Jul 20, 2011

By Shana Stephenson
Traditionally speaking, sports have been an expression of masculinity and male competition since its inception. Who can run the fastest, jump the highest, hit the hardest, and so on. However, over the past two decades, we’ve seen a ground swell of female athletes break barriers and insert themselves into the conversation. Danica Patrick in auto racing, the Williams sisters in tennis, Annika Sorenstam in golf, countless WNBA athletes, and many more have contributed to this movement. Yet despite these leaps, the growth of women’s sports continues to stall because many of its athletes do not uphold the traditional gender roles that society has defined for women.

Female athletes possessing a physique that is considered to be more masculine, muscular, or athletic than other female celebrities, or watching women exert excessive amounts of energy while engaging in sweat inducing activities has yet to be considered the norm. As such, mainstream media has failed to identify an effective way to portray female athletes short of having them strip down and bare their bodies. This comes as no surprise since men hold positions of power and have a very distinct view on the definition of beauty. Women who are considered tomboys are either forced to embrace their feminine side or are ignored altogether.

A great example of this theory was played out on screen in the film Love & Basketball. In the film, one of the main characters, Monica, was independent, determined in her career as a basketball player, and took more pride in tightening up her defense than perfecting her hair or makeup. And ultimately, Monica’s tomboyish ways, which she embraced, created a wedge between her and her mother. Monica lacked the “prissy” people pleasing, domestic caretaking role that her mother lived by.

Later on in the film, this issue presented itself when women who more closely resembled the type of demeanor that Monica’s mother tried to force upon her, distracted Monica’s basketball playing boyfriend, Q. Furthermore, despite Q’s own parents warning him about falling for women that were only interested in him for his earning potential, Q took the bait and was lured by more feminine and glamorous women.

The juxtaposition of Monica as a self-sufficient athletic tomboy, against that of her mother’s delicate feminine nature, and even that of the “gold diggers” that Q encountered, represents the media’s method of reinforcing gender roles, especially as it relates to sports. And although fictional, this example very closely mirrors the stereotypical roles defined by the women that are featured on the popular reality TV series Basketball Wives against that of WNBA athletes.

The women on Basketball Wives are portrayed as kept women who were more driven to acquire their M.R.S. from an NBA player than building their own successful careers that would allow them to fund the lavish lifestyles they desire. The perception is that they’re afforded luxuries because they benefited from the success that the ex men in their lives attained through hard work, discipline, and talent.

While these women, who live up to society’s standards of beauty are often seen rocking 6 inch stilettos and figure flattering dresses with every hair in place, have received their fair share of backlash for their desire to find a partner able to provide for them; I believe the commentary should shift toward how each woman has made a name for herself based on their exes achievements.

While the series is full of entertainment, it’s empty on scenes that dispel the myth that the women possess their own identities and spend their days engaging in activities other than the traditional female practices of gossiping, lunching, and shopping; ultimately sending the wrong message to young girls that seek inspiration from celebrities.

Meanwhile, for the past 15 years, the NBA’s female counterparts in the WNBA have struggled to attain recognition for the same hard work, discipline, and talent that NBA athletes are constantly lauded.

Mainstream glossies, websites, and non-sports media regularly ignore the example that WNBA athletes set each day as they take pride in their roles as women, mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends, friends, professional athletes, and role models.

The WNBA and its players rarely dominate the headlines for their achievements, with one recent exception – Maya Moore.

Last month, the Minnesota Lynx rookie made headlines for receiving a groundbreaking endorsement deal from Jordan Brand, making her the first female basketball player on the iconic brand’s roster. While Moore is certainly deserving of this honor and all of the attention she’s received, it’s impossible to ignore that it took a man, the man, Michael Jordan, to give his stamp of approval. It’s as if it was necessary for MJ to offer Moore, or another WNBA player, an endorsement opportunity to validate the level of talent that exists in the league for others to take note.

When the NBA is marketed to fans, the talent of the athletes and the excitement of the game are promoted, not the sexiness of the players. Conversely, the media has a difficult time selling the women’s game to fans because of the grit and power that is demonstrated by WNBA athletes on the court. Although it’s unknown how Jordan Brand will market Moore, giving Moore a signature shoe is a huge step toward recognizing female athletes for their athletic ability rather than their sex appeal.

WNBA athletes should be celebrated for setting the bar high and blazing their own successful paths. They should also be admired for representing true womanhood and possessing autonomy, fearlessness, pride, and strength. But, unfortunately, the positive traits they exhibit are regularly drowned out by the glamorized lifestyles portrayed by the women on Basketball Wives.

As long as the media continues to spoon-feed stereotypical images of women while ignoring the antithesis of the “norm”, millions of young impressionable girls who struggle with a lack of self-worth will continue to misplace value on what’s important.

At the end of Love & Basketball, Q and Monica were married and had a daughter. Monica also went on to play in the WNBA. Ultimately, Monica’s strength and commitment to her true self persevered above all.

If only life imitated art.

Source - Xhibit P

Shana explains her commentary in the video below:


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