House of Mirrors


Tonight, I'll be at Storm-Mercury, a game I strongly urge you to watch. I devoted much of a recent Works to Lauren Jackson's brilliance; tonight, she'll be crowned the league's MVP. It will be her third such award. The Storm do some unreal things when they really get moving, and the Mercury, who are every bit the WNBA's answer to the Suns, will certainly encourage that. The Mercury may have lost Cappie Pondexter, but are greatly improved defensively -- albeit in a totally weird, kickstart-the-break way that Seth Pollack explained earlier in the season.

Bill Russell has once again shown up to grant the Storm his blessings, and on the off-chance that you've never seen Diana Taurasi play, this SI article from a while pretty much captures why you'll be pleasantly stunned.

Now then. In the wake of my recent flurry of WNBA posts, I've found out -- the hard way, mind you -- that appearance and the WNBA are touchy issues. This sentence: "Jackson is the league's most dominant player, a tough-as-nails, strong, athletic center whose garish make-up and terrible red dye-job are somewhere between war paint and a kabuki mask," was a faux pas, because it sounded like I was insulting LJ's appearance. Never mind that I was also saying Jackson was capable of things on the court that yours truly had never seen before; "garish" and "terrible" were just too harsh. I guess I could have toned it down, at the expense of what I was trying to build up writing-wise. And, as if it weren't readily apparent that "war paint" and lookin' good suggests a complicated dance of signifiers, I spelled it out in a later FD post. But then I suggested that Cappie's crazy 'do might be better for her image than a ponytail, and was accused of objectification or trying to limit CP's life-horizons.

Picture 1

Okay, now we're wandering into that murky realm where, depending on the situation, a double-standard can be either good or bad. Gendered bodies, and the work they do, are at the forefront of any discussion of women's athletics. I know this. I can't help but wonder, though -- hasn't anyone noticed how much the appearance of male athletes is discussed, almost as a matter of course? When are the Nuggets brought up without their tattoos sneaking in, usually as a punchline?

Iverson -- who, as I mentioned earlier, had his hair braided before every game to look his best -- was often discussed in terms of bodily attributes. While we rarely discuss how attractive NBA players, or any male athletes, are or aren't, sports are really, really homoerotic. Sorry. No one has ever bothered to explain how "man-crush" isn't totally gay. We ooh and ah over the bodies of LeBron James or Amar'e Stoudemire, as if this were the essence of their being; "stud" is a really weird word to throw about so casually, since it evokes both slavery and sexual performance. And yeah, some dudes get called ugly -- primarily white ones, but that might just be a coincidence. The point is, athletes are aestheticized, even objectified. Because of our very sexist outside world, bringing this into the WNBA sets out all sorts of alarms. At the same time, the way bodies -- especially the black ones -- is discussed in basketball should make us no less comfortable. And let's not even get into the peculiar role fashion has played in shaping the league's image over the last decade.

Here's the caveat: NBA players make millions upon millions of dollars. They can deal with it. They can take it. In the WNBA, pride and dignity are part of all they have. If you like that reasoning, walk away now, and revisit that entire William Rhoden-inspired debate that came out of a certain Comic Sans outburst.

I'm not trying to draw a false equivalency. Women and men have different attitudes about their appearances, and these will invariably manifest themselves in the way they present themselves as athletes -- both on and off the court. It's more complicated for them. However, to suppose that male athletes face none of these same issues, and in some cases (like Iverson) find themselves as physically scrutinized as any woman would be, is some serious tunnel vision. I don't want to say "it comes with the territory," nor do I want to deny WNBA players their woman-hood. At the same time, though, their situation doesn't stand in opposition to the coverage of male basketball players -- in fact, it's a chance for us to be a little more self-aware in the way we discuss all athletes.


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At 9/02/2010 2:11 PM, Blogger Joshua Paddison said...

More self-awareness is always good. The WNBA's cautious courting of lesbian fans (done with more gusto in certain markets) also complicates things in terms of the way the players present/are allowed to present themselves. Players are sexualized in different ways by different populations.

At 9/02/2010 4:09 PM, Blogger Kris said...

Complicates things? Are you saying the players are told to look a certain way, based on who the WNBA may be marketing to? I think players show up, on and off court, however they're comfortable. It doesn't matter who is coming to watch the games.

At 9/02/2010 6:37 PM, Blogger Ben said...

this is going to sound weird, but isn't the objectification of an athlete's body better than the standard objectification that women face? No matter how weird the discussion gets about an athlete's body, it's generally rooted in the idea that their body is in service of their sport, whereas outside of sport women's looks are discussed with respect to how they appeal to men. The LJ piece from a couple days ago was interesting because it pointed out that evaluating a female athlete's body in the context of the sport gets mixed up in the everyday objectification that women get from men who want to have sex with them.

the racial aspect of judging a black athlete's body is troubling, no doubt, but you could make the argument that it's at least partly incidental--players' bodies are going to get discussed no matter what race they are.

At 9/02/2010 7:05 PM, Blogger Kevin said...


The two forms of objectification are not mutually exclusive. Female athletes typically get the athletic version AND the sexist version. From many guys, they get only the latter. It's rare for them to get only the "acceptable" kind.

At 9/02/2010 7:19 PM, Blogger Ben said...

of course. what i was trying to get at is that while shoals' point is true that both men and women athletes are objectified, it's a little misleading because the objectification of women is debasing and malicious and in service of a patriarchy. that's in opposition to the way that male bodies in sport are evaluated, which seems relatively benign (besides the racial aspects). i know in the piece shoals already addresses this to some extent but i think the nature of the objectification is completely different for men and women and hardly comparable.

At 9/03/2010 4:43 AM, Blogger Kareem Elzein said...

A friend of mine brought me to a gay pub in West Hollywood, and to my surprise the place was plastered with 3x2 posters of UFC fighters, Brock Lesner center stage. I think the two Silvas were also on the spread, arms crossed, muscles rippling. Are these posters equally debasing as the objectification of female athletes, or comedic because of their absurd impossibility?

There seems to be many tendencies in our society that stray from the sexless ideal, choosing the alternative of equality in sexism--the mutual debasement of everyone. Is it okay that lesbians wanna tap that WNBA ass?

At 9/06/2010 9:35 PM, Blogger the_capital_t said...

This will be a very interesting subject to revisit when the LeBron James generation is on the verge of retirement. By that point, the emo-athlete archetype (i.e. Greg Oden) should be far more common and writing about male athletes could be as treacherous as writing about female athletes.

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