This past Wednesday (3/12/08), I had the pleasure of attending the Joan S. Hult Women’s History Distinguished Lecture as a part of Women’s History Month. This year’s presenter, Dr. Susan K. Cahn, gave a rather compelling talk entitled, “Feminism, Sports, and the Liberated Body” which is unfortunately without mention on the Department of Kinesiology home page here at the University of Maryland. The great thing about listening to speakers with the experience, credentials, and intellect of Dr. Cahn is that they always leave the audience with something(s) to think about but also, perhaps more importantly, with new ways of thinking. What I am offering here is not a summary of Cahn’s presentation but rather what I’m left pondering. Through both attending the lecture and from a brief conversation with Dr. Cahn after the event, three points became abundantly clear to me:
1. The Power of the Autobiographical
Some of the most engaging portions of the lecture came when Cahn reflected upon her own gendered experiences. Cahn appeared somewhat apprehensive at times to incorporate her personal life into the lecture for fear of being too “self-indulgent.” It is a reasonable concern. There is a fine line. On one hand there must be some presumed self-importance/arrogance to anything autobiographical in the sense that it is worth writing/talking about more than something/someone else. On the other hand, it is relevant and adds credibility. There is generally a personal interest or experience that inspires a research project so why not make that clear? If I were to do a research project about Amherst, Massachusetts, would it not be significant that it is my hometown? If I wrote a paper on the TV series Charmed, I should probably mention that it is my favorite show of all-time.
Additionally, it is easy to question the motivations of scholars, reporters, writers, filmmakers, politicians, et cetera when they draw attention to certain social issues. Yet those questions are somewhat put to rest when the individual is obviously impacted by said issues. Cahn struggled with her own gendered performance and the reality that she is confused for male with an inordinate frequency. Her attempt to understand how she is “read” really drives home the implications of gendered cues and gendered logics as she diligently looks for answers with personal meaning. In many situations, however, research topics can/will not be so personal. I am not suggesting that all research be overtly autobiographical but rather that, when used tactfully, a personal touch may be more helpful than detrimental.
2. “The Ambiguity of Progress”
Cahn raised the critical point that progress is not necessarily linear or even universally accepted as progress. She offers the examples of the popularity of Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball and Brandi Chastain to pose questions pertaining to the problems or progress of women in sport. Is growing public and media attention a good thing? Is the female athletic body, which constantly stretches “desirable” or “acceptable” notions of femininity, being exploited, admired, or constrained in new ways? Underpinning these questions is the idea that consumer capitalism, and its relationship to sport, further complicates things for both male and female athletes. There is a great a deal of money to be made through commercial endeavors beyond the playing field. The body is not simply a tool being trained to compete but, for a select few, a vessel that can sell consumer goods. Is Brandi Chastain’s shirt removal at the 1999 World Cup liberating or oppressing? Is she success or a failure? What is success? In this situation, what is the “correct play” for Chastain? The ambiguity of progress is that there is hardly a consensus regarding towards what we should be progressing. Maybe that is an area that needs more critically informed scrutiny.
3. Smart People are Smart People
Susan Cahn is a smart person and as fantastic as her contributions have been to the sport literature, her insights are not limited to sport studies. I recently picked up a copy of her 2007 work on southern adolescent girls from 1920 to 1960, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age. So far, I’ve found it extremely well done. Given the nature of Physical Cultural Studies and similar fields (developing and/or inter/anti-disciplinary), many of the contributors have written extensively on a litany of topics. As revolutionary and thought-provoking as Beyond a Boundary was for the study of sport, The Black Jacobins, CLR James’ book on the Haitian Revolution is at least as spectacular. Samantha King is just as intelligent when she is commenting on sport as she is when commenting on breast cancer. Not only do great scholars have the ability to inspire and educate us in areas of personal interest, they are able to have a similar impact when exposing us to less familiar subject matter.