As Julia Mancuso whipped around the gates during the women’s downhill at the Vancouver Olympics, the NBC announcers noted the icy and difficult conditions. “She likes a course that is rough and bumpy,” said analyst Christin Cooper. “She says that it eliminates some of the advantage of the larger girls that have more mass that can kind of go like freight trains down a smooth course.” Later, Cooper said during Elisabeth Goergl’s bronze-medal run, “These girls have got to really nail it aggressively all the way down the course.”
In fact, Cooper repeatedly referred to the women’s skiers as girls, something that also appeared on NBC’s liveblog of the event, which noted that “it’s scary to see these girls go down at such speeds.”
Calling the women’s skiers girls trivializes and delegitimizes women’s sports participation in two ways.
First, each instance in which the skiers were labeled as “girls” came at a time when the related description violated gender norms in some way. For example, femininity is at odds with the notion of a “big” female moving like a “freight train.” In the same way, aggression is culturally marked as masculine, and attacking a mountain at break-neck speed is hardly a traditional feminine quality. Calling the skiers girls in a context where they are being described in terms that often reference masculinity neutralizes that apparent oxymoron – and ultimately preserves a more traditional representation of gender.
Second, “girls” playing sports don’t violate gender norms in the way that “women” playing sports do. When you are a “girl,” it’s okay to engage in trivial and fun pursuits like sports; women, on the other hand, are expected to perform traditional forms of femininity, which is at odds with the masculine notions of competition and sports.
This logic also adds another level of explanation to Deford’s question about the lack of attention given to the UConn women’s basketball team. The undefeated Huskies do not enjoy the fan adoration Lindsay Vonn receives, which Marie Hardin notes is largely because Vonn participates in a sport that doesn’t challenge gender norms in the way that contact sports like basketball do (see below).
Still, the Huskies have a much stronger following than any WNBA team — after all, they’re still college “girls,” which makes their violation of gender norms in a contact sport less egregious than the professional women.