Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sporty Soap Operas: Danica's "Catfight" Edition

I have long believed that collegiate and professional sports serve as soap operas for men. Yes, lots of women like sports too, myself included. But while it's okay for women to watch sports, it's not really socially acceptable for men to watch girly shows like soap operas. Thus, men get their "soap opera" fix via sports.

Thus, while reveling in sports as one of the few remaining bastions of hyper-masculinity, many male sportswriters are nonetheless as gossipy about athletes as any US Weekly writer is about movie stars. The subject matter is different, of course, but the drama is all there. [Insert athlete] is so over-rated. No way! Can you believe [insert good/bad athlete] just got traded by [insert foolish/smart team]?! In fact, some of the longest articles in Sports Illustrated are the behind-the-scenes-type stories of star athletes showcasing their personal lives and the various challenges these athletes have overcome in their lives.

Mostly, I find this amusing.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to writing about female athletes, the sportswriting is especially dramatic, subjective, and imbued with unsupported opinions presented as "fact." Recently, for instance, I took a tour of reactions to Indy Racing League (IRL) driver Danica Patrick's "encounter" with another female IRL driver. In short, Patrick walked over to fellow female driver Milka Duno and confronted her about some on-track driving behavior she didn't approve of. According to NBC Sports, "the confrontation lasted only about a minute, but witnesses said it grew heated and that Duno flung a towel in Patrick’s direction at one point as the two exchanged words. Patrick eventually walked away."

I think the whole incident is sort of funny, in all honesty. Especially how Milka Duno tried to shoo Patrick away by snapping a towel near Patrick's face. I don't care if we're watching men or women, that shit's funny.

Unfortunately, we can always count on articles about incidents like these to be imbued with references to the female athlete's gender, over-dramatized, and gossipy. Meanwhile, the trashy-magazine tone of such articles goes unchallenged because, after all, these are sporty articles about manly sporty things.

1. Female Athletes versus Regular Athletes

Rather than presenting the situation as one in which two IRL drivers exchanged words, some sportswriters couldn't resist reminding everyone that these were two female IRL drivers. This characterization follows a trend in articles about Women in Sports: In major sports media, mention is almost always made of their female-ness- their "other-ness." If not in the article itself, then definitely in the asinine comment section following the article. If an athlete's gender is not mentioned in an article, you can almost guarantee that the article is about a male athlete- aka, a regular athlete.

FOXNews sportswriter Kevin Hench, for instance writes:

"What the IRL has in Patrick is 100 pounds of TNT (T, I said, TNT) with an anger management problem. The diminutive Danica — mini driver?..."

Hardy-har-har. Embedded within two passive-aggressive sentences are a reference to Patrick's smaller-than-male frame, an attempted ass-n-titties joke, and a questioning characterization of Patrick as a "mini driver?" rather than a real/male driver. In fact, if you read the entire article you will see that it's a hot mess of gossip and cheap shots. How manly.

The trend continues in another piece written by "":

"Danica Patrick's now famous temper has flared once again. And this time, it led to a PG-rated version of 'Girls Gone Wild' in the pits during a practice session for the Honda Indy 200."

So, two female race drivers having a verbal spat is pretty much a toned-down version of vacationing college girls flashing their boobs? Erm, okay FOXNews. If you say so. Thanks for letting us all know that you take female athletes about as seriously as Jimmy Dugan does at the beginning of A League of Their Own:

"Girls are what you sleep with after the game. Not what you coach during the game."

See, the constant drawing of attention to the female-ness, the "other"-ness, in the context of every. single. article. about female athletes sends the message that women are so rare in the sacred domain of masculinity that is sports that limiting a to their actual athletic ability or accomplishments is simply impossible. This message comes with the implicit question: Are women even welcome in this domain, if people can't even get past the fact that these athletes are women? For the answer to that question, peruse the comments left by FOXsports fans after any article about female athletes.

2. "Boorish-ly" Exaggerated Behavior

Secondly, female athletes are often held to higher behavioral standards than male athletes. For instance, male drivers have regularly had spats and even fistfights with other male drivers. We've all seen ESPN clips of male drivers jumping out of their cars and socking some other driver in the face. Rarely, however, is such behavior given much attention or labeled as "boorish," as Hench called Patrick's non-physical confrontation. Rather than numerous op-ed pieces bemoaning a man-on-man incident, we might get a couple clips of the incident presented while the sportscasters chuckle about it. Boys will be boys, after all. When a woman even shows hints of similar behavior, the reactions are exaggerated and full of disapproving tsk-tsks.

Pam Gaulin notes both the double-standard and sports media's dramatic exaggeration of the incident:

"Milka Duno and Danica Patrick did not get in a fight at an Indy Racing League race on Saturday. They were in an argument where the only thing thrown was a towel. This type of heated argument happens a lot in NASCAR racing, between the male racers....Danica Patrick, like any other race car driver in the Indy Racing League or in NASCAR should be allowed to have outbursts like any of the male drivers. She simply gets more press mileage out of it because she is a woman."

Indeed, while the two women did not actually get into a fistfight, male sportswriters have been presenting hyperbolic accounts of the incident. One headline, for instance, alarmingly says "IndyCar Drivers Danica Patrick, Milka Duno Get into Brawl" even though exchanging a few words is hardly qualifies as a "brawl." Elsewhere, other words associated with the incident have been "tantrum," "enraged," and "heated."

I have no doubt that Patrick was angry, but only in the context of something seriously f-ed up, like, Mike Tyson ear-biting are men similarly characterized as juvenile, out-of-control, and enraged. I mean, come on people. The two women didn't even make bodily contact. Get a grip.

[Insert mud-wrestling/super-soaker lezbo-action allusion.]

3. The "Attention-Seeking" Female

Sportswriters also absolutely love to write gossip about Patrick and profit off of stories about her while simultaneously criticizing her for "seeking attention."

FOXNews' Hench, for instance, presents the recent incident as Patrick's "latest it's-really-all-about-me drama." One blogger similarly writes, "It seems that in IndyCar Racing these days Danica Patrick is trying to grab headlines any way she can."

The "attention-seeking woman" critique is one of my favorites. Basically, it's a psychic endeavor into another person's mind which serves as a way for a critic to pretend to know someone's intentions for behaving a certain way. These critics don't actually know why Patrick acts the way she does, but with their "authoritative" voices, these all-knowing men declare to the world that they do know such things. Frankly, I could do some psychic networking of my own and say that such men are just threatened by the prospect of strong women able to do "manly" things better than most men, but I would at least acknowledge that such an opinion is mere conjecture.

Anyway, let's just believe for a moment that Patrick is acting out in order to get attention. If such were actually the case, I would have trouble scrounging up sympathy for sportswriters who moan about the level of attention Patrick receives while simultaneously bestowing attention upon her.

See, what tops Hench's criticism that Patrick's "extracurricular activities antics were detracting from the results on the track" is that, within his story, is a prominent embedded link to a video of the "spat" along with a montage of the "best images" of Danica Patrick from the "eventful weekend." For one who ridicules Patrick for making things all-about-her, Hench and FOXNews certainly love making things all about Danica Patrick.

What drama queens.

As male sportswriters regularly lift their legs to mark sports as the last remaining bastion of masculinity, where male domination is both the expected and "natural" state of affairs, it's these day-to-day insults that let female athletes know they are to be ridiculed and/or not taken seriously. This isn't to say that female athletes should not be criticized. They should be. But holding female athletes to higher moral standards than male athletes, constantly referencing the gender of female athletes, and mis-characterizing female athletes is unacceptable.

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