Monday, October 6, 2008

Modern Minstrels: Sexist Jokes about Women Athletes

A popular youtube video poking fun at women playing basketball is in my view little more than a modern day incarnation of old-fashioned minstrelsy. Those lightly "comic" routines were once found funny by racist audiences who enjoyed having their attitudes confirmed in entertaining spectacles that should turn the stomach.These images and performances provided the gearwork by which a white supremacist culture rationalized its most violent and abusive practices. (Spike Lee addresses the love affair between American culture and minstrel performance is his brilliant satire Bamboozled.)

It may seem extreme to some to compare the "spoof" on the idea of a WNBA Live game with things like that, but....

Below we have a man in lesbian-drag (the straight guy's acceptable form of black-face), playing at being a WNBA star, introducing his bored friends to the new game - an abject out-dated and comically slow moving "virtual" basketball game, in which a lone female stick figure limps across the scene and makes a bad shot. The player then falls over, "injured" when she gets a "yeast infection."

There is, it turns out, a whole subgenre of youtube videos mocking the WNBA - not because the authors of these videos have a problem with the organization, but because they can't get over the idea that women play basketball, and that there are people who want to watch them. This came as a total shock to me. And not just because I love watching the LA Sparks in action (and think they were robbed in the playoffs). I just spent a year in England getting acquainted with Old World sexist attitudes there about women playing soccer. Silly me - I'd felt a certain national pride in the way that Americans seemed to at least not hate the idea of women athletes.

That was a really naive fantasy. Apparently, most (not all) guys here can handle women playing soccer (sport of girls and immigrants). But basketball? Professionally? Youtube hosts a range of these just plain offensive diatribes. These are made by guys who are so full of hate for this idea, they produce homophobic and just plain moronic pieces about how boring women's basketball is, how badly women play, how ludicrous it is that anyone should try to get anyone to watch WNBA games.

A few months ago I posted a comment to neXib's youtube video, which features goal keeping "errors" in the 2007 Women's World Cup. I expressed my outrage and pointed to Nadine Angerer's amazing record and highlights. He responded "that's because she's a shemale." And closed the comments.

The comments to neXib's "Female Goalkeepers" (which is often the first youtube video to come up under the search "female goalkeepers") do include a lot of angry fans of the women's game. Some highlights from NeXib and his cohort, as they field that outrage:

To another user (who wrote in agreement with the spirit of his video), neXib wrote:
"Well it has been like that for a long time. Maybe they are afraid of getting some balls in their face :P "
One of his fans:
"women shud take care of kids..these gals luk like half males due to heavy football play"
Other comments:
"Why are these women attempting to do something that they clearly do not have the physical or mental capabilities for? They are only embarrassing themselves."
"ha ha girls suck at football lol " and, from another: "soccer is for men.sorry."
"honestly... I think they should just get rid of women's keepers, and just let guys from the under 15 national teams play GK instead."
The video, which presents itself as evidence of how women keepers "are rubbish", features footage of the three keepers in one tournament (one loses out to Marta - FIFA's Female World Footballer of the Year twice over), and presents itself as a statement of both the women's game and women's abilities.

NeXib disabled the comments not because his video solicited the above sexist remarks from youtube users, but because, in his view, the women and men writing in to point out the sexism of the video had "no sense of humor".

I'm proud to have been the one to have sent him over the edge.

There's a line between videos showing "lowlights" of a sport, and videos which show such things in the service of a statement motivated by prejudice. You would not see youtube hosting videos that singled out errors made by black or latino male players (of any sport), in a manifesto about how no one wants to see them play professionally, because "they can't." And believe me, there was once a moment when people held those ideas and made those arguments - and they would have found criticism of their position humorless, too.

Why is it acceptable to post youtube videos like this about women? Why is that OK? (There is good writing about women & goal keeping see, for example, David James's "Keeping Up with Part-Time Rachel").

In any case, here is youtube's community guideline regarding hate-motivated material:
"But we don't permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity)."
How is a video which clearly singles out a few errors made by women goalies in early rounds of the 2007 FIFA world cup in the explicit service of an argument that women are physically incapable of playing soccer not an "attack" that "demeans" "a group based on...gender"?

Sports Illustrated links to the WNBA spoof with no comment. The comments on youtube largely react to its humor, with only a few tentative voices pointing to the offensiveness of the content of the joke and the comments it invites, like:
LOFL you dumb twat, its also about ball handling, jump shooting, defense, a post game, and alot of other things (none of which those dykes do well).

LOL@ even trying to compare the WNBA to the NBA. I bet the team I played on back in JR High could beat the womens olympic team.
Why aren't those videos censored for violating the standards of hate speech defined above? This kind of "humor" supports world-wide active and often violent suppression of women's interest in athletics - in no small part because it's a fast route to empowerment. If guys HATE the idea that women play basketball, soccer, whatever, it's because they HATE the idea that women might be strong, competitive, fearless, and aggressive. The video I've posted here (reluctantly) is, in my view, a clever and socially acceptable act of hate speech.

And I wish a joyless future of ineffectial layups on all the dudes involved with its production.


  1. Thank you to my colleague Jim, who sent me the WNBA video!

  2. What's interesting to me in this video are two things:

    1. that the guys who watch the games on TV and play them in video game versions are patently lazy, stupid, and generally the antithesis of the athletic images the sports actually project (male or female). It's as if hate speech is OK if you own up to being an ass. We see this posture on everything from TV news to animated TV series or parody films.

    2. if you look at actual NBA video game ads, they always make a huge claim about some proximity between the video game and the actual sport. So here, the claim is that any WNBA video game would be not simply lame because it's "girls" who look too masculine, but "too much like old games we used to play as kids." Of course, it's a paradoxical overlaying of rhetorics of infantilization and masculinization onto WNBA players. But it's also interesting that "growing up" for these slacker-idiots means playing games that look more like actual TV broadcasts. What losers. Any claim by these sorts of characters about who should play what and how is completely just masculine hysteria designed to disguise the fact that their most highly polished skill is consuming entertainment.

  3. Wow. I couldn't have said it better myself. Thanks!

  4. Great post.

    And - Has anyone tried reporting these videos to YouTube as hate speech?

  5. I did yesterday (Oct 7), I'm curious to see what happens. It will help if more people do it no doubt.

  6. anonymous touches on something that often goes unnoticed in Western sport -- usually the men deriding women for playing the game are the ones who sit around watching it on TV while they eat loads of starch and drink loads of beer, only to then play the same version of the game on a video game system while they eat loads of starch and drink loads of beer.

    While not all athletes are respectful of female professional sports, I would imagine the preponderance of co-ed football leagues means that active men might be more respectful on the whole than their obese counterparts...

  7. What would your opinion be if the same exact video was simply entitled, "Goalkeeping Blunders"? . . .just curious

  8. Geoff - the fact that "Goalkeeping Blunders" is a video of only women goalkeepers would likely lead to the same conclusions Jennifer makes above. Can't argue there aren't blunders made by male goalkeepers.

  9. well, it has inter-titles too, so they'd need to go, too. but as betch suggests, yeah. pretty much. if it were men and women? then, maybe not. though i think people might pause and ask - how is the comparison a fair one?

    remember - most of the women playing in those clips are amateurs.

    which brings us to another reason this sort of thing is unfunny: where exactly is the fun of "taking down" women soccer players? it's one thing to mock the blunders of pro players given every privilege, paid tens of millions of dollars and pampered by a huge staff. but to mock the weakest moments of women who work full time jobs and are paid, say, $40/day for playing for their country in China (as they leave jobs and paychecks behind)? and then return home to badly run leagues, to situations in which every attempt to professionalize the women's game is quashed? how on earth is that supposed to be funny?

    it is only funny if you think the idea of women playing at all is funny. and that's sexist.

    you know what kills me - just kills me - is if you search "female goalkeepers" or "women goalkeepers" it's the FIRST video that comes up.

    and youtube pulled the clips I'd linked to of Cristiane's AMAZING goals in the Olympics. copyright issues. but how are there not also copyright issues on this one?

    argh. the more i think about it, the madder i get!

  10. Interesting perspective and great topic to bring up! Let's remember that search engines themselves are of course unbiased, directing search results because of many factors - at the top of this list are link juice, content and keywords. Instead of flagging this video, perhaps a more proactive strategy would be to build links to positive examples of female goalkeeper videos. Using bookmarking sites like Digg & Delicious, or embedding videos on Facebook & MySpace, we just might be able to create enough strength to alter Google's organic search results.

  11. I agree that positive action is important.

    But what you recommend is indeed difficult when footage of the Olympics is pulled for copyright violation - see my entry on Brazil's great game against Germany. Twice the youtube videos to which I've linked (featuring goals from that game) have been pulled from youtube for copyright infringement.

    And yet that female goalkeeper video is still out there. And has been for a year.

    I think that our collective passivity regarding sexist and homophobic statements actually makes the situation harder. We are so used to it from guys that we just accept it as inevitable - unavoidable. You can't help but feel "why waste my time on this." But when we ignore it, we let people think that these attitudes are somehow o.k. - just matters of "opinion".

    Maybe not all feminists are interested in making the interventions I'm talking about - but more of us need to be.

    We would not have Title IX if we didn't have those angry coaches, players, moms and dads out there intervening and FORCING schools to meet its requirements. The success of Title IX was not the legislation so much as the lawsuits which forced schools to respect it (and which continue to do so).

    Changing things takes both positive (producing and circulating positive images) and "negative" action (actively fighting the circulation of those things which reproduce biased thinking, and encourage gender inequity).

    It's just like the game: you need a great offense, and you need a great defense. Sorry, that's corny, I know.

  12. I don't think that's corny, and let me be clear that I couldn't agree more about your point here.

    If the video can be taken down for copy-right infringement, that's great. Go Jennifer! But if not, I'll go back to your game-day analogy because I do think you're suggesting defensive principals that won't work against this Goliath-sized Google offense & here's why.

    I'm looking at this from a pure search-science perspective that Google (who owns YouTube) has a very specific way to rank search results. Basically, the more links we create to any given article/video online, the higher it will rank in search results & the more revenue it'll generate.

    So, by sending the link around to a bunch of people... to send to a bunch of people... etc, we are in fact strengthening this video's viral impact on the web. Of course, we'd hope that each person who received your article took action & wrote in, but sadly, I doubt they did.

    Then it all comes down to money, right? What incentive will Google have to remove this video (even if people do write in as you've suggested) when it's getting more and more $$ traffic $$ with every inbound link?

    That's why I suggest the other strategy (linking to positive examples of female athletes) in my previous comment. For me, this idea incorporates modern technologies and utilizes the evolving dynamics of online media for social change. Could be worth a shot too, right?

    I hope you don't mind this bit of banter on the topic & I hope you know it's all with positive intentions on my end. :-)

  13. Also note the low score and it's in the fourth quarter.

    That video is probably the worst thing I've seen and that's really saying something considering just how many terrible videos/stuff there is on the internet.

    It's crap like that (well, other stuff too) that is the reason why I get along with women better than men.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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