Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Short Critique of the Women's Gymnastics Floor Routine

by David Balashinsky

I have long been bothered by the women's gymnastics floor routine and this, the quadrennial Olympics season, offers a suitable opportunity to explain why.  What bothers me is the sexism and the conspicuous gender-construction of it.  The cloying mincing and prancing and the striking of quasi-sexy poses makes the event unbearably awkward and embarrassing to watch.  These turn what ought to be a demonstration of athletic prowess into something akin to a latter-day Dance of the Seven Veils.  Could you imagine male gymnasts performing like this?  Gymnastics is gymnastics.  A sumersault is a sumersault.  Why is it necessary for gymnastics pyrotechnics to be punctuated by the gymnast's arching her back and sticking out her buttocks when the gymnast is a woman but not when the gymnast is a man?  Why is it  necessary for the routines to be accompanied by music and the tumbling interspersed with dance steps when performed by women but not when performed by men?  What do any of these absurd and uncomfortably sexualizing embellishments have to do with gymnastics, anyway?  Why is it not enough for women gymnasts to excel at gymnastics without having to overlay their floor routines with wheedling smiles, constructed and exaggerated femininity, and the overt sexualization of their bodies?

Consider the numerous other sports that female and male athletes both compete in: weight lifting, boxing, equestrian events, track and field - the list is long.  Yet in none of these other events are women expected to perform the sport in a manner that is so thoroughly permeated with gender that it alters the character of the sport itself and results in such a marked difference between the way women and men perform it.  Take the heptathlon, for example.  Could you imagine the women athletes having to perform one of the seven sports that comprise this event to music, and interspersing the activities - say, the shot put or the javelin throw - with mincing, prancing, and dancing around?  Why is the women's gymnastics floor routine treated differently?

Of course, sexism has always determined which events women and men are permitted to compete in.  Nor is the gymnastics floor routine the only Olympic event in which an artificial and socially constructed gender difference is rigidly enforced.  But in the only other two notable Olympic events that I can think of in which it is - synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics - the differentiation between female and male is so complete that males do not even get to participate in them.  In contrast, I am speaking here of precisely how the gymnastics floor routines - which both women and men do perform - are performed so differently when performed by each.  (And there is, of course, no rational, non-sexist reason why men should not compete in either synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics.)

A useful test for sexism consists in the simple thought experiment in which a man replaces the woman (or a boy the girl) in any social context or artistic rendering; everything else remains unchanged: only the sex of the participant is different.  Watch any modern women's floor routine but imagine that it is a man performing.  I'm sure what you are seeing in your mind's eye will make you squirm (and if it doesn't, it should).  The male gymnast performing exactly those steps and striking exactly those poses would look foolish and ridiculous.  You'd likely consider it absurd and degrading (and if you didn't, you should).  What does it say about our culture that movements and poses that are considered cute and sexy when performed by women are considered absurd and degrading when performed by men? That we take it for granted that women gymnasts should perform their floor routines in a manner that would look degrading, foolish, and ridiculous when performed in exactly the same way by men demonstrates not only how thoroughly our concepts of male, female, and gender are shaped (and warped) by our culture but how the constructs of masculinity and femininity empower men while disempowering women, respectively.  At the same time, it demonstrates how thoroughly the sport of gymnastics has been perverted by sexism.  For when you watch a women's gymnastics floor routine, what you are really witnessing is a sexual double standard: the incessant and ubiquitous sexualization of women's bodies that is demanded of women when they are the focus of attention in the public sphere.

Let me anticipate a criticism of my thesis: that the women's floor routine is an anomaly, as suggested by the fact that there are so many other events - including certain women's gymnastic events, such as the uneven parallel bars and the vault - where there is little or no differentiation between female and male based on the social construct of gender.  To make a general statement about this, the disparate treatment of female and male in the gymnastics floor routine itself, it seems to me, is an argument rather for doing away with the convention than maintaining it.  If overt gender construction is not needed in all the other events, it's hard to see why it should be needed in this one.

Why then does the convention of music, dancing and often lewd posing in the women's floor routine exist?  I attribute this to two factors.

First, undoubtedly, the women's floor routine lends itself to being turned into a sort of dance routine simply because it is performed on a flat surface and involves movement that has  an essentially aesthetic component, as opposed to an objective component, such as hitting a bullseye or jumping higher, as measured in millimeters, than one's adversaries.  Gymnastics, after all, is judged largely by subjective rather than objective standards.  And where subjectivity prevails, cultural norms will tend to predominate.  But the men's floor routine is also performed on a large flat surface and incorporates movements that are judged largely by aesthetic criteria.  But whereas the men's floor routine tends to incorporate socially constructed notions of masculinity, the women's floor routine tends to incorporate socially constructed notions of femininity.  It goes without saying that, in the case of the men's floor routine, masculinity consists in strength, power, agility, determination, and seriousness (when is the last time you saw a male gymnast smile ingratiatingly at the audience during the performance of his routine?).  And in the case of the women's floor routine, femininity (as specifically tailored for this event - it is gymnastics, after all) incorporates, in addition to the strength, power, agility, determination, and seriousness of the gymnast herself, the additional obligatory characteristics of daintiness, cuteness, sexuality, and submissiveness.  (Striking poses such as those that women gymnasts typically assume throughout the performance of their floor routines is analogous to a display of submissiveness in the animal kingdom so as to forestall an act of aggression when a threat is perceived: thus are women expected in our culture to forestall aggression with overt displays of ingratiation and subservience.  Surely many men come to expect this sort display of submission as their due, and surely this is why men not infrequently exhort women - perfect strangers - when they pass them in the street, to "Smile, Honey.")

The second factor is simply this.  The failure of sexism to permeate the other events that women athletes engage in should not be interpreted as evidence that it is not sexism that has distorted the women's gymnastics floor routine.  Sexism in sports, because it reflects sexism in our culture, tends to manifest itself in different ways depending on the context.  It is not that sexism does not tend to push its tentacles into everything that it can.  It just tends to succeed better in some contexts than in others, in the way that a fungus or parasite will thrive on some hosts and in some environments better than others.  Alas, such is the case with the women's gymnastics floor routine.

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