The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

She Shoots, She Scores!

Posted by Mel Campbell on June 28, 2008

Last weekend, Candace Parker became only the second female basketballer to slam-dunk the ball in a WNBA game. (The first was Lisa Leslie in 2002.) In 2006, Parker had made NCAA history as the first woman player to dunk in a national college game. Here, she did it one-handed. Watch her go!

At first I was a little surprised to learn that so few professional female basketballers had slam-dunked. It’s the game’s iconic shot, and one we’re used to seeing quite frequently from the dudes. But then you have to remember that a slam-dunk requires you to put the ball in the basket from above, and the basket rim is over three metres off the ground. For women, who are generally shorter than men, it requires particular athleticism.

Feats like this often seem to raise the question of whether sportswomen should aim to replicate the athletic feats of men, or even compete against them. In pretty much every professional arena, the “girls can do anything” school of feminism tends to take an average (or even an excellent) male performance as a yardstick for women to aspire to – but this raises two problematic questions.

First, just as the ancient Amazons were figures of fear-tinged awe to the Greeks for fighting “like men”, male sports fans, players and commentators tend to regard women who perform at a ‘male’ level with mixed indulgence (“aww, the little lady can play!”) and contempt (“It’s un-ladylike, over-ambitious, hubristic, etc”).

When a sportswoman aims high and fails, you can cut the schadenfreude with a knife. Remember the hoo-ha that erupted in 2004 when 14-year-old golf prodigy Michelle Wie missed out on qualifying for the PGA (rather than the LPGA) by a single stroke? Often compared to Ernie Els, Wie appeared determined to mix it with the blokes, but she never truly succeeded. And when she collapsed with heat exhaustion in 2006, and then injured her wrist in 2007, there was plenty of speculation that this unrealistic ambition had ruined a promising career. Poor little Michelle, thinking big and failing bigger.

And that brings me to the second problem. Should women be guided by the way men approach everything? Perhaps the women’s basketball game gets its dynamism from speed, agility and teamwork rather than showstopping athleticism. And perhaps Parker’s dunk was more like a giant leap for a woman than a giant leap for womankind.

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3 Responses to “She Shoots, She Scores!”

  1. Clem Bastow said

    You make a good point at the end; the slam dunk – from my spectacularly limited basketball knowledge base – always seemed like a “stunt” rather than necessarily great gameplay – amazing athleticism, sure, but something of a diversion.

    I know it has nothing to do with anything, particularly women or sport, but I thought of AC/DC (probably not surprising to those who know me), where everyone lauds Angus Young for his soloing – but without Malcolm driving the rhythm underneath, there’d be no song.

    I’m sure there are plenty of sportsfans who see the slam dunk as just entertaining fiddliness on top of the guts of the game.

  2. steven said

    obviously it is a spectacular looking play – but it is also more of a ‘sure thing’ – you’re not shooting the ball, you’re placing it in the ring.

    I think more girls should be encouraged to compete with males where possible. I find it insulting when women are excluded simply because they are females – excuses such as physicality are raised, yet a male who was of even more fragile build than the women would be allowed to play.

    Segregating the women off harms their ability to develop skills in most sports, since they cannot compete with the strongest players in the game (irrespective of gender). The only exception I can think of is netball, where the women are dominant.

  3. Mel Campbell said

    Steven, the problem here is not that women are excluded from acquiring sporting skills or playing sport with men because of their gender. Women’s sport is not a gender ghetto. The problem here is that women who hope to achieve the same athletic feats as men are seen as astounding, freakish or hubristic – and yet everyone seems to take it for granted that men’s athletic feats are what women athletes should aspire to.

    One of the worst things we could teach female athletes is that they are somehow not fulfilling their potential if they don’t favour a ‘masculine’ style of gameplay emphasising physical hyperbole (hitting the hardest and furthest, jumping the highest, running the fastest, enduring the longest). There are other ways of playing sport, but unfortunately they don’t get as much funding – or media coverage.

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