Women's college basketball player Brittney Griner and unconventional femininity.

Women's college basketball player Brittney Griner and unconventional femininity.

Women's college basketball player Brittney Griner and unconventional femininity.

What women really think.
April 6 2010 1:42 PM

Slam Dunks and Nail Polish

Brittney Griner and the feminine dilemma of women's basketball.

To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss Brittney Griner and the women's NCAA tournament on Slate's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 21:55 mark:

Brittney Griner. Click image to expand.
Brittney Griner

On Sunday before each of the women's NCAA Tournament semifinals, ESPN aired a let's-get-to-know-our-players clip. This makes sense given the relative obscurity of women's basketball players. The real agenda, however, seemed to be to convince viewers that these players are actually women. Each bio clip unfolds like fairy-tale dress-up: A player appears in her daytime clothes, and then—with the help of some presto twirl magic—in her basketball uniform. Stanford's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude is "something like a diva," she says, giggling and vamping in her flirty fuchsia dress. Her teammate Jeanette Pohlen says she "owns over 90 colors of nail polish," and Cardinal center Jayne Appel confesses that her favorite day at the sorority house is "sandwich day." Baylor's Morghan Medlock, dressed in a pink stripy tank top and headband, says she likes to shop. Once the women change into their basketball clothes, they shift their focus from the mall to the court. "I'm a nightmare on the glass," Medlock says.

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the co-host of NPR’s Invisibilia and a founder of DoubleX . She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

The result is a confusing mishmash of girl-power messages, something like the sounds that emit from working-woman talking Barbie—"I have e-mail!" and then "I can't wait to go dancing with Ken!" Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Baylor University, could never be excluded from these getting-to-know-you intros because she is, as the announcers declare, "the talk of the tournament." But she does not exactly fit the bill. She looks pretty much the same pre-twirl as post-twirl, in black pants and a black T-shirt. She smiles shyly and says in her deep voice, "I'm Brittney Griner, and I love bacon." (At least that's what it sounds like—it's hard to tell from the clip.) In the final parade of lady players, she flexes her muscles in the center as her shorter teammates pose around her.

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In theory, the women's tournament should be a time to celebrate the vast array of women's talents and body types. True, these women do not play nearly as hard and fast as their male counterparts. Still, it is a genuine pleasure to watch these Amazons display the fierce concentration and physical fearlessness we are so used to seeing from men. This is the lofty spirit of Title IX—that even in spheres we have long considered the exclusive domain of macho, women can hold their own. I always try to make my daughter watch a few minutes of replay, and talk to her about the players as if they are civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks.

But women's college basketball, like many professional women's sports, often seems uncomfortable with its own unconventional version of femininity. In the WNBA, the Washington Mystics don't have a "Kiss Cam" during timeouts because some fans might get offended by lesbian smooching. "We got a lot of kids here. We just don't find it appropriate," Sheila Johnson, the team's managing partner, explained last year. The league's rookie orientation has included seminars on fashion, hair, and makeup. "It's all contributing to how to be a professional," WNBA president Donna Orender said about the beauty sessions. To grow its audience—and to avoid the perception that it's a sport exclusively played by and marketed to lesbians—women's basketball gets packaged as a wholesome family sport replete with all-American ladies. But that aspiration limits the range of possible feminine archetypes.

Into this dilemma walks Griner, a freshman phenom who dunks, wears size 17 men's shoes, and has a wingspan of 86 inches. If anything can save women's basketball from obscurity, Griner is it. The University of Connecticut's team, which beat Baylor Sunday night, has a 77-game winning streak and great players in Maya Moore and Tina Charles. But Moore and Charles do not stand out like Brittney Griner. The Baylor star was universally ranked as the top recruit when she came out of her Texas high school last year. In her senior year, she dunked the ball 52 times in 32 games. In her first college season she's already set records for blocked shots, and her four dunks aren't far off from Candace Parker's career college record of seven. After Sunday night's game against UConn, Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma whispered his congratulations to Griner and said he hoped to coach her one day, maybe in the Olympics. After their conversation, Griner broke out into a big smile.

But Griner fits no one's idea of traditional femininity. In a close-up head shot her features look quite delicate. But this only makes it more shocking to hear her voice, which is deep and husky and outside what we register as a feminine range. Off the court, she dresses and walks in a way that would probably not be greeted with approval at a WNBA rookie orientation beauty seminar. In an interview, she says she always wanted a toy train for Christmas but her mother hasn't gotten it for her yet. In one game this season, Griner responded to some physical play by a Texas Tech player by punching her opponent in the face and breaking her nose. The replay is amazing to watch. Griner's long arm swings out like a tetherball and the other player goes down, soon to reappear with a bloody tissue stuck in her nose. (She was suspended for two games.)

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When shot from a distance, say, giving the soul shake to one of her guy friends on the Baylor campus, Griner can easily be mistaken for another guy. Traditional media outlets, however, generally avoid raising the issue of her masculinity, although curiosity about her gender is unavoidable in Google's search results and in comments sections of stories about her. In the case of South African runner Caster Semenya, the media and sports officialdom instantly medicalized her condition and wondered if she had excess testosterone or a gender abnormality. Semenya, who considers herself a woman, was forced to undergo gender testing and her career is now in limbo as she awaits the results.

Griner's case has played out with more euphemism and delicacy. This might be because intercollegiate women's basketball gets less scrutiny than international track and field. Or it might be because there is nothing to medicalize. Griner is an American well past puberty. Gender disorders are usually discovered, at the latest, when a teenage girl fails to get her period, so Griner would know by now. Short of a diagnosed abnormality, Griner may have some elevated testosterone levels, but surely that alone would not disqualify her from competing as a woman. Or another option: It might be that in the age of Caster Semenya, medical explanations are the most accessible at the moment, while the old hazier orientation ones—gay, straight, something in between— seem more loaded and difficult to discuss. Either way, there are no ready labels to affix to giant, pretty women with enormously long arms who, even off court, seem to prefer loose pants and T-shirts over dresses.

Griner's very particular presentation has already generated some excitement in the fashion world. In a recent New York Times story on female athletes redefining beauty, famous model scout Paul Rowland put Griner in his favorite category of "one-offs and amazing creatures" and offered to represent her. But model scouts are not the conduits to middle America.

It's for that reason that Griner will not solve the problem for women's basketball, even if a gender controversy never develops around her. As a star, she registers less as the perfection of the norm than as totally aberrant. Around the other women players she looks like a different species, with her endless limbs and her high center of gravity. This might be because she's a freshman and not yet in total control of her body, or it might be because she is just unusual. What she looks most like is a Na'vi, with her braided hair and a way of moving that's less fluid than swaying. The NCAA, and later the WNBA, may succeed in bringing fans out to see her. What they will never know is if it's amazing skill the fans are coming to see, or a freakish one-off.

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