I’m going to open up what might be a can of worms, which is to write about the posts and articles and discussions going around about the way we’re talking about female athletes in Rio. The representations of women are something I spent two years thinking about in depth when I wrote that little thesis of mine, which might be part of why I feel the way I do: I’m tired of it.
I feel like I’ve read the same articles over and over again. Maybe I’m writing one right now, but I hope to bring a different take to this. There are articles about how we are focusing on women’s appearance and life outside of their sport at the expense of focusing on their athleticism. This article on points out the sexism that’s going on with the coverage and has been widely shared, at least in my circle of (online) friends. I’m not writing this to pick apart each individual thing that is being picked apart by people sitting on their couches watching.
But the general gist, that we focus on women and the way they look and their roles as mothers, at the expense of their athletic achievements, is one that is put under particular scrutiny. I even wrote about the theme of CrossFit making women into better mothers in my thesis. It’s a narrative that’s there, but I question if our constant pointing it out and making it a problem are actually contributing to a problem.
If a woman had a baby a year ago and then is competing in the Olympics, I think that’s a pretty big deal. No, having a baby isn’t like a death sentence for an athletic career. It doesn’t make you invalid, but I know plenty of new women who struggle with the last 10lbs and learning how to change a diaper and not getting sleep. So tack onto that the pursuit of going to the Olympics, and I’m impressed, and I think it’s worth mentioning.
We get angry about the way the media talks about how someone is a wife or a mother. I want to know why it’s so bad to be those things, and what it would take for us to live in a kind of world where that stuff matters. Sure, the Olympics are about being an amazing athlete, but I think athletes are pretty cool people with identities beyond higher, faster, stronger.
I think a mother is a pretty darn cool thing to be. I wonder if the all the criticisms about how media overemphasizes women’s role as mothers, or their appearance, or anything else that we traditionally associate with “femininity,” aren’t actually contributing to the problem. When we complain as women about being framed as those things, we implicitly in the process suggest that they’re not worthy of mention or of being. The way we focus on men and their athleticism isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all, unless of course we are convinced that we ought to be just like men.
I don’t think that’s the case. We hold the things we associate with men on a pedestal, and we don’t want women to be the things that we negatively associate with being women. We make women feel guilty for wanting to be “girly,” and we certainly don’t accept men who don’t conform with the ideas about “manliness” that no one really talks about. Rarely do people ask why it’s such a big deal when we talk about women being portrayed as girly, but it’s totally OK for a male athlete to be framed as hyper-masculine. We, especially in sport, value things that have longtime been considered masculine. But I think these qualities are bigger than our genders, as are the things we think are feminine. The crisis that people talk about for boys, IMHO, has something to do with the way we don’t let them feel their feelings or talk about it (and those are associated with being female).
I think the internet is a blessing and a curse. We have all these fights over what’s wrong and what’s pissing us off that seem to come without a consideration for what might be right, but the way we watch sports and the Olympics in particular has changed. Maybe we can’t watch women compete on major news or sports networks, but we can find coverage on the internet in a way that we’ve never been able to before. Not just that, but we can pick and choose the media we look at. Don’t like how NBC is talking about female athletes? Stop watching NBC. Turn the TV on mute and watch the athletes perform. The internet has taken some of the power away from those channels to decide what’s worth watching it and how we ought to interpret it, and it’s putting it back into our hands—and that’s cool! Athletes can frame themselves on social media and can represent themselves how they want to, at least to some degree, which is also a big shift.
So what should we do? I think we should do what we can. Let’s write articles about the women who impress us. Let’s talk about the ways that women are crushing it. Let’s look at this from a new perspective, that takes both what we think it means to be a man and what we think it means to be a woman into account. I think it's time to just let people shine. Athletes. Mothers. Fathers. Women. Men. Non-athletes. All of us. And let’s stop being mean to each other on the internet, too. #agirlcandream