This past Olympics, NBC commentators had much of America wincing every time they said something to the effect of “Katinka Hosszu’s husband is ‘the man responsible’ for her wins.” Katie Ledecky was purported to “swim like a man.” Serena Williams has dealt with hyper-scrutiny over her body throughout her 22-year professional career, with numerous comments fired at her muscular build. An even more painful account is the attack on Caster Semenya, the cross-country hero, who was forced to reveal various body parts to prove that, despite her achievements in speed and strength, she is not a man.
From uniforms to rules of the game, competitive sports are split between “female” and “male”—and arbitrarily so—but one thing becomes clear: we live in a world divided. Other media outlets might have reprimanded and parodied the ceaseless sexism in sports journalism, especially during the Rio Olympics, but if one seeks to reform the sexist nature of competitive sports, it isn’t enough to simply criticize instances of sexism. And it’s not that we need to dismantle the industry of competitive sports, either. Besides, sports in itself are not the enemy. It can be a tool for community, a recreational outlet or a mode of expression. What we do need, however, is to stop pretending that we can create a level playing field without addressing sexism as another product of an institution that inherently affirms the male-female binary—and then, we look for ways to continue challenging gender binaries in daily life.
From the start, categorization is unstable: the dichotomy between male and female is pseudoscience, dependent on your passing with enough “male” or “female” traits. Women are females and men are males, because since birth, a doctor said so. You either had a penis or a vagina, and if you didn’t or you had both, your parents would choose one for you. As a child, you would check either “male” or “female” on a standardized test form. In college, you would share a dorm with a same-sex roommate. Whether it was because of your inward sex organ, your facial hair, your double-X chromosomes or your broad shoulders, you were categorized as a male or a female.
That physical distinguishing of male and female implies not only that anyone who does not fit into either category gets shoved into one anyway, but also that females are left with a doomed fate. Assigned females are excluded from male-dominated sports, like football, and when spaces are designated, females are not treated with the same respect—how many people follow the WNBA as religiously as they do the NBA?
However, while tragic and unfair, the sexism is merely consequential—it doesn’t explain the root of why sports are sexist. In competitive sports, physical qualifiers that contribute toward a person’s identification as male include greater muscle capacity and lower fat percentage—in essence, greater athletic ability. When Ledecky, Williams and Semenya made massive strides in their fields, they were likened to, or accused of being, men. Sexist statements—such as “male runners are faster” or “male figure skaters jump higher”—are inevitable when those considered physically equipped for athletic feats are also typically those who are categorized as male. Even attempts at inclusion follow the lines of the sex binary: the NCAA’s 2011 Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes handbook approaches trans men and trans women differently. While trans men are able to compete immediately after their transition, trans women are required to use hormone suppressants for at least a year. Sexism is written into the script of sex itself.
Sports are a salient case study of the gender binary: both its consequences and its potential solutions. We must realize that sports cannot be alleviated of its sexism when it is fundamentally rooted in a sex-based division. Or else female athletes will always have something to prove and defend, whatever that may be, about their identities. Or else non-binary and transgender identities might never be fully acknowledged in sports. Or else the sports world continues to reaffirm that there is a “right” way to be a woman and a "right" way to be a man.
Within that, we should look for ways to challenge binaries in daily life.
We have ever only known a sexed world, so an alternative to the current, gender-policing sports industry is impossible to imagine. Perhaps the solution, or at least a part of it, is to support women, transgender and non-binary athletes. They can’t be abandoned within the confines of sex and gender simply because their profession requires that they lead publicly scrutinized lives. The reality is that we are not protected either. Sex—and sexism—exist everywhere: in the corporate office at a summer internship, in romantic relationships and in campus life at Duke as a whole.
Rather than reject spaces where sexism occurs—like competitive sports—we have a chance to confront the binary and work to correct small instances of sexism in daily life. Although it’s by no means a quick fix, we can take steps to explore personal gender identities and advocate for gender inclusivity—such as the “any gender” bathrooms spreading throughout Duke or specially devoted spaces like the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. We live in a system of stifling and unfair rules, but there are nevertheless ways to create space to learn and to grow, to heal and to overcome.
Jennifer Zhou is a Trinity junior. Her column, "just like a woman," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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