Society is making great strides toward accepting gays and lesbians, but that greater acceptance should not blind folks to the more subtle forms of discrimination that exist. It is increasingly becoming unacceptable to be homophobic, but there is still a ways to go.
An example of this is WNBA star Britney Griner’s recent revelation in Elle magazine that the WNBA’s rookie orientation program included sessions on make-up application and fashion tips. Other news sources have indicated that the make-up, hair and fashion seminars are a fairly significant part of the orientation.
In other words, the WNBA has formalized an effort to make their players appear more feminine. This is the type of softer homophobia or heterosexism that has taken the place of outright bigotry in many circles. In fact, many, if not most, people who commit these type of acts do not even realize that their acts are homophobic.
To be fair, the WNBA’s program is likely the league’s attempt to gain popularity in a society that still struggles with homophobia and sexism. Women athletes who are lesbian or who are perceived as lesbian sometimes battle to gain popularity, so WNBA officials have probably convinced themselves that teaching its players about make-up and fashion is good marketing and that they are teaching the players important life skills. But succumbing to homophobia with more homophobia is not the answer.
Life skills are important for all recent college graduates, but you do not see other industries engaging in a massive effort to teach young women how to dress, style their hair and wear make-up. Can you imagine the uproar if a Fortune 500 company held seminars to teach newly hired women how to dress and properly apply make-up? Yet, it is somehow acceptable for a workplace to encourage women basketball players to attend these seminars, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with playing basketball.
It’s additionally absurd because, unlike the women at the aforementioned Fortune 500 company, the women in the WNBA wear uniforms and do not wear make-up during the game. So, in this instance, make-up and fashion tips are not even something that the women can use while engaging in their profession. It only comes into play concerning their image when they are not working.
The make-up, hair and fashion seminars illustrate the clear gender bias in sports. The most popular women athletes are those who are deemed to be the most physically attractive, while the most popular male athletes are those who are deemed to be the most talented. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally, physical appearance is scrutinized at a much greater level in women’s athletics.
That said, the WNBA doesn’t do itself any favors by accepting this as the reality and trying to fit its players into a feminine mold that it believes increases marketability. The WNBA has been trying to market its athletes in this manner since the league was founded and it hasn’t worked. Sure, there have been individual players who have been popular, but it hasn’t resulted in mainstream popularity for the league.
So, here’s a novel concept. The WNBA should go in the opposite direction. Brittney Griner, an openly lesbian player who does not subscribe to gender norms, best illustrates the fallacy of focusing on feminizing players. Griner just finished her rookie season and is arguably the most popular player in the league—and it’s solely based on her basketball skills.
Although the WNBA is full of beautiful women (who range on the spectrum from feminine to more masculine), it should not marginalize its talented players by joining in society’s obsession about women’s looks over skills and ability. Women who meet conventional standards of beauty will still be noticed, even without WNBA officials going out of their way to highlight their beauty, but the only way for the league to truly build and maintain a larger fan base is to convince basketball fans that the WNBA offers an exciting brand of basketball. And it does. Too bad league officials don’t seem to realize that.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.