Wrestling with Gender: Constructing Masculinity by Refusing to Wrestle Women
48 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2013 Last revised: 17 Jan 2018
Date Written: January 23, 2013
In February of 2011, an Iowa high school boy captured national attention when he refused to wrestle a girl at the state championship meet. The media shaped the story into a tale that honored the boy for sacrificing personal gain out of a moral imperative to “never hurt a girl.” Unpacking this incident reveals several “fault lines” in U.S. culture that often derail gender equality projects: (1) religion/morality is interposed as an oppositional and equally weighty social value that neutralizes an equality claim; (2) the agency of persons supporting traditional gender norms is assumed, while the agency of persons contesting them is questioned; (3) opting out or “leveling down” is employed to reinforce status hierarchies while maintaining a semblance of formal equality (neither boy nor girl wrestles); and (4) de-contextualized strands of feminist theory are appropriated and co-opted in service of the existing gender order. This paper asks, what happens when sex equality law is interjected into this narrative? After examining the anatomy of the backlash to the threat to the gender order posed by the entry of girls into wrestling, this paper constructs an argument that Title IX obligates schools and athletic associations to take measures designed to deter gender-based forfeitures that deprive girls of athletic opportunity. It then explores a tougher question: does the introduction of a sex equality claim disrupt the conventional understandings of gender that emerged from this narrative? I ultimately contend that law has a potentially useful role to play in subverting the gender order, but that to do so it must engage the crucial dynamic at the heart of forfeiture incident: the construction of masculinity, both for the boy who forfeited and for the sport of wrestling itself. Feminist legal strategies must contend with how masculinity is constructed and valued for the boys and men who play sports in order to further advance the cause of girls’ and women’s equality in sports.
Keywords: Title IX, wrestling, backlash, masculinity, law and social change, sex discrimination, gender equality, female athletes, sex equality, sports
JEL Classification: K19, K39, J71, J79
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation