Category Archives: Helen Owton

Sir Roger Bannister Dies

By Helen Owton

At the age of 88 years old, “Sir Roger Bannister, died peacefully in Oxford on 3 March 2018” his family said he was “surrounded by his family who were as loved by him, as he was loved by them”. He was best known in sport for breaking the four minute mile barrier (3mins, 59.4s) on 6 May 1954, nearly 60 years ago.

Something that he worked relentlessly to achieve remembering that, “I felt suddenly and gloriously free of the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years” (The First Four Minutes). He held the record for 46 days when John Landy, Bannister’s rival, ran a mile in 3mins, 57.9s in Finland on 21 June 1954. Indeed, breaking the four minute mile barrier was a giant sporting achievement particularly in light of the lack of training techniques, research and technology that currently exists today.

Life After Sport

Nonetheless, Sir Roger said, “None of my athletics was the greatest achievement, my medical work has been my greatest achievement and my family with 14 grandchildren. Those are my real achievements”.

For many, however, “Life after sport can be a challenging time, but it needn’t be. It’s a wonderful opportunity for reinvention.” (Richard Branson). Ending a career in sport can be a particularly challenging transition which can have cognitive, emotional and behavioural effects on individuals (Taylor and Ogilvie, 1994).  Many athletes struggle with life after sport particularly those who are ‘performance’ focused with a strong athletic identity whereas athletes more focused on ‘discovery’ tend to discuss life after sport more positively (Douglas and Carless, 2015). The transition from sport to life after sport can be even more disruptive if it was not planned (e.g. a career ending injury) (Allen-Collinson and Hockey, 2007). Regardless, if not supported, the dramatic transition can elicit stressful reactions and difficulty adjusting emotionally (Lavallee, Gordon & Grove, 1997).

Athletic careers have a short shelf life with athletes ordinarily retiring before their mid-late thirties, but Sir Roger was able to put his great sporting achievements in perspective and set his sights on other meaningful purposes enabling him to live a full life enriched by family and medical breakthroughs.

End of life

The irony of Sir Roger Bannister being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a medical field he had worked a lifetime in, is not lost on me. My Grandfather was diagnosed with bowel cancer after his wife, Joan Bebbington, had dedicated so much of her life working for Mr Douglas Macmillan (now known as Macmillan cancer). Similarly, another sporting legend, Muhammad Ali, also developed the degenerative brain disease Parkinson’s and died in 2016 at the age of 74 years.

Sir Roger may have argued, as a neuroscientist, that the brain is the most critical organ but the loss of a loved one will be felt most critically in all our hearts.

Sport and Fitness Student Induction: Student Hub Live

On Tuesday 26th September 2017, as part of our induction for sport and fitness students studying at the Open University, we held a live induction event through our Student Hub Live platform. If you missed the session you can watch the full video here on the link below or you can watch the individual videos of each session below.

Session 1: Sport and Fitness Qualification Overview (Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley)

Session 2: Sport and Fitness Blog and Social Media (Helen Owton and Karen Howells)

Session 3: The Role of the Tutor (Helen Owton and Ola Fadoju)

Session 4: E117 App Demonstration (Ben Langdown and Caroline Heaney)

Session 5: The Student Journey (Jess Pinchbeck and Caroline Heaney)

Women’s Sport 2017 is On Fire!

By Helen Owton

The summer of 2017 has been an outstanding season for women’s team sports.

Team success!

In the Netball Quad series earlier this year, the England Roses missed out on the title by just one point to the Australia Diamonds at Wembley. England beat India by just nine runs in a dramatic world cup final at Lords thanks to Anya Shrubsole’s remarkable bowling.

The England football team reached the semi-finals losing to the home nation, Netherlands at EURO 2017 but becoming national heroes. The Red Roses steamed into the Rugby World Cup final with an intense game against the very strong side of New Zealand, the Black Ferns. It wasn’t the happy ending they were looking for but the nation got behind the event to watch two of the best women’s rugby teams in the world.

Record High Viewings!

Not only has the Nation been so successfully in so many different sports, but the public have demonstrated a huge hunger for more! The women’s EURO 2017 viewing statistics hit record highs of 4 million, beating Celebrity Big Brother and the British Bake Off marking the highest audience figures for Channel 4 this year (Kennel, 2017).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L09K1qg1i9c

Earlier in the year, the England v Australia Netball game drew in half a million viewers on BBC2. Women’s cricket is also in high demand selling out Lords with 26,500 people and 1.1 million tuning in to watch the World Cup on Sky (Whaling, 2017). Recently, the Women’s Rugby World Cup, held in Ireland reported a record total attendance of 45,412, a peak of 2.65 million tuning in to ITV in the UK to watch the final between England and New Zealand and a vast increase in social media engagement.

Looking ahead, this trend is likely to build rather than fizzle with 80,000 tickets having already been sold for the Women’s Hockey World Cup 2018. Household names are cashing in on women’s sport with Vitality, Investec, and SSE sponsoring various sports and television companies are battling to secure broadcasting rights for women’s sport. Now, Kia have continued their investment with the Ladies’ PGA deal. It seems that the opportunity to watch women’s sport has never been better and it is an ideal time for other brands to invest.

Indeed, as Sally Munday highlights: “Even more encouragingly, terrestrial TV broadcasters have played a big part in this incredible summer of women’s sport. The UEFA Women’s EURO’s were shown live on Channel 4, the Women’s Rugby World Cup Final was broadcast live in a primetime slot on ITV, and Channel 5 has just announced that it will show women’s cricket domestic highlights in 2018.

Now, when I read about sport or listen to the news, I’m wondering why there isn’t more of a distinction so I know whether they are talking about men’s sport or not. We can’t just say ‘Football’ and assume that it is men’s football.

*Gender and Sport is a topic covered in the E314 module on Contemporary Issues in Sport

UEFA Women’s EURO 2017: The power of ‘Home Advantage’

By Helen Owton

On Sunday 6th August 2017, the Netherlands stormed the final after a stunning 4-2 win against Denmark having knocked out the Lionesses in a surprising win. At the start of the tournament, however, they were ranked 9th with favourites Germany being knocked out by Denmark in the quarter finals. When the hosts win it adds weight to the argument that ‘home advantage’ is a powerful weapon, but surely, home advantage can’t be that powerful?

Home advantage
Firstly, the idea of home for an individual performer may be very different, however, and the concept of ‘home’ is thus one that differs for each sport and its performers. Nonetheless, home advantage is a phenomena which has been a hotly debated contentious issue but appears to be very real. Research on home advantage found that home teams are more likely to win 53-69% of the time (Courneya and Carron, 1992). Indeed, research shows that nations hosting international sporting events can improve their medal count by around 25% (UK Sport, 2011). For example, in London 2012, ‘Team GB’ achieved a 27.8% increase in medal count (47 in 2008; 65 in 2012).

Various reasons have been sought to explain this home advantage phenomena. The presence of a supportive audience appears to be the most critical factor (Cox, 2012) and the size, density and proximity are important aspects to consider when evaluating the influence a crowd has which can activate the autonomic nervous system producing physiological and psychological arousal. This of course could have positive or negative effects on both teams. For example, a home team might feel ‘overwhelmed’ by the pressure of such a momentous occasion but an away team may experience the pressure in a different way.

Other factors include the issue of travelling to distant venues for visiting athletes; the unfamiliarity of stadiums and changing rooms for away teams, for example (Pollard, 2006). Nonetheless, the home advantage is dependent on a number of factors, including the familiarity of surroundings, the effect of travel on the opposition, an evolved response to defend home territory and the impact of the belief that we are more likely to be successful at home. Additionally, some of these factors are interrelated because the home crowd’s support might indirectly influence the thoughts and actions of the referee as well as the opposing team.

Indeed, Lucy Bronze mentions that the game against Netherlands was ‘a different game’ and needed to ‘silence the crowd’ and that referee decisions didn’t go their way.

Referee bias
In the Lionesses versus Netherlands game there were some hotly debated referee decisions. Indeed, referee bias is one of the many factors that contribute to home advantage. The idea that there is an unconscious impact that the home crowd have on refereeing decisions is a contentious one and is obviously hotly disputed by most sporting officials. Nonetheless, it could be that the power and strength of the home crowd subconsciously encourages a referee to go along with a crowd particularly if the decision is open to interpretation.

I think what makes home advantage so impressive is that unexpected teams win and it’s always surprising to watch a low ranked team work their way to victory! There were indeed some other unexpected stories in this year’s women’s EURO 2017.

Unexpected stories
Out of the teams making their debuts in the final this year Austria (ranked 13) quickly became the team to watch as they built on their successes and got strong and stronger after each game until they lost against Denmark (ranked 12th) on penalties (3-0). A great experience for Austria! France were strong contenders but were knocked out by England. Whilst Germany (ranked 1st) dominated the tournament since winning in 1989 making it an impressive total of champions 8 times, they got knocked out by Denmark in the quarter finals opening up the way for a new champion team! The hope was on the England to win the tournament, possibly adding pressure to their game as they played Netherlands. With the large supportive home crowd, it wasn’t to be for England.

Media success of Women’s Football
The fact that there has been a possibility of ‘home advantage’ during this WEURO2017 indicates the large crowd sizes which have been approx. 30,000. Additionally, Channel 4 have shown all the matches and peaked 4 million audience sizes, beating Celebrity Big Brother and Panorama (Sweeney, 2017). A huge leap for women’s football and the misogynistic comments on twitter are becoming an old fashioned dying breed.

I’m sure the nation will be excited about the Women’s World Cup in 2019 which is to take place in France! It will be interesting to watch whether the ‘home advantage’ will have the same results for France.

*Home advantage is a topic covered in E313 Exploring Psychological aspects of athletic development. If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please visit the ‘study with us’ tab at the top of the page.

References
Corneya, K.S. and Carron, A.V. (1992) ‘The home advantage in sport competitions: a literature review’, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, vol. 14, pp. 28–39.

Cox, R. (2012) Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Pollard, R. (2006) ‘Home advantage in soccer: variations in its magnitude and a literature review of the interrelated factors associated with its existence’, Journal of Sport Behavior, vol. 29, pp. 169–189.

Sweeney, M. (2017). England’s Lionesses smash TV audience record in Euro 2017 semi-final, The Guardian, [online, 4 August]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/aug/04/englands-lionesses-smash-tv-audience-record-euro-2017-semi-final-women-football

UK Sport (2011) ‘Home Advantage – The performance Benefits of Hosting Major Sporting Events’ [online]. Available at www.uksport.gov.uk/docLib/what-we-do/…/Home-Advantage.pdf

Women’s Euro 2017 football preview – all you need to know

Helen Owton, The Open University

As the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup draws towards its conclusion, the summer of women’s sport takes to the football pitch with the UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 competition getting underway on July 16.

It will be the 12th women’s Euro tournament and is hosted by the Netherlands for the first time, who will launch proceedings with a match against Norway in Utrecht. A total of 47 UEFA nations took part in the qualifications for the tournament and this will be the first time the finals will involve 16 teams rather than 12.

In 2015, the FIFA Women’s World Cup also upped its number of teams from 16 to 24, highlighting how women’s football is growing in size and popularity. According to a recent report by UEFA, there are 1.27m registered female players in Europe in 2016-17.

Media coverage of the sport in the UK is improving with Channel 4 announcing that it will be showing all of the games featuring England and Scotland. Other games will be shown on British Eurosport 2.

During the tournament, there will be a focus on increasing the number of women who play football through a campaign called Together #WePlayStrong. It focuses on three key aspects that embody the game: skill, togetherness and positive attitude.

The favourites

Germany, the holders and ranked first in 2017, have dominated the tournament since winning in 1989, lifting the trophy an impressive eight times. They also put an end to Brazil’s winning streak on July 4 2017 in the lead-up to the Euros. They will meet one of their biggest rivals, Sweden, on their opening game on July 17 – a team who are yet to beat them.

Dzsenifer Marozsán, who had a long football career as a junior, has appeared more than 60 times for Germany’s senior team. She is a highly skilled technician with the football who, after being instrumental in winning the Olympic Gold medal in Rio 2016, is one to watch.

France are also strong contenders and have had a successful year so far. They face Iceland first who beat Scotland 4-0 in the qualifying round in June 2016.

The Lionesses

England – known as The Lionesses – made history by finishing third for the first time in 2015, by beating Germany for an extremely well-deserved bronze medal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. They are a resilient team and have become female role models to a younger generation.

Since 2015, the team have been building on their success and on July 1 beat Denmark 2-0, with both goals scored by the captain for the game, Ellen White. She is known for scoring one of the best goals in the history of the FIFA World Cup in 2011, and is definitely another player to keep an eye on in this tournament.

The England squad has been announced – and there has been a bit of a shake up. There are some familiar stars from the 2015 world cup, including Fara Williams, Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Laura Bassett and Fran Kirby – but also some new names. Demi Stokes (defender), Isobel Christiansen (midfielder), Nikita Parris (striker), and Millie Bright (midfielder) all make their debut for England.

The Lionnesses’s first game, versus Scotland, takes place on July 19 in Utrecht at 19.45 UK time. England are favourite to win their group.

Debutantes to watch

Scotland make their debut in the Women’s Euros this year. The team is ranked 11th but has made strong progress on financial, commercial and equality issues for women’s football in Scotland in the lead up to the Euros. Despite a few injuries, the team demonstrated their form on July 7 beating Ireland 1-0. After they play England they’re lined up to play Portugal, ranked 23rd, and then Spain who are ranked 6th.

Other teams making their debuts in the final this year include Belgium, Austria, Portugal, and Switzerland. Switzerland, in particular, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Key things you need to know

• First game starts: July 16. A full fixture list is available on the UEFA website.

• The top two teams in each of the four groups will progress to the knockout phase.

• The final is on August 6 in Enschede.

Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Referencing In Sport: Getting your head round it!

By Helen Owton and Gavin Williams

Many students find referencing confusing and it seems that confusion comes from not fully understanding what is meant by voicing your own opinion in the context of an academic essay. Indeed, you are asked to write about what others have found and argued yet at the same time, you are told that you need to think for yourselves and come up with your own ideas and interpretations. According to Norton et al. (2009), those who are skilled essay writers respond to the essay by:

  • Reading the relevant sources
  • Formulating an argument that represents their personal stance
  • Ensuring that all the points they make in their essays are supported with evidence from the literature

Knowing when to reference and the specific conventions required can prove difficult, however, particularly for students new to studying at university level. The flowchart below “Is a reference needed?” provides some useful guidance for you:

Adapted from Cardiff University, 2006

As the diagram points out, you cannot make claims about knowledge in your essays without backing up with reference to the appropriate sources. It is the same with concepts and ideas. It might help to think about your own experiences; for example, think about how annoying you might find someone passing off one of your ideas in a meeting as their own without mentioning that the original idea came from you. As Jill, a student (cited in Norton et al., 2009, p. 79) points out “You can’t just make a point and leave it at that, you need to show the evidence is out there. This has been said and it is in this journal or this book” At undergraduate level, most points and ideas should be referenced, therefore, search through relevant journals and find previous research in order to support your points. First and foremost, you should use the module materials in order to show your understanding of what you have studied. As you increase through the levels (e.g. level 3), you might start to use other different sources of information as listed below:

  • Journals: the quantity and quality of your evidence will increase greatly and so will your topic of the area
  • Textbooks e.g. the Study Guide or Reader for your module(s).
  • Other credible documents

In E217 Sport and Conditioning Science into Practice, for example, you are encouraged to explore sources outside the module material to produce a “Personal Investigation”. Not only must you cite where you found ideas or knowledge, you must do this accurately as referencing is essential in higher education. You must do this in 2 ways:

  • In the text, by putting in brackets the author’s surname (not their initials) and the date when the study/book was published
  • And in the referencing section at the end of your essay, by alphabetically listing, by author, all journals, books, websites and other sources you referred to in the main text of your essay

Additionally, in sport, the general rule of thumb is to avoid using too many quotes because summarising information helps you understand something better as well as demonstrate your understanding to the person reading your work. Including too many quotes can result in a very superficial response to a question and when you are being marked you are not demonstrating your understanding to the reader/tutor. You should therefore keep direct quotes to a minimum and look to summarise (paraphrase) the information you have read whenever possible. Despite the need for referencing and citing appropriately, you must write about it in your own words. This can help demonstrate your understanding of what you have read and that you can apply this understanding to the question you are attempting to answer. Remember to reference it in the text AND in the reference list at the end of the essay. By doing this you are meeting academic criteria.

Getting penalised

It is important to get your head round referencing because a lack of referencing can directly affect the overall quality of your response to a question and consequently affect how tutors mark the essays. Many tutors take the view that when students have been told how to do something in their writing and then do not do it, it is valid to penalise them by lowering their mark (Norton et al., 2009). This happens particularly when a student’s turnitin scores are high (e.g. over 25%) which shows a high level of copying directly from another source or putting things in your own words. plagiarism

In order to gain further information about referencing on your module take a look at the Assessment Guide, available from the module website. The Open University library provides a range of resources to assist with academic writing and referencing. The Referencing and Plagiarism section here contains further information along with a very useful video about plagiarism. In addition, the Study Skills section on your StudentHome page also contains some very useful resources to help you plan and write assignments. Remember too that your tutor is there to provide support so do get in contact with them if you would like some specific advice about referencing.

In essence, “Every single name that appears in anything you write must be followed by a date in brackets, and the full reference must be presented at the end of your assignment” (Norton et al., 2009, p. 83). These cited references should then be listed at then end of your assignment in a reference list.

Reference List

Norton, L., and Pitt, E. with Harrington, K., Elander, J. and Reddy, P. (2009). Writing Essays at University: A Guide for Students by Students. London: London Metropolitan University, Write now Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

We must challenge the culture of silence about child sexual abuse in football

By Helen Owton

Professional footballers, including the former Crewe Alexandra player Andy Woodward, have been speaking out recently about their experiences of sexual abuse as children. They include alleged victims of football coach Barry Bennell, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1998, and are waiving their right to anonymity.

The NSPCC said a special hotline, set up after four professional footballers spoke out about their abuse, received more than 50 calls in its first two hours.

These developments follow the conviction in March 2016 of former Sunderland footballer Adam Johnson, found guilty of grooming and sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.

Sports, such as football, can be an ideal environment for trusting relationships between coaches and athletes to be developed – and exploited. Research has highlighted the “grooming process” in sport, in which a coach could abuse their position of authority to gradually erode the personal boundaries between athletes to subject them to sexual abuse.

Some coaches abuse their power

A large amount of power is invested in a sports coach. They can impose their version of reality on athletes. In this context, perpetrators of abuse can isolate victims from potential sources of support within that reality by controlling the psychological environment. This can be through direct emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and the creation of a highly volatile, psychologically abusive training environment.

A recent study I worked on with Andrew Sparkes at Leeds Beckett University, focused on the story of “Bella” – not her real name – a female athlete, who was groomed and then sexually abused by her male coach. We drew on previous research to explore three main types of harrassing coaches:

  1. The flirting-charming coach: someone always flirting, joking, or trying to touch the athlete.
  2. The seductive coach: someone who went further, trying to “hit on everyone”.
  3. The authoritarian coach: someone who used his power over the athlete. He was also characterised as having psychological problems and often had a degrading and negative view of women in general.

Bella’s coach was able to shift between the personae and tactics of the different coaches in order to groom her and have “power over” and own her for many years.

Jock culture hides abuse

While sexual abuse exists in many different sports, football embraces masculine characteristics which act like a cult – a subculture adhering to its own list of commandments situated in a type of “jock culture”. In the past, the commonly accepted ethos of “suffer in silence” and the traditional belief that children’s voices should not be heard, could too easily be used to disguise sexually abusive behaviours.

Often athletes believe that the “jock culture” of which they are a part takes precedence over any other authoritative structures outside their sporting world – a bubble which can cut them off from external support.

Men’s football, in particular, provides a platform to global celebrity, bloated salaries, corporate sponsorship and fan adulation that can catapult male footballers to fame and fortune. Football coaches, similar to other positions of power, are the gatekeepers to this dream and this status comes with power that has the potential to be abused.

Breaking the silence

This power is reinforced when they are found to have committed serious violent or sexual offences – but not punished. Evidence from the NFL in the US regarding violence against women suggests that sportspeople are less likely to be “punished by the leagues, teams, or criminal justice system as harshly or consistently as their general public counterparts”.

The overwhelmingly high value placed on men’s sport, specifically men’s football, might mean that abusers think they can get away with abusive behaviours which might include sexual or child abuse. Many victims are made to believe by the perpetrator that they were the only one who was abused – that they were “special” and would not be believed if they came forward. It can also be extremely difficult for men to admit to being a victim. Speaking out about abuse means breaking codes of masculinity and camaraderie that are closely tied to sporting identity.

While it is important for people to tell their stories, we need to be careful that the news does not create moral panic which leads to a culture of fear around coaches as “dangerous individuals”. While the footballers who have spoken out are very courageous, it’s important not to cast suspicion on all coaches.

Many of the effects of abuse on victims – such as drink and drug abuse, depression, suicidal feelings and sexual disturbance – are misunderstood. The culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse in sport can perpetuate feelings of isolation for victims of abuse. Speaking out about their abuse enables victims, bystanders and other sportspeople to become whistleblowers who challenge the culture of silence that seems to exist in football and other sports about this kind of abuse. After all, the shame lies completely with the abuser, not with the abused.

The Conversation

Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How universities can help to support student-parents

The challenges of being a parent while studying must not be overlooked, says Helen Owton

With student tuition fees in the UK increasing, part-time study for young and mature students might start to become a more viable and feasible option, particularly for those students who have children.

“Student-parents” are usually working part-time, with many juggling studies, family life and maybe other caring responsibilities. This all means that student-parents might fall between two stools, being neither a “traditional” student nor a mature student. Academics need to be supported by institutions to empathise with these unique circumstances – particularly if they are to become more commonplace.

Whatever the individual circumstances (young, mature, disabled, single), being a student-parent can mean a slow, time-consuming and strenuous adjustment phase when starting university. This varies from student to student.

THE photo

Many have been out of education for longer than five years, which can mean that becoming a student again can be a daunting experience. For example, as a mature student parent, they might feel anxious about intellectual insecurity, feel “uncool” or different, and have the additional pressures of managing the guilt of juggling parental responsibilities with study. Meanwhile, younger student-parents who have not been out of education for such a long time (particularly if they became pregnant during their studies) may face a different set of challenges such as overcoming stigma.

Either way, the transition into higher education – where there are significant shifts in lifestyles – can be a challenge. Institutions cannot assume that all their students are living in an academic “bubble”, waiting to enter the “the real world”; they are living, and have to breathlessly juggle studies and other commitments that can lead to emotional and financial hardship.

Unfortunately, many university protocols don’t necessarily accommodate the lives of students with children. For example, timetabling has been identified by the NUS as a significant source of stress for 87 per cent of student-parents.

Childcare is the greatest source of angst for most student-parents, because of the financial and the organisational demands. Half-terms can be of particular stress, especially during Christmas when there are fewer clubs and greater family demands (usually during a time when students are expected to be preparing for exams). Planning childcare can be time-consuming, long-winded, expensive and challenging.

It’s clear that student-parents have much greater demands on them than other students without these responsibilities, so it’s important for universities to encourage this group to seek out support as much as they can. But the support has to be there. More universities could create websites (such as this example from Newcastle University) that signpost student-parents to the most up-to-date resources available.

Where new structural developments are taking place, institutions should take the opportunity to build spaces, or crèches, for accessible and affordable childcare on campus.

Student-parents are an enthusiastic, motivated, purposeful and inspiring group of students who achieve in the face of adversity, but they might struggle and go off the radar – this is when lecturers can help remind student-parents of why they are studying. That can keep them motivated. As one student-parent said to me: “Sometimes just knowing someone is there, knowing the support is there if I need it, is enough.”

Helen Owton is author of Studying as a parent: A handbook for success.

Article originally published in Times Higher Education. Click here.

Why are Olympic athletes copping so much abuse? It all comes down to gender

By Helen Owton

Every four years, the Olympic and Paralympic Games burst on to our screens, showcasing a rich variety of sports, athletes and cultures. For those not lucky enough to be in Rio this year, social media has made it possible to share jokes, news, triumphs and disappointments with other viewers from around the world. But with as many as 3.6bn people watching across the globe, it’s almost inevitable that some people won’t like what they see. Already, several athletes have been subject to abuse via mainstream and social media. In one disgraceful case, as the Team GB Rugby Sevens battled it out against Canada for bronze, tweets targeted Olympic athlete Heather Fisher, criticising her appearance. Fisher experiences alopecia – or hair loss – and works as an advocate for others with the same condition. Comments on twitter questioned her womanhood, saying they were “not convinced” that she is “female” and that she’s “the manliest woman I have ever seen”.


 
Sadly, these insults are nothing new to women athletes. All Olympic sports are competitions of skill, speed and strength. Yet when women run too fast, kick too hard, or look too muscular, they are subjected to abuse. At the same time as being world-class athletes, sportswomen are expected to be physically appealing – and even wear make up – while photographs of sportswomen in the media are generally more likely to be sexually suggestive. Those who defend this state of affairs often say it’s a way to attract fans and endorsements to women’s sports – yet women athletes are still paid less than men and their games are given less air time. Men are not immune from discrimination and abuse in sport either. In some ways, men face more limitations on what physical traits are deemed acceptable, thanks to society’s particularly narrow ideas about masculinity. For example, Team GB gymnast Louis Smith was subjected to Twitter trolling when he slipped off the pummel horse, with some claiming that his long hair was to blame, and Ethiopian swimmer Nobel Kiros Habte was publicly shamed over his body weight, and nicknamed “the whale”.

Generally speaking, men are also vulnerable to discrimination in sports which are traditionally “feminine”, such as synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating and netball. Indeed, at the Olympics, men are excluded from competing in synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics altogether.

A challenging notion

This widespread sexism at the Olympics shows us that women and men who do not conform to expectations about their respective genders are often targets for abuse.

Caster Semenya leads the way. ABDELHAK SENNA/EPA

This is because they threaten traditional attitudes about the appropriate roles, rights and responsibilities of women and men in society. These traditional attitudes are based on a simple “binary” classification model – where people are classified as either male or female. This model is limited and fixed: it tells us that male and female are “opposite sexes”, that sex is determined biologically (according to chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones) and that all men are naturally different to all women in terms of their feelings, thoughts and actions. As a result, women are expected to look and behave in a “feminine” way, while men are expected look and behave in a “masculine” way. So many people understand sex and gender in this way that it can be very difficult for us to think about and discuss different ways of understanding gender. Human beings can feel very uncomfortable when other people do not fit neatly into categories, because it challenges preconceived ideas about what it is to be “normal”. And this can lead them to lash out. This model has shaped society – and sporting organisations – for a very long time. It is often drawn on in sports competitions, which are typically organised into “men’s” and “women’s” events. As a result, transgender and intersex athletes such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have to contend with large sporting organisations such as the International Association of Athletics Federations to even be allowed to compete.

All too simple

In reality, the simple binary model actually appears to reflect social and cultural ideas about gender, rather than biological facts. Evidence suggests that gender isn’t entirely binary on any level of physiology or psychology: men and women can both display huge variations in terms of chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, personality and roles in society. There are several good examples of this. Daphna Joel’s research challenges the idea of a “male” or “female” brain: in fact, most people’s brains display a mixture of features. And studies have shown that in marathon races, for example, not all of the men beat all of the women – in reality, some women will beat some men. As radical as this might sound now, it is possible that some point in the future, the fastest marathon runner will be a woman. In light of modern scientific evidence, it’s clear that traditional expectations about what men and women should look like – and how they should behave – are outdated. There is never a good justification for abuse. But the hate directed toward athletes who don’t fit neatly into our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman is based on ignorant misconceptions about gender. And in some ways, that makes it even worse. Athletes who challenge the mainstream understanding of gender don’t deserve to be bullied – especially after all they have sacrificed to compete for their countries. Rather, they should be praised for showing the world that individual differences can lead to outstanding achievements. The Conversation Helen Owton, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Superqueeroes: Gender and superheroes

By Helen Owton & Meg-John Barker (With expertise input from Joseph de Lappe)

The new Batman v Superman film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is coming out on 25th March 2016 so we thought this would be a good chance to reflect on superhero movies: particularly the place of gender in them. 

We’re particularly interested in the role of binaries and hierarchies in these kinds of films. Batman v Superman pitches two well-known superheroes against each other in a binary way, and – of course – the superhero genre as a whole is based on the linked binaries of hero v villain, good v bad, and right v wrong, with the former winning out in the end. More recent versions of superhero movies trouble these simple distinctions somewhat. For example, The Dark Knight version of Batman is less clear cut, and the two groups of X-men can be seen as more about assimilationism v radical approaches to activism. However, audiences may well not pick up on such nuances.

An additional binary and hierarchical consideration in Superhero movies is needed. Characters are male or female, with predominantly male characters, and masculinity is privileged over femininity in various ways.

Currently, we are living through a golden age of comics, with a vibrant independent comic and graphic novel scene which includes strong representations of womenExternal link  and LGBT+External link  characters, much of which has been taken up by mainstream superhero comicsExternal link  too. Nonetheless, there is a serious disparity between this shift in comics, and the continued limited representation in the movies which are based on these comics.

Wonder Woman and women/men in superhero movies

You might be surprised to learn that Wonder Woman is making an appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice given that both title and trailer suggest that the film will revolve around two well-known male superheroes. In superhero comics Wonder Woman has been part of the recent positive trend towards strong representations of women, notably with Gail SimoneExternal link ’s seminal run writing for Wonder Woman. However, turning to the movie, Wonder Woman actor Gal Gadot (who served two years as a sports trainer in the Israeli Defense Forces) has been blasted on social media already for being too slim, not busty, and not fit enough to play the part, but this should not be surprising given that women tend to be more heavily criticised on appearances. Not only is there a complete lack of women in superhero films, but the women are either cast as damsels in distressExternal link (e.g. Lois Lane) which serves to infantilise women, or as sidekicks to a main male character(s). This is the case in many of the recent X-men and Avengers movies, for example, very few of which pass the Bechdel testExternal link  (a simple test with three criteria: 1) features two or more female characters, 2) who have a conversation with each other at some point, 3) about something other than males). It also seems a shame that the Bechdel test is still what we’re aiming at rather than, for example, equal numbers of male and female characters, and female characters playing a major role.

wonderwomen

(Illustration: ‘Wonder Women’ by Helen Owton, 2016, Pencil, 297x420mm, 130 gsm white cartridge paper)

Hopefully, the inclusion of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman is a precursor for the specific Wonder WomanExternal link  movie due for release in 2017. However, we fear in the Batman v Superman movie that she will end up merely a sidekick behind the two white heterosexual hyper-masculinised superheroes, thus positioning her as second-class to the men.

It is worrying that Batman v Superman continues with the same hyper-masculine aesthetic that has defined superhero movies for so long. For example, superheroism enables individuals to express aggression, competitiveness, speed, strength, invincibility, and skill – traits commonly associated with hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is white, heterosexual, privileged/middle-class, and able-bodied masculinity which is generally represented as opposite and superior to femininity and homosexuality (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Thus hegemonic hyper-masculinity marginalises other masculinities (e.g. black, disabled, working class, gay) and devalues femininity (Connell, 1987). Also, the hyper-masculinity expressed in superhero movies is frequently tortured, addicted, lonely, and painful. We could reflect on the gendered violence inherent in the messages this gives to young male viewers about (hyper)masculinity requiring such suffering.

Unlike Wonder Woman there are many female superheroes that have not made it into films as sidekicks let alone solo or lead roles in a film (e.g. Ironwoman, Batwoman, Spiderwoman, Ms Marvel, She-Hulk). When women superheroes do appear, often they are dressed in over-sexualised costumesExternal link  in an attempt to appeal to a presumed male heterosexual audience. They are scantily clad (e.g. Elektra) or dressed in PVC (e.g. Catwoman). Attempts to gender-flip the outfits and posturesExternal link  of superheroes have usefully drawn attention to how sexualised and ridiculous female superhero costumes and postures often are. These attempts also draw attention to the clear male/female binary that is in play (when women are represented at all in superhero movies). It is possible to gender flip characters – and find the results ridiculous – because the depictions are so very binary: hypermasculine male characters and hypersexualised female characters.

Wonderwoman

Battling the super-binary

Just as superhero films rarely radically challenge binary ways of thinking about moral values (e.g. good v bad, wrong v right), also they rarely question gender binaries (men v women, masculine v feminine), or the related ways in which men have been privileged in terms of legal status, formal authority, political and economic power, access to resource, and sexuality. They do little to challenge a gender ideology that is based on a simple binary classification model which comes with quite fixed ideas about how to understand sex and gender. This binary model suggests that all people can be classified into one of two sex categories: male or female. These sex categories are identified as oppositional and defined in biological terms. According to the model, males are assumed to be completely different (in terms of feelings, thoughts and actions) from females which then form the expectations for the ways people define and identify gender (masculine and femininity). This gender ideology is so deeply rooted in our social worlds that we hardly think to question this organising principle (Coakley & Pike, 2009). This means that many people resist thinking about gender in new ways and often feel uncomfortable when others do not fit neatly into one sex category or the other; a problem experienced by many trans athletes competing in sport. This classification of all bodies into two separate categories appears to reflect social and cultural ideas rather than biological facts (Jordan-Young, 2010). Evidence suggests that sex/gender isn’t entirely binary on any level of physiology or psychology (chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, personality, gender roles, Fausto-Sterling, 2000). For example, Daphna JoelExternal link ’s research (2011, 2015) has found that it is extremely rare for anybody to have what used to be thoughts of as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain: most people’s brains display a mixture of featuresExternal link . And on the level of experience, over a third of peopleExternal link  said that they were to some extent the ‘other’ gender, ‘both genders’ and/or ‘neither gender’.

Superqueering gender

If we are to shift the hierarchical positioning of men as superior to women in the superhero movie genre (and beyond), perhaps we need to go further than fighting for the inclusion of equal numbers of female characters at an equal level to male characters, and no more sexualised than male characters. Perhaps we need to also encourage the inclusion of characters who question the assumption of a fixed gender binary. One way of shifting the notion of fixed binary genders is to challenge the expectation that conventionally ‘male’ characters need to remain male in the movie versions, and to be played by male actors. Given the historical context of most of the superhero comics things are unlikely to change until some of the sidekick/damsel in distress female characters are elevated to heroes in their own right and writers and directors recognise that just because a character was originally depicted as a straight, white, male, doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. There are several examples of such shifts in superhero comicsExternal link , although these are often received with at least as much criticism as celebration from readers. Another, more radical option, is the inclusion of more characters who explicitly challenge the gender binary, either by focusing on already non-binary characters, or by making currently binary characters non-binary. There are a few possibilities already available in the superhero canon. For example, the character of LokiExternal link  in the Thor/Avengers comics and movies who can shapeshift different genders. Although Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (not a conventional superhero series) has come up against glitchesExternal link  in attempts to be developed into a movie, it also includes an androgynous character, DesireExternal link , who appears in different genders (as do other characters at times). However it’s worth noting that both these characters are probably closer to being villains than heroes, reflecting the way in which non-binary characters – like bisexual characters – tend to be represented as evil, manipulative, and suspicious. Also already non-binary characters do not have to be the limit. Just as there seems to be no reason not to have a female actor playing Hulk or Professor X, is there any reason not to have a non-binary Spider or Bat person? There are already a number of far more explicitly queer/trans superhero comics which could be adapted for the screen, such as The Young AvengersExternal link ,the wicked + the divineExternal link Astro City #16External link , or Grant Morrison’s and Rachel Pollock’s runs on Doom PatrolExternal link , if film-makers could get past always returning to the same set of heroes and villains. Queering superhero movies in this way not only has the potential to empower queer and trans audiences through seeing themselves represented, but also it can liberate straight and cisgender audiences by offering something other than rigid binaries of hypermasculinity and sexualised femininity.

Conclusions

As with other intersecting identities such as disability, race, class, and sexuality, clearly there is still a very long way to go with gender in the superhero movie genre. Whilst the inclusion of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman could be seen as a step forward, it still feels like a small step indeed, and it remains to be seen whether the movie even passes the low bar of the Bechdel Test. In future media representations it would be great to see female characters on an equal footing with male characters, women actors playing originally male characters, films with central female superheroes (like the Netflix series, Jessica JonesExternal link ), and all-female cast superhero movies (as with the new GhostbustersExternal link  film), explicit gay/lesbian characters (like Xena: Warrior PrincessExternal link ), men playing more feminine characters and women more masculine ones, and explicitly trans and non-binary characters and actors in both leading and supporting roles.

This entry was posted on OpenLearn. Read the original article.