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Box Out: On Brittney Griner and Women Who Ball (Better Than You)

I have beef with Brittney Griner. It’s not because the Baylor University women’s basketball team she leads beat Notre Dame in the women’s NCAA Division 1 championship a couple of weeks ago, and I like an underdog–even if it is Notre Dame. It’s not because my beloved Tennessee Lady Volunteers were one of Baylor’s casualties on its road to a perfect, 40-0 season. It’s not because she’s tall. Although I would have appreciated a few more inches, I’ve never wanted to be 6’8; just a 5’10 or so shooting guard with an Olajuwon-esque baseline fadeaway.  I have beef with Brittney Griner  because she can dunk. And I’ve always wanted to dunk.

More than hitting a home run, more than throwing (or catching) a perfect spiral, dunking a basketball is, to me, the ultimate sports feat. Perhaps only rivaled by soccer’s beauty, the dunk is arguably the most spectacular play in all of sports. A select few–and even fewer women– have felt the satisfaction of catapulting themselves above the hardwood towards the rim, often contorting their bodies in the most artistic of ways before (powerfully) stuffing the basketball through the hoop. I’m sure the joy I felt after slamming one home on a 9-foot basket back when I was  a Y-ball referee would have multiplied exponentially had the rim actually been at the regulation height. Of course, I’ll never know, as my vertical has diminished in the years since I taught 6-year-olds what traveling, in the basketball sense, was. So even though her team’s victory ensured that UConn did not cut down nets (and all is right with the world) I cannot help but throw Brittney Griner a side-eye as she swings from the rim. I have dunk envy.

Griner’s slams are noticeably unlike the women who have dunked before her. Although Michelle Snow, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker have all done it, Griner dunks with such spectacular ease, that one almost minimizes the feats of her predecessors.  A Youtube phenom before she became the most imposing force in women’s basketball since Cheryl Miller, Griner’s dominance through all of last season was awe-inspiring. Her 7’4 wingspan helps her dominate the paint; she runs the floor effortlessly. Griner is so impressively athletic we forget she’s doing all of this–things most of us average-sized earthlings cannot–at a height (6’8) many associate with a laborious clumsiness.

Where I see Griner’s blessings, though, others have found an opportunity to question her gender. Perhaps the only thing more jaw-dropping than Griner’s game is the frequency with which Griner is called a man, told that she’s not a “real woman.” For some, Griner’s aforementioned height, size 17 sneakers, deep voice, and athletic dominance firmly plant her outside of the box inside which we check, shudder, female.

Notre Dame coach, Muffet McGraw did not help matters when she said that Griner was like “a guy playing with women,” after the championship game. Although Griner took McGraw’s words as a compliment, comments like that do nothing but reiterate and further inflame the idea that Griner is too tall, too athletic, her voice too deep to be a woman. And if she is a woman, well, she must be a lesbian.

As admirable as one might find Griner’s own coach’s efforts to call out hecklers for the way that they disparage her star player, their actions seem to be mere surface level antics to a more deeply problematic and narrow notion of womanhood. Despite light skin and what many would regard as a rather feminine-looking face, Griner more than likely will not appear in ESPN: The Magazine’s famed Body Issue, that features women with physiques considered acceptably traditional and more likely to please the male gaze. A more probable option would be Griner’s opponent on championship night, Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins who, a foot shorter and hair straighter, turned many a head during last year’s tournament. Even Lil Wayne tweeted about Diggins; another rapper wrote an ode to her. Both juniors, Diggins and Griner will likely turn pro together. And Diggins’ seeming beauty will inevitably put Candace Parker’s baby hair to shame. Assuming she succeeds at the pro level, Diggins is a likely candidate to become a face of the WNBA; she could get the men to watch. And although Griner’s dominance in the WNBA almost seems inevitable, she may prove a much more complicated sell. She’s too tall, her voice too deep. And if heterosexual men don’t think they can beat you at a sport, they at least want to think they can sleep with you after the game.

The response to Griner highlights, yet again, a problem much older than Title IX. Which is to say that women (athletes), especially those who do not fall into traditional boxes of female beauty, have to contend with the way they make others, namely men, uncomfortable. My father refused to buy me black sneakers because he said they were for boys; though he signed me up and helped coach my AAU team, my stepdad required that I wear a skirt to school twice a week. As my aversion to stockings suggests, none of this was done for my comfort, but rather theirs. (And it didn’t quell my gay, anyway.) Just as athletics allow men to be affectionate with each other in ways they otherwise would not, women’s athletics and other, similar homosocial spaces, work differently and thus engender a pressure not to violate or offend male gazes.

At its most innocuous, this pressure results in what I call over-heteroing, wherein women who congregate in spaces where their femininity and/or sexuality may be questioned seem to overwork their appearance so that they appear to unequivocally desire the attention of men. I speculate that this is why some women play sports in makeup, or why women assistant coaches and graduate assistants occasionally look like they’re about the hit up the club after the game. At its worst, though, it goes beyond heckles and courtside stilettos. And women can’t just be like Brittney, brush their shoulders and wave to the haters. When such pressure is linked to power, what results are situations like what happened to Caster Semenya. And it goes beyond the unfortunate. Such acts are not simply disparaging, but go beyond the continued violation and marginalization of women to a level that endangers them.

And that’s how hecklers answer their own speculation about whether or not Brittney Griner is a woman. Of course she is. Otherwise, she would not have to withstand their continued verbal assualts. Word to Mike Tyson.