The term ‘gender’ has become complicated for scholars to define in recent decades.
For the purpose of this essay, the constructivist meaning of gender will be used, which defines it as “a process of social construction, a system of social stratification, and an institution that structures every aspect of our lives because of its embeddedness in the family, the workplace and the state as well as in sexuality, language and culture”(Lorber 1994, p.5). In our postmodern society, scholars have began to question the “dichotomy of sex and gender…and the interdependencies of biology and social construction” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.220), with many emphasizing the “relational quality as well as the ambiguity and fluidity of gender” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.220). These developing interpretations of ‘gender’ have acted as a catalyst for change in society and culture, predominantly in developed capitalist countries across the world. Sport is a gendered institution, meaning that those doing sport are categorised as a man or a woman. However, due to complications over the definition of ‘gender’, this dual sports structure has come under scrutiny in recent times because of the embedded nature of gender in culture in our postmodern society. This is not the only complication with regards to gender and sport, as the outdated cultural norm that men take the “lead role in the development of various physical exercises and sports” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.221) has been challenged in many industrialised countries, with the breakdown of male patriarchy and the rise in number of females in politics and the formation of feminist groups “ensuring progress towards gender equity” (Aitchison, 2003, p. 86). This essay will interrogate how the gender construct within sport is not individual to itself, but a reflection of hegemonic discourses and practices with regards to gender that are embedded in the social construction of society.
The complications over the meaning of gender that are present in our modern societies demonstrate the entanglement of sports, politics, and culture. Originally, competitors have always been placed into the categories of male and female. From 1966, “chromatin tests” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.225) were used at the Olympic Games to place athletes into these categories and was as simple as revealing a “combination of x and y chromosomes” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.225). Whilst sporting committees still categorise competitors as either male or female, it is nowhere near as straight forward as previously, due to the development of the term and notion of ‘genderqueer’. According to (Winter, 2010), the term was developed “for gender identities which do not fit in the binary scheme of man and woman or in any other fixed categories” (Winter, 2010). Predominantly Western countries have seen a rise in people coming out as transgender; “an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from expectations associated with the sex assigned to them at birth” (Berg-Weger, Marla, 2016, p.229). The rise coincided alongside the invisible transition towards a postmodern society, which has an anti-foundational nature that sees a fluidity and unstableness. The progression towards political acceptance of people considered transgender has developed, with “16 openly transgender individuals have been elected to office in the United States” (Lyons, 2017). In sport, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) ruled in 2004 that transgender athletes can compete “if their assigned sex is recognized by their government and if they underwent hormonal treatment for a period of two years prior to competition in their newly assigned sex” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.226). The need for recognition by the government, and the recent acceptance of transgender people in society demonstrates the entanglement of gender between politics, society, and sport. Whilst it is positive that transgender athletes are now able to compete, there have been many complications with regards to those registered as the female gender from birth who have “naturally elevated androgen levels” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.226) – the term for this is ‘hyperandrogenism’. There is a social and cultural stigma towards women who suffer from hyperandrogenism that has developed as they have “distinct competitive advantages” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.226) due to the physical implications of the condition. In 2009, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) put in place a policy to exclude women who suffer from hyperandrogenism from competing with other women, following South African runner Caster Semenya’s victory at the World Championships that year. Whilst she was allowed to compete the following year, cultural issues within societies arose from this decision, which was thought to be fuelled with discriminatory and racist intent “by some commentators, politicians and activists” (Dixon, 2009). Similar incidents have occurred within the past decade, further highlighting the entanglement. Because of the issues surrounding hyperandrogenism and testosterone levels in sport, commentators in recent years have debated whether the existing gender structure within sport should be abolished, and whether sporting categories should be determined by other factors such as hormonal levels. However, owing to the fact that gender is a social construction and is embedded in culture, it would be difficult to break down this hegemonic norm.
The socialization of gender with regards to sports and practices is heavily tied to the culture and politics of societies. From the moment a person is born, they are subject to various masculine and feminine cultural expectations. According to (Giulianotti, 2014, p.226) “the dichotomous structure of (competitive) sport ‘genders’ the participants and reinforces gender duality as it groups individuals into one of the two gender categories”. What this has resulted in is a gendered world whereby they “adopt the dominant discourses including sport skills and practices” (Giulianotti, 2014, p.227). Such discourses include the idea that there are more masculine sports such as wrestling and rugby, and more feminine sports such as gymnastics and ballet, and if people break these norms then they could be easily considered as outsiders in their culture. More controversial discourses used to exist in Western countries, and today in less developed countries. In his work Sports and Masculinity (Kidd, 2013), Bruce Kidd deconstructs certain cultural ideas towards gender and sport. He considers that “education and socialization through sport was consciously understood to be ‘masculinizing’” (Kidd, 2013, p.113) and that sports’ nature is patriarchal. He emphasises that “male doctors and physical educators argued that humans had only a finite quantity of energy, which in the case of women was needed for their reproductive organs” (Kidd, 2013, p.119-120). These cultural norms can be considered as entangled with the politics of the 20th century, whereby politics was a male-dominated sector of society and women had minor representation and there was a significant lack of equality. Although in Western Countries these discourses are now outdated, they have consequently caused the segregation of men and women in sport, whereby women play on a “sex-segregated basis with inferior resources” (Kidd, 2013, p.220). Issues have arisen from this segregation within culture due to how women are perceived in sport. The human body has become important due to this segregation, as norms and ideals of the human body are forged by cultural practices, in accordance gender in cultures and societies. Consequently, the cultural norms with regards to how one’s body should be, have entangled with sport. The 2011 Women’s football world cup saw numerous examples “for the ‘beautification’ and ‘sexualization’ of players” (Pfister, 2014). This sexualization of women has only further changed their roles and how they’re represented within sports, as they are commonly placed in secondary and supporting roles to their male counterparts, undertaking roles as cheerleaders and spectators. Thus, sportsmen and women are not only considered to be doing sport, but in fact also doing gender and appealing to masculinities and femininities in society.
Gender should not be considered as a singular discourse and practice, but rather as one that intersects with other discourses, such as race and ethnicity and social class. Whilst over the past couple of decades there has been a rise in minorities competing in sport, there are still complications and cultural differences that are evident. (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2016) study the relationship between Muslim women and sport, and how although women of an ethnic minority can compete, there is still a struggle. During the London 2012 Olympics, the news headline “The Muslim women who overcame the odds and the prejudice to make history today on the Olympic stage” (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2016, p.149) was used by the British tabloid The Daily Mail. It is clear that the headline created the portrayal that the female Muslim athletes were struggling “against oppressive forces – religious, political and patriarchal” (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2016, p.149). The headline evidently portrays the women as powerless to society in their own country, indicating that they are subject to oppression from men and their political ideologies. Political and cultural obstacles have prevented Muslim women from being able to participate. Many developing countries still have a male patriarchy within their political systems and culture, whereby the women are suppressed, with their role in society being centred around the household and raising children – a cultural norm that has been abolished in most Western countries. This has meant they have limited access to sport, as once they reach adulthood, it is frowned upon to compete by many. Sports media and the Western norms of the female body have only further demonstrated the under-representation of minority women. In the media, female athletes are “sexualised feminised, and infantilised” (Bernstein, 2002, p.8; Messner and Cooky, 2010), and studies only show that there is a further “lack of attention paid to ethnically and racially diverse women” (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2016, p.155), primarily because they do not conform to the western norms of beautification; for example items of clothing that act as a veil, such as hijabs, do not “conform to hegemonic norms” (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2016, p.155). Whilst it is clear that the entanglement of sports, politics, and culture highlights the oppression that minority groups of women are succumbed to, it does however provide the basis for sport based interventions that can help bolster the position of these women, and aid them in progressing culturally and politically in their societies. International sporting organisations can lead the way for representation of these minority groups within sport, as they provide support for these women to aid their involvement within their home country and develop a more modern perception towards them in terms of equality.
Whilst inequalities between men and women exist in sport, they also exist in politics and culture. Sport can be seen as a magnifier of these inequalities, and that it reflects the embedded construct of gender within society. It is no coincidence that in industrialised countries, the advancement of political rights for women and progression towards equality has coincided alongside the push for gender equality within sports. For example, The Fédération Sportive Féminine Inter-nationale (FSFI), a sporting body formed in Europe in 1921 that was devoted to let women compete in sport, was formed in the same decade as women were given equal franchise to men in Britain through the 1928 Representation of the People Act. The past few decades and the transition to postmodernism have equally demonstrated the entanglement, as the acceptance in society of those considered ‘genderqueer’ and the advancement of their rights has seen an increase in transgender athletes, despite controversies surrounding this. Furthermore, these decades have seen gender intersects with race and ethnicity become progressively obvious, with many hegemonic norms under scrutiny. Although there have been advancements with regards to gender in sport, it’s intersection with race and ethnicity amplify issues surrounding women of ethnic minorities and in developing countries, and the suppression they are subject to by men. In conclusion, gender illustrates the entanglement of culture, politics, and sport because it is a system of social stratification and construction, that is embedded in the core of society.