Do you recognize this skater? Her name is Surya Bonaly and she was an elite figure skater during the late 1990s. And, as you might have noticed, she also was black. I hadn’t thought about her in awhile, but then I heard this interesting RadioLab podcast: “On the Edge” [it is #5, released April 22, 2016]. The podcast talked about how amazing she was–so strong, so flexible, so explosive–but she never got the scores [or the recognition] she really deserved. Why? Well, the mixed opinion about Bonaly reflect the mixed opinions about female skaters, and the tension between being “graceful and elegant” and being “strong and powerful.” Sound familiar? If you watch tennis, it should be–Serena Williams has been dealing with this kind of criticism for years.
Now, the hosts of the podcast dance around the question “Was racism involved here?” I think that is a bit ridiculous: of course, the answer is YES. Frankly, we live in a racist society, so racism is always involved; and it is particularly involved when it comes to standards of beauty, and women’s bodies. Let’s not kid ourselves.
So, this could have been a post about racism and women/women’s bodies, but instead, I want to reflect a bit on women and power, because I think that also is an issue here. Simply put, powerful women are scary, especially when they look powerful (we like our female athletes strong but dainty–you know, feminine–and, let’s be clear, white). Powerful women look like they might not know their place, and that is threatening.
As I was thinking about all this, I couldn’t help thinking about Hillary Clinton, of course–another powerful woman who is getting castigated in many camps for precisely that reason. She doesn’t conform to people’s expectations of what a “woman” should be and do, and that worries some, and makes others angry.
This was even mentioned in a story in Time magazine about the new “Ghostbusters” movie–surely you’ve heard that Paul Feig has “ruined” our childhoods by remaking this classic with WOMEN (gasp!). In the story, the author writes, “One of the charges often leveled at Hillary Clinton is her lack of warmth, which makes the rules here doubly confusing: a woman can’t be a Ghostbuster, and if she’s lacking certain required feminine qualities, she can’t be President, either.” (Do you ever feel like the rules are constantly being written to make sure you lose? I’m sure Hillary must feel that way at times….)
Surya Bonaly did all she could: she worked hard, skated beautifully, but never could quite make it to the top of the podium. So, finally, she just opted out–but in the most amazing, spectacular way possible. You might remember it–it was definitely memorable–but if not, watch the video here: Bonaly 1998 Olympics. (Incidentally, it’s the landing that makes it so one-of-a kind).
Stereotypes are hard to break, but they can be broken. We just shouldn’t all have to do backflips to do it.