Debating Femininity with Nancy Greene

Fifteen for 15 #8

Eight years ago I was seeking permission to use an advertising image of Nancy Greene for an article. Getting permission to use old ads and images is sometimes hard. After getting the run-around from the brand I decided to contact Nancy Greene’s “people” to see if they could help. I found a number and dialed. Greene answered the phone.

I was caught off guard and impressed that Nancy Greene answered her own calls. This was before she was Senator Nancy Greene. But still. Greene was named Canada’s “athlete of the century” by the Canadian Press in 1999 because of her gold and silver medals at the 1968 Olympics, World Cup wins in 1967 and 1968 and numerous Canadian titles. She also operates a ski resort in the B.C. interior, Cahilty Lodge, with her husband Al Raine. Greene didn’t seem like someone who would have the time to be answering public inquiries.

True to one of her nicknames, “Nice Nancy,” Greene was down to earth and chatty. I explained that I was looking for permission to use an ad that appeared in Chatelaine for an article on female athletes and femininity. I’m paraphrasing here, but her immediate reaction was a chipper but firm “no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.” Greene told me that there wasn’t any need to debate athlete’s femininity or feminization, it was a non-issue and people shouldn’t make a bit deal out of such stuff. She “was what she was” and there was no need for analysis.

The ad in question is one of my favourites from my study of images of female athletes in advertising. It shows three images of Greene, posed in her ski gear, beside a vase of flowers, and in a kicky, striped sleeveless dress. The copy compares two women “Mrs. Raine” and Nancy Greene, and the challenges of keeping their skin hydrated and soft. In the end we learn that Nancy Greene is Mrs. Raine! It employs a common trope of pre-2000s images of athletes: comparing their sport with other more stereotypically feminine activities. You can see and read more about these ads here.

Nancy Greene at Sun Peaks in 2000. Public Domain.
Nancy Greene (2000). Public Domain.

I was taken aback when Greene told me flat-out that I was wrong to study female athletes and femininity. I can’t remember what I said in response to her challenge, other than stammering out a meek defense of my research. Looking back I can see this as the first time one of my research participants challenged the academic process. I now know this is a common experience when writing about living people. They talk back.

Greene chuckled at my reply and then agreed to let me use the image. Cool, right?

Last week I was in Banff, Alberta and saw a panel about Greene in a display about Canada’s best skiers. She was one of only a few women featured. It made me think back to our phone conversation. At the time I felt charmed by Greene but unsettled that she didn’t want to talk about the gender dynamics of sport. Since I hadn’t expected to talk to Greene I had not thought about what she might say if she learned I was analyzing her public image. After reading Silken Laumann’s biography I can see that such inquiries probably hit a bit too close to home or are perceived to take away from an athlete’s accomplishments.

Off the ski hill Greene was known as “Nice Nancy,” but on the slopes she was called “Tiger” because of her aggressive skiing style. That this all happened in the late-1960s and early 1970s when femininity as subject for public debate is interesting. This was the era of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and a time when female athletes successfully lobbied for a women’s program within Sport Canada. Greene didn’t see herself as a sports feminist and didn’t join other female athletes in attempting to reform Canada’s sport system. But she still helped advance women’s sport in Canada because of what she achieved. So in this sense, Greene was right, she “was who she was,” and it worked.

Still, I think the question of femininity is an important part of Nancy Greene’s legacy. The ad was sexist and a relic of the 1970s. It is a lens we can use to understand the past and think about gender representation in the present.

Fifteen for 15 is a series of blog posts I’ve been doing since 2013 about women’s sport in Canada. Inspired by ESPN’s “30 for 30” and “Nine for IX” television documentaries, I’m thinking about athletes, teams and watershed moments in Canadian women’s sport history.

Feminism and Technology @ The Berks

I wrote a post over at ActiveHistory.ca about feminism and technology at the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians.

The Berks starts this week and, as part of my work for the media committee, I felt compelled to think a little bit about the history of feminism and technology. Feminists have sometimes felt uneasy about technology, but have found lots of creative ways to harness various forms of “technoscience” in their activism.

There are lots of digital/technical/scientific things happening at the Berks. If you’re going (or thinking about it) check out this information on the Digital Lab and the Wikipedia Hack-a-thon.

And, if you’re interested in technology/digital/social media, join me at the Twitterstorians meet-up Thursday night. Details here.

After the conference I’ll return to Fifteen for XV with a post on sports feminism and the Canadian government.

Hayley Wickenheiser: Flag Bearer, Standard-Bearer

Fifteen for 15 #6

This morning Hayley Wickenheiser will carry the Canadian flag into Fisht Stadium in the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games. My first thought on hearing Wickenheiser was going to be flag bearer was, great choice! My second thought was, she’s competing in another Olympics? Hayley Wickenheiser has been a member of the Canadian Women’s National hockey team since 1994. She first competed in the Olympic Games in 1998 (Nagano), where the team won silver. Since then the Canadian women have won three consecutive gold medals in 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver). These accomplishments, and her numerous accolades, are detailed on her website.

hayley2

Wickenheiser has rightfully been credited with contributing to the growth of women’s hockey in Canada, at the elite and recreational level. 1998 was the first year women’s hockey was an official sport in the Games, and now we have a generation of young women who have grown up watching our team compete, and dominate, at an international level. This is unquestionably a good thing for the sport and for players who, as Wickenheiser demonstrates, are can play elite hockey for longer, and on a bigger stage, than ever before.

I’ll be watching coverage of the opening ceremonies, and profiles of Wickenheiser closely over the course of the games. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished, toughest, and unapologetic female athletes in Canadian history. Her representation in the media and ads follows a trend I’ve observed since the early-2000s, which is that female athletes are increasingly presented in more complex and less cloyingly feminine/heterosexual terms than their predecessors. As I’ve written before, in the past ads and news coverage has tended to focus on what else an athlete can do. For example, “XX” is an athlete, and also a wife! “XX” is incredibly skilled, but her kids come first! “XX” competes like a man, but looks like a woman! There is nothing wrong with looking or acting feminine, however, my research suggests that this focus on what else female athletes can do is about trying to reconcile or make people comfortable with their perceived gender non-conformity.

And yet, in the last five to ten years we’ve seen some important changes in the way female athletes are presented to the media. In advertisements and promotional shots they flaunt their muscles. Wickenheiser certainly does this in several images on her website. And, the women’s hockey team, as an example, gets taken very seriously by sports commentators who have documented developments on the team, roster and coaching changes in great detail in the lead up to the games. Tensions remain, however, about what female athletes can and should do. The hilarious controversy over the Canadian women’s hockey team’s celebration, with cigars and booze, at the 2010 games being one notable example.

On the ice, all that should matter is the game. Wickenheiser and her teammates are players first and their femininity and life choices don’t matter. Off the ice, female athletes need not be apologetic for their sexuality or their self-presentation. The challenge is to find ways to talk to, and about, athletes without reducing them to one thing, as historically a lot of sports coverage has done. My hope is to see complex portrayals of Wickenheiser that depict her as a competitor, an Olympic veteran, a mom, and possibly a future physician. It is all of these things, plus, you know, talent and years of training, that make Hayley Wickenheiser an important figure in women’s sport.

Berkshire Conference of Women Historians

I’m volunteering with the media committee of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, which is being held in Canada for the first time from 22-25 May. The “Big Berks” brings together scholars from different fields interested in the history of women, studies of gender, sexuality, bodies, colonialism and feminist theory. Anyway, this, plus a few new projects are the reason I’m just getting back to Fifteen for XV this week.

Among the cool features of the conference will be a screening and talk with Sarah Polley about her fantastic documentary Stories We Tell. The film documents Polley’s exploration of her life history, and it speaks to the contradictions that emerge from studying personal experience.

I’m also excited for “Teacher’s Day,” a series of talks on using gender (past and present) in the classroom.

Stay tuned to the conference website, Twitter feed and Facebook page if you want to know more.