Gender Roles in Sports and Society Essay   no comments

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The social construction of gender roles is an important issue in today’s society. Gender roles, which stem from cultural values, determine power, prestige and place within society. Why, in this modern era, are there still culturally constructed gender roles? Why, in the twenty-first century, is there still inequality between men and women?

Half of the world’s female population has traditionally been excluded or discouraged from participating in sports, especially male-dominated sports. Sports reflect people’s ideas about masculinity and femininity, and many believe that females should not act or play like males. Today, however, women are fighting more than ever to abolish these gender inequalities. Despite their battles, there are still many barriers and obstacles for women in sports. Many claim that allowing women to play negatively affects team members’ cohesion and therefore team performance. On the other hand, there are many today who accept and even promote women’s participation in sports.

Sports promote good health and physical fitness, to which females have a right equal to that of men. The development of women’s athletic abilities, whether contributing to a team or competing individually, should be seen as a sign of a modern, equal society. This essay argues that there should be increased integration of men and women in all sports, and that conventional ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ must be made more flexible. The media have a great responsibility in promoting these changes to help alleviate social inequalities.

Girls and women encounter the most resistance when they play sports that have traditionally been the ‘flag carriers of masculinity’. In the past, notions of female frailty were grounded in ideology rather than in nature. Anything related to strength, power, and speed was considered the domain of men. Sports in the past greatly resembled society – men were the workforce, doing the ‘hard’ work, while women stayed at home and did the ‘easy’ work. But society has changed in recent years, and it seems natural that sports should follow suit.

In fact, there has been change, but it is a slow process. The process began with ‘gender morning’, in which rules of the game were manipulated in order to accommodate women. But at least women are now playing the sports they have tried for so long to own for themselves. It is generally males who have the most trouble coping with these changes. Some say the games have changed due to women’s presence. But if men are seen as naturally strong and tough, then women should likewise posses their own beneficial qualities. Males’ and females’ biological differences may actually enhance the games.

For example, a female ice hockey player would be small enough to manoeuvre around bigger players, make smaller turning angles and generally be more agile throughout the game. This is what Hayley Wickenheiser did. She proved to men that she could play in a male professional hockey league by being the first woman to actually score a point in a men’s league. This was an important event for all the women hockey players who never thought they would have a chance to play with men, because now it is possible. Wickenheiser’s story demonstrated that women can play as well as men and even better, for that matter. Events like this have made people re-examine traditional gender roles, especially as they apply to sports.

When it comes to females joining formerly all-male teams, many men also question team cohesion. Cohesion is an important concept in the study of sport psychology. It results through social interactions and communications within a group. Cohesion in a group facilitates the effectiveness of a group with regards to performance and productivity. In other words, any team operates better when its athletes are unified.

Women interact with males in everyday life, so why would they reduce team cohesion? Team cohesion starts to break down when woman have to dress in separate rooms from the men, and have different rules and special exceptions applied to them. Most team bonding occurs off the field, but when women are separated from the men, they miss out on team bonding, an important aspect of team sports which contributes greatly to team cohesion.

People who do not promote female participation in male leagues must recognize that by outcasting the women, they themselves are the ones responsible for damaging cohesion. If woman were made to observe the same principles and rules as men, they would be better accepted by the male members and could bond with them better, yielding a more productive team. Most men believe in fair play, but they do not allow women the same opportunities because they do not like the idea of a woman directly competing with and performing better than a man. Thus, they are hindering women from demonstrating their full abilities. But the truth is that woman can be just as intense and violent as men, and by allowing women the opportunity to show what they can do, the world of male-dominated sports will see that woman can compete on par with men.

For now, women must fight for their positions as athletes on male teams, and must work extra hard to bond with their male teammates. One woman who fought for her right to play was Heather Sue Mercer, a place-kicker who tried out for the Duke University football team. She had excelled as a place-kicker on her high school team, but she began facing obstacles when she started practicing during the off-season with Duke University. The coach told the media that she had made the team, but when the season started he kept her off the team. When Mercer asked the coach why he was doing so, he replied that he didn’t want the pressure of dealing with a female player on his football team. He even went so far as to ask her why she wasn’t competing in beauty pageants instead of playing football. Mercer took her case to court and won, but Duke University plans to appeal the decision. Mercer’s case is a clear example of the continuing discrimination against women’s participation in traditionally ‘male’ sports, demonstrating that, even at a university, many still think that women do not have a role in such sports.

The world is constantly changing, and it is no wonder that the world’s most popular pastime – sports – will change with it. We must remember that once only the rich played sports like tennis, but now it is taught worldwide at public institutions like the YMCA. Eventually, the majority of people will accept the social changes taking place today, and there will hopefully no longer be gender inequalities in sports. Quite possibly, a future society may see as barbaric the days when women were not allowed in male-dominated sports.

Gender is a major part of culture and society. Male and female are consistently being categorized and classified in ways that determine power and prestige in society. It is very difficult to be a woman in some sports because of the inequalities between the sexes. In most popular sports, men’s teams have more prestige than women’s teams. However, there are also sports that are traditionally considered ‘feminine’, where men have less prestige and power. This, too, exemplifies inequalities regarding gender roles that are part of our social structure.

When a person enters a non-traditional sport for his/her sex, many social and moral challenges arise for that person. The intentions of the individual will be questioned, as well as his/her personal interest in the sport. These questions are based on current definitions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, ‘femininity’ is “of, like, or traditionally considered suitable for women.” The definition of ‘masculinity’ is “of, like, or traditionally considered suitable for men.” So the question arises, what is traditionally considered suitable for men or women? Society adopts specific gender roles that tell us what is considered suitable.

Gender roles are made of perceptions that are based on learned interpretations; these learned interpretations are learned from and among persons in social interactions. Perceptions are only made by what we are thought. Our perceptions, values, causes, and worth are socially produced. Without social interaction, and views of our peers, gender roles would not have an infinite outcome on today’s society.

When women decide to participate in sports traditionally ‘male’ sports such as bodybuilding, they run the risk of being socially stereotyped as lesbians, or viewed as
‘less feminine’ then, for example, female figure skaters. Tennis star Venus Williams has been noted as being very masculine in build and her performance has been judged based on that. The media have commented on how well she plays, and have compared her to
men in her sport. She receives fewer endorsements than many other tennis players do because of her looks. Similarly, men place themselves in the same situation when they chose to participate in traditionally ‘female’ sports like field hockey. They may be stereotyped as gay or less ‘masculine’ than ice hockey players.

In sports where gender roles have been challenged, there has been a change in the way these sports are viewed by the public. Gymnastics, for example, began as an all-male sport. It was believed that women did not have the build or strength to compete in this sport. In the 1928 Olympics, women were allowed to compete in the gymnastics team events. In 1952, women were allowed to compete in the individual competitions. Over time, women showed male and female spectators alike that women can acquire the athletic build to compete in sports traditionally played only by men.
In order for a person to enter a non-traditional sport for their sex without being criticized about gender morality, society must create flexible definitions for ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’. Society must begin to accept that both men and women can compete in a variety of sports, regardless of past notions of traditional gender-specific sports. Women should be allowed to participate in traditionally ‘male’ sports like ice hockey, bodybuilding, and boxing without being stereotyped as lesbians. Men should be allowed to participate in traditionally ‘female’ sports like synchronized swimming and field hockey without losing their ‘masculinity’. A person does not lose his/her gender because he/she chooses to participate in a particular sport, nor does the game lose its vitality when members of both sexes participate in it. Society must become more understanding towards the participation of both men and women in non-traditional sports and refrain from stereotyping them as less ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ when they do not play the ‘correct’ gender role.

Of course, sports are not the only aspect of life that has been socially constructed along gender lines. Women and men have problems with gender roles in their everyday lives. We live in a patriarchal society and, as Johnson describes:
In most patriarchal societies, for example, boys are valued more than girls. In many societies, the birth of a boy is celebrated and the birth of a girl is greeted as a disappointment if not a catastrophe. Even in the United States, when people are asked which gender they’d prefer if they could have only one child, boys are still preferred over girls. In many cases, the higher cultural value placed on maleness translates into an unequal distribution of resources within the family.

This fact is somewhat sad, but true. Women are more often the victim of gender inequality than are men, and this is why many parents would rather have boys than girls. In many Western societies, girls are often left to die or are sold off to marriage or prostitution.

In other parts of the world, too, the social construction of gender has brought disgrace to women. A prime example of this is a scene I witnessed first-hand while visiting Morocco. I was in a van with several other visitors, being driven to the airport, when we saw a man beating a woman. Unlike in Canada, such a scene was accepted in Morocco. The Moroccan driving the van told us that the woman must have had been bad and therefore deserved punishment. This kind of behavior and attitude towards seems inhuman. But not all cultures are alike and, as in sports, it is very hard to change the traditional ideas of society.

Is it really that much harder to be a woman, is it just a gender role that has been put in place by history, or is it that society has been constructed this way? One important source of social influence is the mass media. The media consistently surround us; they shape our ideas and, often, our lives.

Mass media is a powerful factor, which influences our beliefs, attitudes, and the values we have of ourselves and others as well as the world surrounding us. Media does not merely communicate and reflect reality in a more or less truthful way. Instead, media production entails a complex process of negotiation, processing, and reconstruction. It not only offers us something to see, but also shapes the way in which we see by creating’ shared perceptual modes. Media messages are used and interpreted by audiences according to their own cultural, social, and individual circumstances. This interpretation is influenced by a variable referred to as special media logic.

As sports are heavily dependent on media coverage, the media’s portrayal of sports and other aspects of life constantly influence sports fans. “Mass media is perhaps of even greater importance regarding sport because the overwhelming majority of spectators observe athletic events through mass media” (Koivula, 3). It has also been proven that the media show less of women’s sports than of men’s sports. Therefore, the sports audience is largely male. Sports like gymnastics and figure skating do attract a large female audience, but nothing compared to that for men’s sports. In addition, women’s leagues of traditionally ‘male’ sports are not broadcast on television as much as the men’s leagues. This is how the mass media maintains the status quo concerning gender roles in sports. Perhaps without so much dependence on the media, there wouldn’t be as many inequalities in sports.

In recent years, traditional gender roles in sports are being followed less and challenged more. This is especially true in universities, where women commonly play traditionally ‘male’ sports, such as rugby and ice hockey. However, there are still many problems with the media portrayal of men and women in sports. Major magazines and billboards often picture physically ‘perfect’ people. These images may not even be real, but men and women alike aspire to these images and want to look like these people. The public often believes that these models really are what men and women are supposed to look and be like. This can cause serious physical and mental health problems when people try to look exactly like these models.
George Ritzer’s concept of “McDonaldization” can be applied to the media’s portrayal of masculinity and femininity. The process of McDonaldization in an industry persuades its audience by giving them a path to achieving their desires. Ritzer explains that an important dimension of the process is predictability. People become accustomed to an everyday routine, waking up every morning at the same time, performing the same tasks every day, and when there is change they feel lost. When they watch a certain program on television, they have expectations of what they will see. It’s like going to McDonald’s for a hamburger, where the consumer knows that the hamburger is going to have the same toppings and taste as it did last time.

When watching sports, too, people have expectations. They do not expect to watch females playing traditionally ‘male’ sports. The media has helped create these expectations by consistently portraying men as powerful and women as inactive and pretty. These are not the images that we want to convey to our children and our future generations if we want to correct gender-based inequalities. Until the media changes its portrayal, society will continue to suffer from gender inequalities.

Although the situation has gotten better for women, it has not yet reached its maximum potential. A world that is perfectly fair may never exist, but there are a lot of things that can realistically be done. One major focal point for change should be the media. With the exception of its coverage of the Olympic games, the media seems to be purposefully perpetuating the status quo by covering men’s sporting events far more than women’s. It may be that the male-dominated media do not want women to be seen as equals in the world of sports, and therefore give little coverage to women’s events. If this were to change and the media provided more coverage of women’s events, women might be given more opportunities to participate in a variety of sports.

Over the years, views of masculinity and femininity have changed. Men have changed their attitudes towards masculinity dramatically over the years. It used to be that physical strength, as defined by the amount of weight one could lift, was categorized as being masculine, but nowadays women, too, are in the gyms, developing muscle for increased strength, and men are constantly being exposed to physically strong women. These women are not seen as ‘masculine’; they are only trying to get their bodies in shape and stay healthy. Similarly, it is now ‘correct’ to see women in ice hockey and men in figure skating.

With the changing face of society and the world of sports changing to accommodate social trends, woman’s occupational and family roles are also slowly being redefined. In the future, if a mother plays professional hockey, she will no doubt create more revenue for her family than a hard-working office dad. This kind of idea challenges the dominant social structure by putting the female in a traditionally masculine role. One wonders whether, when society reaches this point, the notion of gender roles will even matter.

The point is that ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine are socially constructed, and change as society changes. In the future, there will likely still be unequal views of masculinity and femininity, and people may still look down on men in traditionally ‘feminine’ roles and vice versa. However, the situation has improved greatly over the past century. We are becoming a society that accepts males’ and females’ participation in any sport. This is in part because the media have made some change towards showing more men and women in non-traditional sports on television, billboards, and in magazines. When the media accepts gender equality in sports, the public will begin to accept it as well, consciously or unconsciously. Maybe in another ten years, there won’t be any more gender inequalities and finally the world of sports will be equally accessible to males and females alike.

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