Jennie Finch is an awesome softball pitcher. No question about that. Her accomplishments on the field speak for themselves: NCAA championships, Olympic gold and silver medals, World Championship. She was arguably the face of women’s softball for the last 10 years.
Unfortunately in women’s sports though, it takes more than being an accomplished athlete to get the mainstream sports media’s attention. You have to combine your awesome talent with physical beauty and then highlight your “femininity” by wearing make-up when you play your sport, swinging a hot pink bat, festooning your long hair with glitter and brightly colored ribbons. You should also pose in sexy photo shoots for men’s magazines if you really want to show your stuff (and I’m not talking about your wicked curve ball).
In perhaps one of the more nauseating quotes I’ve read recently, Jessica Mendoza, one of Jennie’s teammates and President of the Women’s Sports Foundation says of Finch,
"She set the standard for softball in a new era of being able to be feminine and play this sport. Not that you have to be feminine to play this sport, but I see hundreds of thousands of little girls now with glitter headbands, hot pink bats, makeup. I'm not saying that every girl has to do that but when I was growing up, it wasn't like that. She has created a new era of softball player, and it's for those softball players -- those little girls out there -- that want to be cutesy with the bows and the glitter and still be that dirty jock. Covered head to toe in dirt but she's got her hair all perfect with a bow."
It saddens me that the “freedom” to be feminine is somehow interpreted as progress for women’s softball and women’s sports. This is not a new era. Appearing feminine has always been a requirement, hardly a “freedom.” Women athletes have always needed to prove their femininity and heterosexuality. They have always needed to compensate for their athleticism by highlighting their “normality,” that would be their girly-girlness and their interest in men. The acceptance of women athletes has always depended on their ability to project conventional femininity and heterosexuality: She can strike out big league baseball players, but, by gosh, the ribbons in her hair are so darn cute, her make-up is impeccable, and not a hair out of place.
Women athletes have always felt the pressure to compensate for being “dirty jocks” (read lesbians) by presenting a feminine image off the field. Is it really progress that now women have to do it on the field as well? Is it progress that game preparation now includes hair and make-up sessions and the application of glitter and the tying of pretty hair ribbons? Is it really progress that “hundreds of thousands” of little girls now believe that glitter, hair ribbons, and make-up are part of a softball uniform? Will little girls who aspire to be like Jennie Finch believe they need to pose in men's magazines to be accepted as athletes?
Don’t get me wrong, I would be happy if it were true that girl and women athletes had choices in how they present themselves. The ones who like long hair, ribbons, make-up, and glitter can wear it and the ones who don’t are equally celebrated as role models. The ones who are partnered with or married to men and the ones who are partnered with or married to women have their personal lives equally celebrated and respected. Now that would be a new era for softball and all of women’s sports.