “These girls can play, boy!” The arena was called the “pleasure palace.” Guess who they were marketing to.

This is just more of the same tired old “sell women’s sports as heterosexy and feminine” to ward off those unsavory associations with lesbians. Whether trying to market women’s sports to fans or appeal to potential recruits we just can’t seem to turn the corner on that fear and put it behind us. It keeps popping back up like that punching back guy with the weighted bottom. Punch him and he goes down, then rocks right back up. Punch him again… We need to move on, for the love of Pete (whoever he is).

Google “woman athlete” in images. See what you get. Yep, women athletes in sexy poses. Google “male athletes” or “athletes” and you get men playing sports. People, it’s almost 2010. The protective camouflage of feminine (heterosexual) drag didn’t work in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90’s or the first 10 years of the new millennium. What the hell makes anyone think it will work now?

New Flash, people! There are lesbians playing and coaching sports. Some of them win national championships and set world records. Some were the pioneers who fought for the rights of young women who enjoy playing sports today.

Plus, it is so simplistic to think that all lesbian athletes shun dresses, high heels and make-up or that all straight athletes can’t wait to put on their femwear as soon as they get off the court. It’s drag! And it has nothing to do with anything, except, of course, conforming to fantasies about what it means to be a man or woman, gay or straight.

What’s more frustrating is that we now have emerging research that indicates that the sexualizing or feminizing of women athletes to make women’s sports more palatable, popular or acceptable doesn’t work. A study by Mary Jo Kane at the University of Minnesota indicates that showing women athletes in sexy poses to young men only makes them want to see more sexy photos of the women. It does not make them want to rush out and buy season tickets to the nearest WNBA franchise. At the same time these sexy photos turn off other important fan constituencies: Older men, who are likely to be fathers of women athletes, and most women.

Another study recently completed by Vikki Krane at Bowling Green University indicates that young women, the recruiting targets that team media guides are aimed at, want to see women athletes playing their sports (duh!), not posing for a faux Playboy feature or a high school prom picture. These findings make it all the more depressing that the “new” trend in team media guides for college women’s basketball seems to be the same old same old.

We just can’t seem to take that bold step out of the closet it would take to be proud of ALL the women who play sports: the lesbians, the heterosexual women, the big women, the small women, the femmy ones and the butch ones. We keep apologizing for who we are. We keep compensating for our strength and athleticism and our muscles by pushing the pretty or sexy ones forward, as Marie Hart said back in the 1960’s. We keep posing in sexy or femmy costumes to disguise the reality of our diversity.

Maybe one thing that Elizabeth Lambert did for women’s sports is shock people into seeing that women athletes are tough and women’s sports are not tea parties anymore. Though I deplore the violence in that incident, at least it showed tough competitive women playing sport not primping for a date after the game. We could do with a lot more honesty in how we present women’s sport. If we never get that 18-35 male demographic into the stands, who cares? Let’s not sell our souls trying.

We keep talking about how the world has changed for women athletes, but if it has only become acceptable to be a feminine appearing heterosexual acting athlete than not that much has really changed at all.

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