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Title:From masculine myths to girl power realities: the athletic female body and the legend of Title IX
Author(s):Geissler, Dorie
Director of Research:Cole, Cheryl L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Cole, Cheryl L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Chodzko-Zajko, Wojtek; Orlie, Melissa; Syndor, Synthia; Treichler, Paula A.
Department / Program:Kinesiology & Community Health
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):female athletes
women athletes
Title IX
cultural studies
girl power
women's studies
Abstract:The last 40 years have brought dramatic changes to America’s female sporting landscape. During this time, the athletic female body, once feared and considered deviant, has emerged as a nationally celebrated and highly commodified popular icon. According to popular narratives, this change in cultural perceptions can easily be explained as the “natural” outgrowth of the second-wave feminist movement, the fitness boom, and more specifically, America’s commitment to gender equality via Title IX. However, as Foucauldian-informed feminist studies of the body have repeatedly shown, popular modes of representing bodies (like the female athlete) are, despite their “objective” appearance, historically contingent. Drawing from this theoretical and methodological assumption, my study is shaped by a desire to “write against” popular narratives, particularly the now legendary status of Title IX within the national archive, by drawing attention to the historical specificity of modern representations of athletic female body. Through the methods of conjunctural analysis I illustrate how, through a series of discursive negotiations, popular cultural fears about the physical and psychological dangers of female sport participation, have given way to “common knowledge” of female physicality as a healthy and empowering practice. Consequently, this study explores how these commonsense definitions of the athletic female body have functioned to delimit the acceptable boundaries of female athleticism, define women’s sport history, frame debates about Title IX, and shape particular categories and problems related to female subjectivity. Specifically, this study begins in the 1970s a period popularly recognized “revolutionary” period in women’s sports, fueled largely by the passage of Title IX and subsequent dramatic increases in female sport participation. I explore how, during this period, sport science research on the athletic female body gained cultural authority and relevance through its articulation with popular debates about the changing role of U.S. women in sport and in turn, helped to dispel popular myths (i.e., women and girls become masculine and/or homosexual through sport participation, they lack physical stamina, aggressiveness, and competitive instinct) about female sport participation. Moving to the 1980s, this study then examines the disparity between cultural notions of the female athletic body as a new standard of beauty, backlash sentiments against female sport participation, and critiques of early sport science research on the female/sport relationship. Through this analysis, I suggest that despite their apparent divergence, celebratory, backlash, and critical discourses concerning the athletic female body are articulated to postfeminist, neoliberal, and psychotherapeutic discourses in ways that serve to maintain suspicions about the athletic female body. Next, this study considers how during the 1990s and early 2000s the now popular understanding of sport as a major determinant in women’s and girls’ physical well-being and the enhancement of self-esteem inform and extend the image of the celebrity female athlete, the athletic little girl, and girl power/Ophelia discourses. Through this analysis, I contend that despite its progressive appearance, the current advocacy of sport for girls, particularly as a means of addressing social problems, also functions in oppressive ways by facilitating a politics of blame associated with lifestyle politics and self-betterment strategies. Finally, this study concludes by considering how commonsense definitions of the athletic female body as feminine, healthy, and empowered, yet biologically handicapped, continue to shape popular discourses concerning female sport participation.
Issue Date:2013-02-03
Rights Information:Copyright 2012 Dorie Geissler
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-02-03
Date Deposited:2012-12

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