The veins bulge on her left forearm, sturdy and sinewy as steel cables. Her hard-torquing torso centrifugally sucks her shirt tight against her striated abs. Sweat beads on her taut brow and streams down the tendons tensing in her neck. Martina Navratilova is winding up for a backhand slice that will smack the ball straight out of the picture.
Not so long ago, grown women clipped photos like these out of tennis magazines and tacked them to their walls, thrilled by the unambiguous image of female power that they didn’t find in too many other places. Never mind the horrified male columnists who disdained Martina’s muscles, warned women away from the weight room as though rescuing damsels from a dungeon, and wildly denounced the thick-thighed, Eastern Bloc dyke who was blasting pretty Chrissy Evert out of her crown, as if a commie tank were rolling over a Barbie doll. Martina’s minions embraced the revolutionary force of that pumped-up body, honed only for the court and owned wholly by its inhabitant.
Now, a generation later, triceps are more chic than T-straps, and Martina’s might is not only widely admired, it’s expected. Images of rippled female athletes, if not as ubiquitous as the emaciated models who still rule our notion of the femme ideal, are now common, normal, no big deal. More and more folks appreciate that when it comes to athletes’ bodies, form must follow function. And the cultural ramifications of seeing them are huge. “A certain degree of muscularity has been normalized,” says SUNY-Binghamton professor (and competitive power lifter) Leslie Heywood, who has been doing research on 7-to-12-year-old girls’ responses to images of women. “The girls have a lot of contempt for the Kate Moss look and they understand that it symbolizes weakness, withdrawal, not having a presence in the world. Show them Gail Devers and their immediate reaction is, ‘Cool,’ and they understand that she signifies the opposite.”
Sure, those male columnists might still go gaga over the glamour of Anna Kournikova and gag on the gutsiness of the Williams sisters. Nonetheless, there Venus and Serena are, gracing a “Got Milk?” ad. Could anything be more wholesome? And even when Amelie Mauresmo got dyke-baited as “half-man” at the Australian Open last year on account of her massive shoulders and punishing volleys, it was her critics, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, who took the heat from the media. And today, Martina Navratilova is selling Subarus on TV. The mainstream has embraced the Amazon.
Sort of. After all, the mainstream gobbles everything compelling into its maw and sells it back to us reshaped, neatly packaged, and demanding that we buy, buy, buy. Better that along with our high-priced high-tops and four-door sedans we should buy images of female toughness rather than vulnerability. But capitalism, of course, reveals cultural contradictions better than the mirror in the locker room reveals a thickening gut. The increasing acceptance of powerful women’s bodies has been matched by a frantic attempt at containment. Yes, buff is beautiful—but only as long as its function is to be gawked at by guys. Just take a look at the two major magazines that claim to be about women’s sports, Women’s Sports & Fitness and Sports Illustrated for Women. Mostly they offer tips on how to trim those troubling thighs. “We’re living in the best of times and the worst of times,” sums up Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “We see more images of strong women in action than we’ve ever seen before. That is a very big change. But the more we see those images, the more we see the same athletes off the court dolled up in prom dresses—or in no clothes at all.”
Images of female strength as, well, images of strength are definitely out there—in snarky sneaker commercials more than anywhere else. It’s a commonplace that advertisements work best by appealing to submerged desires, so getting women to yearn for new Nikes with fast-cutting shots of rowdy, mud-splattered soccer squads or slo-mo close-ups of bruisers bumping shoulders under the hoop makes perfect marketing sense. But when the target consumer is male, or worse, when there’s no real product at all—other than the raw power and consummate skill of the athletes themselves—a backlash whips into action faster than Brandi Chastain can tear off her shirt. You don’t have to be Freud—or Andrea Dworkin—to understand that David Letterman’s infamous gush over the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team as “babe city” was not merely a compliment paid to the healthy good looks of the World Cup victors.
It was a desperate bleat for control, a reassertion of the male prerogative to judge women on their appearance and to insist that appearance matters most of all, a recuperation of women’s bodies as, first and foremost, objects for men’s pleasure, an admission that the team’s skill and self-sovereignty scared him.
For obvious reasons, many female athletes, along with their promoters and supporters, take great pains to quell their apparent threat to male dominion. They want success and the public embrace that comes with it. Deliberately or no, Chastain titillated the multitudes—or at least those with sports columns and shows—when she joyously yanked off that shirt. The astonishing amount of media disputation over her revealing the sort of top that women athletes wear all the time in track and field and other sports was simply absurd. It was as if all those commentators needed to see the gesture as an act of striptease, needed to create it as such through their endless replays of the clip and panting remarks. They either lacked the tools to make legible the image of a charged female body bursting with triumph or they didn’t like what they were reading.
But, then, Chastain had already posed buck naked for the men’s magazine Gear, her bronzed body sideways to the camera, her face turned toward it, offering the viewer a comely glance. “I ran my ass off for this body,” she said with insouciance, justifying her decision to show it off in both instances. Did she really see no difference in context or form? One shot freezes an exultant moment of physical prowess in which her formidable abs are tensed, her biceps popping, and her face turned upward, mouth agape in incredulous glee; the other captures her in a still, crouched stance that leaves her curvy and compliant, her blank expression inviting the objectifying male gaze to project what it will.
That this photo (and another seminude pic Chastain did after the tournament) was extensively debated at least demonstrates that the contradictions between hard-fighting champion and softcore cheesecake are widely felt. After all, there was little hue and cry when Katarina Witt bared all for Playboy because, as a figure skater, Witt had always played the seductress. (Remember that cut-to-the-navel flamenco dress for her gold-winning “Carmen” routine in the ’88 Olympics, which brought her a spontaneous marriage proposal from a sports reporter and drools from Alberto Tomba?) Witt was simply transferring a sexpot image from the glinting ice to the glossy page.
Women’s figure skating, after all, like gymnastics, is a sport in which, as Kane notes, “women literally get points for being pretty and feminine. How well you smile and how spectacular your sequins may be what separates you and makes you a world champion.” Indeed, the ever-shrinking figure skaters, like the pixies of gymnastics, have never challenged the cultural imperatives of wispy femininity. So the more athletic the competition becomes, the more the skaters seem to mitigate their mastery with frilliness. You’ve got to wonder whether Tara Lipinski would have to wear all that eye shadow, grin so desperately, and remain so relentlessly perky if she didn’t consistently land a triple-triple—and have a rather androgynous look when not gussied up for performance.
That figure skating, with rare exceptions, remains virtually closed to African Americans offers only the starkest illustration of how women’s athletics sustain and demand limited ideals of femininity. African American women just aren’t recognized within that narrow frame. Rather, they are characterized according to a long, racist tradition that figures the black woman’s body as nonfeminine and laboring (or, if in sexualized terms, as the lustily incontinent welfare queen). Thus, like black male athletes, they’re more often praised for their “natural” abilities than for their intense training and strategizing. The Williams sisters are constantly being described as having raw, roaring physicality—when, that is, the commentators aren’t obsessing about their hair.
That explains, too, the more ecstatic media embrace of the soccer team than of the WNBA, despite the basketball league’s calculated decision to highlight the marketing department’s preferred starting lineup, the players with modeling contracts and newborn babes. But our culture’s abiding racialized definitions of femininity make it that much harder to tame African American athletes as sex kittens and girls-next-door (as if certain neighborhoods don’t have girls-next-door.) The conundrum leads to some rather bizarre conclusions. The ultraconservative columnist Marianne Moody Jennings, for instance, took the occasion of the U.S. World Cup victory to trash Title IX (it “does not apply to World Cup soccer”) and to bash the WNBA. While the world happily rejoiced in the soccer team’s unabashed babehood, she writes, “The WNBA, with its Janet Reno look, is crestfallen. The women of soccer garnered sellouts while the WNBA struggles. It was the babes, stupid. . . . They were themselves, complete with allure and lip gloss.”
Well, Reno is tall, but otherwise doesn’t much seem to resemble Teresa Weatherspoon, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, or, for that matter, Rebecca Lobo. And lots of hoopsters glop on the lip gloss. What’s really at work in Jennings’s snide remark—apart from her swipe at Reno as the wicked witch of a Democratic administration—is the old lesbo trope. What a relief, Jennings and most of the world were saying: Off the field, the soccer team reads as thoroughly hetero! And giddily sidles up to the image.
The WNBA seems to know that a bunch of (perceived) dykes doesn’t sell sex—the commodity on offer in practically any marketing campaign. Therefore, like in so many other sports institutions, its lesbian players keep the closet door slammed shut, lest they ruin everything for everyone else. So out come the boyfriends and body-masking flouncy skirts in a desperate effort to assure a male-dominated culture that just because a woman is strong doesn’t mean that her body doesn’t still belong to guys.
But this is an old story. Hyper-hetero femininity has been saturating our media culture for ages. What’s different now is that it’s not the only body ideal out there. “The likes of Tara Lipinski used to be the only image of athletes,” says Heywood, “and for the first time in history we have an alternative to that, even if it often tries to contradict itself. You can’t pretend that we’re ever going to live in some utopian universe where we’re not being sold things all the time. At least now, there’s an alternative to images of weakness. And little girls are embracing it.”
The Voice‘s Fourth Annual Women in Sports Series