Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Artificial Gender Distinctions in Sports

While reading this article, critiquing a guy who argued that women's hockey should be banned from the Olympics because a few countries tend to dominate the other teams, I came across an interesting distinction between women's and men's hockey. Namely, that unlike in the men's game, women's hockey does not allow body checking. For the non-sporty readers out there, "body checking" is when a player uses her or his body "to knock an opponent against the boards or to the ice."

I don't watch or play hockey myself, which perhaps makes me a sporty heretic during this particular time of year, but I thought this distinction was interesting. I have several thoughts about it.

For one, the distinction highlights how sports culture entitles men and boys to violence and aggression, and does not always extend this entitlement to girls and women.

Two, sports culture seems to have an obsession with making women's versions of the same sport different than male versions. These differences sometimes have logical reasons, but oftentimes the differences are the result of gender stereotyping. For instance, in basketball, having women use a smaller ball would make sense, given that women tend to have smaller hands than men. However, banning body checking in women's hockey but not in men's seems to rest in that age-old idea that men and boys are naturally tough and strong, in contrast to girls and women, who are naturally frail and weak.

This distinction is similar to (a) the artificial boys-play-baseball but girls-play-softball division, (b) the way female runners often have to run shorter distances than boys do in cross country running, even though the female body is better suited to long-distance running, and (c) they way professional female tennis players play fewer sets than men do in Grand Slam tournaments.

Although I don't think there is some vast conspiracy plotting to keep the female athlete down, these illogical and artificial distinctions do prevent accurate comparisons from being made between female and male athletes within the same sport, which results in the inability to test assumptions about Inherent Male Superiority In All Things. After a time, one can start to wonder if some folks fear an entire house of assumptions falling down if these comparisons could be made.

However, four, given that body checking is physically dangerous, I'm not necessarily in favor of it. Yes, perhaps that would destroy the fun of hockey, but it's interesting that sports culture only seems to care about the harms of body checking with respect to females, effectively saying that males getting concussions is entirely okay. As seen from the health effects of football, the way masculinity is constructed is that to be a Real Man is to mean being tough, aggressive and strong. While there are certainly privileges the flow from that, it also means that Real Men are expendable cannon fodder for some larger end. In this case, entertainment.

And also, to the man who argued that women's hockey should be banned from the Olympics because there aren't enough good women's teams to make things competitive: Women have been fighting for hundreds of years to be able to participate in the Olympics and have only gotten to do so in small, sport-by-sport increments during the mid-to-late 20th century. We shouldn't penalize women who are privileged enough to live in countries that support female athletic opportunity just because many countries in the world do not do adequately do so.

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