Brittney Griner continues to challenge expectations.
by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL
Average 22.7 points/game – Check
Sixty percent from field and over 80 percent from the line – Check
Almost 10 rebounds each night – Check
Record 155 blocks after 30 games in season – Check
Team undefeated and ranked No. 1 – Check
Outscore opponents by 30+ points/game – Check
With numbers like this—and the level of dominance seen throughout their career—you would think that this player would be the talk of the town, with magazine covers, lengthy biographic pieces on ESPN and a theme of celebration. Yet, these numbers and success hasn’t translated into Britsanity, all of which reflects the power of race, gender and sexuality within sport culture.
Unable to transform the narrative, in spite of her amazing (revolutionizing) play, Brittney Griner remains an afterthought within the basketball world. Unable to embody the traditional feminine aesthetic and beauty, yet fulfilling the stereotypes usually afforded to Black male ballers, there is little use for Griner within the national imagination. Her greatness is relatively invisible (outside of hardcore sports fans) because she simultaneously fits and repels our expectations for female athletes.
When Brittney Griner emerged on the national scene three years ago (and even while still in high school), the media focus wasn’t solely on her game, but instead positioned her as a player who was challenging the expectations of female athletes. Unlike the vast majority of celebrated female athletes, she was, according to the narrative, a less feminine “androgynous female” who challenged the “rigidity of sex roles.” Often comparing her to males, the media narrative consistently imagined her as a “freak” and as an aberration, contributing to a story of shock, amazement and wonderment whether Griner was indeed a woman. According to Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, “The world of women’s basketball has never seen a player like this before. Griner has the athletic skills and build of any budding male college basketball star, which has brought her ‘gender’ into question.”
In Brittney Griner, Basketball Star, Helps Redefine Beauty, Guy Trebay highlights the ways in which the dominant narrative of Griner imagine her as not baller, as not student-athlete, but as signifier of gender and sexuality.
Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.
While celebrating her for offering an alternative feminine and aesthetic, the media narrative of course represented her in ways limited to female athletes—she was confined by the stereotype of women athletes. Focusing on her body, and how she meshes with today’s beauty stands, all while defining her “as a tomeboy” the public inscription of Grinner did little to challenge the image of female athletes. In purportedly breaking down the feminine box that female athletes are confined to within sports cultures, Griner provided an opportunity, yet as we see the opportunity is still defined through feminine ideals and sexual appeal to men.
The limited national attention afforded to Griner irrespective of her dominance and her team’s success reflects the profound ways that her emergence has not ushered in a new moment for women’s sports. Unable to appeal to male viewers, to fulfill the expectations of femininity and sexuality, Griner has remained on outside the already infrequent media narrative of women’s sports. Even though there are multiple networks dedicated to sport, even though there are magazines, countless websites, and a host of other forms of social networking dedicated to sports, there are few places for female athletes, much less black female athletes. Studies have demonstrated that less than 10 percent (3-8 percent) of all sports coverage within national and local highlight packages focuses on women’s sports.
Substantive coverage and national attention so often comes through sex and sex appeal, where female athletes who are successful at sport (less important) and eliciting pleasure from male viewers garner the vast majority of sport. Matthew Syed (2008) argues that, “There has always been a soft-porn dimension to women’s tennis, but with the progression of Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Daniela Hantuchova to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, this has been into the realms of adolescent (and non-adolescent) male fantasy.” Attempting to elevate women’s sports by telling readers that it is OK to view female athletes as sexual objects, he laments how western culture has not “reached a place where heterosexual men can acknowledge the occasionally erotic dimension of watching women’s sport without being dismissed as deviant.” This sort of logic contributes to the relative invisibility of Griner on the national landscape.
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