Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, andableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

Campbell connects more directly to Haraway’s cyborgs when she opens a discussion of biotechnology and disabled bodies:

The fortunes of techno-science continue to disrupt the fixity of defining disability and normalcy especially within the arenas of law and bioethics. Whilst anomalous bodies are undecidable in being open to endless and differing interpretations, an essentialised disabled body is subjected to constant deferral – standing in reserve, awaiting and escaping able(edness) through morphing technologies and as such exists in an ontologically tentative or provisional state.

Anomalous and disabled bodies are both unsettling to the able-bodied, therefore, because they implicitly lay open to question our assumptions about essential definitions of embodied humanity. Throw technology into the mix and the questions become even more explicit. What is human? What does human mean? And where is the line between organic human and machine – if there even is one? Haraway’s position is, of course, that there is no meaningful line, and that we are all, in some sense, cyborgs — that the relationship between the organic and the machine is so complex that it is no longer sensible to attempt to untangle it. And thanks to advances in prostheses and other biotechnologies, the boundary between “disabled” and “augmented” is becoming increasingly problematic, despite the essentializing power that the label of “disabled” contains.

In order to introduce my students to the ideas behind the relationship of different kinds of organic bodies to different kinds of technology, and how we culturally process those embodied relationships, I invited them to consider the cases of two amputee athletes, Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius.

Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

After the images of Mullins and Pistorius, I also showed my students this image of speed skater Apollo Ohno. Like the images of Mullins and Pistorius, Ohno’s body is explicitly being presented here as an attractive object. By most standards, Ohno is as able-bodied as one can get. But as I pointed out to my students, he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human”. Who would look at him and doubt it? And if Mullins and Pistorius are perhaps not as close to that ideal, they at least fall into line with it, by virtue of the fact that they don’t explicitly question its legitimacy as an ideal – unless they seek to transcend it.

My point, in short, is this: we are uncomfortable with disabled bodies that question or trouble our accepted, hierarchical categories of abled and disabled, of human and non-human, of organic and machine. We are far more comfortable with them when they perform in such a way that they reinforce the supremacy of those categories. They become acceptable to us.

Sarah Wanenchak is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on contentious politics and communications technology in a global context. She has also worked on the place of culture in combat and warfare, including the role of video games in modern war and meaning-making. She is an occasional blogger at Cyborgology.

This U.K. commercial for Hovis brand bread takes world champion, four-time Olympic medalist, Victoria Pendleton… and turns her into a woman on a diet.

It begins with an image of her on a bicycle overlaid with her voice discussing the “focus, discipline, [and] determination” she needs to race well… and ends with her in the kitchen talking about how she needs to “stop snacking” and stay slim be cause she “wear[s] lycra for a living.”

Thanks to Rowan T. for the submission!

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Society Pages editor and sociologist Doug Hartmann offers an explanation for why we love football in this one-minute clip:

The interview was filmed for a documentary about fan loyalty to the Minnesota Vikings during a losing season (Hartmann swears that he didn’t really mean it about the relative persistence of wives and religion):

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011. Originally cross-posted at Ms.


The New York Times has a fascinating 3-minute video on “roster management”, sent in by Emma M.H.  The term refers to manipulating Title IX rules in order to appear like you’re following them when you’re not.  Title IX is an amendment to the U.S. Civil Rights Act that requires that all schools allocate their resources to men and women in proportion to their interest and enrollment.  It is most famous for what it required of college athletics, and this is what this story is about.

As the article explains, schools demonstrate compliance with Title IX:

…by showing that the number of female athletes is in proportion to overall female enrollment, by demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women, or by proving that they are meeting the athletic interests and abilities of their female students.

Once implemented, women responded enthusiastically to the new opportunities.  But spectators and donors are less interested in women’s sports, it turns out.  And so colleges have found various ways to resist Title IX rules, including simple non-compliance.

In this case, the strategy is  to put men on women’s teams and then report them as female athletes.

Case in point: This is Cornell’s women’s fencing team:

It turns out, 15 of the 34 team members are men:

The men don’t actually compete, they are simply “practice players” (helping the women improve due to their greater speed and strength, says the coach).

The basketball team has a similar strategy.  A number of males practice with the team and then are reported to the authorities as female players.

Revealing that this is an attempt to manipulate Title IX rules and not a simple weird way of accounting for athletes, the five female coxswain’s on the men’s rowing team is reported not as male, but as female.

So there you have it.  Despite Title IX, these schools are finding ways to continue to spend a disproportionate amount of money on male athletes.  According to the Department of Education, this is well within the law.

Other sneaky moves documented in the article:

Quinnipiac University in Connecticut had violated Title IX by engaging in several questionable practices, including requiring that women cross-country runners join the indoor and outdoor track teams so they could be counted three times. The judge found earlier that Quinnipiac had been padding women’s rosters by counting players, then cutting them a few weeks later.

At the University of South Florida, more than half of the 71 women on the cross-country roster failed to run a race in 2009. Asked about it, a few laughed and said they did not know they were on the team.

Sarah Till, who graduated from South Florida in 2009, was a more extreme case. She said that she quit and returned her track scholarship in her sophomore year, but her name was listed on the rosters of all three squads through her junior year.

The University of California, Irvine, is among at least five California universities that sponsor women’s indoor track teams despite a mild climate and a dearth of indoor facilities. Those universities do not offer men’s indoor track.

Last year, an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights concluded that Irvine was not complying with Title IX because its indoor track team was essentially a ruse. It competed in just one meet per year and several women on the roster “vigorously stated” that they were not on the team.

Read the article and watch the video here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

With the college football championship games coming up, Dmitriy T.M. thought it was a good time to highlight the NCAA’s database that provides detailed information on graduation rates of college athletes. For each school, you can select particular sports and years. I decided to look up graduation rates for 2010-2011 at the two schools I attended: University of Oklahoma (undergrad) and University of Wisconsin-Madison (grad school).

The database reports two numbers. The Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) reports numbers for individuals who were first-time college students when they enrolled at the institution (that is, no transfer students are included, and students who transfer count negatively in the rate for their initial school, the equivalent of a drop-out); the FGR indicates how many students graduated from their initial institution within 6 years. The Graduation Success Rate (GSR) takes into account transfer students; as long as they’re in good academic standing when they transfer, they aren’t counted against the initial school’s graduation rate.

So how are student athletes doing? According to the NCAA’s analysis, if we look at the  more restrictive FGR for students who began college in 2004, student athletes actually have higher graduation rates in general, especially for African Americans:

If we switch to looking at the GSR (which, again, drops transfers from the data for the initial school, rather than counting them as non-graduates), for students who began college in 2003 and 2004, overall graduation was pretty high (79 and 82 percent), but we see pretty wide disparities. White student athletes were significantly more likely to graduate than African Americans, and for both races, women were more likely to graduate than men:

Graduation rates also vary by sport. Here are the averages for male athletes who enrolled between 2000 and 2003; we see basketball and football at the lower end, while lacrosse graduated 88% of its players from that period (the two football #s refer to the different divisions):

Female athletes from the same cohorts; the only sport where they didn’t have (usually significantly) higher graduation rates than men playing the same sport is rifle:

Ten-year trends for men in Division I schools in the “big three” sports:

There’s lots more detailed info available if you click the “Trends in Graduation Success Rates and Federal Graduation Rates at NCAA Division I Institutions” link at the top of the website; you can also get reports for particular schools broken down by sport, race/ethnicity, sex, etc.

We often think of athletic ability as innate, something people are born with.  In fact, athletic performance is a combination of (at the very least) ability and opportunity.

Case in point: the marathon.

The first Olympic marathon occurred in 1896. A Grecian named Spyridon Louis won that race with a speed of two hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds. Women were excluded from formal competition until 1972. Once they were allowed to compete, their time dropped to an equivalent two and a half hours in just five years (source).

Today the men’s record is faster than the women’s record, but by less than 10 minutes… a much smaller difference than the one hour difference that we saw when women were first allowed to compete.  The rate at which they’ve been catching up with men has slowed though. Still, who knows how fast they’d be running if they hadn’t been excluded from competing for the 64 years between 1908 and 1972.  In any case, the quickening of both men’s and women’s times over the years shows just how contingent athletic performance can be.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Ms.

According to a BBC News story sent in by Leiana S. and Kinesiology professor Mary Louise Adams, the International Boxing Association may soon require female boxers to wear skirts.  The President of the Association, Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu, argues that it will allow viewers to tell the difference between the men and the women who currently wear the same uniforms, including headgear.  Right now the skirt is an optional variation on the official uniform but, Dr. Wu says, “After we hear about its comfort and how easy it is to compete in the uniform, it may be compulsory.”

At the European Championships in Rotterdam last week, female boxers from Poland and Romania adopted the new uniform.  A coach of the Poland team said: “By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression.”

This might be an example of officials assuming that (1) men are the main audience for boxing and that (2) men will watch women’s boxing more if they differentiate/sexualize women.

It might also, however, be an example of an attempt to retrench difference between men and women exactly when those differences start to dissolve.  Discomfort with the lack of actual differences between men and women sometimes leads individuals to encourage or enforce artificial ones.  I would say that this is one of the main functions of clothes today. Yeah, I said it. I think exaggerating what are actually rather weak and strongly overlapping differences between men and women is one of the primary functions of clothes.

In any case, it’s probably a combination of both.

Earlier this year they tried this with Badminton, but it didn’t take.

The idea that female athletes aren’t sufficiently feminine has been around as long as sports have been around.  Today, the feminizing of athletes is ubiquitous.  See our posts on Serena Williams’s ESPN cover, Candace Parker “is pretty, which helps,” press photos of female athletes in dressesgroundbreaking female sailor is also prettysexualizing female Olympic athletesdiets of championsmedia portrayals of female athletes, and valuing dads in the WNBA.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Today cheerleading can be an incredibly athletic and risky sport. Because it is associated with women, though, and serves a sideline function for football and other male-dominated sports, cheerleading is often not considered a sport at all. Less than half of U.S. high school athletic associations define high school cheerleading as a sport and neither the U.S. Education Department or the National Collegiate Athletic Association categorize it as one.

Instead, cheerleading is frequently labeled an “activity,” akin to the chess club.  Accordingly, cheerleading remains unregulated by organizations responsible for ensuring the safety of athletes, leading to rates of injury among cheerleaders higher than even those among American football players.

A similar logic appears to be at play regarding the Lingerie Football League, 12 teams of women that play live tackle football in underwear.  Here are some highlights from a game:

So, here’s the thing.    Last month 16 of the 26 players on the Triumph, a team in Toronto, resigned over safety concerns. From a story at the Toronto Star sent in by Emily M.:

…four players described the ill-fitting hockey helmets and one-size-fits-all shoulder pads designed for young males that they had to wear.

“We would have headaches during practice… They made a hockey helmet a football helmet, and that’s not what it’s for.”

Sprained ankles, concussions and pulled hamstrings were among the injuries sustained by Triumph players in their first game… their team had no medical staff.

One of the players reported that, when they brought their concerns to the coach, he shrugged and said: “You know, it is what it is.”

“You know, it is what it is.”  In other words, “You’re women in underwear. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not really playing football.”  Ideology triumphing over reality.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.