This research blog aims to explore how gender and sex are framed and understood within the realm of extreme sports. Much of the literature is focused specifically within the realm of team sports or more traditional sports. Yet many of these issues are apparent in the world of extreme sports and are sometimes even more pronounced. Indeed extreme sports are often portrayed as being very masculine activities that are largely male dominated, something which may be due to men typically taking more health risks than women (Harris, Jenkins and Glaser, 2006; See also: Kamal, Mohd and Yunus, 2010). However, this does not justify the inequalities felt between male and female athletes.
Dictionary.com defines extreme sports as, “any recreational activities that involve high risk, aggressive and spectacular stunts, and which appeal to the young”. The general argument in discourse pertaining to the analysis of sport is that both the act of watching and performing sporting activities can be understood as hypermasculine (Jackson, 2014, p. 902). Yet this analysis is often attached to sport in general and more often than not, team sports. Given this argument, I would posit that the realm of extreme sports can be understood as exhibiting an even more exaggerated conception of hypermasculinity.
Scholars, such as Jackson, argue that sports’ connection with the military and nationhood has historically constructed it as “a man’s world”, this constructs sport as one of the last places with such a focus and favouritism towards masculinity (2014, p. 903-904). During my research I came across countless examples of how masculinity dominates extreme sports. This domination is exemplified in various ways and is perhaps most noticeable within the rhetoric of sports announcers, the comment sections of videos, the portrayal of extreme sports athletes in advertising and promotional campaigns, and even the social media accounts of various athletes. If you ever feel like society is making progress in terms of gender equality, simply go read the comment section of almost any YouTube video with female athletes in them.
The comments above were posted on a video of professional female skateboarders competing in the X-Games, one of the world’s largest competitions for extreme sports. These comments are often focused on their physical appearance or their perceived lack of skill, or at least perceived lack of skill in relation to their male counterparts. This sort of thinking is admittedly something that plagues all forms of sport. This hypermasculinity within the comment sections is often emphasized through YouTube’s rating system which allows either a ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’. This rating system is demonstrable to how many users potentially agree with such thinking.
I knew that gender norms and hypermasculinity were issues in extreme sport but my research really revealed how prevalent sexist ideologies are within this industry. Yet it is no wonder that many fans of extreme sport have this outdated way of thinking, as the large players within the industry actually perpetuate this logic in numerous ways.
I decided to compare the first page of results of Google searches for “male extreme athletes” and for “female extreme athletes”. The results? The top hits for the female athletes were predominantly focused on their appearance while relying on sexualizing the athletes.
In comparison, the search for “male extreme athletes” yielded no front page results that focused on their appearance. Instead, the results described the athletes in terms of their skill with words such as “Greatest” and “Most Extreme”.
Indeed even the athletes’ sponsors are relying on sexualizing their female athletes for the sake of promotion and advertising. The case of the 2013 Roxy promotional video perfectly exemplifies this issue:
This video was used to promote a professional surf competition. So what’s the problem? First of all there is no actual surfing in this video, except for a brief shot of the female athlete paddling out to the wave that was apparently used to emphasize the athlete’s bikini-clad butt rather than showcasing their surfing prowess. Instead, the majority of the video shows the professional surfer half-naked in bed or in the shower. This is what some scholars have described as “emphasized femininity” (Kelly, Pomerantz and Currie, 2005) in which “representations of strong, athletic women in sport are often purposefully staged in unnatural and/or overtly sexualized positions or pictured in altogether unathletic situations featuring backdrops designed to emphasize healthy (heterosexual) womanhood…while asserting their status as feminine” (Messner, 1988, as cited in Couture, 2016, p. 124). The effect of this is a diminished representation of the athletes skill and athleticism, coupled with an exaggerated sexuality. This notion is supported by the fact that rank 133 pro-surfer Alana Blanchard has eight sponsors and 1.8 million followers on Instagram while Dimity Stoyle, ranked 15th, has no sponsors and only 24 thousand followers.
Therefore when this hypersexuality is not apparent or emphasized in media, there becomes a focus on the female athletes’ masculinity or lack of feminine characteristics. This is evident all throughout media representations of female athletes and my YouTube search results yielded countless examples of this issue. Take the first example of the aforementioned 2016 X-Games. This particular video involves female skateboarders competing in a high-level competition. Yet listen to the announcer at approximately 3 minutes and 30 seconds into the video:
The announcer says, “Such good tricks and definitely not relying on being a girl”. This comment was surprising, even with the prevalence of hypermasculinity within extreme sports. I mean this is a ‘professional’ announcer in 2016. This representation in the media only helps to support an unprogressive understanding of gender. As Couture argues, “by controlling the ways in which people are presented in the media, social power structures can reinforce ideologies compatible with hegemony” (2016, p. 126). The ideology of females relying on their appearance is a power structure which the X-Games announcer and subsequently this YouTube video reinforce. As previously discussed, there is a general trend towards negative YouTube comments that reinforce a male dominance in sport but that does not mean everyone accepts this thinking. For example, one user commented on the video above:
These comments question much of the discourse in extreme sports that often focuses on female athletes’ appearance over skill. “Women are free to be many things, but masculine is not one of them (Couture, 2016, p. 130-131). When these gender norms become blurred, the male athletes’ masculinity becomes questioned. Indeed there is a certain anxiety that results from the blurring of “visual gender clues” as men and women should be distinguishable from one another (Couture, p. 128). However, the reality of many extreme sports is that men and women dress similarly out of pure necessity. All athletes, regardless of their sex or gender, require protection from the elements when skiing or snowboarding. All athletes benefit from loosely fitted clothing in skateboarding as it increases dexterity and movement. And so on.
During my research I came across this video of female athletes skateboarding in stereotypical female clothing, high-heels and dresses:
At first I thought this was a sort of jab at how women are portrayed in sports and the media more generally. However, after multiple viewings I am convinced that this video is not a parody nor a critique of gender norms but rather it is meant to reinforce the role of women; to dress feminine and look good. Indeed, the final shot shows one of the athletes upset over the fact that she broke a nail. This video can then be understood as a visual representation of much of the gender issues within extreme sport.
All this being said, Beki and Gal argue that while sport is a place of gender stereotyping, it can also provide a space for redefining gender roles (2013, p. 7). Although there is potential for this, I would argue that this has predominantly not been the case. Yet, some extreme athletes, like professional skateboarder Brian Anderson, have done their part in challenging traditional understandings of gender and sexuality in sport. Anderson publicly came out as gay earlier this year. While not the first in his sport to come out, he is perhaps the most well-known. This is particularly important in that it occurred within the hypermasculine realm of skateboarding. The skateboarding community in particular has traditionally alienated the “behaviors that are perceived as outside of the masculine ideal [which] homogenizes the skating community while also keeping gay skaters closeted for longer” (Roazen, 2016). Cases like this help to disrupt the notion of extreme sports as heteronormative but it is also admittedly a visually masculine (a self-described 6’3 man with a deep voice and beard) and white male who is coming out. Anderson does recognize that coming-out is far more difficult for other people who are not as visually masculine and privileged as he is (Hall, 2016). Therefore, while there are some examples of non-heterosexuality being embraced by extreme sport, there are still countless examples of female athletes being discriminated against. At the same time, “white men were lauded for taking risks, getting their swagger back, for finding a way to deal with their underlying anger, and for becoming men again…through their participation in extreme sports”.
So while women are becoming increasingly accepted into the male-dominated world of extreme sport, there is much progress to be made. After all, it is 2016 and hypermasculine discourses still surround much of these sports. This change requires not only a willingness and open-mindedness by the audience but it also requires a change in the industry. Indeed, videos like this one by Bill Burr are considered comedy and this should tell us a little about how women are treated in sport.
Béki, P., & Gál, A. (2013). Rhythmic gymnastics vs. boxing: Gender stereotypes from the two poles of female sport. Physical Culture and Sport, 58(1), 5.
Couture, J. (2016). Triathlon Magazine Canada and the (re)construction of female sporting bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33(2), 124-134.
Hall, J. (October 10, 2016). Brian Anderson and Homophobia in Sports: Why It’s Still a Problem. Retrieved from http://www.highsnobiety.com/2016/10/10/brian-anderson-coming-out/
Harris, C. R., Jenkins, M., & Glaser, D. (2006). Gender differences in risk assessment: Why do women take fewer risks than men? Judgment and Decision Making, 1(1), 48.
Jackson, S. (2014). Globalization, Corporate Nationalism and Masculinity in Canada: Sport, Molson Beer Advertising and Consumer Citizenship. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 17(7), 901-916.
Jones, A., & Greer, J. (2012). Go “heavy” or go home: An examination of audience attitudes and their relationship to gender cues in the 2010 Olympic snowboarding coverage. Mass Communication and Society, 15(4), 598-621.
Kamal, A. A., Mohd. Syukran Abdul Khadir, & Yunus, F. W. (2010). The perception and constraints towards recreational activity among female students. International Journal of Sport Management, 6, 62-75.
Kelly, D.M., Pomerantz, S. & Currie, D. (2005). Skater Girl-hood and emphasized femininity: You can’t land an ollie properly in heels’. Gender and Education, 17(3), 229-248.
Roazen, B. (September 27, 2016). Skateboarding Legend Brian Anderson Comes out as Gay. Retrieved from https://hypebeast.com/2016/9/brian-anderson-is-gay
Simmonds, L. (July 21, 2015). Is there still a glass ceiling for some female surfers?
Retrieved from https://www.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/pipe-dreams-surfing-girls/2712491/
Sweeny, R. W. (2008). This performance art is for the birds:” “jackass,” ‘extreme’ sports, and the de(con)struction of gender. Studies in Art Education, 49(2), 136-146.