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Not Entertained?

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.

Continue reading @ SLAM ONLINE | » Not Entertained?.

NewBlackMan: Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs)

Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs)

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Following a first-round victory in the Brisbane International tournament, Serena Williams expressed her sentiments about tennis, sport, and her labor of unlove. “I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it … so I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere any time soon,” she explained. “It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.” Williams comments, not surprisingly, elicited widespread commentary, most of which used her confession as a source of criticism and demonization.

In “Woe is Serena: Tennis star says she doesn’t love tennis,” Chris Chase criticizes Williams as narcissistic and otherwise incapable of being self-reflective and self-critical. While acknowledging her candor, he uses that candor as a source of condemnation:

From one view, her candor could be seen as refreshing. Here’s a top athlete discussing the delicate balance of passion and obligation and fear of the unknown. She’s revealing herself to the press, something she rarely has in the past. Then you step back and realize Serena has the least self-awareness of any great athlete of the past decade. Two years later, she can’t bring herself to acknowledge that she was wrong to threaten a lineswoman at the U.S. Open. She’ll likely never admit her actions in last year’s U.S. Open final crossed the line. Unless she gained some insight in the past four months, these quotes are selfish nonsense.

Chase, unwilling to limit the criticisms to the quote, rehashes and recycles those previous incidences that in his mind provide context for understanding Serena’s dislike of tennis. In other words, just as she violated the rules of tennis, just as she has been unable to apologize for her past missed deeds, and just as she hasn’t been able to acknowledge her own faults, these comments are construed as evidence of her deficiencies as a person and athlete. Chase goes on to argue:

Nobody is surprised Serena doesn’t like tennis. Like Andre Agassi before her, she seems to only love the winning and is willing to put up with what it takes to get there. The grind doesn’t interest her much. These aren’t new insights into her soul. The underlying tone isn’t that Serena is a reluctant sports hero, it’s that she’s able to be so much better than the rest of the tour without caring about the game like they do. Her “I don’t love tennis” quote isn’t a revelation, it’s a self-congratulatory declaration. It’s as if she’s saying, “Just imagine what I could do if I cared.

Pete Bodo, with “The real question facing Serena Williams,” expresses a bit more sympathy given Williams’ litany of injuries. Yet, he still concludes: “Serena’s problem appears to be that she likes the reward (celebrity and money) but not the process. She would like to win the Australian title and any number of other tournaments, but she hates having to go through the motions – you know, the long practice sessions, the diet, the gym workouts and even that messy business of playing matches. It’s not a good problem to have, at least not for an athlete.” Beyond the efforts to link her comments to selfishness and a sense of victimhood, several commentaries link her disinterest with tennis to her diverse interests (fashion specifically), as if that is a shortcoming.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Serena Williams and the Politics of Hate(rs).

New piece @NewBlackMan: The “Selling of Candace Parker” and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports

The “Selling of Candace Parker”and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

Breaking News: The WNBA is about to complete its 14th season. If you watched ESPN regularly, read a myriad of sports pages, or surfed the virtual sport world, the fact that the WNBA season was actually going on might be breaking news. In what could have been an exciting season—given the parity between teams and the influx of new talent, which could have resulted in increased cultural and sporting significance—the WNBA experienced yet another summer of alienation.

In a recently published piece in The Nation, entitled “Sex sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports,” Mary Jo Kane explains this marginalization, debunking the idea that sex is able to sell women’s sports. Rather, she notes that, “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports” leaving little doubt why women’s sports continues to struggle within the marketplace. “Millions of fans around the globe just witnessed such media images and narratives during coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Perhaps such coverage will start a trend whereby those who cover women’s sports will simply turn on the camera and let us see the reality—not the sexualized caricature—of today’s female athletes. If and when that happens, sportswomen will receive the respect and admiration they so richly deserve.” To reflect on these dynamics and the continued struggles of the WNBA to transcend (or even undermine) the sexist grips of American sports, I want to discuss an almost three-old year feature on Candace Parker.

In 2009, ESPN: The Magazine, as part of its women in sports issue, featured an article on Candace Parker. This one story encapsulates the persistent sexism that detracts from and inhibits the development of women’s sports within American culture. Reducing women athletes to sexual objects and potentially profitable spokeswomen, the article, entitled “The Selling of Candace Parker” does little to introduce and celebrate the contributions of women’s sports, but rather elucidates the systemic problems of American sports culture.

The emphasis on selling sex, rather than athletics and sport, is evident from moment one of the piece. “Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts,” writes Alison Glock. “She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner.” Eliciting some criticism about the references to her body, and the reduction of her body to its sexualized parts, ESPN: The Magazine brushed off accusations of sexism, identifying the article as sensible given the demographics of the magazine. According to Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief, “It’s not the worst thing in the world in a men’s magazine to talk about things like that.”

The sexualization of Parker and the focus on her body, at the expense of a narrative highlighting her athletic talents, doesn’t end with this initial introduction of readers to her physical attributes. Glock continues this treatise on Parker’s body before moving to a discussion of her “feminine charm”:

She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She’s nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.

It is this unprecedented combination of game, generosity and gorgeous that has Team Parker seeing miracles. They believe with all their collective heart that their 22-year-old, 6’4″ stunner with the easy smile and perfect, white teeth will soon be the most recognized woman in American sports.

In other words, Parker represents an ideal femininity – nurturing, sexy, and heterosexual (the article make this clear though various rhetorical phrases, references to her husband, basketball player Sheldon Williams, and of course its discussion/visual presentation of Parker’s pregnancy); she is the perfect woman who happens to play basketball. In this regard, ESPN is selling Parker as a sexy and attractive woman whose job is to play basketball, a professional choice that in no way comprises her role as mother, wife, and sexual object to be consumed by male fans.

Yet, Glock doesn’t seem to limit Parker’s immense potential as the Michael Jordan of women’s sports because of her “flawless skin” and breast size (despite multiple references to her bust size), rather arguing that Parker can transcend women’s sports, breaking down commercial barriers to become “a one namer” because she isn’t like so many of today’s (black) athletes, whose brash and hyper-masculine demeanor alienates fans. She is “nice,” humble, and likable. She “is the total package, an advertiser’s dream: attractive yet benign enough to reflect any fantasy projected upon her. Like Jordan before her, Parker is a cipher of sorts, nothing outsize or off-putting. Nothing edgy. Nothing Iverson. Aside from being an athletic freak, she’s normal. You could imagine her hanging out at your family barbecue. This matters; if Parker seems like a down-home gal, a possible friend, then it’s a short step to trust, and with trust comes a willingness to buy what Team Parker is selling.”

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: The “Selling of Candace Parker” and the Diminishment of Women’s Sports.