This project has allowed me to look at Softball, a sport I’ve been playing nearly my entire life from a new perspective. People always assume that I play Baseball, or that Softball and Baseball are the same thing, they aren’t! Whenever people made comments like this it would bother me but I never truly understood where the confusion came from. Through this project, I have learned how the history of the sport along with the development of technology has contributed to the ideologies of masculinity and how equipment within the sport is a site of gender division and therefore a site where the gender binary is reinstalled in society.
The origins of Softball contribute significantly to the connotation of male superiority in sport. Softball was created in order to prevent women from participating in Baseball. By creating Softball, segregation between the sexes was allowed and encouraged. Before Softball was created in the 1890s women were discouraged from participating in Baseball because it was considered “too violent” or “too strenuous” (Ring 379). As a result of women continuing to fight to be included in the sport, Softball was created. The creation of Softball would prevent female participation in Baseball by giving them a more ladylike and safe alternative. Despite the similarities between the sport Baseball is still considered the superior, especially in terms of revenue generation (Ring 375). After Title IX was passed in 1972, the previous claims about female inability to participate in sports has been discounted due to extensive female participation in several high contact sports. In fact, on the cover of the Little League Softball rulebook there is a picture of a close play at third base with the runner sliding with no protection for her legs (Ring 385). Featuring such a highly aggressive play on the cover of the rulebook demonstrates that women are just as capable of participating in athletics as men are.
In terms of technology, the face mask on a batting helmet was made a required piece of equipment in every level up to college in 2006. I am extremely familiar with this rule as I was on my 12U All-Star Team when all of our helmets were taken to install face masks on them. As a 12 year old I was more upset about having metal bars blocking my vision then concerned about the safety hazard of having my face exposed while hitting. I continue to wear a face mask to this day, although it is not required, to protect my face both while hitting and while base running. In baseball on the other hand, a face mask is not required in and level of play. In fact, the batting helmet in higher levels becomes smaller and smaller. MLB players wear a batting helmet that has very little padding between the plastic and the players head and only has one ear flap, to cover the ear facing the pitcher. Bruce Kidd in his article “Sports and Masculinity” explains that men are able to become more “masculine” through participation and conformity to the norms of their sports however women don’t have the same opportunity (Kidd). Therefore, due to the long trend of MLB players wearing minimal protective gear, as players continue to wear similar helmets they project their masculinity or “machoness”. Women do not have the same opportunities, in fact they are subject to a catch 22 in which by not wearing a face mask they project masculinity and their sexuality can be brought into question, however if they do wear face masks they are seen as weak. Therefore equipment used in Softball to this day continues to illuminate the ideology that women need to be protected and that sports are “too violent” or dangerous for women however men are able to deal with the danger of the sport.
Throughout the course of this project, the Media Analysis blog sparked my interest in this particular topic, equipment and masculinity. The advertisement for the National Pro Fastpitch exemplifies the connection between safety and masculinity. The ad features a play on words juxtaposing the term safe at a base and safety indicating that the NPF plays so “hard” or “tough” that their safety is at risk, and is therefore worth watching. In this ad there is a softball player, who seems to be diving into a base and a glove containing the ball which looks to be in a motion of a tag. Also contained within the image is a helmet which looks to be flying in the air most likely as a result of the tag. The vulnerability of the woman diving in her lack of safety equipment protecting her face alludes to the theme that toughness and masculinity are intertwined. In Leslie Heywood’s article “Producing Girls” the difference between “can do” and “at risk” girls is discussed in a way that helps to explain the connection between toughness and masculinity. Can Do girls are women who are adapting, flexible, and active in the sports world. At risk girls on the other hand are those not involved in athletics (Heywood 104). According to the article “Producing Girls” at risk girls are named as such due to their vulnerability to drugs, alcohol, and other things that hinder success by abstaining from athletic participation. Can Do and At Risk girls are ironic in that the so called “at risk girls” are at risk by not participating in athletics, however the women participating in athletics are actually at risk for injury. This change in ideologies from the 1890s when Baseball was considered to dangerous for women to play, to 2007 when the article was written, encouraging women to participate in sport in order to avoid being at risk is extremely important. The ideologies of the Can Do and At Risk girls are not hegemonies however, these ideas about women being at risk by not participating in sport are definitely more prevalent than they were in the 1890s, however they are still a minority to the ideologies of masculinity and patriarchy. I believe that while the ideologies of Can Do and At Risk girls have good intentions of encouraging women to become involved in sports and not succumb to dominant ideologies of masculinity, ignore the risk of injury. The woman pictured in this image according to Heywood’s article is a Can Do girl, due to her involvement in sports however, she is literally at risk. Her helmet has been hit off her head exposing her to possible injury. The advertisement, in an attempt to project masculinity through toughness has demonstrated that can do girls are actually at risk, in terms of their safety. In terms of the equipment being used, the helmet the Softball player is using does not appear to have a face mask on it. This being said, the lack of a face mask on her helmet contributes to her ability to be portrayed as a tough and legitimate athlete. If her helmet had a face mask it would be subject to the ideology created by society that she is just a Softball player and that therefore the NPF is not worth supporting because it is a bunch of women using equipment that prevents them from injury. Although equipment that prevents injury seems logical, according to the hegemony of the ties between masculinity and toughness, the face mask on a batting helmet prevents Softballs ability to be a “valid” or masculine sport.
As I discussed earlier, it always has bothered me that people confuse Baseball and Softball, despite similar framework, they are very different sports. I think the video above does a good job of explaining the important differences between the sport. In addition, contrary to Softball just being an “easier” form of Baseball for women, this video demonstrates that Softball is in fact just as, if not more difficult than Baseball. Most Softball players at elite levels throw between 60 and 70 miles per hour. The MLB on the other hand has pitchers throwing over 90 miles per hour every pitch. At first glance the answer seems obvious, trying to hit a ball traveling 90 miles per hour versus 70 is absolutely more difficult. The FSN Sport Science video however shows through the experiment they conduct that a Softball pitch delivers more force than that of a Baseball pitch. The Baseball pitcher threw several pitches and the machine was able to calculate a numerical amount of force; when Jennie Finch threw her first pitch, she broke the machine. Although my argument is not what sport is better or which is more difficult, this video is significant in that it validates Softball as a legitimate sport and not just a second best to Baseball. In relation to equipment, a softball is considered an easier object to use, the piece of equipment is gendered because it is called soft and is so much larger than a baseball. These connotations of a softball lead to the false ideology the Softball is an easier and safer form of Baseball for women.
The experiment conducted in this video on a much larger scale demonstrates how prominent social constructions are in our society. A social construction is an idea or thought that is created an normalized by use in society. The ideology that Baseball is more masculine or tough than Softball has been constructed through society throughout history. The claims that Softball is more feminine and therefore safer for women to play are socially constructed and not based on scientific fact. The experiment explains that a Baseball pitch delivers less force than that of a Softball, therefore, Softball is not and should not be considered less of a sport than Baseball.
I have included a picture of a former teammate who was hit in the face by a pitch two years ago. Following that incident she installed a face mask on her helmet. I have also included a link to a MLB News Story which has a video of a MLB player getting hit in the face by a pitch. Both Baseball and Softball players are susceptible to severe face injuries. Just because Softball is an exclusively female sport does not mean that the injuries or danger is any less severe. The face mask that is mandatory in all levels of Softball with the exception of college is to prevent injury to the athlete. In my opinion the face mask should be worn by both Baseball and Softball players as both sports are dangerous and it is a good preventative measure to take in preventing face injuries. I believe that because the face mask is only mandatory in Softball it creates and furthers the connotation that Softball is a “girly” sport and that the women playing have to be protected from the dangers of athletics. If my former teammate had been wearing a face mask on her helmet, the ball wouldn’t have caused a minor bone fracture in her cheek bone. Similarly, if the MLB player had been wearing a face mask, it could have prevented the severe injuries he suffered to his face. Unfortunately for both the Baseball players who are susceptible to head injuries, and for women who are subjected to ideologies of male superiority, a man wearing a face mask on his helmet is unheard of.
Through the research I have done on this project I have found that socially constructed ideologies are ever present in our society and culture. The most hegemonic of socially constructed terms or ideologies is that of the gender binary. Gender is not a scientific term and there is no way on paper or through body parts for it to be scientifically proven (Rand 447). Because Softball was created in an effort to eliminate women from Baseball it immediately continued the ideology of a gender binary. In her article “Thinking the Unthinkable” Travers encourages the elimination of “the gendered bifurcation” that is created through sports (78). In other words, Travers also recognizes the way in which sports creates and reinforces the gender binary and therefore encourages the elimination of the socially constructed gender division. Through the socially constructed gender binary a female sport must therefore also be less aggressive, less dangerous, and less important. The equipment used in Softball, particularly the face mask over batting helmets introduced in the 20th century and made mandatory in 2006, exemplifies the gender binary created by society along with masculinity and toughness being superior.
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Heywood, Leslie “Producing Girls: Empire, Sport, and the Neoliberal Body” in Physical Culture, Power, and the Body, London: Routledge, 2007, 101-120.
Kidd, Bruce. “Sports and Masculinity” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics. 16:4 (2013) Web. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2013.785757#.Uw_ofP3VtuY
Rand, Erica. “Court and Sparkle: Kye Allums, John Weir, and Raced Problems”GLQ 19:1 (2013) 435-464
Ring, Jennifer. “America’s Baseball Underground” Journal of Sport & Social Issues. 33:4 (2009) 373-389.
Travers, Ann. “Thinking the Unthinkable: Imagining and ‘Un-American,’ Girl-friendly, Women- and Trans-Inclusive Alternative for Baseball” Journal of Sport & Social Issues. 37:1 (2013) 78-96.