Cups, Bras, and Athletic Supporters

How you look at things.
July 15 1999 3:00 AM

Cups, Bras, and Athletic Supporters

"Girls Rule!" screams Newsweek's cover story on the U.S. soccer team's victory in the Women's World Cup. "Women's sports take giant leap," exults USA Today. Everyone agrees the tournament was a cultural leap forward--but in which direction? Beneath the celebration lurks a struggle between equality feminists, who think the tournament proved that women can be just like men, and difference feminists, who think it showed how women are different and better. The spin contest covers four issues: individualism, sex, careerism, and playing dirty.

1. Individualism. Equality feminists want each woman to assert herself. One school of egalitarians sees the World Cup as a demonstration that women can be "independent." Another school, illustrated by the Gatorade ad that shows U.S. soccer star Mia Hamm battling Michael Jordan at various sports, pushes the idea that women should embrace competition. "Anything you can do, I can do better," goes the ad's jingle. A third school, influenced by male sports marketing, selects certain players on the women's team and pitches them as solo stars. Several male columnists ignore most of the championship game and focus on the game-ending goal by American defender Brandi Chastain--"a shootout, womano a womano," with "one winner, one loser, everybody holding their breath."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Difference feminists draw the opposite lessons. They reject the rampant individualism of "loutish male basketball and baseball players," as the New York Times' George Vecsey puts it, and they celebrate the U.S. women's squad as a collectivist countermodel. "U.S. Takes One for the Team--Collective Selflessness Culminates in Title at Women's World Cup," beams the Washington Post's front-page headline. Newsweek, picking up the "selflessness" theme, praises U.S. players who "accepted diminished roles" and offered "to do anything I'm asked for this team." Contrary to the Gatorade ad, the magazine reports with admiration that Hamm "sees herself as a solid cog in a remarkably powerful machine" and "refuses to acknowledge that she's a player with unique gifts."

Some difference feminists suggest women are born this way. Vecsey, for example, calls them "innately good teammates." Others attribute their selflessness to environmental programming. According to Newsweek's account of the U.S. team's preparation, "Roommates were switched at every stop on the World Cup road to prevent cliques from forming. As the tourney progressed, the imaging tapes, designed to be watched in private, were shown in groups." The resulting collective consciousness is captured in Nike ads that depict the players doing everything together. In one ad, a player goes out on a date, and her teammates tag along. In another, a male dentist who has given one of the players two fillings stares in amazement as one teammate after another rises, zombielike, to declare, "Then I will have two fillings!"

Equality feminists find this celebration of selflessness creepy, but it's not just being foisted on women by male writers. World Cup Chairwoman Donna de Varona lauds the American players' "humility." Time columnist Margaret Carlson praises "their unassuming ways." One player, Kristine Lilly, says the team is "like a second family. Female sports are different. You do a lot better when you care about each other. We are nurturing people, caring people. ... We all want to see each other happy."

2. Sex. Many difference feminists celebrate the U.S. women team's sex appeal, recycling David Letterman's descriptions of the team as "Babe City" and "Soccer Mamas." The icon of these pro-sex feminists is Chastain, the player who posed nude (but not lasciviously) in Gear magazine, kicked the winning goal, and then tore off her jersey and bounded around the field in a black sports bra. Equality feminists worry that the players' exploitation of their physiques is self-objectifying and retro.

Pro-sex difference feminists find their heroine under attack less from the left than from a scandalized news media elite. Sunday morning talk show hosts asked Chastain in a tone of polite disbelief what in God's name prompted her to tear off her jersey. "What are you thinking? What are you doing?" stammered ABC's Robin Roberts. Newsweek says Chastain had posed for "a lowbrow men's magazine"; the Post's Ann Gerhart calls it "the frat boy's Esquire." Time calls her jersey-removal flourish a "strip" and jokes, "Hey, her name is Chastain, not Chaste." Purists prefer to praise Michelle Akers, the less flashy midfield workhorse who has pronounced herself "a bit uncomfortable with Brandi's deal."

Chastain's defenders offer several counterspins. First there's the pro-choice defense, which says every woman's choice should be respected, whether it's running marathons or posing for Gear. Then there's the "sexy to be strong" defense, which praises the U.S. women for adding muscle tone to our idea of feminine beauty. Then there's the "have it all" defense. As USA Today's Jill Lieber puts it, the team's "message" is that "you can have it all. ... That if you're also driven, determined, aggressive, tough and committed, you can captivate Tom Brokaw, David Letterman and the nation with your brawn and your brain, your femininity and sexuality, your athletic skills and your 'babeness.' "

Some equality feminists also take Chastain's side. Their superficial spin is that male players whip off their shirts all the time, and women should be able to do the same. Their subtler spin, well-expressed by Gerhart, is that Chastain "has brought instant attention to a piece of clothing that is humble and practical--not a traditional bra of shine and lace and cleavage, but a sturdy compression garment. The sports bra is the cloth symbol of Title IX's success." The crudest egalitarian spin is that Chastain is using her sex appeal to get attention but that this is OK because she's using the attention to make money, just as men do. As a Newsweek essayist puts it, the team is "having some fun--not to mention making some profit--with America's sexual obsession."

3. Career and family. Equality feminists measure the team's success by its paychecks, complaining that its salaries are "meager by men's standards," and its bonuses for winning "pale in comparison" to what men get. Noting the team's decision to arrange its own tour of promotional matches, contrary to plans made by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Post says the players are "determined to promote and pay themselves better than they believe the [USSF] has." Time, agreeing that the team has boosted its negotiating leverage, beams, "Welcome to the big time, ladies."

Difference feminists reject "the big time" as a crude, ugly, and destructive male pursuit. They celebrate the U.S. women's comparative innocence. "In an era when the egos of male athletes are dwarfed only by their paychecks, the World Cup women, minimum wagers by pro-sports standards, reminded the country that sports superstars can be gracious and grateful," coos Newsweek. CNN's Bruce Morton observes approvingly that unlike male athletes, the female players don't "have million dollar contracts or big shoe deals. They actually seem to play because they love their game."

Meanwhile, the World Cup coverage exalts players who focus on their families. Several articles applaud "soccer moms" Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett, as well as Hamm's devotion to her Marine husband overseas ("We've sacrificed so much," Hamm told USA Today). Even the World Cup's CEO, Marla Messing, is glowingly profiled for stepping aside to stay home with her kids. She "plans to turn her attention from filling stadiums nationwide to bringing a much smaller crowd together: her family," the Post reports. Now "her most serious ambition is to get reacquainted with her husband ... and daughters."

4. Playing dirty. Difference feminists portray women's soccer as more civil and noble than men's soccer. As Vecsey puts it, women eschew "the cynical fouls and flagrant flops of the men." Equality feminists draw a different lesson: The World Cup showed that women can body-slam, curse, and cheat just like men.

Each of these vices has an exemplar on the U.S. team. Akers has been elected to represent body-slamming, with the Post's William Gildea calling her "the Dick Butkus of women's soccer." A 13-year-old boy interviewed by the Los Angeles Times pays her the ultimate adolescent male compliment: "Michelle Akers, she's my thug."

Chastain represents crude language as well as physical immodesty. Before the championship game, she was notorious for defending her Gear spread by observing, "I ran my ass off for this body." After she kicked the winning goal, ABC put a microphone in her face and asked her to tell the nation about Akers. "She's the toughest goddamn player I've ever played with or against," Chastain blurted. Sportswriters chuckle at Chastain's "salty" language and call it "another step" toward gender parity in athletics.

The team's goalie, Briana Scurry, represents cheating. It was she, more than Chastain, who won the game by blocking one Chinese kick in the shootout. Scurry did it by sneaking forward, against the rules, to narrow the shooter's angle before the kick. Far from chastising Scurry, male sportswriters are congratulating her on her "savvy." "Yes, she said later, she knew she was breaking the rules," concludes Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "But because the referees didn't call it, it apparently falls under the heading of gamesmanship. 'Everybody does it,' she said. 'It's only cheating if you get caught.' Sports equality indeed."