Three bodies—Brittney Griner, lofty, powerful, with spiritually level shoulders; Laura Blears, ukulele-curved, lit forever by fading ‘70s sun; and AJ Lee, muscle-knit, compact, petite in pink-laced Converse. These bodies aren’t just material. They’re also conceptual. Even if those concepts often manifest as simply “She’s hot” or “She’s a dude.”
In 1975, ABC Sports broadcast a women-only version of Superstars, their popular competition show in which elite athletes from various sports fired against one another in a provisional decathlon that included bowling, swimming, tennis, softball, bicycling, and rowing. Looking back at a spectacle where daredevil motorcyclist Debbie Lawler wore a flaming orange bra for luck—“I’m just here to add glamour to the rear,” she said, finishing with zero points; where Barbara O’Brien, signal-caller for the Dallas Bluebonnets, threatened to throw olives at the head of her main competitor; and where Laura Blears, Playboy-posing surfer who arrived wearing the Hawaiian flag, rowed so forcefully her yellow rowboat broke more than once, while beside her on the lake Wyomia Tyus slashed a buoy with her oar and Billie Jean King floated in aimless eights, the thing that really stands out is something mundane. The sparse writing about the event inevitably focuses on a) the bodies of the women involved and b) the weight of the spectacle on the male ego. And that can’t just be attributed to the fact that this event happened in the 1970s. In 2014, according to an Associated Press report, 90% of sports editors are white and 90% are male.
Fluorescent bras, cocktail-party cat fights, goddesses flailing in defective rowboats—these were the bobs and weaves of a network that thought quite primitively of its audience. Marilynn Preston of the Chicago Tribune said about the event, “ABC only gets its kicks when the girls look like fools.” That’s not to say these women weren’t aware of what and how they were performing. Sometimes outré ladies, like Elektra Natchios in the make-believe world or the late and marvelous Florence Joyner in the real one, which is no less bizarre, have to live inside an alter ego’s body.
Around the same year as that episode of Superstars, the All American Red Heads, a trailblazing, barnstorming women’s basketball team, were playing exhibition games in high school gyms, small-town hippodromes, circus rooms, and ragtag arenas across the country. In one of their gags, which occasionally punctuated their high-level basketball games, a comedian in the group who went by Spanky Losier would pretend a man had pinched her butt and begin to wail about “a very personal foul.”
For these women, whose image had been siphoned into the wavy, gracious silhouette of the girl next door—henna hair dye a sort of cherry on top—this was a moment in which their bodies could be made or broken. They were banned from using foul language, drinking, and smoking when in (short-shorted, red-and-white satin) uniform, but yet they were in front of gyms filled with families, drawing attention to their derrieres. And, probably because it was not being covered by a network––the Red Heads, figuratively and occasionally literally, drove their own novelty bus—their primary draw was not seen as sexual. The All American Red Heads were closer to Buster Keaton, or the Keystone Cops: acts that, in most normal circumstances, would not be considered titillating. A Life Magazine writer was talking about the quality of their basketball when he called the Red Heads “female muscle pitted seriously against male muscle,” but they represented this fight, conceptually, at large.
On Christmas Day 1973, the Red Heads, at a motel in Joplin, put up a small cedar and festooned it with shaving cream. This was a private party in a plain room, but the performance went on just the same. Beside their Charlie Brown Christmas tree, they had an improvised Miss America contest, lyric dancing and winking and waving, and ultimately chose their “hook-shot artist” Lynette Sjoquist as winner. They gave her a pickle, and then later, singing carols, the whole team drank Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola. This was how they privately performed in their bodies, and one thing is important to note: It’s not so different from their theatrics on the court.
Why do the All American Red Heads seem to live in a light separate from that of the Superstars? And from that of high-profile female athletes today––let’s say Dara Torres or Maria Sharapova or Lolo Jones? The female athlete’s body is muddied as it is mythologized. But the Red Heads managed to skip the first part: they made their own rad communal rules in a way individual female athletes, pitted against one another, can’t do.
In established structures—formal leagues, organizations, sports medicine—power can be manipulated almost seamlessly. We aren’t surprised to see AJ Lee put Naomi into a sleeper hold, or tie her up with a Guillotine choke, and actually, if we boo it’s because we’re supposed to. We accepted a year ago that in the competitive atmosphere of the WNBA draft, message board and YouTube comments opposing Skylar Diggins’s stunning appearance to that of the equally graceful, though less conventionally feminine, Brittney Griner were inevitable. Even: “natural.”
Gender policing peacocks in many forms and hides in others, but its end is always some sort of violence, the dressing down of humanness. What happened in 2009 and 2010 to Caster Semenya—the South African Olympic runner whose gender was so disputed she had to brave public shame as various committees investigated her—is an embarrassingly clear example. Another one is Stella Walsh losing a race to Helen Stephens at the Olympics in Berlin, then reportedly claiming that Stephens was a "man in disguise" and forcing a physical examination on her opponent—44 years before Walsh's own intersex characteristics were confirmed ("Stella's a fella") upon her death. Slightly more oblique is Ronda Rousey’s ESPN cover, in which she’s almost comically softened by a foggy, pastel-coloured body halo, her face more bedroom than MMA cage. Girl looks absolutely amazing. And it’s definitely possible she’s happy with how the photos turned out. But what matters is that she is not the one making the decisions about how her body is being shown, and it’s no coincidence a woman who makes a living through force and uncommon strength is shown, hazily backlit, wearing Baker-Miller pink hand wraps.
There is a stone, of course, that Caster Semenya and Brittney Griner need to push against and Ronda Rousey doesn’t. Pop culture, generally, gives black women a harder stare. The Daily Mail reduces Serena Williams to “her power, swagger, physical stature and astonishing reserves of mental grit”—her mind is attached to the highly bodily word grit—and then claims without further explanation that tennis fans will never love her, as if her body is its own justification. Or, from a Toronto Star article about Semenya: “Lindsay Perry, another scientist, says sometimes whole [football] teams of African women are dead ringers for men.” The smokescreen of undefined “science” has been used throughout modern history to validate violently racist, anti-human behaviour, and the fact that it’s still being used almost unchecked in the context of women’s sports should be bewildering. If it’s not, it’s because the reduction of women to their component parts dovetails in these sentiments with the reduction of non-white bodies to their component parts.
Former Olympian Bruce Kidd, writing about Semenya, stressed that “personal household and national income is far more relevant to performance than hormonal makeup.” The quantifiable perks of wealth––nutritious food, sleep, energy conservation—clearly change the way female athletes perform in the baseball stadium or on the football pitch. But if these things affect the internal functions of an athlete, or what we could call her “private form,” how do they change her public form? The lower-middle-class daughter of a mechanic and a snowmobile/motocross racer, Danica Patrick became sexualized around the time of her commercials for Go Daddy, the syndicate which, perhaps coincidentally, funded her racing ventures and launched her into a higher income bracket. Beautiful world-class boxer Marlen Esparza has enjoyed massive sponsorship from Nike and Coca-Cola, and in a piece in The Atlantic vexingly called “American Sweetheart,” her body is described as “more feminine, less bulky, than the rippling musculature of her peers.” What’s significant is that many of her boxing peers, who would be equally marketable physically (Queen Underwood, Christina Cruz) have not been given endorsement deals at all, much less on the level of Esparza’s. The Atlantic article silhouettes her peers’ difficult upbringings—foster homes, sexual abuse, entrenched poverty—against Esparza’s stable childhood as a means of defending Esparza’s rightful position as a face of CoverGirl, among other things. The American Sweetheart addresses this in the following way: “I have to feel guilty because my parents aren’t drug addicts? […] I guess I’m in a poor-person sport.”
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the Planète Sauvage, Old Sturbridge Village, Thomas Edison’s short film on beauty queens—all spectacles are about difference, and in the spectacle of competitive sports, gender is one of the most key sites of difference. We’re looking for something rare, something extraordinary, something that grinds banality under its silver-sequined wrestling boot; when we’re looking for this in the female body, our spectator eyes fill up with judgment, assumption, lust, celebration and shame.
This is not how it has to be. This is just how it’s been written.
Laura Legge lives, writes and dusts her Clyde Frazier memorabilia collection in the beautiful city of Toronto.