Are there any cool female athletes? Not according to GQ

Once again, a major magazine has compiled a best-of list and found a way to omit one-half of the human race.  Last time I remember this happening, Esquire had published a list of the top 100 books every man should read and only thought Flannery O’Connor was worthy enough for their literary sausage-fest.

This time, though, ladies don’t even get that single token nod.  That’s because the editorial staff of GQ doesn’t think there is a single cool lady athlete in the history of sports.

Let’s talk about what they mean by “cool.”  “Cool” includes but is not limited to athletic prowess, which shoots down the commenter on this story at the Nation who said no woman belongs on that list because they could never beat a man at their sport. (And by the way, the comments on that story?  And pretty much every story about gender that appears on any left-leaning online publication?  That is pretty much the definition of the “brogressive,” you know, the guy who is totally forward-thinking when it comes to politics…until the convo turns to sex and gender, and their open minds slam shut.)

The predominant qualities that seemed to make an athlete ripe for inclusion are style and attitude, and for the most part, I agree with many of their selections.  I mean, say what you want about Joe Namath, but dude could rock a fur coat.  In fact, many of their choices come from the 1970s, like Arthur Ashe and Pele and Bjorn Borg, which is a decade that I think gets a bad rap when it comes to style and culture.

But then, why not include Martina Navratilova?  She had that uber-70s thing going on, plus she was fucking great at her sport.  She was tough as nails, she pushed weight training for women, she was out as gay, she butted heads with Connie Chung, who tried to pull that idiotic “love this country or leave it” nonsense on her in 2007.

And if we are looking at style, then where is the woman who showed the world that fingernails like Day Glo talons could be a great accessory when busting 100m world records?  And who ever knew one-legged running tights could look so fly? Flo Jo not only lives on in Olympic history, but, like Muhammed Ali, she is name-dropped constantly in pop culture.  At the very least, she should be the Flannery O’Connor of this list.

What if you want someone a bit more modern?  Well, what about Hope Solo?  She’s the top goalkeeper in the world, she’s got that kind of feline beauty people go nuts for, and, as one sportswriter said, if people had daughters like her, they would be terrified.  She does not hold back with her opinions, so much so that she was actually disciplined for speaking her mind.  I mean, it’s no mistake that the Atlantic  dubbed her “the bad girl of women’s soccer.”

You could have also included the Williams sisters, Diana Taurasi, Surya Bonaly, Fabiola da Silva..but instead, we get Evel Knievel.  And Ted Turner.  I am dead serious.  Ted Fucking Turner.  Because he won two yachting World Cups while looking like Papa Hemingway, I suppose.

What does it mean to be cool?

The list’s oversight of female athletes could be attributed to the fact that a lot of guys really don’t take female athletes seriously, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that.

Think about what it means to be cool.  It means you don’t give a shit. It means you make your own rules about things.  It means you regularly transgress social norms, but you do so in a way that seems natural and effortless.

We don’t really like people who transgress social norms in our society.  Oh, sure, we pay a lot of lip service to valuing The Individual, to appreciating people who make their own way in the world, because it fits in with our national mythology of Americans as rugged individualists.  But ask anyone who has ever tried to go against the grain in our society, and they’ll tell you what a heap of bullshit this is.  Sure, we like individuals in this society – as long as they act like everyone else.

You know who we do like though?  We like people who make money. Lots and lots of money.

The near-seamless integration of sport and capitalism means a high premium is placed on athletes who can put forth the most inoffensive public face possible.   Take Mia Hamm, who is arguably one of the greatest female soccer players ever.  She could be a total wildcat in her private life, but her public image is about as square as it gets.  It’s no great coincidence that she was also one of the most marketable female athletes of the 1990s.

This pressure isn’t unique to female athletes – male athletes deal with this as well.  Check out what happened to Tiger Woods.  I’m not saying I think Tiger is particularly cool or that what he did was okay, but it’s not illegal to cheat on your wife.  Yet his sponsors deserted him en masse after his personal life started resembling a game of Mistress Whac-A-Mole.  The point is, it pays to be squeaky-clean.

I also don’t think it’s any great coincidence that most of the athletes on GQ’s list hit their prime in the 70s, well before the corporate-sport-media machine began inexorably grinding down and smoothing out everything gritty and interesting about the athletes around which it was built.

Women are even more constrained in this regard.  With athletes, the future of their leagues – and of women’s sports, and the self-esteem of girls, and of feminism in general – is often placed upon their muscular shoulders.  That’s a lot of pressure.

Wendy Parker, who used to write for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, put it like this:

For the “role model” burden is a product of a women’s sports movement that preaches the urgency of teaching young girls well, in hopes that they will soon follow along. And further the claim that they can provide a morally superior alternative to the male sports culture feminists loathe.

While it is a good thing to exhibit good behavior and teamwork, respect for opponents and the games they play, the extent to which this demand is made also has the effect of making women athletes one-dimensional characters. It denies the reality that they are human beings, filled with the same contradictions, grievances, anger and unbecoming traits as men.

I am not a huge fan of the disdain with which Parker regards feminism (I mean, duh), and she’d probably find my blog part of the whole women’s sports movement she loathes, but I think her core point – which is that female athletes are expected to be as bland and inoffensive as possible in service of a larger ideological movement – is one that is perfectly valid.  When you make a person into a symbol, you take away their ability to be complex and contradictory and, yes, cool.

But I’m going to go further and say that it’s not just female athletes who are punished for exhibiting the traits we consider “cool” – it’s women in general.  As a culture, we don’t much care for women who are insouciant, who do their own thing, who decide upon their own path in life and follow that through to its end.  Yes, we say we love “independent women,” as long as their independence is, in the words of Destiny’s Child, limited to buying “the shoes on my feet…the clothes I’m wearing…the rocks I’m rockin’.”  But aside from that, it’s don’t bend your gender, don’t cause trouble, don’t be sloppy, don’t have lots of boyfriends (or girlfriends), don’t be flashy, don’t argue with refs, don’t talk shit, don’t do this, don’t do that, just keep your head down, work hard and, most importantly, play nice.

Meh. It’s so dispassionate.  It’s so uninteresting.  I’m not saying you have to be an asshole to be cool, but I am saying it helps to be unafraid to stick up for yourself when need be, to be willing to throw yourself out there and even fail.   You need the freedom to try things and to fuck up sometimes.  Otherwise, what are you?  You’re perfect, but you’re boring.  That’s okay if that’s your bag, but it’s not mine and it never has been.

So here’s to all the cool lady athletes who didn’t make the list.  Yes, you’re loud and you’re flashy and you don’t give a fuck.  That’s exactly why we love you.

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