Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Sports is prime fodder for the onslaught of corporate initiatives that have come to define Women’s History Month. Take Google’s new spot, released on International Women’s Day, called “First of Many,” which hinges on celebrating firsts — which, as we’ve gone over, are an ultimately counterproductive way of framing the same women’s history we are purportedly trying to tell. Kim Ng, GM of the Miami Marlins, Simone Biles, surfer Maya Gabeira and more were featured in the spot as “firsts;” it concluded with Lisa Leslie’s debut WNBA dunk.
Women are doing things you (presumably some guy) wouldn’t expect women to do, and Google is proud to be the place you find out about them via its algorithmically-generated, reductionist history.
Yet when I Google “UConn basketball” for the zillionth time, trying to pull up some stat or roster information, the search engine always gives me information from the men’s team — despite the fact that I have literally never sought out information about UConn men’s basketball. Scores from NCAA softball, the second or first largest women’s college sport depending on what metrics you’re using, aren’t aggregated by the search engine — they aren’t for college baseball either, but football and basketball (the two largest men’s college sports) are both covered wall-to-wall.
It’s so obvious that it almost seems redundant to make this point, but there is no good corporate Women’s History Month post. They are all ultimately self-serving propaganda designed to make their product more appealing to half the population. Of course, you might say, they’re advertisements. The problem, though, is that these ads and other similarly narrow “celebrations” of what it means to Be A Lady draw on the language and principles of a more holistic kind of diversity and inclusion, and twist them to best serve their own ends.
The reality of women’s history in sports and otherwise is that it is people’s history, with the same weight and complexity that’s impossible to reduce to someone doing something for the first time. But the onslaught of women’s history month things (Just Girly Things) makes it seem like what women have done in the world is both a) possible to completely compartmentalize and b) on a consistent upward trajectory that reflects the overall improvement of society (LOL). Sports are a convenient, visceral metaphor since they are already most often divided by gender, and come equipped with highlight reels.
Women’s History Month is basically a version of one of those videos, those decontextualized clips that hone in on the most obvious pinnacles of things. Driving home the idea that women are only worth as much as they’ve accomplished, that half the population can share any common motivation or struggle. The use of sports as a girl power metaphor feels particularly insidious right now, given that it’s within sports that who can and cannot identify as a girl is being unfairly and pointlessly legislated.
Barrier breakers. Leaders. Champions.
— ESPN (@espn) March 8, 2021
The women’s history mixtape doesn’t leave room for women to have done anything bad, doesn’t allow for how often those telling so-called women’s history have privileged a white, cis, straight woman’s experience above all others.
The salt on the wound of the highlight reel approach to women’s history is that many of those people editing the highlights celebrate women who made history by overcoming barriers — while ignoring the fact that they have the power to remove those barriers entirely. ESPN, for example, has a whole slate of women’s history month programming; it also happens to be a month that includes the NCAA women’s basketball tournament every single year.
In spite of the fact that ESPN owns all the rights to the tournament and stands to profit for each new viewer, the network consistently refuses a simple clarification that would create instant equality: calling men’s college basketball “men’s college basketball” instead of just, “college basketball.” As it is now, the men’s game isn’t gendermarked and the women’s is — lending legitimacy to the former and second-class status to the latter.
It’s in these easy fixes that corporations might actually create the kind of positive change that they purport to celebrate during this, the most hallowed of all months. But they don’t want to. Recognizing women is a box to be checked, not the impetus for a real shift in perspective. Plus, if they leave things as they are, they’ll never run out of ideas for celebrating Women’s History Month: there will always be more women who have overcome the barriers that they put in place.