Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya, Society's Rigid Gender Binary & Institutionalized Sexism

I have been holding off blogging about this topic for quite some time now, waiting for a formal decision provided by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), track & field's governing body. No formal decision has been levied yet, but rumors are swirling, and it's time to rant.

Quick background: 18-year-old Caster Semenya of South Africa (pictured in green) recently won this year's T&F world championship title in the women's 800m race. Largely due to her youth, she was not a well known T&F athlete prior to her championship run.

Semenya clocked 1:55.45 in the 800m final, well off the world record of 1:53.28, set by the Czech Republic's Jarmila Kratochvilova in 1983. Semenya's time is the best in the world this year by quite a bit. But again, she is not threatening the world record, so what is the fuss and what's the fuss really about?

Given T&F's history of steroid use, I would not have been surprised if Semenya was questioned heavily for doping. It would not have been fair, but I still would not have been surprised. Rather, the fuss is about whether or not Semenya is biologically female. "Something" about her musculature and athletic success have caused opponents and officials to question her biological sex.

Well, it's largely, if not entirely tied to gender and patriarchy. SocProf over on The Global Sociology Blog has already written about this topic extensively, providing excellent analysis in these two entries:

Soc Prof's first entry illustrates the gendered trajectory Semenya has taken in attempting to "prove" or establish her femininity. Semenya, who initially did not seem to care about appearing stereotypically female, after being questioned as a woman, actively altered her look to emphasize her femininity and ostensibly prove true, acceptable womanhood (see below).

In the past, stellar female athletes have prevented societal questioning of their womanhood by emphasizing their femininity prior to competitions in major sporting events (or like Semenya, Babe Didrikson changed her look afterwards). Perhaps the best example of this is the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo) who shattered world records in both the 100m and 200m races.

Flo-Jo also displayed a toned musculature (like many female athletes do). But more relevant to this blog entry, her records in the 100m (10.49 seconds) and 200m (21.34 seconds) races not only still stand, but are records that are extremely difficult to break by large incraments given the races' short distances.

But perhaps because Flo-Jo emphasized her femininity by wearing extravagant T&F attire (see above) to match her lengthy and lavish painted fingernails before the 1988 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, she was protected from those who might have otherwise questioned her sex while performing on the grandest of athletic stages.

Pinky Khoabane of The Sunday Times in South Africa suggested that Semenya's plight has been influenced by her race. And I agree, that is likely part of what is going on. However, given that Flo-Jo was African American and we see female athletes from multiple ethnic, race, and national groups emphasize their femininity in a variety of sports and not be questioned as biological women, I would argue this is more about fixating gender within the boundaries our society defines as acceptable. Semenya, according to the IAAF, has tested those boundaries.

The comparative and perhaps more patriarchal dimension to this story is that male athletes who are exceptionally muscular and athletically successful will never be questioned for thier sex. They may be questioned for steroids (as many athletes, male and female, are these days). But because men stand atop the gender hierarchy, their sex will not be questioned. Look at Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, both of whom have obliterated numerous world records in sprinting events in recent years. Were they questioned as men because of their athletic accomplishments, which are far more impressive than Semenya's? No, not at all.

Elite T&F athletes, in particular those who make it to the finals of major meets, are all tested for steroids, male and female alike. However, in this case of institutionalized sexism, only female athletes may be tested for their sex. Not even exceptionally gifted gay male athletes would have to cope with such a test.

Worse yet for Semenya in terms of her career, it now appears she may be found of intersex status, holding more male characteristics than a "typical" female as defined by a rigid societal standard that only allows for two acceptable options -- biologically "full males" and "full females." In reality, though the proportion varies, all men and women hold biological characteristics of both sexes (McDonagh & Pappano, 2009).

So because the IAAF may be ruling Semenya is "too male," she may be legally banned from all future T&F competitions. We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but her career could be legally terminated at the young age of 18 because of how she was born. Due to the way our society defines acceptable gender and in turn structures its institutions (in this case sport), males will never suffer such consequences. That is a clear cut case of institutionalized sexism -- no formal/written intent to discriminate against women, but implemented sexism is the realistic outcome. Oh, and Semenya is already withdrawing from competitions:

(Photos courtesy of the
BBC, Yahoo! Sports, and CNN/Sports Illustrated)

Academics Blogs


  1. “Indian athlete who failed gender test”

  2. "Gender Questions Surround Track And Field Star"

    This and the above podcast address issues of stigmatization.

  3. And this is what it comes down to thus far? Come back Caster!

    "Gender Row Runner Semenya Placed On Suicide Watch"

  4. But because men stand atop the gender hierarchy, their sex will not be questioned.

    - NO - Men's sex at an elite level is not questioned because there is no way they could be female, because a female imposter would be selected out due to lower performance at a less than elite level, as evidenced by the difference of times between male and female athletes.