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Helen Grant, the Minister for Sports, Equalities and Tourism made a suggestion today about two parts of her portfolio which has caused a certain amount of controversy.  In discussing the sports gender gap, and particularly women and girls’ participation in sporting activities, she stated that

You don’t have to feel unfeminine … There are some wonderful sports which you can do and perform to a very high level and I think those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating.

She expanded on the possibilities of rollerblading for women by recounting her attendance at a competition: “Those girls arrived and they looked absolutely gorgeous. They were wearing their socks pulled up, beautiful socks with sequins and their hair was done.”  Her statement has prompted criticism from Laura Bates of The Everyday Sexism Project, who said attitudes like this simply bolstered the media’s focus on how “feminine” female athletes looked instead of their sporting abilities, whilst Alex Andreou drew a direct line between her comments and a Conservative agenda to keep people in tightly defined social roles.

I can’t bring much personal experience to this question, being neither a woman nor someone who does much sport.  Certainly I can see Grant’s comments might be read as a damaging reinforcement of stereotypes about how young women should present themselves, or as an admission that whilst those stereotypes were changed sports organizations needed to operate in the real world.  (Personally I think the former reading is much more coherent, if only because there didn’t seem to be much mention of changing attitudes.)  However, there does seem to be a telling blurring of the meaning of “perform” in her remarks which I want to draw out a bit.

She stated that there are sports in which women can “perform to a very high level” whilst “look[ing] absolutely radiant and very feminine”, slipping between two ways in which we generally use the term “perform”.  The first is the notion of carrying out an action efficiently and effectively: the way we talk about a “high performance engine”, or an athlete who “performed on the day”.  As scholars like Richard Schechner and Marvin Carlson have pointed out, there is an implied level of comparison in this – cars and teams “perform” in relation to other cars and teams, or in relation to their previous attempts at the same task.  An implied standard accompanies the performer, like those World Record lines which speed tantalizingly along in front of Olympic swimmers.  (One of the reasons why it sounds crass to talk about “sexual performance” is many people’s instinct that some activities are best carried out without an implied standard of achievement hovering in the background and counting shots under/over par.)

The other meaning of “perform” implicit in her remarks is the way an action gives pleasure or entertainment to those watching.  A violinist might be said to be both skilful in the recording studio but also “a terrific performer” or a political speech could be criticized as “just a performance for the cameras”.  This has much less to do with the effectiveness of the act and more to do with the judgement and approval of spectators.  It takes the performance out of the control of the person undertaking it and waits to see how the onlookers react before considering it a success.

Obviously this distinction isn’t totally sharp, but I’m struck by how often the collision of these two kinds of performance clash in sports, and the problems it causes.  The controversy over the racially-charged language used about Richard Sherman partly arose from the fact that his extremely effective performance of his role as cornerback (which led to him being interviewed) clashed with his failure to “perform” his personality in a way which many commentators demanded.  A lot of the recent denigration of events in the Winter Olympics as “not proper sports” seems to stem from a sense that they are more about performing to please the crowd and look cool than performing up to a technical set of standards.

Grant’s comments move far too quickly, I think, from “performing” sport at a high level of skill to “performing” an acceptable persona.  The details of her example are all focused on aspects which give pleasure to the onlookers, not the effectiveness of the players.  (Never mind the Conservative obsession with people pulling their socks up as a sign of the acceptably disciplined body which seems to have come back from the 1980s.)  The way in which she imagines women undertaking sport involves a continual eye of the spectator which provides them with validation in place of the scoreboard.  And as Laura Mulvey’s work pointed out, that eye is usually imagined as male.

Perhaps unintentionally she has blurred one idea of performance which society associates with men (high achievement of objective goals  in sport, business and the arts) with one which is associated with women (seeking approval from those watching.)  All the feminist writers I read stress the way in which women are already “performing” in their daily lives whether they choose to or not, being assessed by onlookers on the correctness of their behaviour and appearance.  Grant’s version of women’s sporting opportunities seems to aspire towards simply extending a major element of women’s oppression in general life into the arena of sports.

Apart from anything else, I think the confusion over “performance” undermines the points she’s making.  Performing difficult moves in sequined socks may be both high-scoring and pleasing to certain spectators, but those elements arrive at very different stages of the process.  From my memories of various athletic pursuits – rugby, fencing, sprinting, salsa – the brief moments which looked good to spectators were the result of looking ridiculous, uncomfortable, sweaty, awkward and ineffective for long periods of practice.  If women’s sporting performance is identified with maintaining the imagined eye of the beholder, surely that will prevent young athletes from every getting to stage where they might please that eye, or more importantly themselves?