Home Cover Story Decoding patriarchal attitudes towards women’s sports

Decoding patriarchal attitudes towards women’s sports

Disparaging women’s sports by comparing it with men’s or by focusing more on their body and clothes, rather than performance, should be done away with

The masculinity-femininity debate, comparison between women’s and men’s sport has been an omnipresent one, with always an expectation towards women’s sport to catch up with men. It’s argued that the difference aspect should be acknowledged in the way women athletes play or shape-up. It really becomes a catch-22 situation as sports is often looked at as a form of visual entertainment and any visual media doesn’t sell without aggression- a trait generally associated with men’s sports.

The recent Women’s Cricket World Cup where the Indian team was a revelation of sorts, reaching the final and losing it agonizingly, saw many incidents that brought this issue to the fore.

If Jhulan Goswami gets some spring in her step, she can bowl as fast as male cricketers do. A male commentator said this on air during one of the matches of the world cup and the female commentator concurred. It might probably be par for the course of evolution of women’s cricket. In men’s cricket, bowlers have clocked speeds of 160 kmph or more. But just for the record, Indian cricketer Jhulan Goswami is currently the fastest bowler in women’s cricket, bowling consistently at 120 kmph, just behind former Aussie Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s 125 kmph..

Also interestingly, some commentators had a slip of tongue all through the tournament- they stuck with referring batswoman as batters. Only they know why so. I have never heard of this term in cricket. I mostly read it during my law degree, as a synonym for violent attack.

Two other events also became prominent. First was when Indian captain Mithali Raj was asked about her favourite male cricketer and she emphatically replied, “Do you ask male cricketers who their favourite female cricketer is?” The other when she was clicked while reading a book on Rumi, waiting for her turn to bat.

The men’s cricket has largely become just about power hitting now, especially when you have to attract a large number of spectators. On the other hand, leg-spinner Poonam Yadav’s loop and flight is just about what any cricket traditionalist will be floored by and is rather a rare sight in men’s cricket now. It is certainly a visual delight.

Should not be compared 

Jhulan Goswami

Former India cricketer Snehal Pradhan certainly believes that comparison is not the way to go. In a column, she raised the question that ESPNCricinfo, the world’s leading cricket website has Jhulan Goswami put down as a right arm medium bowler. But if she is just a few clicks shy of Cathryn Fitzpatrick, considered the fastest ever, how come we never call them fast bowlers and just medium pacers?

Giving her own example, she elaborated, “One question I often got asked in my career was how fast I bowled. Between 105-115 kmph I would say, and I would see the crestfallen look in most male eyes. A patronising ‘ah ok’ would usually follow. Most weren’t impressed, because they were comparing my speeds to the usual speeds found in male cricket. I had introduced myself as medium fast, but I could see them categorising me under genus dibbly dobbly.”

Comparing the evolution of men’s and women’s cricket, she makes us remember that in this world of short memory spans, we forget how in the 90’s, 250 was a winning score in male cricket (which is somewhat the case in women’s cricket now), and then we neglect the head start that male sport has had over the centuries.

She also favoured the difference approach in sports: equality while acknowledging and celebrating differences. Advocating that feminism in sport is more nuanced than absolute equality, she makes a case for appreciating athletes of each gender separately for pushing the limits, even when those limits are not the same.

Individual and Team sports

More glaring differences have been pointed between men’s and women’s sports in terms of speed, strength and athleticism, when individual and team sports are compared. In cricket, football and basketball, it might be very tough for women’s sports to be as popular and match the men in all these 3 categories. The difference in physical abilities can be glaring at many times for an average viewer.

On the other hand, in individual sports like athletics, tennis, badminton and swimming, the level in these 3 categories is visually as exciting for both men and women, even if there might be a little difference in the numbers calculated technically. For an average viewer, that doesn’t count that much.

More similarity can be found in sports like boxing and wrestling where aggression is at the core, be it in the looks or skills of the players and the way it has to be played in the ring. Watching Indian wrestlers like Sakshi Malik, Sushil Kumar or boxers like Mary Kom, Vijender Singh, the bouts of both men and women keep the viewer hooked equally.

What to wear

Those days when England Womens Cricket Association made players cover up. Credits: Getty Images

Not just how the sport is played, what women players wear has also been in controversy for a long time. Way back in 1934, the then England’s Women’s Cricket Association (WCA) chose white blouses, white divided skirts and white knee-length socks as official England uniform for their first tour of Australia and New Zealand. It was specified that the skirts should be no shorter than four inches from the ground when kneeling.

The WCA wanted to stress that they were not trying to copy men, and to do that, they needed to demonstrate their “femininity”. What wearing skirts did was to emphasise that women cricketers were exactly that: women.

It’s not that this thinking was only there in some conservative era. In the English case, it lasted right up until 1997. Trousers were not introduced until August 1997, in an ODI against South Africa. It was a women’s cricket revolution. Even in the 1993 World Cup, sections of the press chose to focus on the red miniskirts of one of the teams rather than the action on the pitch.

Only after 1997 it was realized that WCA’s ideas about stressing the difference between men’s and women’s cricket had become outdated: what was needed now was to provide the sport with a more professional image. Skirts were rendered both impractical and, arguably, irrelevant. Since then, the England women’s kit has been almost identical to that of their male counterparts, with the idea being to place the women’s game, at least visibly, on a more equal footing.

The Body-shape

Seven-time Olympic medalist American swimmer Amanda Beard writes about her own experiences on the conflict in choosing a skinny or bulky body, in her 2012 memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. At one point, the directors of a photo shoot force Beard to lose 10 pounds in two weeks, causing her to realize being both a perfect woman and a competitive athlete is impossible.

“I represented the ideal athlete, super slim and defined. Only this type of definition came from lack of muscle as well as a lack of body fat. My look was completely unrealistic for anyone truly competing in a sport. It put me in an impossible situation: be skinny and be strong,” she says.

Serena Williams

American tennis star Serena Williams, who has won a record 23 individual Grand Slam singles titles, has often been called an “ape” and “gorilla” across the dark racist caverns of social media; her deep brown skin, her cheekbones, her muscular physique – the physique of someone who takes their sport seriously, with the trophy case to prove it – are all used as grounds to question the sex she was born at birth or whether she came by her athleticism naturally.

In 2014, a high-ranking Russian tennis official snarkily referred to Serena and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers”. As far back as 2009, a sports columnist wrote a scathing editorial about Williams’ body, likening her derriere to food and complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough to him because of her size.

In any sport in which a woman has to actually train to be a formidable competitor, and has a physique which reflects that, one can find the discussion of their sexual desirability (or supposed lack thereof) permeating the conversation.

The controversial case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand has brought glare back to the bodies of women. Bodies that refuse to fit conventional definitions of the female body – that apparently produced more testosterone than the normal levels found in women. Many gender tests done on her found these puzzling results and brought with them humiliation.

Indian sports ministry which has been insensitive to the causes of individual athletes, miraculously decided to fund her case. In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sports suspended the International Athletics Association’s Hyperandrogenism regulations for a period of two years, but the case is being re-opened now to see fresh evidence being brought by the world body.

Chand says, “I have fewer friends now. Most of my relatives distanced themselves from me. Earlier, everyone used to like me, now the same people avoid me. I used to hang out with friends earlier on now I’m scared to ask them to meet me since parents don’t want their daughters to be with me. Previously, when I visited places with a female friend, people would ask, ‘Is she your friend?’ now if they see me with a girl they ask, ‘Is she your girlfriend?’ Perceptions have changed.”

Media coverage

Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and sport sociology professor at the University of Minnesota in United States of America, thinks interest in women’s sports would grow if, in turn, media outlets covered female athletes. “What you get a lot, especially in media critiques sort of defending the lack of coverage, from members of the media, is, ‘Well, we only cover what people are interested in,’ ignoring completely that the media builds audiences all the time,” says Kane.

A study by researchers from University of Southern California and Purdue University found that women athletes are actually covered less in the United States media now than they were even in 1989. In 2014, only 3.2% of network television coverage was given to women’s sports; SportsCenter, a popular daily sports program on television, gave women only 2% of coverage. In 1989, it was marginally better at 5%.

When they do get coverage, sportswomen are frequently portrayed in the nude, in swimsuits or in lingerie; they draw less media attention for their athletic competence than their male counterparts. Popular US athletes- tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, skier Lindsey Vonn and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick are just a few who have stripped down for publications like Playboy or Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue.

“When there is so little coverage of female athletes, and then within that coverage, the focus is not on their athleticism, but on how pretty and sexy they are, the question is, how does that move the ball in terms of interest in and respect for female athletes as highly gifted athletes?” asks professor Mary Kane.

Between 2012 and 2013, excluding Swimsuit issues, women athletes appeared on only two of 191 covers of Sports Illustrated, a sports franchise of the Time magazine. The only cover that depicted women alone was a 2012 issue featuring the United States Olympic women’s gymnastics team, made-up and in leotards.

Giving an example of how popular culture views empowerment of women through sports in India, Snehal Pradhan said, “On the 100th episode of hugely famous comedian Kapil Sharma’s show, Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy were invited as guests. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their marriages; their cricketing achievements were conveniently sidetracked. Dance moves, possible Bollywood husbands, and sledging made the conversation though.”

Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza, one of the biggest Indian sporting icons in the last 2 decades, has always been kept in the news for every other reason except her sporting achievements. What she wears, whom she chooses to love and countless other reasons have been made into headlines by the male-dominated media.

Dangal, a recent movie made on 2 women wrestlers puts the spotlight on their father. And look no further than an India-Pakistan cricket match to see the difference. The hyper-masculinity is visible all over the traditional and social media during the men’s playoff, while the women’s match barely goes noticed. Just normal coverage should be fine, not the nationalistic one.

Cutting through male gaze

Many women cricketers are playing aggressively now-a-days. They play in the T20 cricket format as well. Harmapreet Kaur’s blistering knock of 171 in the semi-finals is a point in case. But the question is that if any of them bulk up their bodies like male athletes and become equally good power-hitters, will our chauvinist culture of body shaming be able to digest it?

Even though it’s in the right direction to acknowledge that women cricketers have to be aggressive for the sport to move forward, it has to be pondered upon whether it’s only for a better visual media that thrives on aggression for the masculine eye-balls?

Will the media and the fans come to terms with the fact that who they find most sexually appealing should never play a role in how we acknowledge a champion’s dedication to their craft?

The legendary American tennis player Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs, a former men’s champion, in a tennis match called the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. In the early 1980’s, this women’s tennis champion also admitted to a seven-year lesbian relationship. Her motivation for both of these significant actions was to prove that female athletes deserve respect.

The sporting spirit is not just about dominating one’s opponent or as the Olympic motto goes: faster, higher, stronger. Other skills like balance, flexibility, endurance are equally important. The judgmental male shriek on performance of female athletes, clothes they wear, their body shape should be better placed in irrelevance.



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