women's sports

On contemporary sports culture: privileging masculinity

Athletes. Female athletes. College basketball. Women’s college basketball. Tennis. Women’s tennis. When it comes to sports, we qualify women’s athletics in a way that does not happen with men. The result is that women are continuously categorized as inferior, because the implicit assumption in athletics is that it’s men who compete. It isn’t until someone utters the words female or women that we entertain the possibility that anyone other than men may be involved.

And it’s not just that athletes are assumed to be men. Attached to athletics is the notion of hegemonic masculinity — or what “real men” should be like. Deeply woven through the fabric of society, this narrative shows up in almost every great sports movie ever made. I love sports movie just as much as the next person, and regularly bug my father and brother to watch Remember the Titans with me, but many of the blockbuster sports films forward problematic constructions of masculinity. A great man shows up to coach troubled young men, teaching them what it means to be paragons of truth, strength, and masculine greatness. See: Remember the Titans, Coach Carter, Glory Road, Forever Strong, Gridiron Gang, etc.

In short, sports are sexist. They privilege masculinity, specifically that as expressed by men, over all else, and work to preserve the status quo: masculine superiority. The highest compliment a woman athlete can receive is that she plays/runs/throws “like a guy.” Efforts like the #LikeAGirl campaign have done excellent work to expose this phenomenon and unpack the damaging effects of saying “like a girl” to describe lackluster achievement. The problematic assumption of women as inferior athletes, however, still persists. The symptoms of this are evident in the fact that women’s sports got 2 percent of SportsCenter’s coverage in 2014, in FIFA’s refusal to lay grass for the World Cup this summer, and the general dearth of visibility around women’s sports.

Personally, I have been in far too many fights on message boards on the topic of high-achieving women’s teams not being able to hang with mediocre men’s teams. A couple years ago, I remember reading that the UConn women’s basketball team could be beat by any JV boys’ basketball team. And people agreed with this person.

It’s clear that there is a hierarchy that exists culturally:  elite athletes (men) > athletes (men) > crappy athletes (men) > all women athletes.

One of my favorite summer shows, American Ninja Warrior, challenges this hierarchy. This show is wildly problematic for a lot of reasons, one being the obvious cultural appropriation, and another being the consistent usage of “inspirational stories” that are actually pretty dehumanizing and encourage gawking and pity.

From a athletics standpoint, however, the show can be rather subversive. Athletes from around the country run an extremely difficult obstacle course with the hope of conquering Mt. Midoryama to become American Ninja Warrior. (I know, that part is pretty bad.) The course does not change for anyone who runs it, which is awesome.  Certain obstacles privilege strength, others agility, and others, explosion. Beating any part of the qualifying, city finals, or Mt. Midoryiama stages requires intense mental focus, physical abilities, and technique. Slowly, but surely, women are breaking barriers on the show. Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to complete both a qualifying and city finals stage, and Meagan Martin became the first woman to complete the qualifying course two years in a row, as well as the jumping spider in stage one of the national finals course in Vegas. Their accomplishments have inspired many other women to train for ANW competition and there have been many capable of completing qualifying courses, but who have failed due to inexperience and/or lack of mental focus, just as many of the men who have failed.

ANW stands in stark contrast to shows like MTV’s The Challenge, which gives women the chance to compete, but also puts them in a hostile, sexist environment. On The Challenge, the assumption is that the male competitors will carry the women through the competition. There have been amazing women competing, such as Emily Schromm, Laurel Stucky, Evelyn Smith, and Rachel Robinson, but rarely do they compete against each other on the same show or are they given an individual chance to shine because of the format of the individual seasons.

What is unique about both of these shows is that they show women competing alongside men in an athletic context, consistently disputing the idea that women are incapable of being competitive outside of women’s only spaces. We should seize these opportunities to celebrate women and their athletic accomplishments, while also working to deconstruct barriers to recognizing the success of women’s athletics at every level. We might just be able to build a new sporting culture.

Header image credit: Green Label


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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