Friday, August 28, 2009

Gender Trouble: See Semenya Run

Sure, we all know that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man, but who is the world's fastest woman? That seems to be a matter of some debate...

South African runner Caster Semenya (pictured left) recently ran 800 meters in less than two minutes, more than 2 seconds faster than the next-fastest female runner. But instead of generating awe and fanfare like Bolt's record-breaking runs have, Semenya's feat (and feet) has resulted in a swarm of controversy about whether or not she is really a "she." Gender verification tests in sports are nothing new, and although the tests themselves have become more sophisticated over the years, what they are meant to determine has only gotten more complicated. The issue for Semenya is not whether she's male or female, but whether or not she's "entirely female" (as opposed to hermaphroditic, intersexed, or suffering from some other hormonal anomaly, like congenital adrenal hyperplasia). Many skeptics are pointing to Semenya's lightening-fast speed and athletic prowess as evidence for their suspicion of her, but there are also articles like this one out there, which seem to question Semenya on the basis of her violation of more socially-constructed, normative gender roles. That article cites Semenya's "ripped muscles, a solemn demeanor and grooming perceived as dowdy in the post-Flo-Jo era" as her most egregiously "masculine" characteristics. (Really? A "solemn demeanor"?) At least on the surface, what is at stake here is the issue of fair play, perhaps the cardinal virtue of amateur sport, but there is so very much below the surface...

Let's face it, elite athletes like Bolt and Semenya already trouble everything we think about what is "natural" for the human being. At their level of competition, most athletes are practically scientific specimens-- they do not exist in the world in the same way that the rest of us do. Their hearts, their lungs, and their limbs are tributes to perfection, pushed beyond the limits of what most of us think is humanly possible. These are people for whom milliseconds matter. and whole industries have been built around creating the most technologically-advanced clothes for them to wear and food for them to eat. Even still, we want to pretend that they are as nature made them. We don't allow them to take steroids, we don't allow them to lie about their age, and we insist on distinguishing between the "entirely male" and the "entirely female" among them.

The problem, of course, is that nature doesn't always make us that way. Conservative estimates of intersexuality put its occurance at something around 1 in every 100 births-- making it more common than cystic fibrosis (1 in 2,500 "Caucasian" births), Down Syndrome (1 in 800-1000), or even Albino births (1 in 17,000). Nevertheless, as a culture, we are invested in perpetuating the myth that gender is natural, biological, or genetic in much the same way that we are invested in perpetuating the same myth about "race." But Nature, for her part, couldn't care less about our social constructions.

Here's hoping that the controversy surrounding Semenya brings some of these more nuanced issues to the fore... though I have very little confidence that it will.


anotherpanacea said...

I find this a fascinating case as well, and I think you hit the nail on the head in your analysis. There's an interesting history here. Google Stanisława Walasiewicz.

On the one hand, I think there's some pretty disgusting gender normativity at work in the ways that some other athletes have profiled Semenya as a possible intersex runner. On the other hand, it does seem unfair to begin with the demand that sport be sex-segregated and then smuggle athletes benefiting from male physical enhancements into the mix, in the same way that it's unfair to outlaw steroids but ignore some athletes use of them.

I kind of hope it does raise more issues with the first premise, of gender-segregated sport in general. If there's going to an Olympics that allows the best human beings to challenge each other to ever greater heights of excellence, I'm tempted to say we ought to scrap the sex segregation and just figure out what human beings can do. Of course, I also feel quite strongly that Oscar Pistorius ought to be able to compete with his carbon-fiber feet, so I'm generally less interested in restricting the competition.

Female athletes at the highest levels are all much more talented than the average man, but the highest level male athletes are generally faster/stronger/more skilled/etc still, with some major exceptions where the sport itself prefers female body types and so female athletes dominate. Yet sex segregation seems to ghettoize female athletes much more than the reverse, plus it perpetuates heteronormativity and ablist norms too.

Brunson said...