- Playing With Clothes
In March, the women’s NCAA basketball championship was played in Atlanta, Georgia, and for the first time in many years the event was sold out. The sell-out warranted a lot of notice in the printed press and on the television news— the men’s tournament always sold out but women’s basketball had been all but neglected in the past few years. The rise of women’s basketball had already been making headlines in the Los Angeles Times, where a story on the women’s team at Stanford noted that the women’s games were frequently selling out this season while the men’s games were marked by numerous empty seats. According to the Times, fans are appreciating the new athleticism of female players, particularly of stars such as Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoops, who has been said to run the fast break as well as any male player. But many sports writers and radio call-in jocks have been dismayed by the sudden popularity of the women’s sport and by the media attention it has received, proclaiming that too much TV time has been taken away from the male players. On one call-in program a male viewer complained, “It’s not as if we really want to watch a bunch of girls run around a basketball court.” It seems that men, players and sports aficionados alike, felt for the first time this season that their all-male space was being threatened. It was an anxious moment for men’s basketball.
But it has been an anxious cultural moment for women in the sport, as well. Another L.A. Times article, which appeared at the end of last year’s tournament, is symptomatic. Entitled “Lesbian Issue Stirs Discussion” (April 16, 1992), the article engages the all too familiar conflation of discussions of women athletes with discussions of sexual preference. The “Lesbian Issue” was precipitated by comments from Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland—her team rules include the mandate “no lesbians.” Julie Cart, Times staff writer, sets out to investigate the history of this mandate and the problematic relationship between women athletes and their perceived (homo)sexuality. Cart concludes that, “being perceived as a lesbian in the women’s sports world often carries the same stigma as being a lesbian.” The way in which one’s sexuality is perceived is just as potent as how one represents her own sexuality.
In an effort to confuse (or perhaps illuminate) the boundaries between “being” and “seeming,” women athletes have turned to traditional “feminine” tactics. Cart notes that “to counter the perception of lesbianism, some female athletes adopt compensatory behavior” (emphasis added). By femme-ing up, wearing make-up while competing and dressing in “ultra-feminine” clothing when not on the court, players have marked their (“seeming”) heterosexuality with a vengeance. Pat Griffin, a former basketball coach who currently conducts seminars on homophobia for collegiate sports programs, calls this compensation “hetero-sexy.” Indeed, there has been a longstanding tradition of making female athletes seem more like women and less like men. Cart turns to Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford player, as confirmation of this tradition. When hired by the L.A. Dreams, one of the short-lived women’s pro teams, Nelson and her teammates were told to enter charm school. If we can judge by last year’s film A League of Their Own, these basketball players were not the first female athletes sent for etiquette lessons. In Penny Marshall’s film, set in the 1940’s, female baseball players learned to sip tea, to apply their make-up properly, and to play baseball in skirts. Such calculated displays of “femininity” were meant to combat the spectacle of the masculine woman.
One might wonder why a review of Marjorie Garber’s excellent and comprehensive study Vested Interests begins with a discussion of women’s basketball. On the surface, it seems that what we have is a simple example of machismo—the desire that men’s space be men’s space and that women not confuse the issue...