Gender Stereotype Reversal in the Gym: We Are Not Totally Amused

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A few people recently drew attention to this video from The Flip Side. It’s a light take on what would happen if men and women switched roles in the gym. It’s not new. Many of you might have seen it before, as had I. Still, it’s worth reflecting on.

Granted, it makes fun of both men and women. And yet most of the women who talked to me about it said that they found it a bit funny and a bit offensive at the same time.

I had a similar reaction, though I do think it’s kind of funny. I’m interested in what makes it kind of offensive.

As anyone who has been to a gym knows, it can feel intimidating for newbies, especially women. The reason it feels intimidating isn’t only because it’s not a familiar environment. Another reason is that it is a very male-dominated space (thinking here of the weight room).

The gym is a place where women need to claim their place–it’s not awarded them as a birthright the way it is (for the most part) to men.

What’s offensive about the video is the way it plays into gender stereotypes that contribute to women being taken less seriously in the gym. Though it’s amusing to see two guys sitting on stability balls and talking about how they’ve earned a frozen yogurt, remember that this is supposed to be representing how women in the gym actually behave.

Any guy pumping weights in this video is lifting those tiny little pink or some other pretty color 3 pounders.

The guy at the end, paging through the magazine while leisure strolling on the treadmill and saying he’d be shopping if he’d not eaten cheesecake for breakfast, is supposed to represent women’s approach to cardio. The women beside him (remember, they are representing men) are running hard, sweating, working. The lightweight approach of the man highlights the stereotype of women as ignorant of what is required to get a good workout and/or incapable of working hard.

I know, I know. Men are also represented in a stereotypical light in this video. We see women acting as men in a yoga class, there only because it’s a good place to pick up guys. We see a woman posturing on her morning run. She’s really ready to puke but puts on an act when two good looking dudes walk by. We see a woman leaving the seat of a weight machine covered in a disgusting pool of sweat, totally disregarding the next user. And so on. Not flattering.

So why are some of the women I spoke to not completely amused, even somewhat offended, by this video?

In feminist research, we often talk about stereotypes in the context of power and privilege. Although stereotyping is in general not a good thing for anyone, it has a disproportionately damaging impact on vulnerable groups.

Men in our world are in positions of privilege. The space of the gym is male-dominated as it is. They can laugh at their foibles and still lose no ground at all in terms of their entitlement to be there. Systemic privilege makes ridicule less harmful to a group and its members.

Where women are concerned, that’s not the case. At many gyms, we start off at a disadvantage and need to prove ourselves, earn our right to be there. Making fun of women through stereotypes that show them as lightweights in the gym doesn’t help this cause.

That’s why we had the mixed reaction. Yes, it’s kind of funny. But it’s also kind of harmful. And were sort of tired of having to prove ourselves in the gym.

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

14 thoughts on “Gender Stereotype Reversal in the Gym: We Are Not Totally Amused

  1. Gubernatrix says:

    Interesting view and I totally get where you are coming from. These things need to be said. My reaction to stuff like this is to roll up my sleeves and get something done about it. I run women-only courses in weight training and olympic lifting (see http://strengthambassadors.com) because I want to provide a safe space for women to learn weight training and its world without feeling exposed and judged. Simply training alongside other like-minded women, even if only for a few weeks, can change perceptions; the experience of other women out there who are ignoring the stereotypes and getting on with it is empowering!

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    • Tracy I says:

      Absolutely. I love what you are doing to make women comfortable enough to put themselves out there. A little knowledge goes a long way. Once we know what we’re doing, we’re quite the force to be reckoned with!

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  2. Craig Burgess says:

    I must confess, Tracy, I’ve never before understood that women look at men as “entitled” to be in the weight room, but that women have to earn their spot there. I’ve never looked at a man or woman as having to earn a spot in the gym. I know that some men looked down at me and seemed angry that I was in the weight room, until I stuck with it, got stronger and perhaps most importantly, began to look more fit and stronger. Once I became quite noticeably more fit and especially stronger, these same men looked at me like they were sheepishly amazed and almost proud of me, in a way. It took quite a while to “earn a spot” at the gym, if that’s what I did in these men’s minds.
    I think also that I might now understand something I’ve seen at the gym which has mildly annoyed me in the past. Some women in the weight room do things that would be quite rude by men’s standards. Not that men are not sometimes rude, of course, but some women in the weight room regularly walk directly in anyone’s path and cut them off; they talk very loudly to other women just inches away from other people while they’re lifting heavy; I once saw a guy almost drop a 80 pound dumbell on his head as a result; and they never seem to say sorry. And these are usually women who are regulars in the weight room! I just thought they were disrespectful people. But maybe they’re just over-compensating and “earning” their spot or “taking their space” in the gym.

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    • Beck says:

      I totally agree with you. the video is a parody, it is not trying to be sexist in any way, in fact its trying to do the opposite by criticising the way that men and women have been stereotyped in the gym environment. The whole video is a critique of how society has portrayed men and women particularly by the media. I am a female and I have not seen this video as being in any way sexist and I am all for sticking up for womens’ rights but I think that feminists take it too far sometimes.

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  3. Tracy I says:

    Of course anecdotally there will always be exceptions.

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  4. Craig Burgess says:

    Huh? Not sure what you mean, Tracy.

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    • Tracy I says:

      Men who feel out of place or feel unwelcome and rude women strike me as exceptions to the norm. And to your earlier point at the beginning of your comment, it’s not that *women* think of men as entitled. I said that men enter the weight room with a sense of entitlement to that space in a way that women do not. It’s a social attitude, not a conscious awareness with which everyone approaches the gym. Of course there are other factors, such as discrimination against people who are overweight or disabled that make the claim not universally applicable.

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  5. Lablasco says:

    What I felt offensive was the main stereotype for men is positive (men work harder because they lift more, run faster) and for women is negative (women are just lazy chatty asses who don’t take gym seriously).

    If you intend to have a balance, you’d use other (still) stereotypes but positive for women too, like coordination (aerobics), or persistence (repeating exercices longer, running for a longer time). While using negative (still) stereotypes for men, like bragging about a workout they have not done, or seriously injuring themselves trying to show off.

    P.S. I’m sooo in love with those protein shake women.

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  6. Craig Burgess says:

    Yet once again, I have quite unintentionally offended you. I apologize. I thank you so much for this site. I have learned alot. Again, thank you both so much.

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  7. Melly says:

    This post came to mind as I entered the gym this morning. I walked past all the guys, working out on the ellipticals, treadmills, and weight machines, to enter the weight room, where I was the lone person there. Proceeded to load up the bar and start lifting it over my head.

    I think I’m fortunate that I work out in a gym located at my company, where we all look at each other as coworkers and teammates, rather than having any noticeable gender dynamic.

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  8. Craig Burgess says:

    I’ve given alot of thought to your response, Tracy. I agree completely that many women are afraid of the “weight room”. I think at least that some of the primary reasons may be: (1) they’re not sure how to work out with weights; (2) they’re unsure about the proper protocols or etiquette in the weight room; (3) they’re afraid they will get huge if they work out with weights; and (4) it is mostly men in the weight room. All in all, then – it becomes kind of a scary place. I also agree with you completely that as soon as women realize the health benefits of working out with weights, are taught how to do so, and understand thay have every bit as much “right” to the space as men, they can see that it is not really a scary place, and if it means anything, that the men will accept them there as much as they accept other men there. The issue about getting big is a little complicated. Women in general will not get “big” in the way that they fear. However, some women from a combination of training methods, diet and good old genetics will get bigger slowly and if they want to “push it”, can get a lot bigger. My sister works out 6 or 7 days a week with free weights and she is very strong. She laughed when she told me that a trainer was explaining to a woman that she wouldn’t get big from weight training, and that the woman then saw her walk by with 45 pound dumbells in her hands doing lunges. My sister is in great shape although she is no she-hulk by any means; she is hardly what one might call dainty or delicate, either. I think you are also correct that men in general might not experience exactly the same fear of the weight room than do women. However, I am uncomfortable with this language of “entitlement” and “social attitudes” that do not reach the level of “consciousness”, as what you say at least from an intuitive perspective does not seem completely on the mark to me, and also because I don’t have any way of either proving, disproving or even thinking critically about what you are saying (from a theoretical perspective, that is; everything you say that’s unconnected to theory of any type, I agree with completely!) if all of my own thoughts, attitudes and experiences are utterly meaningless, since the truth lies in some social attitude which is somehow expressed but of which I, at least, am unconscious and cannot access. At any rate, from my perspective, my gut tells me that your “theory” as expressed is not completely wrong, but that it perhaps constitutes a little bit of stereotyping by you, from your perspective on things. I know you admitted that what you say is not universally applicable. But I really do think you’ve actually crossed the line into stereotyping. It does not in my humble opinion really speak to the truth of what men experience (even unconsciously). I think alot of men don’t feel comfortable or entitled (even subconsciously) in any way to the weightroom, until they are told how to perform the various exercises, until they are not the weakest men in the weight room, until they are in good shape, until they look like they work out with weights, until they are not scoffed at by other men in the weight room, etc., etc. And I have not even touched upon the obese, the skinny, the disabled, the elderly, etc., etc. Alot of men at the gym don’t spend much time in the weight room at all. And just as an aside, I did not mean to suggest that most women in the weight room are rude. I said some women are rude by men’s standards, but I said that perhaps it is not because THESE women are disrespectful people (maybe some of them are) but rather, as a result of what you said, I gleaned that perhaps some of them might just be overcoming their own discomfort in the weightroom by asserting themselves in an overtly aggressive manner, to “claim their place” there. But maybe I am wrong – maybe these women are just disrespectful people, just like some men are disrespectful people. I don’t know. But when you start stereotyping other people and start attacking and silencing people who even only somewhat disagree with you and especially when only in theory, Tracy, well, I’m sorry but that’s really not very cricket, as the English might say.

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  9. Craig Burgess says:

    It has occurred to me that women might also be afraid of the weight room because of the large number of very large, very muscular, sweaty grunting men there. Were the weight room inhabited by smaller, more approachable, and less dangerous-looking men, it might not appear so scary.

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    • Lindsay says:

      Hi, Craig!

      I’m not Tracy, but I am a woman who lifts very heavy weights and feels perfectly at home in weight rooms. I will tell you that my comfort there comes from knowing how to do a lot of the exercises, because I was taught to do them in high school. I think a lot of women 1) don’t learn to use weights while they are still in school, and 2) feel uncomfortable for the same reason you, a man who was new to weightlifting, felt uncomfortable! There’s still a gender gap in who has experience with sports and fitness dating from childhood and who doesn’t, though it is definitely waning with the younger generations (mine very much included) thanks to Title IX.

      I also think your idea in this comment is probably true. I would probably feel a lot less “entitled” to be there, even given that I knew what I was doing, if I couldn’t lift very much. I would feel like the men were judging me, going “LOL weak woman” and resenting me for taking up space with my non-seriously-exercising self. (That’s what I would feel if I weren’t as strong as I am. What I do feel is camaraderie with those men, and a sense that I belong there.)

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  10. wolfshowl says:

    Somebody sent me the video after I complained about women in the locker room who do their hair and make-up up all pretty before going to work-out. (Why are you getting pretty? It’s a work-out!) Honestly, women like the stereotypes in the video *do exist*. They exist in my women-only gym where there’s zero intimidation from male presence. I admit that part of the reason for that prissiness is that they have ingrained gender norms, but so do men. That’s why you see men only lifting weights but not stretching, for instance. I think both sides were represented well in the video, and I think it commentates quite well on how working out should be about being fit and not about fitting into whatever gender norm has been assigned to you based on your genitalia.

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