I’m standing in the chevron at the 2013 Bates Carnival. Nervous, I kick my skis against the ground in the tracks, shaking my legs and stretching forward, as if it’ll earn me the farthest millimeter in my lunge for the finish. My competitors line up around me, the snow starts falling, our breath rushes into the gentle flakes. The music in the stadium has slowed, the air thickens with anticipation. And then the silence is broken.
“We’ve had great racing from the men this weekend,” the announcer bellows, “and you can expect the same in the girl’s race. Girl’s 15K two minutes to start!”
“Girls?” a confused racer exclaims. I smile.
“Excuse me,” the announcer corrects himself, tilting his head with an embarrassed smile, “The ladies 15k.” His response did not please me.
“We are women!” I yell simultaneously with the gun. It didn’t matter, the race was off.
If you’ve taken a look at FIS results sheets recently, you’ll notice that while men race in the afternoon, they are always preceded by a field of ladies. The same is not true in the NCAA or most junior races, but it is with respect to many sports: figures skating, gymnastics, ski jumping, speed skating, short track, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and cycling. In Sochi, while ladies participated in cross-country skiing and speed skating, women participated in downhill skiing and bobsled.
The development of normative female participation in sport began in the Victorian period, which explains the lexicon in the early 1900s, but we’ve made it to 2014, and few athletic institutions have abandoned the tradition. It’s a tiny detail, for sure, but the designation of female athletes as ladies, and male athletes as men, signifies a need to delineate the two into societal categories.
“Language both expresses and reinforces society attitudes and values” writes AJ Meier in a journal article for the American Dialect Society (56). Meier performed a survey in order to study the ways in which Americans distinguish between the use of different female monikers (i.e. lady, woman, female, ect.). The study concluded that the use of the word lady varies in understanding from age to age: a euphemism to the older test subjects, and “classist, condescending, trivializing, anachronistic, and oppressive” to the younger (Meier, 62).
Essentially, the study proved that the use of the world lady has grown obsolete, particularly when referring to women of high social, occupational or economic status. The only time the use of the term lady was preferred in overwhelming numbers was when referring to a cleaning lady, a trend Meier later connected with the occupation being “ascribed a low societal status” (67). Lady, it seems, is a term congruent with the delicate, proper values of yesterday, not the changed, high-powered female image of today.
“Tradition often juts its chiseled chin at such change,” writes Kim Ode, author of Hey Lady…You’ll have to Leave Now, an article for the journal of Women and Language (67). She writes on the gradual shift in high school and college athletics from the Lady namesake, as Lady Tigers, Lady Miners and even Lady Popes have abandoned the label. She concedes that while the term Lady does carry “connotations of submissiveness and idleness,” the term itself is not truly the problem but rather its contrast with how we label male athletes.
Imagine a gentlemen’s soccer game. Or a gentlemen’s ski race. Better, yet, a boys’ Superbowl. Eileen Kennedy studied the gendered narrative of televised sport and devised a theory for why the terms for male athletes are more masculinized than for females. She compares the depiction of male athletes within the context of the hero narrative, while that of sportswomen resembles something more akin to a “fairytale” (63). Male athletes are depicted as strong, reactive characters while female athletes have their stories told from when they were children, including interviews with parents, friends and loved ones as if to depict a Cinderella development to the perfect ending.
An important element of the hero narrative, Kennedy says, is the female presence: “The encouragement by female support is part of the justification for the hero’s determination to win, a theme referencing the role of the lady for the knight going into battle” (65). So, perhaps, the ladies of sport are deemed so as counterparts to the men amongst them. Perhaps, at the time that women were allowed to compete in the same sports as men, it seemed second nature to create for them the image of the lady to the knight.
Notice the language use and storytelling in this NBC Olympic preview. The tales about the women are more detailed and chronological, while the men’s more precise and glory-oriented:
Though connected to tradition, the use of the term ladies paralleled to the men of the same sport has grown to be antiquated. It delineates the two, implying that they belong in separate classes of athleticism, which does not coincide with modern societal attitudes toward male and female athletes.
As for me, I’d be happy to leave the lady in the dust. I prefer to be the knight.
Disclaimer: I write these particular entries as part of my academic study in American sports culture. Such a study requires me to be both analytical and critical. If you disagree with what I write, please, 1) finish reading, 2) decide why you disagree, and 3) post a comment! Start a conversation! I want to learn from you and hope that you learn from me. Also, I tried not to make the writing over-academic…but, you know, college. Let me know if you have any questions, if I can, I’ll give you my most expert non-expert answer.
Kennedy, Eileen. Bad Boys and Gentlemen: Gendered Narrative in Televised Sport. International Review for the Society of Sport. Volume 35. Issue 59. SAGE Publications. 2000.
Meier, A.J. When is a Woman a Lady? A Change in Progress? American Speech: American Dialect Society. Volume 74. Number 1. Duke University Press. 1999.
Ode, Kim. Hey Lady…You’ll Have to Leave Now. Women and Language. Volume 22. Issue 2. Proquest. 1999.