The Olympics, Education and The Patriarchy

By Alia Roth

The article that resonated with me the most in this weeks reading was Believing Is Seeing: Biology as Ideology by Judith Lorber.  Much of my PICA work focusses on education, ed policy and curriculums in early childhood so some aspects of the other articles did not completely shock me – but what Lorber revealed about the Olympics, and professional sports in general infuriated me so much that my housemates were stuck listening to me rant about The Olympic National Committee and their outrageous accusations and invasive testing of Caster Semenya* just because they were uncomfortable with her incredible ability to outrun the standards that were predetermined for women.  I wonder if a man broke every record in this sport would he be tested as aggressively as Semenya was, and further, if it would then mandate every female to go through hormonal and gynecological testing before being accepted by the Olympic committee (Lorber 570).

Not only had I never heard that the attack on Semenya’s sex ambiguity led to an attack of sex and gender on every female olympic athlete, but Lorber’s article raised other critical points that have led me to truly want to completely boycott the Olympics (even more so than I already had with Putin’s consistent homophobic comments towards gay athletes and illicit statements about gay men being pedophiles…).  But the points she raised around female vs. male gymnasts were infuriating.  Why we only accept young, smaller, girls as gymnasts, who strain their bodies so much to the point where they may or may not stunt their menstrual cycle, whereas male gymnasts are accepted as “men” who can be larger, stronger, more built and in an overall healthier state of being.  Lorber’s quote, “Gymnastic equipment is geared to slim, wiry, prepubescent girls and not to mature women; conversely, men’s gymnastic equipment is tailored for muscular, mature men, not slim, wiry prepubescent boys. Boys could compete with girls, but are not allowed to; women gymnasts are left out entirely. Girl gymnasts are just that-little girls who will be disqualified as soon as they grow up” (Lorber, 571) states the reality of gymnastics perfectly.  How has this become the accepted norm for sports?  How have nutritionists, health professionals and athletes fought this socialized norm that not only restricts female gymnasts but perpetuates men dominating fields and forcing out adult female professional athletes.  It actually makes no sense at all.

This is where Becoming A Gendered Body by Karin Martin came into play.  The socialization of gendering bodies and that bodies must be “trained, manipulated, cajoled, coaxed, organized and in general disciplined” (Martin, 493) was laid out so perfectly in this article.  Martin went deeper than merely ‘boys wear pants and girls wear dresses’ but observed what this means for young girls who are still developing their physic, how they play and how they physically interact with peers.  I had never even considered that wearing dresses or skirts in preschool limits girls’ physical ability to do what most young boys can do (Martin, 498) and that teachers even expressed confusion when young girls showed an interest in physically playing as opposed to merely sitting at the table, and that this was inherently “rough” behavior because the teacher was expressing concern (508).  All of these micro-aggressions, whether as explicit as “act like a young lady” (Morris, 34) or scolding a girl for hitting someone and not a boy (Martin, 509) the blatant implications of gender socialization is so deeply embedded and unquestioned in our society that teachers and trained professionals do not even take notice of it.  Children do not think critically when a teacher (a strong, trusted and influential authority figure) says “Okay, girls and boys” – as if those are the only options, or when a teacher pairs up girls and boys for a dance class – as if those are the only appropriate pairs that exist.  If this is how deep the paradigm of gender goes – so far that it is rooted and accepted in educational, athletic, corporate and political institutions – how do we even begin to shift the dialogue from an obsessive compulsion to identify and categorize individuals to the reality of how and why the patriarchy crafted sex and gender?

*For more information on Caster Semenya:

4 thoughts on “The Olympics, Education and The Patriarchy

  1. Patrick G. Landes

    I think it is also appropriate to point out the racial aspects of the Semenya case. As Morris points out in his “Tuck In That Shirt!”, black females are thought to be inadequately feminine while males of color are thought to be dangerously masculine. So it should not be surprising that a black women’s ‘woman-ness’ be questioned given our history of taking away femininity from black women. Conversely, as Lorber points out, the pursuit of sports for men, particularly men of color, is really a pursuit of masculinity.

  2. I too found the gymnastics part in this article really interesting because it relates to a much bigger picture in our society. Young girls train so hard for their sport knowing that when they grow they’ll, as Judith Lorber said, be “disqualified.” Meanwhile, male gymnastics only strives towards muscular and mature men. An idea not only found in Gymnastics but in our everyday lives. While men are suppose to be muscular and mature in order to prove their manliness, girls are expected to be delicate and not intimidating. It is the stereotypical role that females are supposed to hold in society, that finds a way to make its way into sports.
    – Sophie Furman

  3. “Sex is actually really complicated, and it’s made up of a whole bunch of different components. There’s no one indicator of what makes you male or female,” said Dr. Alice Domurat Dreger. This quote is from the article provided about Caster Semenya, and for some reason the fact that we still live in a world in which the qualifier “actually” needs to be used to discuss something as fluid and culturally shaped and sexuality and gender is infuriating. Not only is the treatment of wildly successful female athletes horrendous, but the fact that this type of treatment can still be justified, because “actually” gender isn’t completely clear, is almost worse. The Olympic and scientific global community should be leaders on tolerance and knowledge, not on subjecting athletes to unnecessary and invasive sex testing.
    Olivia Rabbitt

  4. Bianca Scofield

    I really liked your connection of the Olympic gymnasts and the Martin study. Women are trained at a very young age to be constricted and take up less space than men. Little girls are constricted by their clothes, like you mentioned, because there is only so many activities you can participate in with a skirt or dress. These restriction on girl’s bodies are planted in their brains and are carried with women into adulthood. The size of a woman’s body is more and more of an issue in society. We value women that take up less space, which leads to eating disorders and the unfair treatment, that you mentioned, of Olympic women gymnasts.

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