We Are No Birds: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The Gendering of Sports Fandom

Last weekend, I took my boyfriend to his first Washington Capitals hockey game. As we wandered around the concourse looking for pre-game snacks, we were stopped by a twenty-something young man who appeared to be there with his girlfriend.

“First time coming to a game,” he said, referring to himself. “Quick question. What does the A stand for? Assistant, or Alternate, or something?” He pointed to the “A” on the front of my boyfriend’s jersey.

“I have no idea,” my boyfriend said with a shrug. Without missing a beat, I stepped in. “Alternate,” I told the man. “It means ‘alternate captain.’ He stands in when the captain isn’t able to fulfill his duties.”

“Oh, okay,” the man said, maybe surprised that I was the one answering. He turned back to my boyfriend. “So number eight, that’s Ovechkin, right? And he’s the captain?”

I told him he was correct. When he asked if I was also wearing an Ovechkin jersey, I told him no, I was wearing the jersey of someone who no longer played for the Caps. I spun around and pointed to the last name on my back. He thanked us for our help and we went our separate ways.

I didn’t think much of the interaction at the time, other than being excited that I was able to show off my hockey knowledge. Thinking back on it now, I realize how wonderfully it illustrates the microcosm that is being a female sports fan.

Sports fandom, regardless of the sport, is incredibly gendered in favor of straight men. From how fans interact with each other to how teams market merchandise, sports fandom works within highly-specified gendered lines. For starters, men are always assumed to know more than women about sports. Like many other fandoms, this leads to gatekeeping before women are “allowed” to be fans of a sport. Women are subject to a kind of relentless quizzing by men that other men aren’t to “prove” their status as “real” fans. Additionally, a number of stereotypes exist to delegitimize female fans. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is that women only watch sports out of heterosexual desire, either for the players themselves or as a means of impressing other men they may be attracted to.

Let’s look at some examples. Marketing is an especially good indicator of social norms and values. When we see advertisements featuring sports, they always contain a cast of mostly (if not entirely) men. Men are expected to be both the producers (players) and consumers (fans) of sports. When the Super Bowl rolls around, for example, there are countless advertisements targeted toward men to buy beer and chips for the game. These ads depict groups of male friends gathered on a couch around the TV to watch The Game together. I capitalize The Game because we don’t even have to be talking about the Super Bowl: how many ads do we see throughout the year that feature the same thing?

In-game experiences also have a tendency to be gendered in favor of straight men. Many hockey teams still employ “ice girls” to clean the ice during commercial breaks in skimpy outfits. Melissa Geschwind sums up the issue well: “No teams have half-dressed men shoveling the ice, nor would anyone expect them to. Why should they? There are plenty of places for gay men and straight women to go for that kind of thing, and a hockey game just isn’t one of those places.” In other words, a professional sports area in a male-defined, male-targeted space.

Let’s revisit the interaction I described earlier. Even though we were both wearing “A” jerseys (and thus theoretically able to answer his question), this stranger chose to ask my boyfriend his question rather than me. Although it became clear after this first question that I knew more about hockey than my boyfriend—he did not know what the “A” stood for but I did—the stranger did not direct his second question to me. Does that make him sexist? No, not necessarily. In fact, he did not display any of the gatekeeping methods that male fans often do: he did not tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, nor did he belittle me for stepping into the conversation. He took the information I provided him as truth.

Interestingly, though, this man had never been to a hockey game before. He may have watched on TV or been to other sporting events, but he had not been to a game. This means that to some degree, this man was not well entrenched in hockey culture and all of the social norms I mentioned earlier. And yet, despite this, he still chose to question my boyfriend instead of me. I think this speaks to how deeply gendered sports fandom is.

Why do male fans choose to ‘gate keep’ and exclude female fans from sports? There are a number of theories. The most obvious is that they may feel women’s entering and enjoying a male space threatens their masculinity. If sports are something that only men are supposed to like, then what does that say about men if women like sports? Esmonde, Cooky, and Andrews take this theory one step further: “…Sexuality is always present in sport, but it seems that only men’s heterosexuality, which is simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible, is acceptable. This serves to exclude women sports fans…and erases the highly erotic aspects of athleticism while upholding sports as a masculine space. Furthermore, this hyper-sexualization of women displaces the homoerotic tension that men experience in the act of consuming sport as fans, wherein the male gaze is directed at men, not women.” Most men, of course, do not consciously think this way. And telling people how they can watch sports and participate in fandom is still gatekeeping, even if it is with egalitarian intentions. Even so, any fan should feel free to watch sports without fear of criticism or harassment—or for being ignored as a possible fan in the first place. Anyone interested in the sport, from those that know every piece of obscure trivia to those who have never even been to a game, ought to be included and listened to. Isn’t that what sportsmanship means, anyway?

Works cited:

Esmonde, Katelyn, Cheryl Cooky, and David L. Andrews. “‘It’s Supposed to be About the Love of the Game, not the Love of Aaron Rodgers’ Eyes’: Challenging the Exclusions of Women’s Sports Fans.” Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 32, 2015, pp. 22-48.

Geschwind, Melissa. “The Institutional Sexism of NHL Ice Girls.” https://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html.

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Toying with Identity: The Importance of Play

When I was a child, one of my fondest Christmas pastimes was sitting down with my brother to “ooo and ahh” over the Toys R Us Holiday Catalog (known also as “The Big Book”). This was no weekly circular ad: this baby clocked in at eighty to a hundred pages filled with ads for toys. The latest and greatest, newest, shiniest, coolest toys were found in The Big Book. I remember circling and placing stars next to what I wanted that year, or what I thought looked cool: Barbies, art supplies, board games, video games for the Playstation 2. My brother was always after video games too, but in a higher capacity than I was. He also wanted science kits, Hot Wheels, and K-Nex building sets.

Why was this so important to us? Why was it so important that I have that exact Barbie doll or that my brother have that exact K-Nex building set? Why couldn’t I settle for an off-brand fashion doll, and why couldn’t my brother be happy with Legos?

While adults may see their children as being picky (and that might be true to some degree), another large element in choosing toys is the intended outcome of said toy. In the twenty-first century, goods are marketed not necessarily based on their practical purpose, but on the feeling or emotion we will receive by purchasing and using them. This is further compounded by the way toys are marketed to children. For example, if I received a Baking Fun Barbie for Christmas, I would expect to experience the same amount of fun that the girls in the advertisement were having. I would expect to feel happy and carefree baking with Barbie (or pretending to bake, anyway).

In addition to this, toys and play are crucial parts of a child’s development. Especially in our materialistic society, we expect children to learn social cues and norms through play. This is not limited to educational toys either. Play socializes children to interact with the adult world in the ways that we as a society have deemed acceptable and normal. From play, children learn to share and work together to accomplish goals, whether they be building the tallest block tower or making the tastiest pretend cake. This might seem trivial, but these skills will later grow into those that are used in the adult world (building a tall skyscraper and cooking a meal for one’s family, for example).

Children are especially keen on imitating adults. When I acted out scenes with Barbie and Ken, I went off of what I knew from social scripts I had learned. Barbie and Ken went on dates together; Barbie and Ken kissed. Barbie and her friends went shopping because that was what girls did together. Girls were not romantically interested in one another. Barbie cooked for Ken and took care of her younger sisters Kelly and Skipper. Thus, I learned social standards of femininity and heterosexuality at a young age through play.

On some level, my brother and I gravitated toward the toys that we did because they addressed the gender identities we were expected to perform. He, as a boy, was expected to build, construct, and experiment while I, as a girl, was expected to learn to take care of others and care deeply about my physical appearance. While I remember truly having fun playing with Barbie, my brother, of course, was never given the option to have dolls. (He did have a GI Joe action figure very briefly, but he didn’t find Joe very interesting, so I captured him to use as a friend for Ken.)

Now, of course, all children have their own preferences, and these often cross gendered lines. In addition to video games, one of my brother’s favorite toys was a cooking playset. And although I loved dolls, I also enjoyed running cars down my brother’s Hot Wheels track. Does this mean we were feminists or subverting radical gender norms at a young age? Not necessarily. In fact, I would argue that when children choose toys, they select them because the objects resonate with the identity they see themselves as possessing. By asking for art supplies, I announced (either consciously or unconsciously) that I saw myself as a creative person. This is also true of gender. I rejected toys like fake make-up and purses because I did not see myself (or my gender) as aligned with that kind of femininity.

Especially in our age of materialism, toys (rightly or wrongly) mean a lot to children and their sense of identity. I’m not advocating that toys are the be-all and end-all of a child’s development (because they aren’t), but it would be unwise to overlook their importance. Certainly, there is much more to a toy— and a child’s process for choosing a toy—than its price tag.

We Are No Birds: Punishing Patriarchy with Sailor Moon

In my third column on Wonder Woman, I wrote that “I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid,” mostly because the superhero genre contained, in my opinion, nothing but “a bunch of beefy men beating each other up.” I still hold true to the original intent of my statement, but I realize that I neglected to mention one superhero I did like as a kid: Sailor Moon.

Like many other so-called “nineties kids,” I fell in love with Sailor Moon when she made her US debut. For those who don’t know, Sailor Moon is a manga- turned-anime about a middle-school girl named Usagi who discovers she must take on the role of the “pretty guardian of love and justice” Sailor Moon. The Sailor Scouts (other girls taking up the mantle as other guardians) help in Sailor Moon’s quest to keep evil-doers from enslaving humanity. Each girl has her own set of powers and a planet that she represents (Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, etc.). Sailor Moon was a role model of mine growing up. I asked for Sailor Moon dolls and toys at every holiday and as rewards for good grades. I remember my feelings of betrayal and loss when the Cartoon Network announced its cancellation of the series. (Suffice it to say that I have my nostalgia glasses on for this piece. Who said I had to be objective, anyway?)

The biggest reason I admired Sailor Moon as a kid, I think, is because not only was she a good role model, but this status was something I could attain. All of the Sailor Scouts had likeable, recognizable personalities. The writer in me today acknowledges that they are a bit flat—Ami is the “smart one,” Makoto is the “athletic one,” etc.—but nevertheless, each girl possessed qualities and characteristics I could recognize in myself. Ami was successful in school but shy, Minako was sweet and caring toward others, and so on. None of them were perfect. Usagi often cried when things went wrong, she and Minako both got poor grades in school, and battles with an enemy were often clumsy and uncoordinated. These combinations of both positive and negative characteristics made the Sailor Scouts attainable to me. If I tried hard enough, I could be just like them: I could be strong and cool and defeat evil with a flick of my hair and a magic pen.

Another aspect of Sailor Moon I admired (and continue to admire as a grown-up feminist today) was how the show fully embraced femininity. The Sailor Scouts all wear schoolgirl uniforms in battle, but this outfit was used more to illustrate the power of femininity than to sexualize the main characters for the male gaze. While I admit their uniforms are a bit impractical—those long legs are certainly exposed to damage, not to mention the difficulty of running in high heels and heeled boots—they’re just another symbol of Sailor Moon’s main message: femininity is not only okay, it is powerful. Sailor Moon and her companions are able to defeat evil forces with attacks like “Moon Tiara Magic” and “Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss” and with weapons like “Spiral Heart Rod” and “Cutie Moon Rod.” Although the Sailor Scouts have their occasional squabbles, they put them aside and work together. The girls are all very strong friends and support each other no matter what: while they do argue, they do not resort to cattiness or gossiping in the way that women (especially young women) are often depicted as doing in other shows. Additionally, the Sailor Scouts are not dependent on men to save them or to fix their problems. The show does have male characters (notably Tuxedo Mask, Sailor Moon’s love interest), and the girls often talk about boys and crushes, but when it comes down to it, they rely more on each other than on any man. While Tuxedo Mask does swoop in and save Sailor Moon at a critical point in battle in several of the early episodes, he leaves immediately afterward. (I like to joke with friends of mine who watch the show that Tuxedo Mask is basically useless, but he deserves a little credit.) As the series continues, Sailor Moon needs Tuxedo Mask less and less, growing into her responsibility and proving that she (literally) can fight her own battles. She is not ashamed of or seeks to repress her femininity but rather, she embraces it for its power.

Sailor Moon also examines sexuality and gender identity/presentation. Two Sailor Scouts that join the team later in the series, Sailor Uranus/Haruka and Sailor Neptune/Michiru, are involved in a lesbian relationship. The two are candid about their relationship and do not attempt to hide it from anyone. Haruka is also “dual gendered,” as Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper put it. She dresses in masculine clothes and flirts with the other Sailor Scouts, several of whom mistake her for a man and develop crushes on her. When Usagi asks Haruka if she is a boy or girl, Haruka replies, “Does it matter?” In the last arc of the series, a group called the Sailor Starlights join the team in their fight against evil. While the Starlights are presented as female, they dress as men when on Earth among civilians. The anime takes this one step further: when among civilians, the Starlights take on biologically male characteristics. Sailor Moon blurs the lines of both gender and sexuality, challenging the heteronormative cliches that populate media aimed at girls.

At its core, Sailor Moon is a feminist text. The manga was written by a woman for young women and teenage girls, but not in a way that caters to patriarchal expectations or stereotypes. Sailor Moon does not talk down to its audience by assuming they only care about boys and makeup. It treats them as conscious and intelligent, and that’s one reason the series has been so successful. As Kathryn Hemmann argues, “In a landscape of Disney princesses concerned primarily about the men in their lives, the Sailor Moon manga and anime series were a rare oasis of female characters not defined by their attachment to men or involvement in romance.” For me and many others, Sailor Moon remains the epitome of girl power.

 

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Works Cited:
Cornog, Martha and Timothy Perper. “Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the U.S.: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists.” Contemporary Sexuality, vol. 39, no. 3, March 2005, pp. 1-6.

Hemmann, Kathryn. “Short Skirts and Superpowers: The Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl.” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, no. 47, 2014, pp. 45-72. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/578913