Almost 8 years ago to the day I wrote on the blog about journalistic practice of not sharing the weights of women in competitive sports.
Then and now I can see both sides of the issues, but I hate the differential treatment.
I wrote, “Women, more than men, are more likely to feel themselves to be defined by their weight. Very few women are able to view that number on the scale neutrally. And athletes too suffer from eating disorders, sometimes sacrificing performance for a smaller number on the scale. So the effects of reporting women’s weights are different than that of sharing men’s. Since the information about Olympic athletes is there and people want to know, I can see why journalists share it. I’m torn. I don’t like the differential treatment. I want to live in a world where weight is just one fact among many about a person, athlete or not.”
Here Cindy Hirschfeld isn’t talking about weight but about discussions of the type, size, and shape of the athletes’ bodies. She begins by noting how much sports reporting has improved, focusing mostly now on athletic achievement not appearance.
But sometimes a reference to body type hits a nerve, as was the case in a recent New York Timesarticle about Jessie Diggins’s bronze medal in the women’s individual sprint on Feb. 8. “In a sport that has so many women with massive shoulders and thighs, Diggins looks like a sprite in her racing suit, and it’s not clear exactly where she gets her power. But the power is there, as she flies up hills, and comes off climactic turns with a burst. On the downhills, she tucks low and cuts through the air,” wrote longtime sports journalist Matthew Futterman.
At least some members of the U.S. women’s squad didn’t appreciate the description and neither did head coach Matt Whitcomb. “It’s surprising to see something like that in 2022 come out in the Times,” he said when asked about it. “Because it’s a sensitive issue. And, you know, you think about where we were 20 years ago, something like that wouldn’t have even registered on anyone’s radar. And we all learn on a different day or a different year what’s acceptable—it’s an ongoing moving target. And so I’m sensitive to the people that are caught off guard, but it’s great that [Futterman] is being called out on it.”
The issue has added significance, perhaps, given Diggins’s struggle with an eating disorder in the past that she’s openly shared. It was a topic of discussion among female journalists in the Mixed Zone at the women’s 10km classic yesterday, Feb. 10, and a male colleague from FasterSkier initiated asking the U.S. athletes about it as they passed through to chat with us.
What do you think? Should we be neutral about numbers on the scale and the size and shape of athletes’ bodies, one thing upon many to comment on? Should we treat women athletes differently given the concern about eating disorders among women athletes? Or should we not look at bodies or least not talk about them? Isn’t that extra hard when it comes to people whose bodies can do such amazing thngs?
What do you think?Share your thoughts in the comments.
This year’s Olympics in Tokyo was hot. Yes, it was exciting too, but I’m talking about temperature. The daily high temperatures were between 29-33C (84-91F) every day since they started on 23 July, said one news source. Add to that high humidity, and of course there will be effects on athletes. From archery to rowing, Olympians experienced physical distress– so much so that some left their fields of competition in stretchers or wheelchairs.
The first notable casualty of the heat was Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva, who collapsed while checking her scores. She had tried to prepare for the climate by training in Vladivostock, a Russian city just 1,000 km from Japan. But her coach told reporters: “She couldn’t stand a whole day out in the heat”.
By “standing”, they meant literally standing:
“If you stand up in a warm environment for a long period of time and you’re sweating and you’re becoming dehydrated and the blood flow to the skin is going up and up and up, you can have a fairly drastic fall in blood pressure and that’s seen with people getting light-headed and feeling faint,” [said Mike Tipton, a professor in Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth who helped the UK’s triathlon team prepare for the heat.]
In fact, he said, standing still can make the problem worse because contracting your leg muscles as you move helps maintain blood pressure and blood flow back to heart.
There were many other cases of heat-related illness, but I bring up this one to emphasize how important environment is to athletic activity. The heat doesn’t just keep us from competing and doing our best; it can keep us from doing anything outside for an extended period of time.
The Lancet published a commentary in 2016 with predictions on what northern hemisphere cities could host the summer Olympics in 2085. Here’s what they came up with:
The researchers focused on the northern hemisphere only in this study. Their results are sobering– many of the locations of former Olympic Games will no longer (in fact, are no longer now) viable for intense outdoor competition in summer.
Here’s a thought: why not hold the summer Olympics in the fall instead? Turns out, some people have already thought of this (and written about it):
Tipton says the Tokyo Olympics should have been held in the Autumn, as they were in Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968. “It might well be that we start to think of it being the Autumn Olympics because of climate change,” he said.
But TV broadcasters are resistant, particularly in the US, where the autumn already has a packed sporting schedule. The NFL American Football season typically starts in September and the NBA basketball and NHL hockey seasons start in October.
Neal Pilson, former President of the US-based CBS Sports television channel told Reuters in 2018: “The Summer Olympics are simply of less value if held in October because of pre-existing programme commitments for sports…the IOC is well aware of American network preferences for the timing of the Summer and Winter games”.
Given global climate change, a summer Olympics is increasingly looking like a “having cake and eating it too” situation. By this I mean that we are faced with a choice: either we can have an international athletic competition at the time that corporations and media entities prefer, OR we can have that competition at a time and place that’s conducive to optimal athletic performance. Climate change is forcing our hand: we can’t, it seems, have both anymore.
For me, the answer is easy: have the Olympics at a time and place that promotes health and performance for athletes.
Of course, there are so so many other climate-change related questions, not the least of which is: should we even still host such a carbon-intensive event? I’m not weighing in on that here. I need to do my homework first. But it’s certainly clear that we are increasingly having to change our behaviors and activities due to climate change. This includes recreation.
Readers, do you think the Summer Olympic Games would be just as good as the Autumn Olympic Games? I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.
Hey– anyone interested in experiencing a full range of emotions in five minutes? Watch this 5-minute video of the Olympic women’s 55kg category weight-lifting competition.
SPOILER: Hidilyn Diaz wins the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal. But even though you know how it ends, it’s so worth it to witness the process.
UPDATE: Since readers outside the US can’t view this (oops!), I found some other videos here and here and here. The first one is low-fidelity of people watching her on TV and screaming in delight when Diaz wins. The others are Philippines and Chinese news.
What do I see from watching women who are the best in the world at doing what they do, doing that thing:
What strength looks like
What concentration looks like
What decision-making looks like
What relief looks like
What joy looks like
Watching these wonderful women, I held my breath, barely blinking, and cried with relief and joy and gratitude at their efforts.
Okay, I admit it: the Olympics brings out the sappiness in me. So sue me. But I dare you not to get a little misty-eyed while watching these women.
Hey– anyone out there having a special Olympics moment they want to share? I’ve got extra kleenexes and am ready to use them; lemme know.
See also The Olympics Don’t Want Black Women To Win. Taryn Finley writes, “Sha’Carri Richardson, Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi and others have been disqualified in the 2021 Olympics because of policies that are racist and unjust. There is no grace for for Black women at the 2021 Olympics.”
And then there’s this tweet which also lists the issues.
I know that some people want to say that these issues have nothing in common, that it’s not about race, it’s about rules that don’t mention race, but one thing all the cases have in common is that they target Black women Olympic athletes.
Ditto the swim cap story. There’s a lot of commentary that says competitive athletes would never wear such a swim cap since it would slow them down. Maybe that’s true. But if it puts someone at a competitive disadvantage, it’s hard to see why they’d be banned at the Olympics. It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that race is a factor and that the normative ideal of the Olympic athlete is white, in addition to being conventionally gendered.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to work with a board full of fabulous women representing a wide diversity of interests, experiences and backgrounds. One of the women had competed in the Montreal Olympics. She described for us one day what it was like to be subjected to a sex test. Her emotions were palpable, especially the anger.
In fact, we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements. This kind of scrutiny has now been enshrined with this week’s decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland in which they ruled against middle distance runner Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s move to enforce new regulations regarding athletes differences of sexual development (DDS). In particular, the IAAF says female athletes who have higher than usual levels of testosterone must take drugs to reduce those levels to even the playing field.
Semenya’s career in track has been dogged by constant allegations that her achievements in the sport are unfairly won. Curiously, US swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body produces less lactic acid, is deemed to be exceptionally fortunate to be born with this genetic advantage.
And yet, no one is suggesting Phelps should take drugs to enable his body to produce more lactic acid so his competitors have a more equal opportunity.
We cannot forget that along with the sexism this decision against Semenya perpetuates, it is also supporting a racist assumption on how black bodies perform compared to white ones. Acclaimed tennis champion Serena Williams has been constantly challenged on her accomplishments and her body size, shape and presentation. This CNN article gives a great overview about the biases against Williams, including the assumption that her excellence erases her female identity.
The belief that Williams and Semenya are so good at what they do, they cannot possibly be women is one that has long been used to attack women who excel in sport. But it seems particularly pervasive in its use against black women. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than is usually found in women. Yet the research is unclear how natural testosterone affects performance compared to artificial hormones used to enhance performance:
“What’s clear is that there is solid evidence that men who take excessive doses of testosterone … do get a competitive advantage clearly in sports related to strength,” said Bradley Anawalt, a hormone specialist and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of medicine.The problem, said Anawalt, is that attempts to try to quantify that competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone are “fraught with difficulty in interpretation.”
The CAS decision was meant to clarify and instead muddied the waters even further. They upheld the IAAF decision but said they should take more time to implement. They agreed with the concept of the rule DDS athletes should reduce their testosterone, but were concerned about the effects on athlete’s bodies. They said it was fine for the IAAF to apply this rule to athletes racing under 1000 metres but athletes running longer distances were fine.
The Semenya case has implications that are far-reaching. We know women have been over-medicated, often to their detriment. We know that chemical castration has been used to manage pedophiles. But Semenya is neither depressed nor a criminal. She is an athlete performing her best with the tools she was born with.
That the IAAF and its head Sebastian Coe have created an environment in which Semenya can be neither her best or herself is untenable. I am glad Canada’s Minister for Sport has called out this decision. We need to have conversations about sexism, racism, and transphobia in sport; more importantly we need action. Follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun, among others, on Twitter; sign this petition; become informed; and make your views known and heard.
When the Court of Arbitration for Sports struck down the IAAF’s Rules on Hyperandrogenism, Sebastian Coe wasn’t amused. When Caster Semenya took the 800 meters gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Coe was downright unhappy, and he announced that the IAAF was working to deliver the evidence that the CAS had found missing in its 2015 ruling: evidence for the proposition that elevated testosterone levels in women athletes provided these athletes with an unfair competitive advantage.
In 2017, the IAAF presented what they took to be such evidence; and last week, they presented their new rules on gender eligibility. According to the new rules, in all races from 400 meters to the mile, women with elevated testosterone levels will be forced to either lower them – or to give up their sport.
These rules, to take effect in November, are no better than their predecessors. In fact, they might be worse.
Second, there is the selectivity of the new rules. They only apply to four (Olympic) disciplines out of 21. The justification for this is a study commissioned by the IAAF, published last year. The authors of the study purport to show that the correlation between “free testosterone” levels and performance at the top level is significant in these disciplines. What the new rules do not reflect is that the authors also found a significant correlation in two other disciplines, the pole vault and the hammer throw. No other discipline showed a significant correlation.
The study was based on blood samples taken during the IAAF World Championships in Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013. Every athlete who finished her competition and went through an anti-doping control was counted – even those whose high testosterone levels could be traced to doping. The study took the highest and the lowest tertile of testosterone levels and compared the athletes’ performances to the mean performance. Yet the testosterone levels in the highest tertile ranged from “somewhat elevated” to “extremely elevated” (or “in the normal male range”, in IAAF doctor speak). There is no way to tell from the study whether extremely elevated levels also lead to an extremely enhanced performance. Nor is there a way to tell what specific advantage testosterone is supposed to confer in the disciplines that showed a significant correlation; the authors speculate that it might be enhanced visuo-spatial coordination in the pole vault and increased lean body mass and aggressiveness in middle distance running – but the study itself doesn’t give any definite clues; and the question remains why, if testosterone can have such varied effects, they show up in less than 40% of all Olympic disciplines.
And even if the study constituted proof that testosterone conferred an unfair advantage, there’d be no reason whatsoever to exclude pole vault and hammer throw from the new rules. So as things stand, the new rules look completely arbitrary even on their very own terms – and it seems obvious that they primarily target Semenya. They affect her disciplines (the 400, 800, and 1500 meters) and Semenya is the most prominent and by far the most successful athlete to have come to the attention of the IAAF gender police. Bluntly put, it seems that the IAAF either wants to get rid of Semenya or force her to artificially lower her performance levels to a point where she’s no longer winning.
The IAAF has been trying to come up with definitive rules for eligibility in women’s competition for over half a century. (Access to men’s competitions was never regulated.) Their efforts have largely been unsuccessful. By now, they have largely given up on the specter of the “male impostor” (suggesting that men might pose as women for “easy” athletic success) which ruled the introduction of eligibility rules in the 1960s. But they still insist that not every woman should be allowed to compete. In other words: while they have accepted that Semenya is a woman, they still cannot accept that she ought to be allowed to compete as she is.
Third, the IAAF still hasn’t explained convincingly why they insist on regulating eligibility in (pseudo-)medical terms in the first place (other than the obvious and obviously poor reason that they don’t like the media attention for Semenya and the races she participates in). They claim that they want to ensure fair competition, but on the basis of the (pseudo-)medical terms they have introduced into women’s track and field, there can’t be fair competition.
The IAAF’s obsession with testosterone suggests that by leveling one anatomical factor, they can level the entire playing field for professional sport. But that’s obvious nonsense. Not only is the commissioned study unclear about what exactly the relevant advantage conferred by testosterone might be, there’s also no mention of other obvious anatomical factors that confer an advantage: for instance, height in high jumping. (If high jumping had a scoring system that was adjusted to the jumpers’ height, Stefan Holm, one of the smallest-ever high jumpers to compete at the top level, would have been literally unbeatable.)
So either a lot more anatomical factors would have to be regulated, and consequently, a number of height, weight, flexibility, etc. classes created – or the IAAF could simply accept that one’s social and legal identity as a woman is enough to be allowed to compete in women’s competitions.
But what about Semenya’s obvious dominance? – one might ask. (After all, many of her opponents have complained about having to compete against her without standing a chance). If we look at Semenya’s 800 meter races in the most recent international events, she was dominant, but not beyond what “dominance” means in other disciplines. (In the 1500 meters and the 400 meters, she can compete for international medals, but she isn’t dominant at all).
Consider the pole vault and the hammer throw, the two discplines excluded from the new rules. For years, the pole vault was dominated by Yelena Isinbayeva – to such a degree that the only interesting question in a high-profile competition was whether Isinbayeva would set a new world record (she set 30 world records during her career; Semenya’s times haven’t come anywhere near a senior world record).
The hammer throw is currently dominated by Anita Włodarczyk. Włodarczyk has improved the world record seven times, became Olympic Champion in 2012 and 2016, World Champion in 2015 and 2017 (in 2013 losing only to Russian Tatiana Lysenko, a repeat doping offender, whose Olympic Gold from 2012 went to Włodarczyk) and European Champion in 2012, 2014, and 2016. If Włodarczyk is in shape and mentally sharp during the competition, her opponents typically don’t stand a chance. Yet if this is not an issue of fairness, why is Semenya’s performance? After all, we can assume that Włodarczyk, like Semenya, has an athletic predisposition that makes her exceptionally suited for her discipline – and that she trains extremely hard to stay on top of her game. Yet only in the case of Semenya is it assumed that somehow her predisposition is unfair (and thereby implied that she could be so successful even without training).
And what, finally, about the possibility that national sports federations could specifically seek out “intersexual” women with athletic talent? – This, too, is widely accepted practice, as long as it does not concern women who might have intersex traits. And it’s called “scouting for talent,” not scouting for intersex traits. Of course, physical features will play a role, but consider, for instance, the criteria any basketball scout would use to find promising young players. So in this case, it is not clear either why testosterone – or intersex traits more broadly speaking – should make a significant difference.
And so the supposed concern with ensuring fair competition still look like it’s really about policing gender presentation.
M.B. is currently a post-doc at the Institute for Christian Social Ethics at the University of Münster, Germany. She specializes in the ethics of sexuality and gender and the ontology of social groupings.
Always, always my favourite part of the Winter Olympics is the women’s hockey, especially the rivalry between Canada and the USA. As I write this, the gold medal game between these two stellar teams is starting in two hours.
And I’ll be sleeping by then. So for the first time in a long while, I’ll be missing the game.
The women describe it as the equivalent of their Stanley Cup, the biggest trophy in North American hockey. And that’s huge. And exciting. And most days it’s worth staying up for. But I just got back from India and I’m almost adjusted to Eastern Standard Time again, so I don’t want to mess with my re-entry. As much as I love women’s Olympic hockey, it’s a calculated decision for my health and well-being.
I may have missed the game, but here’s what happened:
Actually, Renald is home and he live-streamed it on his laptop beside me in bed. I woke up just in time for the US to score for a 2-2 tie. And then a Canadian penalty turned it into even more of a nail biter. Canada killed the penalty but the game still went into overtime.
Overtime is so hard to watch. In 2014 I was visiting my parents in Mexico during the Sochi Olympics gold medal game. It too went into overtime after Canada came from behind. It’s almost unbearable watching overtime in a key hockey game because the first goal in wins the gold. So there was just no way I was going back to sleep.
From overtime to a shootout when Canada couldn’t deliver on a power play with less than two minutes to go in the 20-minute overtime period. So tense. And they kept showing the players’ parents, who were understandably freaking out!
So for the first time in Olympic history the gold medal gets decided in a shootout.
And after a very tense shootout it went to one on one and the US won their first gold in 20 years. Silver is hardly slouching but you lose for it as opposed to winning for the bronze. It’s always been like that and I hope the layers remember that silver is also amazing. As a proud Canadian it is a disappointing result but team USA played an awesome game, Canada was good last night too, and both teams delivered outstanding hockey. Even if it was in the middle of the night.
I have a love/hate relationship with Olympics TV coverage– it’s thrilling to see such a wide variety of sports, but annoying that shows focus on the #26 American competitor at the expense of seeing a great final that doesn’t include any US athletes. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this year’s coverage is better; we get to see more big chunks of events, rather than just snippets of individual performances. Here are some tremendous victories from female athletes that just blew me away:
Marit Bjoegen of Norway skied to victory in the final leg of the women’s 4 x 5 (km) relay cross country ski race, winning her 13th career Olympic gold medal. That ties the Olympic record (with fellow Norwegian Ole Einar Bjoerndalen). Here she is, crossing the line:
Bjoergen is 37, a fact that was mentioned by the commentators approximately every 17 seconds during her final leg. Sweden’s Stina Nilsson, who is 24– “13 years younger!” the commentators kept exclaiming– was hot on her heels, but couldn’t hang on up the final hill. The Norwegian team is a powerhouse, and Ragnahild Haga set up the team for victory by erasing a 30-second deficit in the third leg to set up Bjoergen.
What a race! I was moving my feet in unconscious solidarity with the skiers, and marveling at their stamina and strength and technique and speed.
Speaking of speed, how about Korean short-track speed skater Choi Min-jeong? She’s 19 (it’s very important we know how old everyone is, it seems), and just blew the doors off of her competition in the 1500-meter final. I don’t know much (by much, I mean anything) about short track speed skating, but it seems balletic and also impossible– the skaters create an instant pace line, with some of them occasionally moving to the front. There’s all sorts of strategy (completely unknown to me), but it continues on, so graceful– they are fluid and consistent in their motion.
Then all hell breaks loose, and I’m a bit confused, very excited, and trying to look everywhere at once. Choi Min-jeong had made her move, skating on the outside with explosive speed to take first place, and continued accelerating as she crossed the finish line.
Speaking of wondering what happened, how about that Ester Ledecka, the Czech world-champion snowboarder who also competed in super-G giant slalom? She WON the competition, using someone else’s skis– apparently she borrowed them from American competitor Mikaela Shiffrin. Whoa.
Ledecka (along with the announcers and the entire crowd watching the event) was initially confused about the outcome. Here she is, trying to parse the information:
When it became clear that she had won, it finally started to sink in.
By the way, she’s 22.
All this enormous effort– a tiny show reflecting years of hard work and privation– and the joy it brings makes me happy about my own movement triumphs. And it motivates me to get out there (wherever there is…) to set my own records, however I see them.
Does the Olympics affect you in your plans and feelings about your own movement? I’d love to hear from you.
And that’s odd because just yesterday Susan and I were watching women’s snowboarding on television and looking on in awe as Italy’s Michela Moioli won gold in women’s snowboard cross. Such athleticism. Such remarkable young women. So much talent and skill.
Also, aside from ponytails peeking out from under helmets I had to look at the screen and listen to see whether I was watching the men’s or the women’s event.
I briefly allowed myself the thought that one advantage of the women’s Olympic events is that with all the gear sports announcers stay away from comments about the athletes’ bodies. Hah! So naive. So wrong. Silly me.
Even dressed in snowboarding gear that’s that not enough though for some male sports commentators to keep their focus on athleticism and performance.
“After Kimwon the gold medal in women’s halfpipeon Tuesday, Barstool Sports commentator Patrick Connor, who also appears on San Francisco-based KNBR, appeared on the “Dialed-In with Dallas Braden” show on Barstool Radio’s SiriusXM channel and made a series of inappropriate comments about Kim. “She’s fine as hell,” Connor said. “If she was 18, you wouldn’t be ashamed to say that she’s a little hot piece of ass. And she is. She is adorable. I’m a huge Chloe Kim fan.”
Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.
(I also write weekly at The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)
For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses to the question of whether or not this blog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.
I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional theatre scholar at Western University; for me, the overlap between work and sport happens when I think critically and politically about how bodies perform, are received, and are expected to behave in social space. (Sport is, after all, a form of spectacle, a kind of performance!) So when performance work related to sport crosses my desktop or TV screen, I get especially excited, and I want to share my thoughts about it.
This week, serendipitously, exactly such a performance appeared in my Facebook feed: it’s Channel 4’s trailer for Team GB (Great Britain) ahead of the Rio Paralympics, titled “We’re The Superhumans.” Here it is:
I was living in London during the 2012 Olympics when the first “Superhumans” campaign emerged; for that year’s Paralympics, the slogan was “Meet the Superhumans”. (Channel 4 was the official broadcaster of the 2012 games and the agency 4creative was the marketing brain behind the campaign.) This earlier campaign was designed to address, head on, the ablest stereotype that disabled bodies are “freaks of nature”; here is a description of the project’s ethic, which comes from a case study of the campaign prepared by the advertising association D&AD (the campaign won an award from D&AD):
In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ – its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called ‘Freaks of Nature’ designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.
“The intention was to change people’s attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey,” Walker says. “‘Freaks of Nature’ was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?”
The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become ‘Meet the Superhumans.’
I remember feeling incredibly ambivalent about “Meet the Superhumans”, billboards for which were plastered all over London during the summer of 2012. (Although, notably, they didn’t start appearing in full force until the “main” Olympics had closed.) On the one hand: what a great idea, to reclaim the idea of the “freak” and rebrand it with the kinds of superlatives we reserve for only the most powerful among us. On the other: to call someone “superhuman” is necessarily to imply that, on some level, they are not entirely human. It’s a double-edged sword – especially for those who have historically battled the gross prejudice that they are indeed not quite human.
Obviously, the first campaign had its heart in the right place, and I salute it for that reason. But I am also glad Channel 4 didn’t stand still when it returned to the “superhuman” handle for 2016, and instead chose to rethink some of the first campaign’s assumptions.
What do I like about the new campaign? A couple of things.
First, I love that it’s jazzy, warm, enormously fun. (Damn, it makes me want to dance!) Singer Tony Dee belts out the Sammy Davis Jr. song “Yes I Can” with tongue in cheek and twinkle in eye as 140 disabled people, athletes and not, pass across the screen, dancing their way through life, sport, art, and more. In case you thought you might want to pity these folks, well, don’t. Don’t gasp in awe, either! They know that’s your impulse, and they have no time for it. They are too busy swinging and grooving – and getting on with doing stuff.
Second, I appreciate that the emphasis in the new trailer is not only on exceptional sports figures, but on humans of all kinds doing ordinary human things, from brushing teeth to flying a plane to bouncing a baby. The affection the camera produces for these quotidian acts isn’t sentimental, either: the pace and the cheek (lots of winking!) of the music balances a certain amount of awe with plenty of “whatever”. (As a non-disabled person, I’m astonished to see a disabled person fly a plane – just because I never have before. Now I know!) In fact, the music yanks us quickly from “awe” to “whatever” and back again deliberately, as it punctuates the shifts with pauses and percussion, drawing attention to them. That call-and-response style has the effect of reminding us to stop being so awed already, and instead to regard all the stuff we see in the trailer as, well… pretty normal for the people on the screen – who are all pretty rocking human, after all.
What doesn’t work so well for me? I would really like to see a couple of vignettes in the trailer that include both disabled and non-disabled bodies working together. The trailer rightly makes disabled bodies its focus, but it doesn’t take the opportunity to show collaboration across bodily difference, which is a shame. (The only non-disabled body in the piece, as far as I can see, is the cranky headmaster who tells the young wheelchair athlete he “can’t” – only to be proven definitively wrong, of course.) If we are to think more globally about access to and opportunities in social space for all human bodies in the future, representing cross-ability collaboration is essential. It gives the firm impression that all human bodies count equally, and helps to demonstrate that equal access doesn’t mean “the same thing for all of us”, but rather “different stuff according to our needs that lets us all do the same things to the best of our abilities”.
There’s a “fait accompli” feel to the trailer that is, of course, part of its jazzy, groovy feel, but that also covers up access issues in troubling ways. It’s reasonable to argue that it’s not Channel 4’s job to show us the complexity of ability politics in a trailer that is designed to get a predominantly non-disabled population to regard bodies with other abilities more positively and fairly; one thing at a time. But it’s also reasonable to argue that it *is* their responsibility not to make disabled lives seem somehow “naturally” easy in a world biased toward non-disabled subjects and their bodily experiences. Because that just ain’t true.
So that’s my verdict on “We’re the Superhumans”: better than last time, inspiring and loads of fun, but not perfect – and more work remains to be done. (Luckily, the 2020 Paralympics are just around the corner!)
I offer this reading in full awareness that, as a non-disabled woman, I’m part of the demographic Channel 4 is targeting and trying to warm-and-fuzzy, and that my embodiment makes my position as a reader partial and imperfect in any case. Which is, of course, why I’d love to hear YOUR take on the trailer, too. Please share in the comments below!