|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Lily Burana is the author of Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey
Across America (Miramax Books). Now resigned to wearing leopard-print
spandex and false eyelashes solely for Halloween parties and Nerve photo
ops, she spends most days inoffensively dressed, writing for
GQ, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other
publications. She lives in New York.
This is the true story of an American women’s sports fan who grew up under the great promise of Title IX watching one of her teams finally emerge as a national presence and feeling utterly betrayed. This is a story of a fan
turning against her own players, of how I learned to stop worrying and love the Women’s World Cup — by rooting for the Chinese.
It all started with the Americans’ ponytails. I saw them everywhere: in commercials, in interviews, during games. Shiny bouncy ponytails, pulled high on their wearers’ heads, that looked more appropriate for cheerleading practice than an international sporting event. Ponytails that allowed delicate little wisps to fall gracefully from their bunches, as if a Hollywood makeup artist had stepped in and tugged gently on them to create an appealing image of sweaty women’s hair.
Attached to the ponytails, of course, were human beings. Young white ones, with names like Tiffany and Brandi, Mia, Julie, Cindy and Tiffeny with an “e.” Each had a preassigned identity in the press — Mia was shy but ferocious, Julie the class clown, Tiffeny a rebel. They were like an installment of The Babysitter’s Club, nary a nappy head (okay, one or two) or peasant body among them. They had white straight teeth and slim strong bodies and a gee-whiz air despite their impressive athletic prowess.
Disarmingly prim and perfect, they were instant media darlings. I began to ask myself what would have happened if they didn’t look like a 90210 casting call, or if they were all black or latina, or had an average weight closer to 200 pounds, like the 1996 gold-winning women’s basketball team that never really
caught the nation’s eye. Well, no fear of that. The newspapers drooled while the television cameras lovingly panned the crowd of suburbanite fans (more WASPS than a mud nest, to paraphrase Sports Illustrated). The nation swooned. I got cranky.
At first I fought my grumpiness. I dismissed my frustration as jealousy. I thought that if I could only get over the nagging feeling that these were the girls I knew and hated in high school, then I could cheer along with everyone else. But by the Cup’s second round, frustration had given way to full-blown irritation. That was about the same time we were learning that the members of the U.S. soccer team were apparently in possession of as much non-threatening good ol’ American sex drive — as defined by good ol’ American men — as they were winning spirit. There were frequent, not-so-subtle reassurances that the women were straight. During games, the names and cheering images of various players’ husbands, boyfriends and children were broadcast more than any opposing team members’ stats. One U.S. player even posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with her man. It was as if the media was saying, “Don’t be threatened by these women. They can be athletes and traditional sex objects, too.”
This green-eyed blonde with abs of steel represented — I was helpfully told by some — a healthier, more empowering naked image for women than the typical supermodel waif. Funny how I missed that memo — the one that said if you slap some sharply defined muscles on a pretty woman who’s been thrust in a raunchy position, it’s progress.
David Letterman loved the pose. He started calling the U.S. team “soccer mamas” instead of “soccer moms,” and proudly displayed the photo they took of themselves wearing nothing but Late Night T-shirts. I got crankier and crankier.
This was not the first time I’ve found being a female sports fan and athlete emotionally rough. Since so many sports fans are men, women have to struggle for acceptance — for the ability to share in a mutual pleasure and appreciation and passion for sports, without all the second guessing (about motivations, expertise, sexuality) that accompanies their attempts to play or watch.
There aren’t many times I’ve felt really and truly understood in life. Joyously celebrating a play with a fellow fan (so often a guy) is among the best feelings ever — an egalitarian moment in a divided world. But then when
the media — or my friends — leeringly notice the attractiveness of a female team, or a female athlete takes her clothes off, all that equality goes out the window. Women are back to being objects, and I’m back at square one.
Of course, Chastain and company are not the only ones to blame for the glamification of women’s sports. Among recent examples, take Anna Kournikova, the Britney Spears of the tennis world with a slavish following achieved almost solely because of her crotch-high skirts and adolescent prettiness. And Amy Acuff? The U.S. high jumper has reportedly put together a calendar of fellow female track & field stars in girlie mag poses. Let’s not forget good old Gabrielle Reece, queen of the sellout, whose commercials have erroneously convinced a nation that volleyball is a sport of babes in bikinis. Any time female athletes choose to play up their looks, rather than their talent, they help push women’s sports away from the sports and toward the women themselves, in all the most regressive ways.
It’s funny about sports and sex. There’s some component to watching sports, or taking part in any athletic activity, that’s very nearly sexual. Besides sex, sports is the most physical thing that many of us do or watch or enjoy.
But are athletes sexy? I don’t think I’d use that exact word. “Sexy” doesn’t quite capture why a great athletic performance evokes so visceral a reaction. Michael Jordan was exquisite when he froze, seemingly in mid-air, and slammed a ball through a net. So is Brandi Chastain when she rises on her strong calves and heads the soccer ball away. She’s beautiful to watch. But so too was Secretariat, all rippling muscles and perfect lines, crossing the finish line a zillion lengths ahead of the next horse. Hell, so’s that lion on the Discovery Channel, the one who uses his mighty tail to reverse in mid-hunt, powerful haunches launching him at an antelope. And that graceful antelope? Don’t get me started.
I guess I just always believed that the charge I got watching a great baseball player was the same as one I’d get watching a female tennis star, and that the same would be true for all my sports buddies, male and female. Every so often I get a jarring reminder that this isn’t necessarily the case. Like the time a male colleague suggested that putting spandexed cheerleaders on display at
halftime was only fair to men watching a Knicks game, since women fans had the players to ogle. Why couldn’t he see physical beauty in a John Starks jump shot? Spending all your time deciding who should be turned on by sports and who shouldn’t keeps fans from being unified in the shared pleasure of the physical moment, regardless of who’s playing. That unity has always been central to my experience of being a spectator, and I was sad to see it threatened.
The over-sexualization of sports also undermines my reason for being an athlete. In a lifetime of fluctuating self-esteem and crippling body image,
sports has facilitated the few times when I am too happy and preoccupied to run my normal painful analysis of my body and how it rates on the old sexy-meter that drives Hollywood and New York City and the brains and libidos of otherwise intelligent young men. If I pick up a glove, a bat, a basketball, I am judged on what I do with them — not, for once, on how I look using them.
I figured it out when the U.S. was getting ready to play Brazil in the semi-finals. The underdog Brazilians were led by Sissi, a brilliant ball-handler with a shaved head. A shaved head going up against all those perky pigtails! I was sold. Add to that the fact that Sissi’s teammates were brawny and dark-skinned — far darker than Cosmo or Glamour has ever been cool with. Some even had hair gracelessly pulled back in ’70s-era bandannas across their foreheads. I couldn’t imagine David Letterman calling them soccer mamas, because I couldn’t imagine David Letterman — or any other nudge-nudge, wink-wink soccer fan — calling them at all.
My new favorite team lost that day, and as the team got ready to take on China in the finals, I buckled down for more embarrassing media behavior — like
And so I rooted for the Chinese. Some had unflattering boxy haircuts and boyish bodies. All were apparently devoid of prom queen personalities — what else could I gather from the lack of media coverage? Who was the sassy one? The mom? The class clown? They seemed homogenous in the way that women from communist countries are so often portrayed. But they sure put up a fight. In the end, I was forced to witness one of the painful lessons of high school come true on the world stage: The pretty girls always win. They even get to go to Disneyland.
What did I get? Another round of lectures about how good the World Cup team makes us women feel. Newsweek said the women on the team had been objectified but to a good end. The L.A. Times called them talented and sexy. No less an alternative authority than the Village Voice told us that the team offered something for all gals, from “tomboy to tease.” The team marched on. The nation cheered. The media fawned.
Since then, I’ve tried to stay away from it all — this joyous celebration of girl power turned inside out, like a bad dream. Somebody wake me when it’s over.