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Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 at 12:35 pm  |  17 responses

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.

The lack of national attention illustrates that because Griner has not fulfilled this erotic dimension she has found limited use within the national imagination. One has to look no farther than YouTube comments to see the interconnection between the perceived masculinity of Griner, the lack of desire for her as sexual object, and her erasure from the sporting landscape. Unable to fill the role prescribed to female athletes within American sports culture, she is either dismissed as a “male” or a “freak” or used to normalize the Anna Kournakova, Allison Stokke and Candace Parkers’ of the world, who fulfill male expectations.

Reflecting the values of patriarchal society, female athletes who can appear on ESPN and Girls Gone Wild, who can win sport’s title and wet t-shirt contests, receive accolades and celebration. Notwithstanding the initial efforts to elevate Griner to the status of “game changer,” as someone who would redefine gendered expectations of sports, her outsider status highlights the difficulty of this process.

Griner’s inability to crossover to secure mass appeal isn’t purely about gender and sexuality, about dominant expectations of female athletes, but also the ways that her blackness restricts and confines her. Described as tough, masculine and physical, much of which comes from a 2010 incident where she hit an opponent, Griner has faced the burden of race, gender and sexuality.

The history of “white newspapers” is one where the media has “trivialized African-American women’s participation in sport, either by failing to cover the accomplishments of the athletes or by framing the athletes as masculine” (Cookey, Wachs, Messner and Dworkin 2010, p. 142). The efforts to describe, contain and represent Griner through both racial and gendered language is illustrative of a larger history of Black female athletes.

Those who are able to fulfill the dominant White imagination regarding female athletes (to mimic a White aesthetic; to fulfill White sexual fantasies, such as Candace Parker) enters into the public sphere as sexual objects, yet those athletes like Griner, who don’t embody the sexualized aesthetics of White male pleasure, find themselves on the outside looking in at the few opportunities afforded to female athletes. It is no wonder that she hasn’t taken the nation by storm because clearly her game is all that.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.

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  • http://www.nesn.com/2012/02/kobe-bryant-says-hes-better-than-michael-jordan-second-to-wilt-chamberlain-as-best-nba-player-ever-v.html shutup

    Great player, her improvement is what I expected outta Dwight, she continues to get better and better on both ends of the floor, gonna be a great pro someday

  • http://www.nesn.com/2012/02/kobe-bryant-says-hes-better-than-michael-jordan-second-to-wilt-chamberlain-as-best-nba-player-ever-v.html shutup

    great write up, very thought provoking. She continues to get better year after year; on both ends of the floor. She’s gonna be a great pro one day.

  • Nella

    Started OK, then got way too wordy and rambling. I get it – men are pigs, it’s hard to relate to Griner, therefore she’s not marketable. This isn’t rocket science, nor is it a new phenomenon.

  • FnF

    This article was an amazing read. Sports coverage is geared toward men because that is the audience. Now the question is, why haven’t women rallied around their own? When I went to WNBA games, the stands weren’t filled with thousands of female sports fanatics. For women’s college basketball, are the students cheering on the women’s basketball team or are they just showing school spirit because they know the game will be televised?

  • http://www.nesn.com/2012/02/kobe-bryant-says-hes-better-than-michael-jordan-second-to-wilt-chamberlain-as-best-nba-player-ever-v.html shutup

    Someone should have proof read though “Griner inability to crossover to secure mass appeal isn’t purely about gender and sexuality” Should be “Griner’s” because her inability too crossover is her own, thus making the need for the possessive. Other than that great write up, sorry if I was nit-picking, it usually happens when I read an article 2-3 times.

  • pacmac

    The lack of coverage is truly crazy.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Slim is a beast. And this article made some good points. I watched her play and was like “Damn.”

  • LA Huey

    I’ll keep an eye out for Baylor games now. I heard about her dominating like few bigs have before but had no idea that her clip from the FT line was that accurate.

  • http://www.nesn.com/2012/02/kobe-bryant-says-hes-better-than-michael-jordan-second-to-wilt-chamberlain-as-best-nba-player-ever-v.html shutup

    Lmao, good work on the edit. Once again, great work on the write up. Griner is definitely a must watch player, I hope this article gets more people to check her game out.

  • Mike

    She better grab all the attention she can get. When she turns pro she’s going to poof…disappear.

  • Dana

    When did it become racist or mean spirited to question things that seem out of the norm? There are certainly people who are asking questions about Griner’s gender with ill intent but it is a reasonable thing to question. I heard her speaking but was not looking at the TV, I thought it was a male I was hearing and when I looked up, I still thought I was looking at a male. I never made that mistake with any other elite female athlete. It is unusual and people shouldn’t be made to feel bad for asking the question. Lighten up folks! Let’s not turn everything into a political or racial statement. Sometimes it’s really just a reasonable question.

  • herph

    Ok, the elephant in the room here is “What is the point to women’s sports in general?” By and large, women can’t compete with men. This has two results – 1, viewers of women’s sports are watching for some other reason than to witness the pinnacle of capacity and 2, as women’s sports continue to develop, more masculine women will become more prevalent. The problem is that these two outcomes are at odds with each other for the typical audience. Of course you could be into women’s athletics for a variety of reasons – you’re an ex-player, you have a daughter that plays, etc., but this is not the motivation for the vast majority of sports viewers (men). Face it, Griner and Baylor are not very good when compared to “all of basketball” and I submit that the average fan (man) is not going to watch mediocre basketball if there isn’t some contributing reason. That reason has historically been sexual, but as more masculine players rise to the top, this secondary motivation goes away for that typical fan. All I’m saying is that women’s sports are great, for women, and therefore for society, but you need to let go of the hope that they are ever going to get mass attention without having the sexual element. The level of play just isn’t there.

  • Steph

    Dana, gender is not black and white. It is very fluid, much more than you seem to realize. It is dehumanizing to question people’s gender. People have called her a freak (and much worse) because “she looks like a man.” How is that not cruel? People shouldn’t get a pass because “people shouldn’t be made to feel bad for asking the question.” They most definitely should be called out and made to feel bad. How would you feel if your gender was questioned all the time?

    David, this article was an amazing read. It is so true and so sad that in the end this amazing player won’t be seen for her true talent, but for her gender.

  • melissarasberry1

    And then you proceed to use “too” instead of “to,” which would have been correct in that sentence. You should be more careful when correcting another person’s usage.

  • Pearlandvb

    Women don’t rally around their own because, like men, they’d rather watch the BEST in the sport.
    I think questioning Brittney Griner’s gender is appropriate because there is something obviously male about her, not just “masculine”, as any child will tell you who is watching an interview. Muscles, bass voice, adam’s apple, no breasts, no hips. “Mom, that’s a man” , sez the 7year old.
    I suspect she, like Castor Semenya, has androgen insensitivity syndrome. Externally, female. Genetically, male. Benefitting from testosterone and other male hormones made by her abdominal testes. Probably has had or will soon have those testes removed. Is this fair? I think it’s a fascinating question.
    Watch the interview with Renee Richards on youtube. She was the man who became a woman and competed professionally in women’s tennis. She is now an old lady, reflecting back, and she will tell you she now realizes IT WAS NOT FAIR for her to compete with women. A few years of exogenous estrogen can’t undo years of testosterone effects: height, muscle mass and distribution, aggression.
    I think the reason we don’t hear more about Brittney is that the sports establishment is afraid to publicize this difficult issue. Who gets to play as a woman? It is now allowed in the NCAA for a MAN who undergoes a sex change and takes 2 years of estrogen to compete as a WOMAN. Is that fair? What if he’s 7’0″ and 280 pounds before the surgery? Brittney is amazing ONLY because she is so much bigger and stronger than the other women. She’s not quick, she doesn’t have much of a jump, and if she were 5’9″ she probably wouldn’t have even made the team. She benefits from being a man. What makes a woman? A vagina? Chromosomes? Estrogen? How she was raised? It’s an interesting question.

  • MJ Slaw

    This is why we hate big universities. I taught in one. Stupid big brained truth twisting. The reason people think Griner is a man is not because she’s good or tough, it simply because she looks and sounds like a man. If you bring me a chicken and tell me its a cat, I’m going to disagree. Its simple. The unfortunately looks and sounds like a man. So obviously intelligent people want to know if she’s a man. Because if she’s a man, it’s unfair that she plays basketball in a woman’s league (which as one comment astutely points out, is fairly irrelevant). So if she’s a man, let her play for Missouri so she can get coached wrong.

  • kaitlin

    People need to stop hatin on her. She can’t help the way she is. She was born that way. I think she is pretty and she is the best baller of all time. Go BG42

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