Women’s tennis and the gender politics of grunting

Grunting – it’s not just for (chauvinist) pigs.

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.

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44 responses to “Women’s tennis and the gender politics of grunting

  1. Wow, just insane. I’m a grunter too, how can you not be when you’re doing heavy lifting? Seriously, I can’t believe they’d even suggest having to play in silence, are you now not allowed to breath to heavily either?

    I’m so sick of dumb stereotypes when it comes to sport. That all female athletes are she-hulk, lesbians etc. Now we’re not even allowed to make noises while playing sports because it’s unladylike?

    All that being said… I did hear of a gym (think they talked about them on Jon Stewart? Maybe Colbert?) where they were kicking out ANYBODY who started grunting to loud becuase they didn’t want ‘meatheads’ in their gym. Oh, just found this, looks like it’s at Planet Fitness (but I couldn’t actually listen to the content because I’m at work): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ6OrO1f610

    • OMG yes, I heard about that. Planet Fitness would never work for someone like me. They would kick me out after a week.

      I really don’t get the anxiety and disgust around grunting. It’s so neo-Victorian, this idea that we should be able to be completely silent while exerting ourselves physically. It completely runs counter to the way our bodies actually work.

      • Exactly and it’s a bit baffling too because often in movies you hear tons of grunting during fight scenes, so why isn’t it allowed in real life?

        I wonder too if this is affected by less and less people who are actually physically active? Gym classes are being cut from schools, when people are struggling to pay their bills, they can’t afford to go to gyms etc so maybe there’s a lack of exposure element too? And it wouldn’t mean someone is necessarily completely physically in active too but low impact activities like walking, yoga, swimming etc are less noisy. ;)

        It’s not something that I’ve experienced so much being that I’ve always been very physically active my whole live (played sports in both high school and college) but for someone who isn’t much of an athlete and ditto for those around him or her, maybe it’s more shocking? Just a theory…

      • My previous gym (local) had a no-grunt rule. Standard issue grunting was fine, but grandiose grunting was just being show-off-ish. I never saw anyone making an issue of it, but I gather i went to a rather polite gym.

  2. This is one of the best analyses of women’s physicality and notions of femininity that I have read in a long, long time. Thank you, and bravos to you!

  3. Some of the boyf’s and my frequent and entertaining conversations revolve around the crazy looks our workouts garner at the gym. We’re both go-to-failure types. He throws up; I occasionally get nose bleeds. He drops the leg press when he’s hit full fatigue; I bellow like a demon when I’m pushing through to the last moments of full failure. We feel like we get satisfying workouts out of the deal, so why worry? I feel pretty lucky that he’s not at all put off by my caterwauling. If anything, he’ll note my intensity & give me a high-five post-workout when I’ve really gotten into it. Now, if only I could get him over my sailor’s mouth … Lol.

  4. I was doing an Insanity workout with BFF a few months ago and I had hit the wall, but didn’t want to stop, so the only way to get through it was to just start yelling. Which made BFF start yelling. And guess what? We both got through it and afterward, she was like “Thank you SO much for doing that because I was afraid to make those noises because you’d think I was weird.” If boys can get all beast mode during a workout, I can too.

  5. 170lb squats and 115lb bench presses left me grunting like crazy in the gym this morning. It actually helps immensely to grunt. I don’t see any problem with it from men or women.

  6. I’ve never been a big fan of hearing dudebros grunting in the gym. But. At the end of a long, hard set I’m grunting too. So I guess I can’t complain.

    As far as grunting women sounding like sex noises, I’d just like to mention to men that, should they not get enough dude grunting in the gym, gay porn will fill the void.

    But yeah, if grunting will get me an ace or a perfect return, heck yeah I’m grunting.

  7. I totally grunt when doing push-ups! It’s not something I can really stop myself doing if I actually want to get the push-ups done. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that they want to try and quiet the tennis players. Really? Well then we better tell runners never to pant and swimmers never to make unladylike splashing sounds… Bah. Moving our bodies is a basic, primal thing, and it’s no surprise that we should sound a bit like wild animals while we do it, because while our brains are advanced, our bodies are still those meant to be strong and keep us alive.

  8. I think part of it is the sport itself – tennis, so full of (old-fashioned?) tradition. Not saying that tradition isn’t goofy, but it exists. How likely is anyone to pay attention to a woman grunting during a martial arts exhibit/match? Not too likely. Far more likely to notice it in a typically quiet arena that is tennis. Afterall, it is the “gentlemen’s sport” by many people’s definition.

    I also find it interesting that so much of the talk seems to focus on Sharavpova and Azerenka (yet NOT Serena Williams). Why? I think it is because both Sharapova and Azerenka, especially Sharapova, are closer to the archetype for “beautiful woman” therefore it is considered “unseemly” and due to their outward appearance, unnecessary. Because they do not, on the outside surface, look like Serena. And in Serena, who might not fit exactly in the “beautiful woman” stereotype, her noise is thought of as more primal, more a noise of exertion, and therefore permissible.

    In roughest terms: Serena looks strong and muscular, therefore her grunting/powernoise is almost expected. Sharapova looks “pretty”. And because she looks “pretty” rather than strong – it is considered unladylike for her to grunt.

    Please note – I’m trying to say something whilst dancing a fine line between that something and sounding as if I am stereotyping people myself. I think both women are incredible atheletes, both are strong and both are feminine. Sport is sport – it’s hard work and good lord have mercy who gives a rat’s behind whether we make a noise when ripping one cross-court at 75 miles an hour!?

    • I think this is an excellent point, and I would argue that Serena Williams’ race most likely plays a role in this. Many people have this idea of black men and women as these primal animals who are incapable of being refined, and so I imagine they don’t find Williams’ vocalizations as offensive because they don’t expect her to be “ladylike.” (Also, the number of times I’ve seen her referred to as a “thug” makes me want to vomit. A racist dog whistle if I’ve ever heard one.) A lot of our ideas about what constitutes being “ladylike” are definitely informed by race and class.

      Also I find it super-funny that tennis is still considered a gentlemen’s sport – which I agree, it is – in this post-McEnroe world. So funny.

  9. Love it! Grunt away! Back in high school I used to run. It was a small school and everyone in CC and track got to know everyone well and it was a super supportive group of people. I realize now how blessed I was to have such awesome teammates. We challenged and supported one another through all our runs. Especially at the end when you are exhausted, panting and look like you may pass out or puke, we’d break the tension by encouraging each other on with “Ugly faces make you run faster!” “Grunt louder! I can’t hear you!” Sure enough, we’d all be laughing and it was just enough to get you through the tail of the run and over the finish line. Good stuff.

  10. Wow, that really touched a spot I didn’t even know yet. I have not only problems making noises, having a deep or broken voice at times but sometimes I’m afraid to breathe in more and audibly…it could disturb people…

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  12. This is interesting, because tests have shown that people are able to use more strength when yelling/making noise than when they are silent.

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  14. I think grunting during intense physical exertion is normal for men and women. I don’t think the ban has anything to do with sexism. The issue with women’s tennis is that these ladies are screaming. Sharapova hits around 100 decibels- that’s equal to a motorcycle and 10 decibels short of a lions roar. I personally don’t believe that screaming to that level can be done without trying. If it’s forced then it’s not authentic and if it’s not authentic, then it doesn’t belong on the court.

  15. Do the men grunt while playing tennis? I don’t watch it so I can’t remember if they do. personally I’d rather men didn’t make sexy noises.

    Those things you list as acceptable for men really aren’t considered acceptable, gentlemen do not make rude noises in public, sit poorly or do ungentlemanly things. This is the ideal man in our society regardless of the fact it has been eroded over the past few decades.

    But as for your core point of women making noises in sport/exercise, I never really noticed. My other half makes noises during exercise but I don’t think I do (or not much). We laugh when they’re amusing like we also laugh when she farts, because farting is funny… unless you’re a gentleman.

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  17. i agree with liss, there are people doing it becuas it is allowed, if you are doing it becuas you can do it it should be banned , strange tough that i never see the male tennis players grunt and groan even when they have been playing for5 hours, and the ladies start with the start of the match , and that has noting to do with grunting after breaking the 1:45 in a marathon.

  18. it is aslo proven that swearing gives strength, and actualy dulls pain, but yet people look angry at you when you drop some f-bombs during sports,so dont go ” its proven that grunting helps”
    and tennis has not been the “gentlemans sport” for ages, so please stop this feministic crying

      • if someone says the game of tennis is considered the gentleman’s sport , when it has not been for a long time i consider that as feministic crying, and that is my opinion, should i say your all right ? that we should be allowed to grunt and scream ?

        or should i just not give my opinion at all because it conflicts with yours?

        If people play the because its a man’s world shtick i see it as a feminist thing to say.

        I respect you opinion and expect you to respect mine if you dont your just as bad as a dictator

      • If I was really upset about your opinion not jiving with mine, I wouldn’t have approved your comment. I was mocking your choice of the phrase “feministic crying.” Completely ridiculous.

  19. why is it ridiculous ?
    if some one says its a boys club and women should just shut up andplay , thats the thing i always hear feminists say and use as an argument.

  20. Below a climbing crag you can hear grunting, profanities, cries of fear and shouts of encouragement. And it is the same for men and women. I grunt when i am at the point of falling, and sometimes I shout “shit” or “no” like a mad woman.
    Sometimes the grunting or the shouting of profanities give you the little extra-strenght you need for achieving.

  21. No one has mentioned Monica Seles, the tennis star who grunted loudly each time she served the ball. The sound she made was considered by some to be deliberately showy and intimidating. I remember thinking, “Why does she do that?”

    Here’s a 2002 American Express ad that tried to make it okay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unyOKN4LS8I. It shows Seles in the grocery store, grunting as she does her shopping. Tagline: “The official card of being yourself.”

    I’m not sure it worked to change social norms.

    I began working with a personal trainer earlier this year who pushed me to do things I didn’t think I could do. In the gym, I grimaced and made noises like The Incredible Hulk. My instructor smiled and probably thought I was being overly dramatic, but I *had* to let those noises out.

    I also took a self-defense course with the same instructor. During one class, we were required to let out a lot of noises during an attack scenario. This was the hardest and most embarrassing class for us. We were not used to making those noises. And, to be honest, the idea that we might be sharing “sex noises” (or that someone would think we were) crossed my mind too, Caitlin.

    Yet women need to get comfortable making some unladylike noises, because those screams and grunts are the #1 thing that could save us in a dangerous situation. They attract attention of bystanders and they keep our lungs open, lessening the chance of having “the wind knocked out” of us.

    I include the above point only as an aside, since it’s not directly related to the blog post about sports. However, I want to underscore the point that making aggressive-sounding, gutteral noises is not something women are used to doing. Even in an attack situation where making such noises could help save their lives, many women continue to feel constrained by social convention that demands they be “quiet.” The instructors reminded us, again and again, to get over this.

    Thanks for your excellent post, Caitlin. I hock a loogie in your honor .

    • P.S. “Loogie” line was a joke. Of course I am not hocking a loogie. It’s unladylike ;-)

  22. I thought you’d get it, but we can never be sure in these sensitive Internet times! Okay, so I hocked a loogie ;-) Thanks again for your post. I’m sharing it on FB.

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  24. This whole thing strikes me as really weird, because the only sports I’ve ever been into were basketball (which had directed yelling at other players or sometimes in response to throwing the ball, but not grunting per se), and martial arts. Both taking karate as a little kid, and then again in college as a required PE class taking kendo, my instructors were always emphatic that we SHOULD be making sound. It helps you exert energy to make sound (and I guess that is linked to sex too, but only peripherally: sex is usually more enjoyable if you relax and let yourself make noise!). If you’re stopping yourself in any way, you can’t work as hard!

    It is interesting to note though, that I went to a single sex college, and the women (and people socialized as women) around me had to have that lesson HAMMERED into their head (for the most part) — we were pretty shy of making noise. I don’t think that would have been true for people socialized as boys.

  25. “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.”

    THANK YOU!

    The in-development Tomb Raider game has been catching some flack. While folks applaud that Lara is now shaped like a human being, they’ve described the trailer as “torture porn”. The game focuses on her early days, before she came into the adventurer extraordinaire folks know her to be. She is shipwrecked on a hostile tropical island, and there’s a strong theme of survival. That this place is the crucible that forces her to become a bad-ass raider of tombs.

    The trailer shows a series of near misses, falls, extreme physical exertion and even stick that stabbed her in her side. She mostly grunts through most of this. So many people say this is sexual, but I don’t see that at all. I see it as very appropriate noises for what she’s experiencing.

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  27. i don’t mean to sound stuck on stupid, but the really high-pitched wailing sound does not sound like the gutteral animal sounds you refer to. I’m confused. I understand grunting, but what is with the wailing sound they make AFTER they hit the ball, which doesn’t seem like it would assist with the power of the shot. It’s measured to be up to 110 decibels and is very distracting — mostly because i don’t know why they do it.

    googling, I don’t see ANY references by coaches saying they instruct it, and one who said he teaches proper breathing, not wailing. I see absurdly sexist references to it by men i’d prefer not to know, and i see some references to it’s use for intimidation of opponents.

    but what i am curious about from you, is whether the high-pitched wailing AFTER the ball is hit is the grunting that sounds like you are having a baby? Because these sounds the women make don’t sound like that. At least not in any maternity ward I’VE been in. I was actually instructed to NOT make noise, because it reduces the power of the pushing.

    So are we talking about two different kinds of noises?

  28. My understanding is that the energy used in generating these stupid noises actually detracts from the physical task you are doing. Exhaling during an exertion assists but the vocalisation has nothing to do with anything.

    Vocalisations would most likely assist in distracting and intimidating your opposition but the benefit to performing an explosive action are completely immaterial!

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