Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Feminism, South Africa, Sport

Gender Terrorism: We are all Sara Baartman

The IAAF’s decision to force Caster Semenya to undergo a “gender verification test” is an example of erroneous spectacle based on binary fixations which feed into the misappropriation of a person’s actual gender identity. This should not be used as an indicator of what a persons identity is. The Guardian report “Caster Semenya wins 800m gold but cannot escape gender controversy” illustrates both racism and rigid perceptions of gender….

Standing in lane four alongside Britain’s diminutive Jenny Meadows — whose bronze medal was inevitably overshadowed by the hysteria tonight — Semenya’s notably developed frame was further exaggerated.

The inference is that Caster Semenya’s muscular body type, not being “diminutive”, is not female never mind feminine. However the so called “diminutive” body of Jenny Meadows is equally muscular. The only significant difference is that Ms Meadows is white with long wavy blond hair. They are after all athletes. The illation is that Jenny Meadows is female whereas Caster Semenya isn’t. This is outrageous.

The Guardian’s reference to German tennis star, Sarah Gronert who was intersex at birth and who later had surgery further challenges gender perceptions. Ms Gronert has been subjected to ridicule so much so she almost gave up her tennis career. The question is – does this mean a person who identifies intersex cannot compete in sports irrespective of gender specific indicators. Or will they be forced into choosing based on binary fixations?

The mention of Ms Gronert in this article begs the question are they saying Ms Semenya is intersexed too and therefore should have surgery? If the discussion is about a women being masculine [a socially constructed gender marker] then comparing her experience to that of an intersexed woman misses the point. How do you jump from what happened with an intersexed woman to that of Ms Semenya unless of course you are prodding her for information in order to justify your stances towards her?

The media reports, vultures as they are, have already managed to reach as far as Ms Semenya’s ancestral village in South Africa claiming to have spoken to her Grandmother and learning that she was teased as a child for being boyish – so was I and millions of other female children – as if this some how justifies the need for gender testing. What type of questioning did the reporter put to the Grandmother? This is paramount to transferring childhood playground antics on to the arena of international athletics. The Times adds to the sensationalisation when it uses terms such as “gossip” and “controversy” with regards Ms Semenya’s gender without fully understanding it themselves. The report gives the guise of rationality and objectivity but in fact it is anything but.

The IAAF’s initial hope was that the South African federation leave Semenya out of their team. That would, of course, have been harsh, but it would have avoided the circus that we witnessed yesterday at the Olympic stadium. She is only 18, so a talent that good would most likely have plenty of opportunities to stake her claim to greatness once the gender verification process had been completed. If, of course, it cleared her.

The gender verification test which has already started, involves being examined by

A group of doctors, including an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, an internal medicine expert, an expert on gender and a psychologist, have started the testing procedure but it is uncertain when the results will be known.

This is extremely intrusive and raises memories of the objectification of Sara Baartman and the pseudo scientific invasion into Black women’s bodies which continues after 250 years. The inclusion of a gender “expert” and a psychologist is tantamount to pathologising Ms Semenya and all women who do not fit the diminutive stereotype of women. The media no longer play an objective role but rather become the stokers of fire creating sensationalism through vicious innuendo. Whilst the audience becomes voyeurs of women’s bodies with regards race and gender – in other words we are all Sara Baartman.

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11 Comments

  1. Chris Ballard

    I would contend that the first quote from the Guardian (regarding Jenny Meadows) is not racist, nor does it illustrate ‘rigid perceptions of gender’. To me it seems that it plays into the British tendency to view our own athletes as lacking in some way, either physically (“she’s not strong enough”) or mentally (“she doesn’t have the will to win” – this was the accusation levelled at Kelly Holmes prior to her success in Athens). The piece was published in a British newspaper covering an event in which the British athlete was perhaps not expected to get a medal, therefore it is natural that the journalist would slant it by referencing the Brit, however insidiously.

    I do, however, agree with you that a lot of the coverage of Ms. Semenya’s success has been unfair, full of innuendo and with an undercurrent of spite. Athletes compete in athletic events, rather than ‘beauty contests’, and therefore it is natural selection of sort that results in the more successful competitor having bodies ideally matched to their event; having the media-defined “great body” is clearly not going to get you anywhere. It really is amazing how far image can get you – without necessarily having a lot of talent – in everything right now (I’m looking at *you*, Anna Kournikova), leaving the people with the real abilities to be content with all of the prizes but none of the adulation.

    If anything the media should be making the point that she is a black athlete representing South Africa with pride – a country that desperately needs people like her to encourage kids there into sport.

    P.S. I found your blog via a RT of a RT on Twitter – I doubt very much I’d have found you otherwise, but I’m glad I did!

  2. They need to let this go. It’s already in the past. Give her the medal.

  3. Mzimkhulu

    The South African government should not allow this insult to go unchallenged. The objectification and dehumanisation of Sara Baartman were barbaric and cruel enough to enrage every conscientised African. The “freedom” of the black people of South Africa (including this writer) is at stake as its marginalisation and disregard continue to be at the centre of US, EU and South Africa relations. South Africa is still a playground of western “intelligence” organisations who are opposed to progressive politics and favour the neo-liberal economic policies wreaking havoc in many third-world countries.

    The British granted Zola Budd expedited citizenship so she may compete in the LA olympics in 1984 to demonstrate support for the apartheid fascists. To those who may have forgotten or were not yet born, there was a sports boycott of apartheid sports as was practised in South Africa. There are still many challenges facing black South Africans as whites cling to their privileged lives and riches while the indigenous people still lack adequate sports and training facilities. For the white world to rub salt in the collective wound of blacks in South Africa, is tantamount to spitting on our faces; something they were doing even before Sara Baartman…

  4. Sokari, I agree with you completely. Unlike Chris Ballard above, I think there is always more than one context, even if those contexts can sometimes pull in different directions. So, yes, the British press reference to Meadows is not just about racialised gender. But it is about this too, and even a visual reading of the juxtaposition of the chosen pictures as the two atheletes celebrated (on the Guardian website yesterday, for example) supports these interpretations. I read the Guardian stance in very similar ways.

    We are also not the only people making connections to Sara Bartmann – both on and off the continent given what I have read and heard in various media call ins, discussions, news bulletins over the last few days.

    Thanks for this, Sokari.
    .-= Loudrastress´s last blog ..Gender in the nation (SA women’s month 2009) =-.

  5. Excellent stuff, Sokari. I am very angry about the hurtful stuff that is being said about Caster Semenya.

    Who gives anyone the right to determine how women should look like? Just because we don’t all fit the stereotypes of how women should look doesn’t not mean that we are not women. Reminds me of Sojourner Truth’s words which were as much about physical appearance as ability:

    ‘That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?’
    .-= mshairi´s last blog ..Thank you =-.

  6. Touche Caster Semenya! I particularly admire how Semenya response to a journalists pofaced question about gender. “I don’t give a damn!” said an unmoved Caster Semenya proudly wear her gold medal around her neck as she left the podium.

    Touche Sokari for exposing the sexist, racist, intensely institutional face of Western media at elite athletic event world wide. It’s about to someone took and objective look as opposed to mainstream media and its “playground antics!”

    The more we expose these short comings in the media the better the future!!

    Thank you!

  7. richard

    Hi Sokari

    Your sanity and humanity are, as always, much appreciated.

  8. Comment by post author

    Sokari

    @Chris My point about racism is in the reading which has to be seen in an historical context [which is why I refer to Sara Baartman] and how Blackness is interpreted by whiteness. If this was a white female athlete we would read the response in a very different way. To ignore race and perceptions of gender in this instance is to give a totally inadequate and erroneous reading Blackness and gender variance.

    For any doubt on this read the NYT piece :

    “The Bantu, a group of indigenous South African people, often are hermaphrodites but they do not always have obvious male genitalia, said Dr. Maria New, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. They are genetically female yet have both testes and ovaries.”: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/sports/21runner.html. If I didnt know I would think I was reading something out of an 18th/19th century anthropology paper!

    @Loudrastress Gender Dynamix makes the point about Eudy Simelane who was a victim of hate crime because she “transgressed gender boundaries” and asks the question whether the media is endangering Semenya’s life….

    “Instead of being proud of our champion the South African media and public is on a witch-hunt trying to define Semenya’s sex. DJ’s on radio are dissecting Semenya’s person to a point of reducing her accomplishments to her genitals.

    Says Gender DynamiX Director:” In our work we are reminded of how (wo)men’s bodies are so easily ridiculed and made into a spectacle because of gender notions”. Gender DynamiX focuses its work in the field of transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people.” http://tinyurl.com/mgntpw

    @Mishari Thanks for posting Sojourner Truth’s Aint I a Woman, exactly the point but sad that it can still apply in 2009.

    Richard @ Like many of us this has made me very angry and it was hard to write and avoid the huge rage I felt.

  9. Comment by post author

    Sokari

    Mia@ Thank YOU for all our discussions on this and gender in general which we have been having over the past months. Particularly for your contribution to raising awareness around transgender and sexuality through your prose and poetry.

  10. Peter

    “If, of course, it cleared her.” Hm, cleared of what, exactly? As Sally Gross from Intersex South Africa pointed out on the radio yesterday, one can be XY chromosomally and look “feminine” (lack of facial hair, etc), one can be XX and look “masculine”, these labels are discursive constructs.

    So they need a ton of doctors to reach some kind of consensus on “true sex designation”, in other words to elaborate a discourse on binary sex in order to neutralise the “threat” that is Caster Semenya? As usual its the “other” (the black, the female, etc) that must be defined, boxed, its “danger” contained, while those policing the dominant discourse appear “neutral”, “objective”. Bah!

  11. AC

    The Caster Semanya story has been sitting uncomfortably with me since it broke, and I couldn’t quite articulate why. Thanks for putting my unease into words.