Women’s Ultimate : Ideals of the Gendered Body from Different Perspectives

The game of Ultimate Frisbee originated in the late 1960’s counterculture and was created by a high school student named Joel Silverman from New Jersey. He and other interested students created a high school league, and then took the game to college with them – beginning the development of collegiate Ultimate Frisbee tournaments. During that time period the game was predominately played by white middle to upper class males, as this was the demographic that made up most of the college sphere at that time. Ultimate’s origins as a sport dominated by males continues to have a legacy in the sport in terms of dominant ideologies of women’s bodies and feminine practices that people outside of the culture tend to embrace. Hegemonic society has generally seen women in sports as masculine bodies that perform masculine characteristics, and college Ultimate is no exception. Women within the sport, however, do not see themselves as the masculine subjects they are portrayed to be. Therefore one’s position within the culture of Ultimate directly relates to their perspectives on gender and the construction of the body in college Ultimate Frisbee.

Outsiders or spectators of the sport generally view women in college Ultimate as masculine females. The first thing that an outsider of the sport would notice is the attire that these women wear. Women Ultimate players generally wear long basketball shorts that reach the knee, either a hat or a headband, and sometimes crew socks that reach the calf. This attire is generally associated in hegemonic society with that of what males wear to work out in, while females are expected to wear short shorts and tight fitted shirts that accentuate their curves. This expectation is linked to the idea of the male gaze. This male gaze is the objectification of the bodies, particularly female bodies, and makes it an item of consumption. According to Laura Mulvey, the male gaze “projects its (f)antasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey, 1975). Women who wear clothing that subvert from ideologies that result from the male gaze are thus seen as masculine. Combining the attire with the aggressiveness and competitiveness (masculine traits) that women Ultimate players generally posses, causes these women to be seen as masculine. The aggressiveness and competitiveness can be seen through women diving or “laying out” for the disc. Andrew Thornton suggests that “women who ‘lay out’ transgress essentialised gender discourses of biology and nature, and men who do it are considered exemplars of athletic prowess” (Thornton 184). “Laying out” in Ultimate is seen as a normal occurrence for men but is seen as extraordinary for women, thus suggesting that this act masculinizes a woman. These notions of masculinity assigned to women Ultimate players are constructed through hegemonic ideals of gender in society. These ideals are apparent in the perspectives of outsiders of the sport in how they view these women as portraying masculinity and subverting feminism ideals.

I was once an outsider of the sport and I was subject to the same ideas and judgments of women Ultimate players. I saw women’s Ultimate as a sport that was manly because of the attire and personalities that women Ultimate players portrayed on the field. I placed ignorant judgment on women of this sport, which does not make any sense since I come from a sport that is also highly masculinezed by hegemonic society (softball). My experience as an outsider displays the influence that hegemonic ideals of femininity has on people, even on women who have experience in playing a sport that is also masculinized by mainstream culture. It is important to note that women’s sports in general are seen as deviations from femininity. As Toni Bruce notes, “[women’s] activities are filtered through a male gaze that struggles to reconcile discourses of sport and discourses of femininity” (Bruce 133). This filter that Bruce mentions links the notion that women’s participation in sports generally comes with what is seen as deviation from femininity. It is not just Ultimate Frisbee, but its lack of popularity in mainstream culture makes this sport more unknown and therefore easier for outsiders of the sport to pass judgments on.

Men who play Ultimate see women’s Ultimate as inferior to men’s Ultimate and display this through their discursive criticism of women’s Ultimate. This has to do with historical sport-related policies, according to Patricia Vertinsky, because these policies “have codified historical myths about female physical inferiority, fostering a system which, while offering women more opportunities than ever before, has kept them from being perceived as equal athletes to men” (Vertinsky 26). This view of women being less capable then men in athletics is portrayed in a study and analysis that Hamish Crocket completed. He observed a men’s Ultimate team for a year and discusses the discursive construction of masculinity by the denigration of women Ultimate players. He says that the men that he analyzed believed that “being male was seen as a prerequisite for [good Ultimate] skills” (Crocket 324). These men repeatedly used terms to refer to bad playing as feminine traits and traits that women Ultimate players possess. This shows that men in Ultimate view women’s Ultimate as lesser to men’s Ultimate. Their criticisms to each other that compares them to women players is suppose to motivate them to not “play down” to the level of women. It is hard for women to overcome these beliefs because according to Bruce, “discourses of sport and masculinity combine to form an articulation” that is “extremely hard to disrupt” (Bruce 129). Discourses about the inferiority of women that have been apparent in hegemonic society for hundreds of years remain an influence of the idea of women’s inferiority today as seen in the discourses of men Ultimate players.

In my experience with playing with men Ultimate players in mixed pick up games, I have heard them make remarks that regard women as inferior in the sport. When the people on my team would be talking before the pull (the beginning throw that begins a point) about a play we wanted to construct, the guys would joke that the girls can “sit this one out” and basically get out of the way so that we “don’t screw up our chances of getting the point.” Although these remarks were suppose to be a joke to get a reaction out of us girls so that we would argue with the guys, there is generally some truth to a joke that can reflect the teller’s beliefs. The men would exclude the girls in strategic plays to “enhance” their chances of scoring. Even when women would be included in a play, it was simply because the guys believed that the other team would not see it coming. They would also jokingly remark that the girls were “too fragile” as they held up one of the girl’s thin arms as a display of fragility compared to their much larger arms. These jokes reflect some truth to the men players’ beliefs about women inferiority to the sport and women’s bodies as not being adequate enough to be successful in Ultimate.

Women who play college Ultimate do not have the same perceptions of femininity and their bodies as outsiders of the sport or men’s Ultimate players have of them. Joanna Winn Nevelle suggests that college women Ultimate players “manipulate and negotiate ‘masculine’ identity practices, making them their own and thereby creating a distinct space” (Nevelle 6). Women in college Ultimate do not necessarily see themselves as masculine beings. That stereotype is appropriated to women Ultimate players by other people. Women’s Ultimate is comprised of competitive play that displays the athletic drive of these women. Competitiveness is a masculine characteristic, but performing competitiveness does not make one masculine. Playing Ultimate requires taking on what are constructed as masculine characteristics (competitiveness and aggressiveness), however performing these characteristics do not make women Ultimate players feel manly and they still see themselves as feminine beings. These traits have been associated with men because of our nation’s history as a patriarchal society in which these positive traits were associated with men as guides to success or dominance in the workplace – not reflective of what a man is, but maybe what hegemonic society expects men to be. These hegemonic traits that our patriarchal society expects women to stray away from can be explained by Messner’s description of soft essentialism as the idea that women have tendencies that men “naturally” have (i.e. competing in intense and aggressive sports), while also having to reassure their femininity (Messner 161). Hegemonic society wants women to reassure their femininity in sports, but women in Ultimate do not feel the need to because they do not feel as masculine as other people see them to be.

As an Ultimate player myself, I personally do not feel hyper-masculine as I believed I would feel when I was an outsider of the sport. Ultimate is not a highly masculine sport to begin with, in comparison to sports like football and wrestling. There are many types of bodies that I have noticed in this sport, and women Ultimate players tend to not care about what other people think of their own bodies. When a team has to change the color of their jerseys for a game, I have yet to come across a woman who was reluctant to take her shirt of in front of people. Everyone that I have come across, with varying body types, yanks their shirts off in public while changing into their other jersey without appearing to look as if they are self-conscious. Displaying “feminine” bodies that are on the slimmer side is not a priority of a women’s Ultimate player. The priority is playing the game to her best ability, and not thinking about the perceptions that others might have of her.

There are dominant ideologies that were created by our patriarchal society that have been prevalent for hundreds of years that allow outsiders to view women in this sport as masculine and men Ultimate players to see women players as inferior to themselves. The women in this sport, however, have constructed their own identity and ideas of masculinity and body image but people that are not women Ultimate players see differently. Discourses of masculinity are apparent in most if not all female sports and have deemed female athletes as masculine figures in the mainstream media. However, it is dependent on one’s position relative to the sport that shapes their perspectives and perceptions of gender binary, as well as what degree of importance body image has in relation to hegemonic body ideals.

Works Cited
Bruce, T. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Women and Femininities.” Communication and Sport 1.1-2 (2013): 125-37. Print.

Crocket, H. “‘This Is Men’s Ultimate’: (Re)creating Multiple Masculinities in
Elite Open Ultimate Frisbee.” International Review for the Sociology of
Sport 48.3 (2013): 318-33. Print.

Messner, M. (2011). Gender ideologies, youth sports, and the production of soft essentialism. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28, 151–170.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.
Neville, Joanna W. OUT OF BOUNDS: COLLEGE WOMEN’S ULTIMATE FRISBEE AND THE PRACTICE OF GENDERED IDENTITIES. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

Thornton, Andrew. 2004. “‘Anyone Can Play This Game’: Ultimate Frisbee,
Identity and Difference.” Pp. 175-196 in Understanding Lifestyle Sports:
Consumption Identity and Difference, edited by Belinda Wheaton. London:
Routledge.

Vertinsky, Patricia. “‘Skierinas’ in the Olympics: Gender Justice and Gender Politics at the Local, National, and International Level over the Challenge of Women’s Ski Jumping” Olympika 2009, 25-56.

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