Rah Rah! Performance and Sport or Nah: What would Butler think?

Judith Butler writes: “If gender is a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical” (Undoing Gender). In respect to sport and gender the ability to perform a  certain task often delineates the action as sport. In addition to this, the idea of how well that task can be performed often delineates the lines which are constituted by gender. Butler argues that gender is much less about the sexing of the body and much more about how one performs inside of the constructed norms of their gender. This is to say that ideology often determines where men and women inhabit space rather than their individual desires. The world of sporting is not immune to these structures. Moreover, the structure of sporting has so depended on these ideological constraints that gender may be the basis of all other building structures within sporting worlds.

In Texas, the University Interscholastic League has long been the governing body of all high school athletic events. In accordance with title IX, the equity of male and female sport offerings has remained a continual balancing act among high school athletics. This balancing act is reinforced in NCAA scholarship offerings, providing areas where female athletes are often more likely to be awarded money in order to secure funds for male athletes. For example, on average women are awarded more money for college golf scholarships than men among the 319 NCAA I schools which participate in the sport. The average awards total $14,234 for men and $15,373 for women. In addition, each school has a limit of 4.5 men scholarships and 6 women scholarships, providing an interesting area to evaluate whether performance is equitable to gender and money. One thing to note is that within these numbers the average awarded to male varsity athletes is $2,988 while female varsity athletes average $2,242 suggesting that the overall numbers are because there are more women playing golf than men. I have often heard around the field house that girls who want a great education should play golf because there will always be money for that sport and the competition is low. I wonder what Butler would say about this system of ranking extrapolated through gender labels that ultimately relate more to capital than to performance. The underlying implications of this system are that male athletes are individually valued more than female athletes, suggesting that it takes more women to compile a return on investment in the world of sports.

In 1972, title IX law was passed which requires gender equity in all educational programs that receive federal funding. Since it was passed 20 years ago, it has been the subject of over 20 proposed amendments, reviews, Supreme Court cases and other political actions. In this fashion, it is a living and breathing law, one that is explicitly attached to the performativity of gender. The UIL explicitly maintains a position that prevents Texas high schools from considering cheerleading as a female sport that balances their offerings to male sports. While this may seem to be a very biased approach to male and female sporting events, particularly one that is so closely tied to masculinity and femininity, this position is mostly precedented by an official ruling in 2012 by the Second U.S. Court of appeals that stated colleges could not count competitive cheerleading as a sport when trying to comply with gender-equality requirements under title IX. This brings an interesting question to light: do team events need to be fully competitive to be considered sport?

Traci Neely, assistant athletic director for the University Interscholastic League once stated, “A lot os schools just really like what their cheerleaders do now. They support their athletics and do a good job at it. To change that would be a lot of work.” Because cheerleading is considered a sanctioned activity,not a sport, to change it would require meeting safety requirements and attending competitions that would be judged on the technical aspects of the performance.

Revisiting Judith Butler and how she might view this debate, the classification of cheerleading as sport is subversively rooted in the gender norms of American culture. Female athletes jump around and cheer for male athletes as tokens of support. They wear visually appealing uniforms Laura Mulvey would say are male-gaze-centric and perform duties of femininity. While doing so, they are denied the protection of safety codes, the funding for trained coaches, and equity under title IX federal regulations. Instead they are viewed as a group of ladies who compliment the performance of barbaric masculinity. Oh, how little things have changed and how easily we ‘dance’ without thinking of why.

Moorea Coker teaches AP Literature and adjuncts at a Junior college in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @polypel88 or reach her by email: mooreacoker@gmail.com

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