The XX Factor

Why We Love Watching Female Figure Skaters, But Not Female Basketball Players

U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van

Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

In the Washington Post this weekend, David Epstein takes a long look at how sex differences function in professional sports, and argues that though gender essentialist pseudoscience barred women from athletic participation for years, clear physical differences between elite men and women will persist even when everything else is equal.

Take running, for example: After erroneous reports of a pack of “wretched women” runners ruined at the 1928 Summer Games, the Olympics eliminated all women’s events that stretched beyond 200 meters. In 1967, commentators told Kathrine Switzer that her uterus would collapse if she competed in the Boston Marathon (she finished, and it did not). Women didn’t gain clearance to compete in all the track events available to men at the Olympics until 2008. As women demolished the cultural barriers to competition, Epstein writes, they swiftly gained on men, prompting some commentators to argue that they’d eventually outrun them. But their quickening pace soon plateaued, while male runners are still “ever so slightly pulling away.” Today, the male world-record holder in the 100-meter sprint is 10 percent faster than the female record holder. The fastest male marathoner also boasts a 10 percent advantage over the fastest woman. This gap is not exclusive to running: In speedskating, the gulf is 9 percent; in the long jump, it’s 19 percent; in weightlifting, it’s 25 percent.

Epstein argues that these physical and ability differences shouldn’t be leveraged to make a cultural determination about the relative worth of men and women’s sports: “If we wanted simply to see the fastest runners, we could have cheetahs race instead of humans,” he writes. “We must be vigilant to ensure that all women who want to compete have the opportunity to do so, but the idea that women’s athletic performances must be equivalent to men’s in order to be deemed remarkable belittles the achievements of female competitors.” But even as pseudoscientific assumptions have been trashed—and even as we’ve come around to the idea that women should have the space to compete against each other, even if they can’t contend with men—stereotypical differences between men and women continue to impact our cultural views about what constitutes a “remarkable” female athlete.

Giving women the opportunity to compete is one thing. Actually elevating the accomplishments of female athletes—and agreeing to sit down to watch them play—is quite another. We love to watch women in sports that are not coded as masculine, like figure skating and gymnastics. (Meanwhile, men who excel at these “feminine” sports must contend with institutionalized homophobia.) But when it comes to women competing against each other in traditionally masculine events, we’re a lot more resistant to promoting female athleticism. As researchers Marie Hardin and Jennifer D. Greer found in 2009, “NBC’s Olympic coverage showcases women’s figure skating or gymnastics, while Olympic sports such as women’s shot put or discus are virtually invisible.” Sports like tennis and soccer, which don’t carry such strong masculine connotations, are capable of producing bankable female stars, though it helps a lot if they appear traditionally feminine while they play. Hardin and Greer speculate that the relatively low appetite for men’s soccer and tennis in the U.S. allows women more leeway to compete without facing as much stigma. Meanwhile, women’s basketball—which is seen as a lesser version of the man’s sport, as opposed to its own game—persists largely because it is subsidized by the NBA. And though greater gender equity in the Olympics has provided an international stage for women athletes in traditionally male sports, like boxing and ski jumping (a woman’s event for the first time this Olympics), the attention rarely translates to serious professional support after the games conclude. The subtext is that we’re less likely to want to watch a woman do something that a man can do better—unless she’s remarkably good (or particularly hot) compared to other women.

That gender divide doesn’t just affect the tiny percentage of women who hope to make a career out of athletics. It also affects how women play in school and compete in college—not for the purposes of making money or attracting fans, but simply to pursue their interests, build social skills, or stay in shape.  In a study of college students who grew up under the influence of Title IX, Hardin and Greer found that these students code certain sports as masculine or feminine, and do so along the same lines that researchers did in 1965. They found that “sports that emphasized overt displays of aggression or strength were typed as masculine, and non-contact sports that are either traditionally dominated by women (volleyball) or emphasize aesthetics (gymnastics) were typed as feminine.” And as teenage girls develop differently from their male peers—and begin to confront gendered expectations for how they ought to use their bodies—“teenage girls drop out of sports at a rate that is six times higher than that of boys.”

When Russian men’s ski jump coach Alexander Arefyev said, last week, that he doesn’t like seeing women compete in the sport because they “have another purpose—to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home,” he was clearly on the wrong side of history. Women will jump at Sochi this year whether he likes it or not. But while most commentators don’t believe that women belong at home instead of in the field, a lot of sports fans still only want to see them play if they can do it better than a man. Most of the time, they can’t. Which means that today, the biggest barrier to women’s athletics isn’t blustering sexism—it’s quiet indifference.