Friday, 21 August 2009

Caster Semenya

I have very little interest in Sport but obviously the story about Caster Semenya is of interest from the point of view of gender and potentially, if the scandalous whisperings are true, also in a transgender light.

I was going to initially write about my reactions on seeing the story in the BBC news this morning as a subsequently did a little research and that made be consider some different aspects and keeping these different views apart made some sense.

So to start with my initial reaction on seeing the clip of her winning a race was "wow, doesn't she look masculine" and "her mannerisms seem a little male". That second thought I quickly justified and discarded on the grounds that how someone walks, holds themselves, and moves could be influenced by alot of things, for example simple social factors of wanting to fit into a 'male' environment.

The 'masculine' thing got me thinking though, the very word implies a stereotype that is totally wrong. This athlete, in common with others in her sport, looks 'muscular', not 'masculine' but you will find that in almost all cases women in sport will be described as the latter not the former.

This obviously makes the assumption that men have muscles and women don't, at least on average. But that can't be right, most of the men I have encountered would simple pass as average in terms of build, I would certainly not describe them as muscular. And I guess this is going to be true in general; while normal guys probably do have more actual muscle development than equally regular women (and there are hormonal reasons for this) it is not so obvious and certainly not enough to make a huge distinction.

It is certainly fine to point out average differences between men and women, the problem comes when the facts become used to support a stereotype which is then used as the basis of reasoning and further assumptions.

Regarding the gender test, it is interesting to read that athletes have failed and then subsequently been cleared, or that there are medical conditions which can result in failure but which are not actually considered by many experts to give any advantage to the women concerned nor reason enough for them to be disqualified.

It should serve as an example of the complexities of gender and the difficulty in applying the simple labels of 'male' or 'female' when you consider what is involved in this testing and that it's not just a matter of a cursory examination of the person concerned.

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