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How a female athlete's body became a battleground for gender assumptions (again)

| April 24, 2012

For those of you who follow women's basketball, you will have already heard of Brittney Griner. Though only 21 she has been making waves the past few years, most recently having received Associate Press' Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Like many elite level athletes, Griner possesses some unusual physical traits (think swimmer Micheal Phelps with his wingspan as long as 26 monarch butterflies lined up in a row… or more simply, 6'7"). Standing 6'8" tall, Griner wears a men's U.S. size 17 shoes.

The use of the word "unusual" over "unnatural" is an important distinction and kind of the crux of what this blog post will be about. I recently read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It's a young adult historical fiction novel about a upper-class white girl who finds herself as the only female passenger on a voyage across the Atlantic in the 1800s. As she transitions into a competent member of the crew the antagonist Captain Jaggery attempts to squander any solidarity she builds with the other crew members. In a particularly memorable scene Jaggery accuses Charlotte of a crime using an argument about her "unnaturalness":

"Doing her part like we all was," the captain echoed in a mocking tone. "Mr. Barlow, you are not young. In all your years have you ever seen, ever heard of a girl who took up crew's work?"
"No sir, I never did."
"So, then, is it not unusual?"
"I suppose."
"You suppose. Might you say, unnatural?"
"That's not fair!" I cried out. "Unusual and unnatural are not the same!"

The captain goes on to say that due to Charlotte's obvious "unnaturalness" it was the duty of the crew, of the men, to "protect the natural order of the world" by getting rid of her.

Bringing this back to Brittney Griner (… and Caster Semenya and all the other female athletes that have been scrutinized for their "unnaturalness") her most recent splash in the news was about her decision to remove herself from consideration for inclusion in the London 2012 Olympics. She cited school obligations and family health issues as her main reasons. What caught my eye in this Women Talk Sports article was the author stating, "I saw pokes and jokes about the fact that she's afraid of genetic testing and that's why she doesn't want to play for the USA, because she’s actually a man." I thought, oh shit, here we go again. So I searched "Brittney Griner+gender" to see what the media and sports pundits had been saying.

At the beginning of April after Griner's team won the Women's NCAA Championship game, the opposing coach (a woman) said of her after the game, "I think she's one of a kind. I think she's like a guy playing with women." Apparently referring to Griner's gender was not a new thing at this point but this coach's comment is important because it led to many articles devoted to Griner's gender appearance. The articles "defending" Griner are what prompted me to write this blog. Save for this excellent piece at Fit and Feminist, I was sorely disappointed and surprised given the excellent progressive articles written about Caster Semenya and the shit show around her "gender testing." The author of the CBS article titled Questioning Griner's gender? Please, just shut up and go away is rightly very angered by the scrutiny of Griner's gender but his conclusion is, "If you think Brittney Griner is a freak, or not a woman, or something other than what she purports to be, either bring proof or shut up. And since you don't have proof, you're really left with Option B." Similar is the attitude behind this Washington Post article titled Brittney Griner's gender? Shame on those who even ask the question which starts her defence by remarking that Griner didn't "ask for" a deep voice and size 17 feet. I'm happy that these mainstream journalists are condemning offensive comments about Griner but the conversation is severely lacking in an analysis of gender policing in sport and why this keeps happening to female athletes (especially non-white female athletes). This has nothing to do with the exceptionality of Griner and everything to do with patriarchy and racism as played out through the institution of sport.

The "institution of sport" -- this is something that Dr. Ian Richie from Brock University emphasized while I was interviewing him about the history of sex testing in international sport. He started off the interview with saying, "The reason I think sex testing is so interesting is because it really provides a lens into the institution of sport. And, we have to remember that sport is an institution, a social institution created by human beings, it's not grown out of the natural earth so to speak. There's no any one way that sport has to be done… sport as an institution was created around gender lines and assumptions about gender."

Richie went on to remind us that this resulted in sport being raised out of the celebration of masculinity. Masculinity being socially understood as synonymous with strength, speed and all other manner of athletic prowess. This is why it's foundation-shattering to have elite female athletes existing and why, Ritchie and others argue, sex testing -- something so fundamentally at odds with human rights -- is acceptable in the institution of sport and nowhere else.

This ideology of "natural" gender roles was furthered propped up by the institution of science during the 19th century . A most hilariously ridiculous example being the "research" that found that bicycling would cause a woman's uterus to implode -- it being such an unnatural act. Science was not only interested in proving the naturalness of social gender roles but also white supremacy. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Hilter's Germany he shook up racial assumptions. The response of science and society as neatly summed by PBS' excellent documentary Race: The Power of An Illusion, "How could a society steeped in the science of racial inferiority reconcile itself to Owen's four gold medals? By conceding innate athletic superiority to African Americans while denying them so-called civilized capacities." i.e. black athletes were bigger and stronger since it wasn't that long ago that they were living in a jungle running from animals.

"Experts" may not say such things out loud anymore but these are the assumptions that sport and our society were built on and it will certainly take more than a few decades to be rid of these deep-seeded prejudices. Gender and race are not genetic and there's nothing "natural" about society's expectations of either. These systems of injustice are what need to be scrutinized and the institutions that keep these ideologies the norm through such behaviour as the International Olympic Committee's refusal to completely abolish sex testing. Brittney Griner need not enter the conversation unless we're remarking on her amazing slam dunks.

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