Remember that Saved by the Bell episode when Kristy Barnes wanted to try out for the wrestling team and the caricature of a misogynistic coach was all, “But you’re a lady! This is a gym not a Jane! Bake us some brownies! Mwahahahahaha, I’m terrible!”? It was one of the show’s heavier moments, and not just because we got the first intimations that Zack Morris’s heterosexuality might be entirely mutable (why, for instance, is Zack just hanging around at wrestling tryouts?). That episode calmly asserted an idea that still unnerves certain of our more patriarchal athletes and military leaders: women can compete physically against men, and preventing them from doing so is stupid.
In a post for Vice’s new Fightland blog that’s sure to bring out cries of, “But, men are stronger!” from the pseudo-biologist trolls in the Facebook commenting bestiary, E. Fye recounts that time she joined her rural Indiana high school’s boys wrestling team, and, thanks to an inimical head coach who was nevertheless bound by Title IX, barely got to do any wrestling. That’s because, even at an age (13) when, thanks to puberty, she and her three fellow girl wrestlers outweighed and out-muscled their scrawnier male counterparts, their participation in a male-dominated high school sport was never anything more than a grudging acknowledgement of federal law by a vaguely misogynistic coach who was himself the product of patriarchal culture that still can’t get over its sense of propriety when it comes to the female body.
Forget differences of innate strength or weakness when it comes to men and women. Fye’s experience as a marginalized participant on a boys’ sports team — a participant nobody really wanted to wrestle with because of the lingering cultural high risk/low reward stigma that rears its head when men compete against women in any manner of coordinating gamboling — points to one of the more intransigent tenets of a patriarchal culture, namely, that women do not have the agency to decide what to do with their own bodies. Under the guise of “protecting” women from traditionally male activities (like wrestling, or, say, soldiering), men are really just limiting the ways women can participate in a game whose rules and logic have all been created with only one of the sexes in mind.
It’s very interesting to me that so many people have an objection to women fighting men in combat sports, or women in combative roles in general. And by “interesting,” I mean “completely fucking stupid.” The same logic that tacitly endorses spousal abuse is the same that is creepily preoccupied with “protecting” women. It’s the same female-as-property crap we’ve been trying to shake off since it was written into basically every religious text: “No one’s allowed to beat the crap out of my wife but me." The ones who think women should be barred from the front lines or banned from reporting from pro league locker rooms—lest something bad happen—are the same ones who seem like they’d try some fucked up shit behind closed doors.
“I would never fight a woman,” these types say. “They’re, like, sacred.”
Avoid those motherfuckers. Guaranteed creeps, all of them.
Fye’s essay illustrates the frustrations women can face trying to break into male-dominated activities, but this particular passage immediately undermines the predictable outcry from Fye’s would-be critics, that women just can’t cut it in the ring/diamond/field/arena/pitch/ with men. Such a broad assumption crumbles when taken to the case-by-case level (I have a friend, for instance, who regularly spars with and destroys male partners in her MMA gym), but it doesn’t really seem like Fye’s all that interested in proving that women are the innately stronger sex.
The argument for athletic inclusivity isn’t about whether women could beat male competitors; it’s about whether they should have the chance to do so (obviously the answer is yes). It’s about access — access to the same activities, access to the same diligent coaching, access to the same equipment, rules, and standards for evaluation. Limiting that access to a single sex is exactly the sort of thing that feeds patriarchal culture and bolsters it up on its own inbred logic of adhering to gender norms that it supposes to be innate, but that it actually made up all on its own.
I Was a Teenage Girl Wrestler in Indiana [Fightland]
Image via AP, Lisa Poole