July 2013: The sexist sidelining of women in the Wimbledon, and sports in general, is just a slice of life.
The recently concluded Wimbledon kicked up two storms on the sexism front: BBC Radio 5 Live’s presenter John Inverdale’s comment on Marion Bartoli’s looks—or apparent lack of them, and the headlines about Andy Murray being the first Brit to win the cup in 77 years—ignoring, it would seem, Virginia Wade’s 1977 win.
I kind-of buy the arguments in defense of the first-Brit-win headlines—that headlines are about brevity (and elaborations are reserved for body copy), and that a men’s singles’ win is different from a women’s singles’ win (and even a doubles’ win, which Brit Jonathan Marry won last year). What this does not explain away is the inherent sexism of language and in sport: that male is the assumption, notice how ‘women’s’ will always be specified, headlines’ brevity requirements notwithstanding. It’s no wonder, is it, considering language has evolved with society—socioculturally, sport is akin to battle, and men have been doing it long before women were emancipated enough for this public display of strength, adrenalin, sweat and ‘masculinity’. In this light, I question Susan Sarandon’s much-publicised recent assertion that feminism is an "old-fashioned word": while the alternative ‘humanism’ she proposes is idealistic, it is a long way off as long as language and his-story are as gender-biased as the word.
More disturbing are Inverdale’s comment and his later justification. As Bartoli reached out to hug her father after her win, Inverdale mused about whether he told her when she was little that, since she isn’t (as gorgeous as blonde, tall, beautiful) Maria Sharapova, she’d have to “be scrappy and fight”. Disparaging comments about Bartoli’s looks have also flooded the Twitterverse, with hashtags such as #ShesADude, #NotAWimbledonBabe, #Whore, #Man, #Whale, #Fatty, #Slut. What?! What does the way a tennis player looks have anything to do with his or her sport?
Well, apparently, not his—no one is dissecting Andy Murray’s pasty unattractiveness or the enormous nose that dominates his face, let alone the size and quality of his privates. But it is certainly important for her. In sport and other arenas of life, the explicit dissection of the female body—hair, weight, breast size—and sexual desirability through a prevalent cultural prism of sexism is par for the course. Alongside whatever other achievements she has to her name, a woman must also attempt to fit in to predetermined ideas of beauty and sexual desirability, and be targeted for both, meeting the requirements and for failing. In the corporate world, notice how bitchy office gossips will wonder whether a (usually attractive) female colleague has slept her way to the top, undermining her feats by discounting her as a ‘slut’. As a woman in the public eye, a sportsperson (not an IPL cheerleader, mind you) is apparently responsible to please the aesthetic of all the people, all the time—and Bartoli is paying her price for failing to titillate the male gaze. She’s black-haired and muscular, not the glorious blonde legginess of Anna Kournikova or Caroline Wozniacki. Seemingly, these women fulfil “the attributes of natural athletes” that Inverdale is referring to in his equally offensive apology—as though winning the Wimbledon isn’t enough.
Dustin Hoffman understands. In a video that went viral this week, the actor tears up describing his experience playing a woman in the 1982 film Tootsie. The first time Hoffman saw himself in the mirror in full makeup as his character Dorothy Michaels, he says he was shocked that he wasn't more attractive, that this was as beautiful as he would be as a woman. This is when he had an "epiphany" and truly understood the meaning of female beauty. “Talking to my wife, I said, 'I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn't fulfil physically the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out… There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.'" We are a culture brainwashed by gender-based stereotypes, where women are judged on their appearance in all arenas of life, relevant or not; and for men, looks are incidental.
What’s heartening that Inverdale’s and other misogynists’ attempts to reduce a role model for achievement, for emotional and physical strength to a base scrutiny of her body and sexual attractiveness have not been completely successful. Riding a wave of support, Bartoli has flicked away comments about her looks with dismissive dignity: "I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact." She reiterated: "Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes." No, she’s #NotAWimbledonBabe, she’s a Wimbledon champion. And that’s all she needs to be.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in July 2013.