Policing Gender: The Rhetorical Framing of Sex in Women's Athletics
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Literature Review: The relationship between medicine and social understands of embodiment has been complicated for women and those who fall outside of binary gender. It has become hard for authoritative figures in the medical and political occupations to distinguish the biological fact and the social argument, as the two often feed off each other creating problematic rhetorical understandings of what bodies can and should do. An example of this challenging relationship appears in the term “sex hormone”, as it is manipulated to function by means of supporting social argument about female bodies and their assumed innate emotional instability. Earlier examples like the term “hysteria” – a word deriving from the Greek word for “womb,” – further support the historical pathologies of social behaviors and identities (Koerber 180). Any expression of emotional discomposure by a woman has long since been written off as a biological malfunction of the female body; crying as an emotional vulnerability, for example, is culturally a heavily exclusive female bodily behavior. Women become defined by their biological capabilities through social expectation and any variation of this requirement, such as infertility, is deemed medically problematic (Jensen 50). As these examples show, the female sex has been subject to social and medical biases that create foundational barriers for the growing conversation about how intersex conditions complicate relations of sex and gender. Since intersexed bodies are categorized in the grey areas between male and female bodies, it is problematic considering the biased biological understanding of the female body and femininity. The application of strict qualifications used to govern and regulate a women’s body also operates to define intersex people, as both fall under culturally determined variables, ultimately effecting how we interpret bodies. This policing of gender has resulted in a limited participation of women in sports. The athletic field for female bodies has a complicated history, as women have been required to verify their sex in order to complete. My primary example being in 2009, as skepticism followed the runner Caster Semenya’s success at the women’s 800-meter World Championship competition. She was regarded as overly masculine, first upon physical appearance and low expectations involving female athleticism and then by the hosts, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), after they administered a sex-test that she “failed.” The sex verification test recognized her as “not biologically female” because of her body’s naturally high production of testosterone, medically defined as hyperandrogenism. Her “condition” rendered her unable to compete according to the IAAF, as it was deemed an unfair biological advantage. In men’s athletics, where there is no sex verification, there is no limit on natural producing testosterone, only violations when taking steroids. Semenya, unaware of her condition and having not voluntarily taken substances to enhance her performance, was still ineligible (Young 331-332). Thesis Statement: The ability to govern the female body is enabled in the construction of medical texts to support cultural ideologies of gender and exhibited in the field of sports, as women’s bodies are constantly targeted for surpassing social expectation and overcoming prejudices, a practice effectively influencing our understanding of the institution of binary gender. Theoretical Framework: This project falls within a growing field of feminist rhetorical science studies, requiring my research to consider multiple forms of rhetoric while interacting with a variety of fields (Booher and Jung). As a result, my research will include critical textual analysis of various medical and biological literatures and news stories discussing women’s athletics through a feminist lens, focusing on the language and use of rhetoric. Project Description: My study explores the cultural and biological implications of gender by examining the rhetorical construction of intersex conditions, focusing primarily on the experiences of female athletes. Women aspiring to succeed in a career of physical performance are subject to scrutiny from audiences inhibited by biological and social biases, developed as a product of culturally established prejudices against female’s physical capacity and misleading medical sciences firmly established within the parameters of female or male sexes. It is important to address the impact of binary sex on biological reasoning, gender expectations that dictate the social sphere, and the rhetorical influences between both fields. In approaching these topics with a perspective and lexicon beyond binary sex, we develop a better understanding of gender, human biology, and female capability as professional athletes. I am expanding on the research already accumulated on the topic of sex hormones, the reality of sex-verification testing distributed to female athletes, and the specific case-study of women like Caster Semenya, a long-distance runner with hyperandrogenism, and others like her by providing a perspective in cultural and medical rhetoric. This research actively challenges the social and biological expectation of female athletes and intersex using thorough rhetorical analysis to understand the factors of language that craft the development of public opinion and ultimately argue to improve the conditions and expectations of female athletes by promoting awareness to the persuasion of language.
Aboud, Sarah Curtis (2020). Policing Gender: The Rhetorical Framing of Sex in Women's Athletics. Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Available electronically from