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London 2012, Day 2: Women Win, Not Unicorns

by Meg Heery

July 29, 2012

(In daily postings, On the Issues Magazine looks at the 2012 Summer Olympics through a feminist lens.)

What was that? A unicorn? No, just a female athlete.

Early yesterday morning, I watched Dana Vollmer set a new Olympic record in the qualifying heats of the 100-meter butterfly. Then I watched as NBC’s expert swim commentators spent most of their time agonizing about Michael Phelps’s unprecedented failure to reach the final round of the 400-meter individual medley. Who's being treated as the serious athlete here - the winner or the loser?

Meanwhile, the women’s 48-kilogram women’s weightlifting competition was mesmerizing. The athletes, all between 4 foot 9 and 5 foot 3 and weighing 48 kilograms (that’s 106 pounds), had three tries each to “clear and jerk” up to two and a half times their weight.These tiny, fierce women were sometimes dwarfed by the barbells they lofted over their heads. The gold medalist, Wang Mingjuan, 26, of China, lifted 242 pounds in clear-and-jerk round.

Turning my attention back to basketball (where the U.S. women soundly defeated Croatia 81-56), I saw a promotion for the new NBC comedy “The New Normal” in which Ellen Barkin’s character, in response to her on-air daughter musing about keeping in shape with weight training, snarks, “Yeah, if you wanna bulk up like some Eastern European man-woman!”

Later I watched the USA-Colombia women's football (soccer) match that put the Americans in the quarterfinals (see Megan Rapinoe turn the tide, above.) It was a contest even more aggressive and foul-ridden than a typical men’s match (which may partly explain the coverage or lack thereof). Then I received a tweet from a thoughtful, progressive writer, a woman wishing to join the “massive pre-game braiding party” the U.S. team must have.

Somewhere in there, I caught a snatch of commentary from Kevin Barnett that one of the U.S. women’s volleyball players “doesn’t smile much.”

 Only while taking in the blessedly quiet, degendered fencing match for the bronze medal was I able to just enjoy myself without a barrage of cognitive dissonance.

When women burst into public view running, kicking, punching, scoring, attacking, and dominating; when women do this in large numbers; and when this happens for just two weeks every couple of years, all kinds of confusing and embarrassing thoughts automatically arise.<em>She’s gorgeous—wait, is it OK to think that?. . . . .I think Ryan Lochte is hot, am I objectifying him?....Gosh, she’s so muscular!.... Is it OK to notice how they did their hair because it looks both utilitarian and attractive? Or, even: "Boy, she doesn’t smile much, does she?"

You’d think we were watching unicorns. Oh my gosh! There’s a unicorn! And it just set another Olympic record! Or, even more disturbing, A unicorn? How cute. So anyway, how about those bears? They’re looking very good.

But we are not watching unicorns. Formidable women athletes exist at all levels of play everywhere.

Yet the disconnect remains between what society imagines women should do and what women actually do, and it’s important to dismantle the thinking that allows it to persist.

We do a disservice to everyone, however, when the conversation is oversimplified. One trope is that women can be strong and beautiful without so-called help from cosmetics and clothing.

Such arguments conveniently ignore the fact that society has a pretty strict definition of what’s beautiful, as Amanda Marcotte wisely writes at Slate. Even worse, this view paves the way for media to seize opportunities to feature those athletes deemed worthy in sexualized, coy, passive, poses in the very cosmetics and clothing they don’t need.

 In response, it’s easy to go to the other extreme, creating a false dichotomy by asserting that elite female athletes would rather compete than be pretty — a trap into which even Marcotte falls.

In fact, all kinds of women athletes make all kinds of choices. Some are what is stereotypically accepted as hot. Some are not, and are hot in their own ways. Some have babies.  Some have relationships and marriages and divorces, gay or otherwise. Some wear their hair in fishtail braids because it looks cool. Some wear their hair in fishtail braids because it’s a reliable method of keeping their hair off their face. Sometimes they even wear dresses. And mascara.

It’s only safe to assume that women athletes would rather compete and be recognized for their accomplishments than be objectified or used as an ideological hockey puck by people like us, most of whom can’t imagine the amount of work they do.

Tomorrow, I’ll give kudos to some people who are getting it right (hint: McDonald’s). 

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent
notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Jane Schonburger, "Olympics' Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes

Laura Pappano, Athletes and Magazine Spreads: Does Sexy Mean Selling Out? On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Tim Grainey, The Rise and Fall and Possible Rise of Women's Pro Soccer." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Megan Carpentier, "A Feminist’s U-Turn: A Torrid Tale of Disappointment and Discovery." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2010.

Marie Hardin, "Winning the Sports Beat: Female Writers Need Wide Angle Lens." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.


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