Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Any Girl Can Be Pretty. It Takes A Real Woman To Play Basketball."

That's what my neighbor said to his baby sister while we were watching the women's Final Four games two days ago. At fourteen, my neighbor, Bill, is 6'4" and averages fifteen and eight per. His sister, Sarah, is four, adorable, and clearly well on her way to breaking hearts in a few years. If the height of her mother, aunts and brother is any judge, she's also on her way to being over six feet tall. And there's nothing Bill wants more for her than to be the next Candace Parker.

Obviously, this kid Bill and I both love basketball - he's one of the few people I can watch, talk about, and play it with. His coach wants him to watch college ball, but we both prefer the pros, and we both love women's basketball. Though it would be tempting to say so, considering his age and maturity level, he doesn't actually like it for the cute tall girls (although I'm sure that's a part of it). Rather, he likes it for the same reasons I do: that it's like watching four guards and a small forward play, that at its best it's fast and lethal, that they beat the everloving crap out of each other with nary a foul to be called. In fact, we spent a lot of the summer watching WNBA games and telling Sarah about the players and the game. I love women's basketball, and the nearest teenaged boy to me loves it – so, I wondered, why do so many people not like it? Or, more often, not care?

The first impulse of a basketball fan, in this case, would be to wonder what the women's game lacks in terms of the men's. Well, dunks, obviously. Though a few college and pro women can dunk, one could count them in single digits – not a plus if one is a big fan of people smacking the rim with their hands. So yes, there's that. The women are shorter than the men – see the above bit about four guards and a forward – and generally a little less athletic, as it is in, you know, life. The rules aren't quite the same; the women's pro game is a bit shorter, the shot clock is longer, the ball's an inch (!) smaller. But other than that, what else is different? Ultimately, not much.

At the highest level, the shooting percentages between the men and the women are essentially the same. You'll see as many high-pressure threes, last second shots, beautiful fadeaways, and as much violent play – remember, no charge circle in women's ball. You'll see a lot less flopping, since there's not really a point to it; the refs rarely call fouls in most cases anyway. With fewer teams, there's harsher competition, with little difference in talent and skill between the team with the best record and the team in last place. No. There must be some other problem going on here.

Now, I am admittedly young, but I've had little occasion to worry about misogyny in my life. I never had to; I've always been the type that people dislike based on me, not on my genitalia. But as I get older and have more experience with people I don't know, a lot of things have come to disturb me about the perception and treatment of women in our world. Although the treatment of women is important to me, it's a topic for another day; instead, I will here concern myself with the perception of women, in media, culture and everyday life, in regards to basketball.

Most sports fans are, obviously, white males. Conveniently enough, most of my friends have been white males, and sports fans since I was about fourteen, so I have some experience with the general mentality we're talking about here. I hesitate to generalize about any group of people, particularly when they make up a lot of my potential audience; it's a habit I dislike in others, and not one I want to cultivate. So when I talk about sports fans from here on, please assume it to indicate the negative majority, the most but not all, if you will.

This is what I think is the main reason for such disproportionate disinterest in women's basketball: it's simply too difficult to develop interest in the game when a viewer is preoccupied with the fact that the players are girls. That's an oversimplification in terms, but it's what I think is true; the average sports fan watching is thinking not about the game the women are playing, but instead about their faces and hairstyles and tattoos, their femininity or lack thereof, their attractiveness or lack thereof, the probable lesbians in the stands, whether the players are lesbians, whether it makes him gay to think the players are hotter than the's no wonder the average viewer can't concentrate on the game.

Therefore, I think the problem lies not with the players, not with the game, and not even with the aforementioned average fans. Rather, I think the blame belongs with the usual targets in matters such as these - nebulous entities like mass media, cultural norms, and social and familial influences. Our entire lives, certain things are sublimated into our collective consciousness: what women should be like, what men should be like, what is important in life to both or either gender. These ideas and implications are easy to name. Men should be strong and hard-hearted, and funny, and simple minded. They must be single-minded, too – nothing is more important to a man than sex, am I right? Preferably with women. You don't want to appear at all feminine. No homo, man. There's not much worse than being girly. And women – there's nothing more important, more vital, to a woman than being pretty. For a lot of girls, it's their greatest goal in life. For most of the rest, it's something that hovers in the back of the mind, a worry that never quite goes away – do I look pretty? Do the people around me think I'm attractive? Girls are soft, sweet, and pretty, or they kind of fail at life. Yet, at the same time, femininity is still a negative for men, and masculinity a positive for women: She's got real balls. She thinks like a man. He's such a pussy. What a little bitch that guy is. As my friend succinctly and effectively put it: "It's good to love vagina. It's terrible to have one."

I should make it clear that I think these unfortunate "facts" of life are degrading and limiting for men and women both, and created as much by women as by men. I also think that they are the cause, directly or indirectly, for the general lack of interest in women's basketball, and women's sports in general. Think about it – what are the most popular women's sports? Yeah. Tennis and figure skating. The ones with miniskirts and make-up and, don't forget, white girls. Don't get me wrong, I like girls in miniskirts and make-up plenty – more so than the purely heterosexual among us, I'm sure. But before I go into a digression I'll regret, let me make my point: women that are strong and skilled and focused on something other than romance – masculine, in other words – are easier to digest when they are placed in a feminine and girlish context. It's easy to admire a girl's athleticism and speed when you have the opportunity – are invited – to also admire her legs and ass and upper chest. It's a bit more difficult to perform the necessary compartmentalization when the girls are dressed the same as the boys, and play the same game as the boys, and are strong, tall* and muscular and don't have flowing tresses and legs bare to the crotch. Without this compartmentalization, the average viewer can't watch the game; he, or she, can't separate the players from the game, because there is too much dissonance between the way the players as women should be and the way the players are.

All these pictures are of Candace Parker because one can't talk about the sport, and its relations to feminine ideals, without talking about Candace. Or rather, one could let pictures say their words instead. The WNBA draft is later today, and Candace will be picked first by the LA Sparks. Ask yourself: do the media, and maybe you, care about her so much because she's possibly the best to ever play the game? Or because she's that talented and also quite gorgeous? Maybe it's okay for a girl to play better than most men, but only as long as she's also prettier than most women.

I've been wanting to write this for a while, but was inspired to do so today because of the juxtaposition of two things that happened on Tuesday: the women's NCAA championship game, and this post over at Deadspin. I like basketbawful and Matt, and I know it's humor – but something about incredibly talented women playing basketball at the highest college level, combined with those five inexpensive young ladies as the only mention of women+basketball on Deadspin. . . well. It made me want to create the big teal deer you see before you. Hey, you know? Here's a hot basketball player.

As a brilliant writer once said, "BOOBS. BOOBS! HOLY SHIT BOOBS." Lauren Jackson boobs, to clarify.

*Maria Sharapova is 6'2".


Basketbawful said...

This post made me feel more than vaguely guilty...


m. Alana said...

I'm so sorry, dude. >.< Now I feel guiIty. I know you're better than that. It was just the imagery that made me think of it, you know?

Basketbawful said...

Yeah, I do know. And for the record, I generally try to avoid using gratuitous chick pics to sell my Closer column. The earlier one I used only because I thought the pose was ridiculous (strangely, I caught Ben Gordon in getting into the same position in today's WotN post). I used the Heat cheerleaders for the "keep watching" post because of the dancer bracket, which I found ridiculous...but Will didn't want an article on that, so I circumvented him by putting it at the top of a column he specifically requested. It was more subversion than sexism...but I can see why you'd feel otherwise, particularly with some of the antics at Deadspin.

Another note: I recently started my Basketbabe column back up because I kept getting requests. And you know what? I got contacted by the marketing company that manages the Sixers dancers. They actually thanked me for featuring Vi, and they're sending me a gift box (contents unknown) and trying to set up an interview with Vi. They also fixed the misspelling of her college's name on their site. Pretty funny, huh?

And actually, of the seven or so Basketbabes I've done, I've gotten contacted four times now by the girls, one of their friends, or a representative thanking me for it. Which strikes me as kind of crazy, all things considered.

No idea where I'm going with this. Other than that I want you to know this: I dig chicks. I respect chicks. And I really, truly avoid using them as cheap gimmicks to boost readership. I was raised by a single mom. I still hold open doors, pull out chairs, and if there's a puddle, I lay down on it and let them walk over me. That's just how I was raised.

Other random sidenote: I don't know another Matt in real life. But I've met SEVEN bloggers named Matt since I've been doing this. What's up with Matts and basketball? I have no clue.

m. Alana said...

Don't worry, Matt. There's a lot of misogyny, casual and malicious, in sports fandom, but trust me. You are not part of the problem. It's entirely possible to mock girls without being sexist, and your Basketbabes - and the text of the Deadspin post - always make me laugh, not assume that you became an asshole overnight.

I have no problem with dancers, cheerleaders, or hot girls in general, and not even with the admittedly ridiculous dancer bracket - they have their purpose in this regard, and I don't think ill of them for it at all. What bothers me is when women that don't have to try to look beautiful because it's beside the point, like basketball players, are automatically judged by the same standards. People don't do this on purpose, necessarily, but certain things condition us to. That's the only point I wanted to make with the link - I respect your subversion and don't respect you less for the post.

Incidentally, this is what my friend and I decided to dub those five young ladies: Baby Hooker Spice, Sporty Boobjob Spice, Leatherette Zubaz Spice, Pleather Bondage Spice, Spats Spice. Girls are mean. We also speculated on their natural hair colors. I'm not sure what my point is, but it's something about how if you put yourself out there as a solely sexual being - which most real women are not - then that's how you're going to be percieved and judged. Also, boobs.

I should stop rambling and repeat that I don't blame you at all for this. I respect you a lot as a person, and I wouldn't think ill enough of you to assume that you would reduce women that way.

Half the boys I know are named David, Chris or Matt. As far as basketball goes, there's you, my friend at FSU, that kid Bill's older cousin, the center for my school's basketball team, and a few others. I guess all the creative names were reserved for girls? Like Allora and Zerrah and Shareille and Sierra Cheyenne. And Neveah. And Kyle. And Dylan. I'll stop now.

Basketbawful said...

Whew. Thank goodness you realized that. I mean, my transformation into an asshole has been a slow, gradual, and ongoing process. Kind of like some other slow, gradual, ongoing processes I'm not witty enough to think of right now.

Your names for the Miami Heat dancers cracked me up, and, for the most part, are pretty accurate...except for pleather bondage spice. Not nearly enough pleather or bondage in her outfit to justify the name, however cool that name may be. I have no better suggetion, alas. I do appreciate the zubaz reference, though.

We live in a shallow, superficial world...unfortunately. And the media, particularly through advertisements, perpetuate that. Women are superficially judged by their looks, while men are often appraised by their relative level of success or accomplishment. I work as a technical writer for a global computer software firm. When I tell people that, they are usually suitably impressed. But sometimes I tell people that I work as a manager at McDonalds. For kicks, I usually cite the same salary and benefits I earn at my real job, while also explaing how happy I am. Yet I always get the same mildly surprised/disappointed reaction. Like, how can this reasonably intelligent person be wasting away at McDonalds??

As a sidenote, I think that the growing popularity of magazines like Men's Health are contributing to a system that is making men increasingly aware and hypercritical of their own bodies and appearance. Five, 10 years ago, my male friends never thought about their wardrobe or physical appearance, as long as they didn't have a pizza stain on their shirt and they were not fat. Now? If they don't have a six-pack -- and that's pretty much all of them -- they feel vaguely ugly. It seems that men are finally starting to feel some of the same types of pressure women have felt for so long.

And I'm not saying that's a good thing.

m. Alana said...

*adds helpful "glacial drift" joke*

Yeah, I know. I think we ultimately felt victorious at being able to come up with five separate names at all. Let's just say I wouldn't be able to pick one out of that line-up. If she had robbed me at knifepoint. In broad daylight.

I think that's a great point you made - that women are judged on appearance and men are judged on accomplishment, and both are based on unrealistic expectations. I have a friend that's twenty years old and, after working at a Sonic's for three months, is now sole manager of the place, with fifteen employees and a starting salary of fifteen an hour. And yet, you know. . . it's still a Sonic's. Tying this into sports, consider the professions based on physicality of both genders. Men that have lucky genes become great athletes. Women with lucky genes become . . . models. Sorry, Tyra, but nobody's going to admire someone's skill at being a model. Remember that Vogue issue? Boys do things - play sports, run companies. Girls are things - pretty, mostly, and young. A girl can't do anything and be widely accepted for it, whether it's play sports or sing or analyze politics on the news, unless she also appears young and attractive.

It's like I said in the post - the gender roles and rules in our culture are damaging to both men and women. Remember when boys used to just punch each other? Now they have to have sculpted pysiques for when they punch each other. I know so many boys under seventeen that have at least tried steroids. And only two of them were baseball players! Young people have such a warped idea of the way they have to be. Girls don't really care about whether a reasonably attractive guy is cut or not, and boys don't really care whether a reasonably attractive girl has cellulite. Yet kids, and grown adults too, torture themselves to fulfill a standard that they're unlikely to ever reach. Yeah, women have been commodified throughout history, but men commodifying themselves is not exactly a victory for equality.

And something I noticed, that may seem hypocrisy on my part - how do I reconcile this essay with those hot basketball player picture posts? Well, two reasons. One, it's a lot easier to post pictures than it is to write a creative and well-put-together article. And two, as an oversexed teenager, I believe that people should be appreciated for both their accomplishments and their physical attractiveness. That's why you're never going to see "hot bench player #3" appear in one of those. Well, okay, maybe. But only if they're really attractive.

/end tl;dr for real this time I swear

Rockabye said...

Throwing this in , and because I'm curious what you'd think.

I'm a UConn fan on the women's side, and a UF student/fan on the men's; I'm also a new reader.

Rockabye said...

And I'm really sorry for the broken HTML. That's my fault.