As any simple Google search will show you, an extensive number of articles exist that attempt to traverse the rocky ground of gender inequality in sports. Although many groups and organizations are actively trying to tip the scale towards equal play and equal respect, an undeniable gap remains in how we gender sports and the athletes who play them.
To be fair, it’s not all sports’ fault. They are taking their cues from broader, ingrained societal norms. Everyday, baby girls are born, outfitted in pink onsies, handed an unrealistically proportioned Barbie doll and some tiny princess high heels, and sent off to prepare for their futures. Boys funnel down a separate path: dressed in blue, with Tonka trucks and baseball mitts in hand, taught that crying and lacking athleticism make them girlish. Exaggerations aside, this isn’t far off the mark. Or at least wasn’t until recently, when 21st century kids and parents have demanded a change, fostering the creation of new products and companies and the rethinking of old ones.
Just last month, Target gained attention for announcing the end of pink and blue sections for girl and boy toys, as well as separating bedding recommendations by gender. The arbitrary gendering of colors, Target said, created unnecessary categories and ended up frustrating many customers with the resulting limitations. To have gender categories, like in Target’s toy section, sets forth expectations and implies a need to conform to function properly within society. Boys and girls are different and therefore, should be treated differently.
Our need to create categories extends beyond Target’s shelves. Looking at sport like football, with its relationship to cheerleading, can help us gain some perspective on the production and perpetuation of gender inequity. Where football has come to stand for the epitome of masculine sport, cheerleading has come to be associated with an emphasized femininity (more on the subject of gender politics in sports). It seems almost natural for these two sports to have fallen into a perceived symbiotic relationship.
Cheerleading, although a separate, competitive sport, has long been associated with supporting male teams like football. The cheerleaders are on the literal sidelines in these situations, reinforcing the stereotypes of the superior male athlete with their lesser-than, predominately female counterparts. To say one gender deserves field time and one deserves the sidelines has been a hard idea for society to kick, and it has spilled over into how we perceive other sports like basketball, soccer, and Ultimate to a lesser extent.
When we use gender qualifiers like women’s basketball and women’s soccer, yet refer to men’s sports without the qualifiers, we set men as the norm and women as the group that deviates from this norm. Although women are on the field and actively playing, it seems the cheerleader/football player division still influences perceptions in today’s day and age.
We constantly encounter arbitrary gendering and categorization--in toy aisles, the grocery store, the hardware store, fast-food restaurants, etc. The pervasiveness of gendering makes it easy to let these so-called “naturalized” separations dictate how we view each other, and definitely affects how males and females compete in sports.
If women start at a deficit, where they must first prove themselves worthy to get off the sidelines, and men must only prove themselves unworthy to stay on the field, then sexism seems difficult to overcome in athletics. How can we achieve gender equity if half of us have been conditioned to believe that they somehow matter more? That they deserve more passes? That they own the disc, the field, the play?
Kenny Wiley, a male Ultimate player, approached this issue with an open letter to other players in hopes of tackling gender inequity on the field. Ignoring women on your team does nothing to further the respect and fun of the game--for everyone, not just the women. And that’s just it, gender equity in sports isn’t only a female issue.
Ultimate has been rooted in co-ed play from its inception, contributing to a more balanced gender playing field, by design. From elementary school, all the way up to the world championship level, mixed gender teams get men and women playing for the same team. Single-gender leagues too, offer both men and women opportunities to play and support one another.
But, as much as we would like it to be, Ultimate is not yet the perfect battleground for gender equality in sports as it currently stands. As it interfaces with the greater sports industry, and society at large, Ultimate faces challenges associated with gender that many other sports have been picking through for decades.
The founding of professional leagues has raised the bar of play and media visibility from elite club ultimate, and in the process limited women from competing equally at the highest level of play. Although both the AUDL and MLU are “open” (ie: open to men and women playing without a fixed gender ratio), only one woman has ever been signed at the professional level, and even then, only for one game. The response by the Ultimate community and even some professional franchises when faced with this issue shows commitment to preserving its founding values. More so than many other sports, Ultimate is taking very pronounced steps to break stereotypes and celebrate inclusion.
The All-Star Ultimate Tour has been one effort to challenge the norm, by providing more media coverage of women athletes and creating powerful female role models in the process. How? By forming a team of the nation’s best college-aged women athletes, packing them in two vans, and driving them across the country, from Seattle to Boston, to play 9 elite women’s club teams. And of course, capturing great video of women playing Ultimate along the way. It was an enormous success.
Ultimate publications, too, like Skyd magazine, have gotten the community involved by publishing content that gets players involved in discussion about gender equity in Ultimate.
Ultimate is not perfect. But it continues to push the boundaries of gender norms in sports with the help of a strong community based on good foundations. With its focus on acceptance, understanding, and teamwork, Ultimate insists that an athlete is an athlete, no matter what color stores assign them.
But seriously, props on your redesign Target.