Why is it called Softball?

The obvious difference between a baseball and softball is the size of the ball. But why is it that the ball is called soft when that is not even close to the case? Does the ball derive it’s name from the cultural and gender politics that differentiate men and women?  Or is it something that came to be because of a physical aspect of the object? It just so happens that the name softball comes from the looser winding of the actual ball when being made as compared to abaseball. Due to the influence of society on the distinctions between male and female sports, it’s quite easy for people to assume the name softball came about in contrast to baseball. It’s considered the girl’s version of baseball and thus seen as not as authentic. Through these ideas the softball itself has come to embody the stereotypes of male and female gender and sexuality.

Masculinity and femininity are terms that can’t be defined withoutreferencing the other. Since male and female are opposite sides to the same coin, by definition, if one is a “harder” sport to play, then by default, the other is “softer”, and this can be seen distinctly when you see baseball, a men’s sport, being referenced to as hardball and softball, a women’s sport, being called soft. Women are considered soft, and that may come to be in direct comparison to the male ability to get “hard” or have an erection. This ability is something very exclusively male and by using the terms hard and soft, one without consciously being aware, is bringing in gender into the conversation. It’s extremely emasculating to a man if he can’t perform sexually and remains soft, and this specific act has come to embody what it means to be male. By choosing to call these sports hardball and softball, we cannot ignore the fact that gender in relation to who plays these sports influences how we view them.

In our society today, the hegemonic views of gender are very concrete. Our ideas surrounding femininity encompasses “highlighting physical and emotional characteristics that mark women as different from men (such as small stature, concern for others, physical or emotional fragility, or weakness.” (Bruce, 129) while masculinity is promoted as being strong, tough, and aggressive. Applying these ideologies to these two sports, one can come see how women sports aren’t taken as seriously because, stereotypically females lack that intensity so often embraced and promoted in sports. With this in mind, the idea of coercive sex segregation is very prominent. This term says that “society doesn’t reflect actual sex differences in athletic ability, but instead constructs and enforces the false premise that males are inherently athletically superior to females” (Vertinsky, Jette, and Hofman, 26) It’s very easy to see softball as somehow less than baseball because of this very fact. This one detail is what people get hung up on and through things like mediasport, becomes naturalized. 

“Mediasport valorizes elite, able-bodied, heterosexual, and professional sportsmen, especially those who bring glory to the nation. Simultaneously it excludes, marginalizes, or trivializes athletes who do not fall into this narrow realm, such as sportswomen, veterans, amateurs, children and sports unaligned to nationalism. Through its narratives and images, mediasport reinforces and amplifies the historical connection of sport to men and masculinity” (Bruce, 128) 

By putting women in the same category as veterans and children, it adds to the idea that women are less capable athletically then men. Our society associates children and older people as being less abled than the “typical” person and thus this influences how people view women athletes. 

Media also reproduces this image of softball by publicizing only the softball players that meet the criteria for what the ideal woman should look like. National Pro Fastpitch showed a picture of Jennie Finch on their ad to promote softball and she’s in a very welcoming and non threatening body position. Also, she just happens to be that blonde hair, fit girl that is generally promoted as the American ideal. Contrast this to images of male athletes who are always shown being powerful, intense, and aggressive, such as the Under Armor ad where there is a very muscular man in focus, bulging his muscles and yelling. These ads contribute in reproducing our ideas of masculinity and femininity. It’s ironic how Jennie Finch, one of the best and well known softball players, is used solely as eye candy to promote her sport. She doesn’t show the intense side of the game but just sits and smiles on top of a pile of softballs. One wouldn’t even know it was really a softball ad except for the fact she’s on a field and is surrounded by softballs. Contrast this to the Under Armor ad, where the man in the ad is actually a model but is being portrayed as an ideal athlete. This man is chosen because he represents our social ideas of what an ideal male athlete looks like. By comparing the two ads, one can see how gender and sexuality is being socially constructed and promoted to the general public. They are reinforcing the ideas we have around how we are to view not only men and women but men and women within sports.

These ideas surrounding female athletes and sports have become the hegemonic norm, and topics such as where the name softball originated from has gotten obscured and/or forgotten. Softball got it’s name because of it’s looser wrapping than a baseball thus making “the density of softballs less than that of a hardball (baseball).” (Ho-Song)


The name has nothing to do with which gender plays the sport or the comparison between them. But because softball, is often considered the “girl’s version of baseball” (iSport) no one really knows this fact and it’s become assumed that the name came to be derived from the direct relation of being baseball for girls. 

In terms of sexuality, it’s interesting that when you remove the comparison between baseball and softball, softball becomes a highly masculine sport, assumed to have a large number of lesbian players. Why is it that in comparison to baseball, softball is seen as a lesser sport, but within the world of female sports, the stereotypes surrounding softball are highly masculine? 

The idea within softball is if one plays this sport, then they must be gay or at least assumedly. The reason for this might be because softball itself  “requires speed, strength, and endurance” which are traits typically associated with being masculine. Also, it may be because to play sports, “[young women] must learn to embody the ‘‘masculine’’ language and values of that arena – self-control, determination, cool, emotional discipline, mastery, and so on’.” (Carlson, 80) Because the games are so similar (men and women do exactly the same movements and develop the same skills) the connection that women are thus lesbian is an easy one to make. This is highly recognizable because a woman who portrays the slightest bit of masculinity, is in turn contrasting femininity and the socially acceptable ideas of what a woman does. People don’t know how to think outside of the hegemonic box developed by society and thus players get stereotyped as being butch and lesbian.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, due to his diagnosis with testicular cancer, he had to have a testicle removed and this threatened his masculinity. “They found that the loss of a testicle was interpreted as a challenge to masculinity; the anatomical structure served as an important marker of identity” (Casper and Moore, 161) This part of the anatomy is a mark of a man’s sexuality and with this being said, the aspects such as male genitalia and the functions they can do with that in contrast to females, is a highly important marker of what makes a man a man. Loosing a testicle, like staying soft, puts the man in a situation where they don’t fit into the socially acceptable constraints of manliness and by default feel emasculated or somehow feminized. This is similar to the stereotypes within softball because the visual and physical indication of what is masculine and feminine is what determines how society perceives someone. Lance having a testicle removed somehow made in more feminine because physically he was “less than the average man” and girls playing softball are seen as more masculine because of their intensity and performance of the same basic skills as baseball players.

Women are considered soft for other reason too. Being the opposite of hard, and femininity being the opposite of masculinity, anything considered masculine by default, cannot be considered feminine. A man is supposed to be powerful and strong and by contrast, it leaves a woman to be powerless and weak. You can see this in the sport of figure skating. When Johnny Weir demonstrates a more graceful and “flamboyant” style of figure skating, he is automatically coined as gay despite what his sexual orientation might be. (Rand, 446) Weir’s gracefulness in skating doesn’t represent the power and intense aspects associated with the male version of his sport, and thus it makes him stand out. As Russian male figure skater Evengi Plushenko said, “Without a quad, it’s women’s skating” (Rand, 446) Plushenko is referring to the very technically hard and powerful quad jump which most women can’t do due to the immense power it takes to perform the trick. Weir by contrast, has a style of skating that is typically that of what one would see performed by a female. Weir challenges the hegemonic norm of what we expect to see when we watch a male figure skater perform and so our way to cope with it is to question his sexuality. This is like the softball where one aspect of a sport comes to represent the cultural ideas we have of gender and sexuality and who’s allowed to perform them.

Also, like softball being considered a lesbian sport, cheerleading is considered a girl’s sport, which subjects men into stereotypical ideas of being gay or girly. There is a constant struggle for male cheerleaders between being in a highly feminized sport and holding on to their masculinity. An example of this is smiling. A cheerleader form the State Squad said “much of the time putting on a smile is like putting on makeup.” (Grindstaff and West, 157) Her comparison of smiling and makeup further emphasizes how emasculated a male cheerleader might feel participating in this sport. Makeup is traditionally a woman’s thing and in this comparison, asking a male cheerleader to smile is equivalent to asking them to apply makeup. To make up for this loss of masculinity, male cheerleaders participating in these actions display toughness and lack of emotions, which is considered by society as having a hard shell. By contrast, being supportive and emotional makes one a softie and are considered girly traits. “Studies that have tried to posit a more fundamental distinction between femininity and masculinity have often drawn on women’s roles as mothers and caretakers” (Carlson, 4) Being a spirit leader puts these men into a more encouraging and care taking role which contrasts the socially acceptable idea of masculinity. However, to counteract this aspect, the guys perform their masculinity. Even though like the girls, they’re there for encouragement and spirit, they aren’t forced to smile and use their brute force to throw the girls in the air. Also, their size in comparison to the female cheerleaders is drastic and further reinforce the stereotypes and societal assumptions of what a man and woman look like. 

This is just like the case of Caster Semenya in that “suspicions [surrounding her gender] emerged because of Semenya’s, muscular physique.” (Cooky, Dykus, Dworkin, 40). This aspect in coordination with her exceptional performances in track and field, made questions about her gender spread like wildfire. “Media articles framed the suspicions as emerging because of her fast times in the World Championship (i.e., she’s too fast to be a ‘real’ woman) or to her fast improvement over the brief course of her running career.” (Cooky, Dykus, Dworkin, 39) These aspects of Semenya seemed too masculine or too unbelievable for a woman and so her gender was questioned. The hegemonic ideas of femininity and masculinity come into play because even though Semenya was participating as a woman, her physical appearance and performance was being seen as masculine and because of the association of high performance or a muscular build with being a man, it led the public to automatically challenge the authenticity of Caster Semenya’s records and herself as a woman. These assumptions we have about male athletics overruled the fact that she was in fact a woman and that maybe it was possible for a woman to have success and excel at something.

Caster Semenya’s case is exactly like how softball being a girl’s sport, is seen as less than baseball. In both situations, the ideas behind masculinity and femininity determine how we perceive something. Even though Semenya’s gender contradicts her excellent performance in our society’s view, it should’t make her any less of a woman. The same goes for softball, just because in comparison to baseball and the term soft is in the name, doesn’t mean we should degrade the sport in any way, especially by thinking it’s not as intense a sport. In the video clip by Fox Sport Network, they prove that softball is indeed harder to hit than a baseball as well as having more force upon impact. They state that it takes “.395 secs to react to a baseball and only .350 secs to react to a softball” (FSN) Also, the softball when pitched against the force plate shattered the plate in comparison to the baseball which came in with a force reading of 2411 lbs of force.  It’s the long standing established view of what’s masculine and feminine that are the problem. We feel like we need to categorize and separate everything mad so when we come across something that doesn’t quite fit into the categories, we freak out and project that insecurity onto whatever person or thing that makes us uncomfortable.

All in all the softball is a great representation of the hegemonic ideas of sexuality and gender. When looking at baseball and softball through the lens of the hard and softball, we can see the clear division of gender. Hard relating to the man’s ability to get an erection, and soft a woman’s lack of a phallus. When we analyze the name, it comes to represent the ideology of women as being “soft” and non aggressive, which makes them seem less athletic than men. This idea gets put on all different aspects within sports, such as softball, figure skating, and cheerleading. Also, this takes away from the physical aspect which gets ignored completely in relation to the name and we solely focus on the cultural definition of it.


Works Cited

Bruce, Toni. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Women and femininities.” Communication and Sport. (2013): n. page. Web. 7 Mar. 2014. <https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/communication-sport-2013-bruce-125-37.pdf>

Vertinsky, Patricia, Shannon Jette, and Annette Hofman . “Gender Justice and Gender Politics at the Local, National, and International Level over the Challenge of Women’s Ski Jumping.” ‘Skierinas’ in the Olympics. n. page. Print. <https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/vertinsky-skierinas.pdf>.

Ho-Song, Chul-Ho . “Gameball.” Google Patents. Grant US4880233 A, 14 Nov 1989. Web. 7 Mar 2014. <http://www.google.com/patents/US4880233>.

iSport, iSport:Softball. iSport. Web. 4 Mar 2014. <http://softball.isport.com/softball-guides/the-difference-between-baseball-softball>.

Carlson, Jennifer. “Subjects of stalled revolution: A theoretical consideration of contemporary American femininity.” Feminist Theory. (2011): n. page. Print. <http://fty.sagepub.com/content/12/1/75

Casper, Monica J., and Lisa Jean Moore. “It Takes Balls: Lance Armstrong and the Triumph of American Masculinity.” Politics of Visibility. (2009): n. page. Print. <https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/casper-moore-it-takes-balls.pdf>. 

Rand, Eric. “Kye Allums, Johnny Weir, and Raced Problems in Gender Authenticity.” Court and Sparkle. n. page. Print. <https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/rand-court-and-space.pdf>.

Grindstaff, Laura, and Emily West. “”Hands on Hips, Smiles on Lips!” Gender, Race, and the Performance of SPirit in Cheerleading.” Text and Performance Quarterly. (2010): n. page. Print. <https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/grindstaff-hands-on-hips.pdf>.

Cooky, Cheryl, Ranissa Dycus, and Shari L. Dworkin. “”What Makes a Woman a Woman?” Versus “OurFirst Lady of Sport”: A Comparative Analysis of the United States and the South African Media Coverage of Caster Semenya.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues. (2012): n. page. Print. < https://sportcultures.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/journal-of-sport-and-social-issues-2013-cooky-31-56.pdf>.

KFlick, . “Why do lesbians like softball so much?.” http://www.midleap.com. MidLeap. Web. 7 Mar 2014. <http://www.midleap.com/2010/04/lesbiansoftball/>.

 Price, Cathy. “What’s so soft about a softball?.” http://www.davisenterprise.com. The Davis Enterprise, 07 Apr 2011. Web. 7 Mar 2014. <http://www.davisenterprise.com/sports/whats-so-soft-about-a-softball/>.

 FSN Sport Science-Episode 7- Myths- Jennie Finch

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2 Responses to Why is it called Softball?

  1. sfgiants24 says:

    feedback please!

  2. Sarah McCullough says:

    Good argument, and nice job demonstrating the strong link between gender and sexuality, both at the level of more obvious social productions and on more subliminal levels, including material objects. It is also worth pointing out how this is clearly related to notions of heteronormativity. You draw upon an impressive array of sources, and have enough here to develop the ideas even further if you wished. Both you and Stephanie make good connections to the “weakness” of women and the denigration of women as a way of holding up male athleticism. The projects are very complementary in that you explore different aspects of this dynamic. But I’m sure you know that from the group work! Great job!

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