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.

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