Thursday, September 8, 2011

Empowering Activity or a Step Back?

As I read the article by Judith Baer, I was struck by the notion that there may be a balance between gender-specific and gender-neutral laws. Each may promulgate policies recognizing the equality of women to men but also serving to support our differences. As an unschooled neophyte who is exploring feminism for the first time, my simplistic perception of the movement merely imagined its ranks filled with women who demanded to be treated exactly the same as men in all situations. Certainly women and men should be viewed as equals in many respects, but in some ways, they are entirely different beings.

In some ways, the notion that some feminists believe that the law should treat men and women alike where they are alike and differently where they are different stirred an awakening within my mind. There are many situations where women are breaking those glass ceilings and making progress for the benefit of future generations of women. But are there some glass ceilings that represent a step back for women?

One of the first circumstances to come to mind is in athletics. I am not saying women should not play sports; in fact, there are many women who are more athletic than their male counterparts. But the fact remains that, in some sports, men and women are treated differently. Enter the Lingerie Football League.

Yes, the Lingerie Football League and it is exactly what it sounds like – women playing tackle football in lingerie. My first recollection of the sport is at last year’s NFL Super Bowl where a LFL game was played during halftime. Upon further research, the sport league has existed since 2009 and draws millions of viewers annually.

On one hand, women are breaking into a sport that many of them are very good at. High schools have resisted allowing girls from joining adolescent boys teams for obvious maturation and administrative reasons. But here, women have formed a league to play a sport that they love. There are endorsements and contracts – albeit at a vastly inferior sum than the NFL. But, these women should be applauded. They are proving that the ladies can hang with the guys.

But lingerie? Is that necessary? Of course not. The NFL doesn’t require its players to compete in boxer briefs. The lingerie is a marketing stunt. The teams have names like Los Angeles Temptation, Chicago Bliss, Philadelphia Passion, and Orlando Fantasy. These women are objectified as sexual icons. I mean, the biggest game played all season long is during the halftime of the Super Bowl, which is predominantly followed by males.

So, as Judith Baer noted, some activities should treat men and women alike where they are alike but differently where they are different. Is this one of those instances where women are being empowered? They are playing a sport that they were told they couldn’t because they weren’t men. But are they really achieving equality or is this a step-back from the progress that so many women have made before them?


Girl Talk said...

I'd like to kind of build on this post by discussing a sport where women actually have their own professional league (and don't have to wear lingerie to play).

Consider basketball, for example. The WNBA is a legitimate, professional women's basketball league - that is constantly being compared to the NBA, its male counterpart. But really, the only similarity between the two is that they play the game of basketball, and even the way they play is different. Women play "below the rim," unable to dunk the ball due to physical limitations that are exclusively female: they are more susceptible to injuries and are shorter than men.

WNBA players have an individual maximum salary cap of $95,000, and that's if they are a veteran. The 2011 team salary cap is $852,000. The 2011 NBA team salary cap is $58 million.

An interesting article about why men hate the WNBA notes that every conversation about the WNBA starts with "they're less athletic than the men, they play below the rim, and they can't dunk." The author attributes this to marketing. The WNBA has always been marketed as a companion to the NBA, with the teams in the same cities, played in the same arenas, and even had similar uniforms. The NBA really pushed to integrate the two, and the author points out that this is the problem. The marketing strategy was that if you create a strong enough connection between the two, NBA fans will watch the WNBA just because it is significantly associated with the NBA, even if the games aren't as fast-paced and exciting. This strategy backfired, with NBA fans being inundated with WNBA promotion and ultimately resenting it.

This reminded me of our discussions in class the past two weeks and the readings we had regarding comparison of women to men, and different feminist schools of thought: should we treat men and women as absolute equals, discount differences and hold them to the same expectations and standards, or should we acknowledge that women and men are simply different in many ways and these differences need to be accommodated? In the basketball context, the WNBA, by the decision of the NBA, has fallen into the former category. It is constantly being held to NBA/male standards that they simply cannot -biologically - meet. Though these women players have no control over this, they are still seen as inferior, have a vastly smaller fan base, and receive salaries that are tiny fractions of NBA salaries.

So although the WNBA doesn't play in lingerie, it is still entirely cloaked in the sexist idea that women simply aren't as good as men.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Girl Talk, I am disappointed in you. Not because I disagree with your comment, but because I was planning on transitioning my discussion of women’s sports leagues to the WNBA for my next post. You jumped the gun, but props to you.

I think you bring up an interesting point. The WNBA and its players are held to an NBA standard. I read the interesting article you referenced and have to agree with some of the author’s sentiments. The NBA thought that, given the success of their own league, that basketball fans would flock to the WNBA. But therein lies the problem – the fans were already fans of the NBA, they already had their allegiances to their teams, their closets were already full with team apparel. It’s hard to force new teams onto people who are already fans of another team. The author’s alternative suggestion to grow the WNBA may have been much more successful.

The WNBA is a slower, less-in-your-face game. And you are right, this is the result of biological attributes that the women players cannot control. But I don’t think the leagues unpopularity is entirely the result of sexism (however, it does play a very large role). As discussed later in your article, the WNBA is mostly back-door cuts and scoring reminiscent of a bygone NBA era – it is much more fluid, it is an art form. But NBA fans don’t want an art form anymore. They want in-your-face action and posterized dunks. This is the new entertainment. There is no longer an appreciation for the art form that men’s basketball once was.

The WNBA is entertaining but in a different way. And it should be appreciated for the differences that women players bring to the table. I would say, despite those who detract from the sport, these women are continuing to break boundaries and pave the way for future generations of young women. The Lingerie Football League… eh, not so much.

hanestagless said...

The tragedy of lingerie football is that sex sells. Unfortunately, sex and objectification of women is largely used to attract the male consumer. Thus, lingerie football is an amalgam of two things that the heterosexual male loves: football and scantily clad women. I don’t believe that lingerie football was ever meant to be taken seriously. This is not to take away at all from the talent of the women actually playing. I just have a hard time believing that the makers of lingerie football were thinking of showcasing that talent when they designed the sport.
In contrast, the WNBA is a league created with serious intentions where the primary goal is to showcase the talent of the women athletes playing the game. Of course, as noted, the game is still rife with sexism. This is largely because the WNBA is directly compared to the NBA, despite being a completely different game. However, I believe that the WNBA is encouraging because it provides a career to women athletes in the U.S. Furthermore, and I believe more importantly, it creates strong female role models for young women. Women like former player Sheryl Swoopes and former coach Cheryl Miller. (Swoopes also announced she was gay in 2005 and recently became engaged to a man)
To me, the more tragic sport is women’s tennis. Here is a sport that was grounded in seriousness. One that saw Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets. A sport that was taken to new heights by Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova. But for the past decade, women’s tennis has leaned more toward lingerie football beginning with Anna Kournikova. Hopefully, the next generation of tennis players will rely on their quality as athletes to attract attention rather than objectifying themselves.

Megan said...

Your post reminds me of another similarly popular female sport—roller derby. I recently attended a roller derby bout in the Bay Area and I was astounded at the size of the crowd. No other local female sporting event I have attended drew such crowds. And the audience was a refreshing mixture of young people, older people, gays, lesbians, heterosexual couples, and families. So, why all the hype? I think Hanastagless touched on one reason in her comment—that is, “sex sells.” Roller derby uniforms are not the most modest of outfits, and the names of some of the players (Purdy Grrrl, Scandaliz, Skellawhore to name a few) are akin to the types of names you might expect to see on a billboard driving through the red light district.

But, the sport itself is actually quite competitive and incredibly exciting to watch. The women train hard and are clearly skilled at blocking and maneuvering at high speeds on a flat oblong track. A “striker” on each team moves quickly through the blockers to score points. Thus, the sport is showcasing athletic talent, and using sex appeal to draw crowds in. And while lingerie football may not be taken seriously by its supporters, I do not think that is the case for roller derby because frankly, roller derby has attracted a much more diverse crowd.