Women’s sports lurch upon a troubled foundation. To throw like a girl is to fail on the grounds of athleticism, and not to throw like a girl is to fail on the grounds of girlism. Worse, the quest for equality cannot reconcile its dogmatic ideal with how its professed adherents live out their faith. If the ratio of boys to girls auditioning for the School of American Ballet in Queens is 1:8, imagine what a beginners’ class looks like in Terre Haute. Meanwhile, the ratio of boys to girls in the WNBA is uncertain.
Some sports are male no matter who plays (rugby, fútbol Americano, caber toss). There are sports in which men and women could compete together, but mostly don’t (shooting, NASCAR), and some where they compete cooperatively (figure skating, sailing, tennis). There is no end of sports in which men and women compete separately. But a few strongly feminine sports function as a useful control group for analyzing the failure of women to make good on sports in the same way men have. Rhythmic gymnastics epitomizes this category, beginning with the perpetual accusation that it is not a real sport. (That charge we will leave to the joyous disgruntled.) Sport or not, what is to be made of the fact that rhythmic gymnastics exists at all?
Rhythmic gymnastics, in this country at least, is effectively girls only. It is the loopy sister of the gymnastics everybody knows about. Bars, beams, horses, and rings are the apparatuses of artistic gymnastics, in which men and women compete separately and under different rules. In rhythmic gymnastics, outrageously flexible competitors wriggle among balls, ropes, ribbons, clubs, and hoops with the help of music. Their uniform is half spangles, half makeup. Everyone is a classic ectomorph. Everyone has a neck. While we normally hope that an elite female athlete will have a nice enough face to go with her peculiar body, even a rhythmic gymnast with no future in modeling looks like a pretty girl when she competes. Rhythmic gymnastics is a throwback to a time when it was good for a woman to look sinuous, and not good for her to look sinewy.
Watching rhythmic gymnastics provides all the cognitive transport of a madeleine, awakening the viewer to a palpable goofiness. Athletic competition calls for the same willing suspension of disbelief required by drama or fiction, because sports are a dramatic fiction: a contest in which the win is tautological. A lovely girl in sequins and lipstick tiptoeing into an arena to wrap her limbs in and out of a Hula Hoop for four minutes is clearly for dodos. The goofiness apparent to all observers of rhythmic gymnastics is comparable only to that which would be perceived in men’s sports, if we weren’t inured to their intrinsic absurdity because we like them so much. Many providers of dip on game day have rolled their eyes at adults willingly brought to howling delirium by the sight of men brawling over a toy. But trade out the hulks for a lady in a leotard, and the scrumming for slinking, and we regain our perspective. It’s so weird, we say. It shouldn’t be in the Olympics, we say. Or, we say, men should do it too. That would make it OK—if men did rhythmic gymnastics.
In truth, the only man anyone can imagine taking up rhythmic gymnastics is Will Ferrell. (His preferred apparatus is ribbon.) It is more profitable to get at what exactly is absurd about rhythmic gymnastics. Bowling, basketball, tug-of-war, and footraces of yore prove that the devices are not the problem. Figure skating shows the costumes legit. Individual female competitors in other sports wear makeup at will. The elements seem athletically in order.
Perhaps this is too atomistic; perhaps it is the sum of these things, or their use, that renders rhythmic gymnastics unacceptably ridiculous. The only thing more ridiculous would be pursuing this line of reasoning further when the real problem is plain. Every sport combines random items and actions to arrive at a descriptive self-definition. The problem is that it is not necessary to hang a “No Boys Allowed” sign on the rhythmic gym door. Where no such sign needs hanging, there one will find a truly feminine thingamajig. Normal men and women are content to let leaping girls fly, if that makes girls happy. But since rhythmic gymnastics is a thoroughly female sport, the malicious foes of biological sex must destroy it. Its existence disproves theirs.
Most sports require female participants to emulate a skill set they don’t have. Florence Griffith-Joyner set the world record for the women’s 200-meter dash at the 1988 Olympics, finishing in 21.34 seconds. That puts her behind the top nine record times in Nebraska high-school boys’ track and field. The women’s world-record holder for the 1,500-meter run, Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba, finished a solid six seconds after some Kansas high schooler from 1965 named Jim Ryun. Empirically judged sports are easiest to compare, but qualitative differences are also obvious in all sports played by both men and women. Female athletes are often out to prove something, and here’s what they’ve proved so far: Anything dudes can do, chicks can do chickwise.
Then there’s the problem of fans and their incoherent value systems. Whether it’s the gawky stances or the “better ball handling” of women’s sports, people like watching men play a whole lot better. But they also don’t think it’s fair for men to get to play sports and women not to. Moreover, even though men don’t want to watch women play sports, many of them want their daughters to have the fun and life experience they themselves gained from playing (especially if the U.S. two-child policy didn’t allow them any sons). The sprawling infrastructure propping up highly competitive girls’ and women’s sports owes its existence to economic prosperity and social pressure, and is bankrolled largely by men’s sports (the most obvious example being Title IX).
Here is where we begin suffering from the ironic myopia of the postfeminist worldview—really suffering, because one big thing that separates the men from the women in sports is injuries. Females are poorly built for most sports because of their higher flexibility, smaller and funkier muscles, and less stable skeletons. To put a son and a daughter on a soccer team apiece is not to do them the same favor, in part because the girl is more likely to get hurt. There is no such thing as equal opportunity in sports by any criterion. We all know women invented the smallpox vaccine backwards and in high heels. Now they have to smash up their bodies because hypercompetitive soccer, track, and boxing are the only ways we can think of for females to have fun and show what they’re capable of. Come to think of it, girls should also be coerced into playing with cars and trucks, majoring in engineering, and doing other things that count.
But rhythmic gymnastics makes all kinds of sense for girls. It is low impact, so low risk. It teaches coordination, poise, and vectors (STEM!). Foes of economic inequality will be happy to hear that a twirling ribbon can be had from Amazon for pennies on the home balance beam, or even a pair of pink cleats. Rhythmic gymnastics allows participants to develop the one physical skill in which a girl who plays clarinet is likely to outshine a boy who plays football: flexibility. It is the rare sport that capitalizes on women’s native physiological advantages, while directing their strength training to the grace that comes from restraint. It’s also hard to dope, since flexibility and strength run on different chemicals. (Some elite rhythmic gymnasts have been busted over diuretics, but they could have been thinking about their homecoming dresses.)
The suitability factor goes beyond anatomy and physiology. If you give a boy a ball, he throws or kicks it back at you. Do the same to a girl, and she puts on a glittery skirt and makes friends with the ball. With time and training to stretch her ligaments, she could learn to do some very gnarly things. An infinite number of girls in a room stocked with 20 cm. bouncy balls would not invent dodgeball. They would invent rhythmic gymnastics.
In 1995, a T-shirt explained that if cheerleading were any harder, it would be called football. We are still waiting for the shirt positing that if football were scored by a panel of judges deducting points for technical flaws and wooden expression, it would be called women’s football. The sports in which women gain notice are often those in which wins are determined by something other than stopwatches or tape measures.
Gymnastics occupies the hazy territory shared by cheerleading, figure skating, free running, the martial arts, dance, and acrobatics. These activities form an isthmus between sport and art, and their arrangement along the terrain is difficult to determine. Dance can be extremely physically demanding, but is mostly considered art. Artistic gymnastics are also athletic in the extreme, but can only be judged subjectively. Figure skating is athletic but includes sequins. Martial arts call themselves arts, but “martial” sounds more athletic than “sports” does. Free running’s physical requirements keep it mostly male, but it calls itself a discipline and esteems personal expression. Cheerleading could attempt a claim on sculpture, but prefers to be a sport. Acrobats end up in circuses, when they should be getting Nobel prizes.
Each of these pursuits involves men who provide a dimension of strength unattainable by women. In the U.S., rhythmic gymnastics is for girls, but this is not true everywhere. Japanese men compete in rhythmic gymnastics in a way comparable to artistic gymnastics, with a different set of apparatuses and expectations. There are no ribbons or balls, the hoops are smaller and used in pairs, and there is a stick (not to say baton) involved. The sport favors skills from the martial arts, involves tumbling, and forgoes apparatuses in group competition. Russia has also made a bid to introduce men’s rhythmic gymnastics to the Olympics. As a dominant world competitor, it has the training structure in place to pick up some easy medals by doubling the number of athletes it can enter, if rhythmic gymnasts are athletes.
Men wishing to pursue rhythmic gymnastics would be on the same fast track to success as male dancers and figure skaters, but would also face the same “You’re a guy in tights” observation. Lacking the baseline of respect afforded to dance, skating, and artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics looks like a long shot as a widely accepted male sport in the U.S. Guys possessing the natural skill set could avoid the glitz by choosing acrobatics or martial arts, or head to cheerleading or ballet to pick up chicks.
But sports are not only about participation. Their value is also weighted by the extent to which people want to watch them. Women’s World Cup rummages up decent crowds, but individual female athletes usually attract more viewers than women’s team sports do. Artistic gymnasts are good at this; rhythmic gymnasts, not so much. Maybe the goofy factor is just too high. Maybe we aren’t that comfortable looking at women putting their hinders on their heads. Maybe we’ve seen so much smut that a minimally dressed, slithering girl has been vacated of her power to keep us captivated.
The problem is surely the patriarchy, but it’s hard to pin down what the patriarchy is doing wrong with rhythmic gymnastics: Allowing it to exist when it makes women look silly? Refusing to watch while women do amazing things? Not wanting our sons to be in it as we want our daughters to run hurdles? Probably all of the above, since the patriarchy excels at committing mutually exclusive offenses. The worst patriarchs are the woman ones. If women would just quit doing rhythmic gymnastics, we wouldn’t have this problem. But that can be fixed through the back door. Transgendered persons are already showing that there is no such thing as a women’s sport, because there’s no such thing as a woman. Anybody can prance in lipstick and fling a hoop around if a rhythmic gymnast is what ze is.
However, female impostors will find it much more difficult to scud through the air hyperextending their legs past 180 degrees, execute witchy illusion turns, or roll over sideways with their legs split backward over their heads, while keeping track of that hoop. These feats cannot be bought with drag or surgery, and not much can be gained toward them by hormone abuse. No one has to appreciate, support, or watch rhythmic gymnastics in order to “send the right message.” But as a sport, it sure beats chess with Yoko. Its conglomeration of costumes, music, tools, and dynamic contortionism is a singular backdrop for G.K. Chesterton’s description of girls “go[ing] off to a girl companionship which the boys would think literally insane.” The scarcity of such companionships in the age of militant androgyny argues for their worth.
One of the better outcomes of sports is the de facto demonstration of how proficient human beings can become at strange and nearly useless things. The creative absurdity built into sports stands against radical efficiency that would reduce every person to a unit of soulless production. The obscure beauty of rhythmic gymnastics is quite successful here. Even better, rhythmic gymnasts transcend the touchy attention-seeking that is endemic in athletics. Not many people watch them, they’re not taken seriously, the boys don’t want to play—who cares? They like the weird thing they are so good at. On that count, they deserve whatever score is a perfect ten in rhythmic gymnastics.