How The Women of 'American Ninja Warrior' Are Redefining Femininity
Heading into tonight's finale, the entire women's field of "American Ninja Warrior" has been eliminated. Last week, Meagan Martin ended her run at Mount Midoriyama in front of the dreaded Warped Wall -- the same fate that befell fellow competitor Jessie Graff the previous week in Vegas. So I mourn the end of "American Ninja Warrior" because of the loss of an amazing competition (until next summer, of course) but also because of the way the show challenges the traditional discourse around women in sports.
Unlike competitions with additional variables, or where it is perhaps unfair for women to line up next to men (like track, for instance), "American Ninja Warrior" is a deeply individual test where everyone is advantaged and disadvantaged through different stages.
Women have begun to see some measured success over the past couple of years with competitors such as Kacy Catanzaro finishing a finals course, Martin beating the Jumping Spider (a notoriously difficult obstacle for women), Michelle Warnky being a steady threat to finish any course and Graff sitting atop the leaderboard in competition -- a first for a woman.
It's because I chose to define feminine as including strength and physical capability that I've been able to reach goals some people didn't believe were possible.Jessie Graff
But women compete with both the burden to be excellent while also needing to appear feminine and traditionally beautiful. Being strong is often conflated with being manly, and that can make strength seem unattractive.
Some athletes, however, are pushing back.
"I think categories like masculine and feminine only limit us," says Graff, a Tae Kwon Do black belt and professional stuntwoman. "There are differences between men and women, but I feel that defining certain skills or athletic qualities as masculine or feminine only limits people by discouraging them from doing something that's healthy, productive and fulfilling -- like a guy who wants to do ballet, or a girl who wants to lift weights."
The beauty of a competition like "American Ninja Warrior" is that athletically, it is one of the few places of competition with a field that welcomes anyone. To complete the course is to complete the course. For women, that provides a unique opportunity to be measured against the same bar as everyone else and to undermine assumptions about what women's bodies can do.
"As women, we are told to think about how we look and wonder how people perceive us," says Emily Schromm, a CrossFit competitor and aspiring Ninja, who claimed 2014 Women's Health Next Fitness Star. "My goal is to encourage women to take their power back through realizing what their bodies are capable of achieving."
And more than solely demonstrating athletic achievement, this quiet revolution is redefining what it means to be a woman.
"Who said muscles have to be manly?" Schromm asks. "I'm all about taking the pieces of myself people perceive as masculine, owning them, and making them feminine."
Graff felt similarly, saying: "If I defined feminine as 'soft, weak, and delicate,' how much cool stuff would I have missed out on? It's because I chose to define feminine as including strength and physical capability that I've been able to reach goals some people didn't believe were possible."
And herein lies the problem: For too long, sport has been seen through perceived male eyes, elevating male achievement as being driven by skill, while relegating female achievement and appreciation to be determined by variables such as look, body type and skin color. Only in this reality can there be any justification for Maria Sharapova making twice as much as Serena Williams in endorsement dollars, despite losing to her 17 consecutive times.
It is a reality driven by the notion that men play sports, men watch sports, men are sports. The delicate, soft, "feminine" woman secures more endorsements because the people signing the checks figure men will be the ones enticed by her, and women will want to be her. The influence of male perspective and values drives sport, and to subvert masculinity is to corrode the fabric of the nature of sport itself, exposing conventional wisdom for the insidious nonsense it is.
And yet, though sport was made in man's image, women are recasting that mold to reflect evolution -- instead of continuing to emphasize what was.
I am grateful for the existence of women such as Serena Williams, Jessie Graff, Emily Schromm and so many others. They chip away at the perceived limitations of women every day.
Let's find them a bigger ax.