Women’s tennis and the gender politics of grunting
Something I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten more and more into my training as an athlete is that I have a tendency to make some fairly unladylike noises when I’m really getting after it. I noticed this first when I broke 1:45 in the half marathon earlier this year. When I picked up the pace in my last mile, I was groaning audibly with each stride. I’m sure I sounded like a bullfrog in heat, but I couldn’t help it – it just happened. It also happens when I push myself in the weight room. On Sunday, I was finishing this crazy-pants workout that included ten sets of ten pushups, and for maybe the last fifteen of them, I was grunting from the exertion. Sometimes the audible grunts actually help me exert more power than I would have otherwise had I stayed silent. I doubt my bar would have come off the floor when I tried to deadlift 135 pounds last week had I not made some noise while trying to make it happen.
It occurred to me once while I was groaning my way through a set of bench presses that I was making these guttural, almost animal noises in front of several strange men, which is not something I’m in the habit of doing. As I thought about it some more, I realized that I’m not really in the habit of hearing any women make noises like this, in the weight room or otherwise. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard almost all of the men who are regulars at my gym make noise while lifting, and sometimes they get incredibly loud, too. If any of them have been told that proper gentlemen don’t grunt like rutting boars while bench pressing, it certainly hasn’t seem to have taken root in their minds.
It didn’t really bother me or cause me to change my behavior, which is not surprising, seeing as though I have no compunction about spitting or shooting snot rockets while I’m running. (Yes, this is gross. I am aware.) Despite all of the imploring I received as a young girl to act more “ladylike,” I still find myself behaving in ways that would appall whoever decided on the Official Standards of Ladyhood back in the 1800s. Instead, I made a mental note of the curious ways in which gender norms burrow themselves into even the tiniest, most seemingly inconsequential aspects of our lives, and then I moved on.
But alas, the rest of the world has a way of dragging me back to those gender norms and pushing them right in my face. This time, it’s the Women’s Tennis Association and their newly-announced plan to curtail the ‘excessive’ grunting of female players. Everyone is weighing in on this, including former tennis players like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova (who see nothing wrong with the plan) to bloggers at Jezebel and Bloomer Girls (who say the plan is sexist).
First, let me admit that the first reaction I had was, “Fine, maybe it will put an end to all of the bitching about the women and their yelping.” It feels like almost every conversation that has taken place about women’s tennis in recent years has made some comment on the noises some of the players make when they hit the ball. So there’s part of me that’s so over this conversation and so ready to move on that I think, OKAY FINE DO IT ALREADY AND SHUT UPPPPP.
And here’s another admission – I also find some of those noises pretty damn annoying. My husband is a big tennis fan so we watch a lot of the Grand Slams, both for men and women, and some of the women really do get very loud, to the point where I almost start laughing, it’s so ridiculous. That said, guess what else I find annoying? I find it annoying when Tiger Woods has pouty-boy temper tantrums on the green. I find it annoying when Rafael Nadal spends half his time on the court excavating his shorts from his butt cheeks. I find it annoying when ball players spit ribbons of tobacco juice. A post at the Jane Dough reminded me about the wretched invention known as the vuvuzuela, which is just one of many obnoxious noisemakers gifted upon the world by sports fan culture. And I’m sure there are people out there who find it revolting that I spit when I run. But just because something is annoying to me doesn’t mean it necessarily ought to be banned from sport.
But I’m not so much interested in whether or not this debate is sexist – that ground has been well-trod already by many an intelligent lady, and really, unless they are administering a similar noise limit for the men, I don’t see how anyone could claim it isn’t. What I’m really interested in is why so many people find the sounds of a woman making guttural noises during physical activity to be so viscerally repugnant. A reader sent me the link to a post by Katy Waldman at Double XX, in which she lays out the answer in three big, blinking letters: SEX.
If female players sounding their barbaric yawps on the Wimbledon green prove sooo distracting, perhaps the better question is: Why?…Because of sex. A woman grunting on the tennis court sounds like she’s having a baby or having sex. And not very ladylike sex—primal, bestial, no-holds-barred sex, the kind that stodgy Wimbledon-goers are loathe to imagine in their country club.
This actually holds up with my observations of some online communities, where people have compared the sounds of a women’s tennis match to the sounds of porn. (In which case, I’m wondering what kind of porn exactly are they acquainted with? One that involves whistles and applause and color commentary? Intriguing.) I actually thought about that while bench-pressing once, that oh my god, those guys probably think these are my sex noises, and I immediately felt ashamed and embarrassed. The reality is that most likely the men around me were way too involved in their own lifts to pay me any mind, but I’m also being honest when I say that this precise thought crossed my mind.
(Edited to add that a [deleted] comment from a classy individual just further served to make this point by asking why she doesn’t “get a job in a cathouse” if she’s so anxious to grunt. Thanks for making my point for me, Mr. Drive-by Dudebro!)
This is how thoroughly we women have been sexualized, that we cannot make the kind of noises that come with physical exertion without it being associated with sex. In fact, everything about our bodies has been sexualized in one way or another. If we groan during sport or we breast-feed in public, we are criticized for making people think about sex. If we talk openly about things like menstruation and poop and farts, then we are criticized for making people not want to think about sex.
Think about what it means to be ladylike and all of the adjectives that go along with it: elegant, cultured, classy, sophisticated. To be successful at being feminine means being successful at being private, keeping your body’s natural functions behind closed doors and never letting anyone know they exist. It means to be constrained, that you do not let your legs spread wide in public transportation and you do not make noises that are harsh on the ears. It means presenting a polished, shiny surface to the world at all times, one that allows others to project whatever they wish onto you while never showing too much of your true self.
A woman who grunts…well, that is about as unladylike as it gets, don’t you think? She’s not caring too much about her self-presentation, she’s not absorbed with presenting a classy front, she’s letting the world see that she is engaged deeply with hard, physical labor. And really, as Waldman notes, we don’t really have any cultural space for female expressions of physical exertion outside of sex and childbirth. Consequently it seems weird and disconcerting when it does actually happen. I mean, even I noticed when I was making those kind of noises in public and I felt awkward about it, and I should know better!
Women have done such a good job of embracing the strictures of femininity that our adherence is held up as proof of our innate nature, like we aren’t capable of making ugly, weird noises as a matter of biology or something equally silly. And then when we actually do find ourselves making ugly, weird noises during sport or working out, observers can’t possibly imagine that this is how our bodies and minds actually work. No, we must be doing it on purpose with the intent of being distracting and – gasp! – cheating.
The sports world is already on high alert for any sign of female athletes exerting “unfair” advantages over their competitors by failing to be adequately feminine. Women are already considered suspect if they are too strong or too fast or too tall or have voices that are too deep. Female athletes are already facing all kinds of artificially imposed limits on the size of their muscles (as in bodybuilding competitions) and their natural hormonal levels (as with the International Olympic Committee’s recent sex testing standards). Now, it looks like we can add “making too much noise” to the things female athletes have to worry about.