Judith Butler
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Athletic Genders: Hyperbolic Instance and/or the Overcoming of Sexual Binarism

When we think of the athlete's body, we are drawn to the image of a muscular sort of being; it is a body that we see or, rather, imagine, a body with a set of contours—a lengthened or compacted muscularity, a body whose contours bear the marks of a certain achievement. I want to discuss how this body takes shape for us as an imaginary set of contours, and for this I will refer to some images by the athlete and photographer Cindy Collins.1  I want to offer you a word of caution about the relationship between these images and the discussion I undertake here. The pictures aren't to be taken as simple examples of the theory, as illustrations of what I mean: it would be a mistake to show you an example or a representation of what I mean, because what I am trying to point to is something imaginary, the imaginary contours of a body, and when it takes the form of a representation, even an imaginative one, it is always something less and something more than the "imaginary" body that I have in mind. To understand the athlete's body as an imaginary body is precisely not to have a fixed picture, and yet what I think Collins's photographs do is perform a certain idealization, one that has an ambivalent relationship to the movement that it seeks to capture; indeed, we might ask, why do we seek to "capture" movement at all, given that part of what we tend to value in athletic movement is its very uncapturability. We might even conjecture that the imaginary body of the athlete is something toward which every representation strives, but which no representation fully approximates. Because representation tends to fix its object, the representation that comes closest to approximating the athletic body is one that avows its own limits as a representation: something exceeds the frame, defies the photographic convention, and yet, in Collins's photography, for instance, that excess and defiance is what is indicated, if not "captured," by the photography itself.

Indeed, for the sake of argument, let us maintain that the imaginary body of the athlete is not represented or representable in any of its given instances. As imaginary, it both exceeds and drives its various representations. It is what a representation seeks to capture, and so it governs that representation as an anticipated ideal, but it is also what no representation fully captures.

Is the ideal by which the athletic body is captured also an ideal that might be said to operate internal to, as a constitutive dimension of, athletic activity, of working out and performance? Toward the end of my remarks, I hope to show at least two consequences of this view for thinking about the relationship between athletic activity and gender ideals. First, ideals of gender are not only imposed retrospectively on athletic activity by photography or by the media, but they form part of its meaning and structure, such that no athletic activity can proceed without some reference to these ideals. Secondly, these gender ideals are staged and contested in a public and dramatic form in women's sports in particular, so that women's sports, as they often have in the past, call into question what we take for granted as idealized feminine morphologies. Indeed, women's sports have the power to rearticulate gender ideals such that those very athletic women's bodies that, at one time, are considered outside the norm (too much, too masculine, even monstrous), can come, over time, to constitute a new ideal of accomplishment and grace, a standard for women's achievement. In this sense, ideals are not static, but constitute norms or standards that are surpassable and revisable. And women's sports offer a site in which this transformation of our ordinary sense of what constitutes a gendered body is itself dramatically contested and transformed.

But before we move to the question of how gender ideals are performed and transformed within women's sports, consider how idealization tends to govern the perspective we take on athletic bodies. As I mentioned before, the athlete's body is usually thought as motionless, as a sculpted body, one whose contours bear the marks of achievement. The athlete's body is thought as a finished or completed accomplishment, as the effect of its labor, but it is rarely thought—or thinkable—in motion. Consider how often the filmed versions of athletics proceed in slow motion, trying to approximate serial photography, a devolution of the motion picture from within. Think as well of the suspended image that serves as the visual icon for this volume—the diver as he is in air, suspended, both suspending himself in his tensed and perfect posture, but also suspended by the camera which takes that moment and extends it indefinitely. What is the wish that propels the iconography of the suspended moment, the body out of time? And is it not paradoxical that athletics, that set of practices that pertain to the body in disciplined and ritualized motion, appears to be governed by an imaginary ideal that is motionless, sculpted, contoured, complete, suspended in time? It is as if the moment in which the athlete's body is most fully idealized is the one in which that body's athleticism is most fully suspended. How is it, we might ask, that this ideal of suspended motion governs the very movement of the athletic body, impeding the movement whose strength and form we praise.

Let us think a bit more closely about the contour of the athletic body, for what we appreciate by way of shape and form is the labored effect of a ritualistic exercise. The contour that marks the athletic body is a contour produced over time, established again and again, the spatialized result of a certain repetition. The contour we appreciate is one produced and established through a reflexive work, a working on oneself, but also a working on oneself in the service of an ideal, a belabored practice of the body in the service of an idealization of that body. The practice is never quite commensurable with that ideal, for the practice must continue, must reiterate itself in daily and regular ways, as a discipline and as a ritual, and the ideal encodes the wish to have arrived, to "be" the contour that one has achieved, that is, to have achieved it finally and without doubt. The athlete's body, however, is always tenuous in this sense: it is always in the process of being made, it is never quite the ideal that it seeks to approximate, and so the reflection of itself that it receives through the visual form is precisely not the same as the kinesthetic movement that we think of as proper to athletic activity. In fact, this reflection may constitute precisely what is absent from athleticism, an absent ideal by which it is nevertheless structured—that is, an absent and structuring ideal that in some ways propels the ritualistic repetitions of "working out," but which never becomes visible to us except in those rare photographic moments in which the action that one wants to "see" becomes suspended. In the midst of action, one loses the spectatorial perspective on action. Indeed, I would suggest that the ideal that governs athleticism becomes visible only on the condition that that very athleticism is visually suspended in time.

Now someone might object and claim that athletics is not as individual a matter as the process I've described, and it cannot be reduced to the matter of sculpting oneself. Such an objection would have its merit. Competition, whether individual or group, requires a common action, which is not the same as acting in identical ways. But in competitive sports, the collective action is such that whatever the athletic goal—whether it is completing the play or winning the game—is still a situation in which bodies are being made, in which the tacit sculpting of bodies takes place dramatically and in concert. It may or may not be the conscious purpose of the action, but one of the consequences of playing together is that the physiology of the body is transformed through the process of that collective action. The bodies that begin the game are not the same bodies that end the game. As they are made, established, sculpted, contoured, in relation to one another, they are established in a space that is neither fully or exclusively individual nor fully or exclusively collective. The space of concerted collective action and improvisation is precisely one in which bodies engage in the rituals of self-production only in relation to other bodies in motion; we might, to use a theoretical language, claim that bodies are decentered in relation to one another, that they find and pursue their center outside themselves in a shared corporeal space, what Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist, called "the flesh of the world."2  This is a corporeal space that is not simply composed of the various bodies by which it is inhabited; it is, rather, a set of rules, norms, and relations by which a body assumes its bearings and its shape; in turn, these norms are altered in the course of their inhabitation, those bodily rituals and incantations by which such ideals and norms are given new life.

So let us think then a bit more carefully about what it means for the athlete's body to exercise a cultural norm, and then I propose to a turn to a consideration of gender norms as a way to make this process more concrete and, hopefully, more clear. The athlete's body might be said to exercise the norm, but is this norm externally imposed on that body, or is it operative as part of the very condition of what we might call athletic morphogenesis—the becoming of the athlete's body? How are we to understand the status of such a normative ideal as both culturally imposed and yet as a condition for being a body in the world and, by extension, an athletic body as well? Norms in this sense are not simply imposed on an already formed body, but they constitute part of what makes the formation of that body possible, the ideal or norm according to which such a formation or morphogenesis takes place. How do cultural norms operate to help constitute the bodily sense of self without which no athletic action would be possible?

What leads Freud, for instance, to claim the following?

    The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface?

And in a footnote that attempts to explain this strange formulation, he writes:

    The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body, besides…representing the superficies of the mental apparatus.3

The first part of Freud's remarks seems to designate an operation in which the ego, that bounded and individuated sense of self, is discovered first and foremost as the visualized boundary of the body, and the body itself is apprehended first and foremost as a spatially distinct kind of being—in other words, one apprehends the body first from a perspective that is, curiously, external to the body, at a distance from the body. This is, significantly, a perspective on the body that is not the same as the perspective from the body. It appears, then, that to have an ego requires a perspective which takes the body as an idealization, a spatially distinct and bounded kind of thing. Now, for the most part we live our bodies without precisely taking stock of our bodies: we are too engaged in bodily life—moving, eating, sleeping, talking, working—to have, accompanying all those activities, a self-conscious perspective on the body that we are. Nietzsche in fact warned, rightly I think, that too much self-consciousness paralyzes action altogether. And yet, in order to discern a bodily sense of who we are, it is precisely such action that is suspended. Only from a spectatorial point of view does the body appear as a bounded kind of thing, and when that spectatorial point of view is relinquished in favor of engaged bodily action, we are less likely to know precisely where our bodily boundaries begin and end—in the act of touching, in working with an instrument, in concerted athletic play, we are not always aware of the distinction between our bodies and the objects or Others with which they are engaged. On the one hand, it appears that the spectatorial point of view works to defeat and break apart the sense of kinesthetic continuity that characterizes engaged bodily action, that sense of not knowing where the body ends and its instrument begins, a sense that pervades certain kinds of bodily actions, including athletic movement. On the other hand, this perspective on the body is precisely what is required in order to have a bodily sense of self, and to have the kinesthetic activity of athletics be something more than a chaotic expression of bodily movement. Indeed, in order to have a directed and focused bodily action, that spectatorial position toward oneself must first be assumed; although it appears to work against action—suspending action, as it were—it is also, importantly, what makes such action possible. 4

Consider, then, the odd consequence of Freud's conception of one's ego as first and foremost a bodily ego, which itself is first and foremost a projection, a fictional elaboration, an idealization that occurs through taking a distanciated perspective on oneself. In other words, to become an ego, one must become a spectator to one's own body. One must take a perspective on oneself that is not, strictly speaking, one's own perspective, in order to have a sense of perspective that is one's own. The perspective on ourselves is exterior to ourselves, and yet this exteriority is proper to who we are.

We think of the athlete and the spectator as two different persons located very differently, one on the field or in the court, the other sidelined, gazing on. And yet, if this model has some truth to it, it would appear that the athlete is not only a spectator to him or herself, but that this projection or idealization of the body, a perspective on the body, precedes and makes possible the perspective from or of the body. In athletics, taking the perspective of the body—that is, having a strong bodily ego—means precisely being able to center and direct oneself, to take up an attitude to oneself that allows one to act in the precise and focused way that is required for athletic accomplishment.

But this formulation raises a new set of questions, ones that lead us to the question of gender: this relation to oneself, this sense of oneself as an ego, to use Freud's language, is furnished through these spectatorial perspectives, projections, or idealizations. But where, we must ask, do these projections and idealizations come from? If the body becomes the frame for the ego, what is it that frames the body? This is where I want to depart from the Freudian scheme and suggest that the bodily ego is always an effect of a culturally framed body, a culturally elaborated projection, an idealization brokered by prevailing cultural norms.

The body that one lives is in many ways a body that becomes livable only through first being cast in a culturally intelligible way. In other words, the cultural framing of the body precedes and enables its lived experience. The idealizations at work are not merely personal notions of what bodies are or ought to be; rather, they are cultural elaborations of norms by which bodies become identifiable, recognizable, and intelligible. One might expect that the reverse is true: that first we have a lived sense of the body, and that only later do various ways in which culture imposes itself on bodies start to effect the way in which we directly live our bodies. But the view I am trying to elaborate suggests that the opposite is the case. One cannot have the direct and lived experience of the body except through the cultural frames by which it becomes intelligible. The body, as it were, must return from its alienation in culture in order to become livable as one's own body. It is not that one's body is one's own, bounded and singular, and then becomes alienated in or through certain cultural constructions; rather, that alienation in culture is primary, that is, prior to the possibility of one's own sense of singularity. The imaginary contours of the body are what make the body legible, intelligible, and yet this imaginary domain is not radically free of cultural constraints; on the contrary, what is imaginable to us is in many ways constrained by cultural norms that govern the limits of the imaginable. This is not to say that such norms cannot be changed—I think they can—but it is to suggest that the imagination is itself structured in the culture that it sometimes seeks to overcome.

In this sense we are radically dependent upon a cultural projection of our bodies in order to assume a sense of who we are in the world. And clearly, this can work, and often does work, to our disadvantage. The ideals by which we become intelligible to ourselves are not ones that we choose, although, in assuming those ideals—as we must—we take part in their rearticulation and transformation.

If one cannot be an ego or have a sense of a distinct and bounded self except by first being a bodily ego, and if the bodily ego is a projection of a surface, and if that projected surface is always culturally framed and elaborated, then one cannot be an ego apart from the cultural frame and ideals by which an ego becomes recognizable as a bodily ego. In other words, one's very sense of self is established through the workings of cultural norms that, strictly speaking, are indifferent to the self that one is. Yet, even as one is fundamentally dependent on such cultural norms for a sense of who one is, such norms still exist at a distance from who one is, as a set of rules and regulations that precede one's own particular life, but which also depend upon the various ways in which they are embodied in order to continue to thrive in the way that they do.

This is where the question of gender enters, or more precisely, the question of gender norms. Such norms work as a set of imaginary ideals that function in at least two ways: first, they are ideals by which gendered bodies become recognizable; second, they are ideals which no gendered body fully or exhaustively embodies. And yet, the life of gender norms cannot persist without the various approximations of those norms that constitute the bodily performances of everyday life, not to mention the idealized versions of those performances that we find in the athletic domain. Indeed, such ideals are also transformed in subtle and significant ways in and through their public and dramatic performances.

The athletic performance of gender is a special case, for women's sports in particular has shown us in the last few decades just how radically gender norms can be altered through a spectacular public restaging. Within the last fifteen years, certain women's bodies have gone from being perceived as "outside" the norm to being perceived, at least by some, as some of the most progressive instances of the norm, that is, as challenges to the norm that effectively unsettle the rigidity of gendered expectations and broaden the scope of acceptable gender performance.

Gendered ideals within women's sports can be understood to tyrannize—when, for instance, women recoil from building their own muscularity for fear of becoming perceived as masculine as a result, or when the requirement to stay under a certain weight in order to enter a given competition reinforces anorexic or bulimic behavior. In such cases, approximating gender ideals may well require a weakening or a destruction of the body. (It may be that the approximation of such ideals always involves a certain destruction of the very body whose idealization it seeks to achieve.) Something similar happens, I believe, in the rituals of fasting and gorging that male boxers go through; Loic Waquant has written about the way in which men also undergo such forms of bulimic behavior in an effort to meet the weight limits set by boxing competitions, and the peculiar sympathy with women that emerges from such behavior.

On the other hand, such ideals are not fixed in time, and occasionally they are embodied in ways that effect a fundamental transformation in what these ideals are and the power that they exert. When Martina Navritalova first entered the sports scene in the 1970s, there was public discussion about how, considering her apparently unprecedented strength, women's sports and women's tennis in particular would be altered by virtue of her participation. There was speculation on her hormonal composition, whether she should participate in men's sports rather than women's, and the public discussion became confused, it seemed, with the issues raised by Renee Richards, the transsexual who entered women's sports with her male chromosomes intact. Was there a difficulty, manifested in public discussion, in sorting out the significant differences between Martina and Renee? Was there not also a more general public confusion on the matter of how such cases ought to be adjudicated (professional tennis altered its standards throughout the course of these years, testing first for chromosomes, then for hormones, but finding that the many anomalies would call into question the stability of any system of classification)? Can we see these historically specific quandaries over the norms that differentiate genders as an index of a more general anxiety, one in which the proper contours of gender were no longer easily marked or known, one in which gender itself proved to be more historically contingent and malleable than popular consciousness might have thought?

What is stunning, I think, is the transformation that took place as Martina's accomplishments became increasingly apparent and consistent, exceeding the limits of women's tennis performance, setting new standards for play, helping to spawn a whole new generation of women tennis players. Many of those women (including Conchita, who defeated her at Wimbledon) broke barriers of gender shame in assuming a muscularity and strength that were, for women, quite anomalous.

How is it that the figure of Martina underwent such a transformation? At first she was an occasion for speculation on her imagined masculinity; only recently, after the last Wimbledon, did we witness a cinematic retrospective that honored her physical accomplishments, revealing a general desire to love and embrace her as an athlete who did precisely what professional athletes seek to do—break barriers to participation and exceed standards of play as they have been conventionally established. How is it that Martina's tennis was first cast as anomalous, not quite right for women's sports, not quite women's sports, only to become the very standard for women's tennis performance, a standard that defined the field, a standard only recently surpassed (and importantly, not by Steffi, but by Conchita, who had taken Martina as her ideal)? Indeed, what are we charting when we note that Martina was once outside the ideal—because outside of recognizable gender, too strong, too muscular, too aggressive—and that she ended her career by exemplifying that very ideal? Such a move could not be possible if gender ideals were not capable of transformation, of becoming more capacious, of responding to the challenge of what is excluded from their terms by expanding the very terms of gender themselves.

So a preliminary point might be summarized in this way: the category of "woman" as it is defined and accepted within women's sports can expand and has expanded to embrace the likes of Martina and her athletic progeny. But perhaps a more significant point is that, in the labored crafting of the athletic body, certain ideal feminine morphologies come into crisis. They come into conflict with other competing, culturally elaborated ideals. If Freud's view of the bodily ego is right, then there is no crafting of the athletic body without an ideal at work, without a perspective on one's body that makes possible a perspective from one's body. If cultural resources offer conflicted and complicated ideals, ones that call forth a crisis in stable gender norms, then women's sports, which have the power to press the boundaries of gender ideals, not only take place at the cross-roads of conflicting ideals, but constitute one of the most dramatic ways in which those conflicts are staged and negotiated in the public sphere.

How strong can a woman be and still remain within the recognizable boundaries of the gender of "woman"? How open is the category of woman such that it might meet such a crisis by developing a more capacious and more imaginative set of gender norms? How do the institutions that decide the legitimacy of gender fall back upon an epistemic crisis in the moment when they must decide what will be women's sports rather than men's?

But my point is not simply to call for a more capacious and imaginative set of gender norms—although that is clearly part of what I want to do. I would like also to suggest that there is an inevitable difficulty in moving from a perspective on the body as monstrous to the perspective on the body as ideal. Indeed, there is no simple passage from regarding a given body as abject, anomalous, or monstrous, as outside of gender as we know it, to regarding that same body as ideal, as exceeding the limits of what we know or imagine. That reconsideration of what we claim to know or imagine as gendered life can take place only by passing through an unstable and troubled terrain, a crisis of knowledge, a situation of not-knowing; at such moments, there is a risking of gender itself, an instability that exposes our knowledge about gender as tenuous, contested, and ungrounded in a thorough and productively disturbing sense. When we witness muscularity and contour, the corporeal effects of a ritual of athleticism, are we not for the moment seduced by the need to know which gender it is? Is it an especially sleek man? Is it a particularly well-developed woman? And yet, what we also witness here is the very contingency of this categorization, its non-necessity; at that moment, we enter into precisely the kind of epistemic crisis that allows gender categories to change.

But if it is in some sense true that we cannot take a perspective from the body, cannot act with a bodily knowingness about who we are, without first assuming a perspective on the body, and if athletic activity requires that we act with such knowingness, then there is no centered or directed athletic activity without a projection of that surface, a cultural idealization of that body, a perspective on one's body situated in relation to a set of cultural norms. The bodies that we become are facilitated by that set of norms: they precede us with their enabling and disabling power, but they do not determine us in advance. Gender is a field in which a variety of standards, expectations, relations, and ideals compete with one another, and for women, this fractious state of the playing field of gender works to our advantage. Martina may not have known that her emergence on the international scene would precipitate a crisis in the category of "women" as it is used in the field of "women's sports" and its public perception. But this is a crisis that only makes us more capable as the imagining beings that we are, as those who must live the very genders that we seek to understand. In challenging the categories by which we sort men from women, Martina produced the crisis that allowed us, in turn, to love her accomplishment all the better. And this greater capacity on our parts not only expands the field of play, allowing greater participation, but it allows the category of "women" to become a limit to be surpassed, and establishes sports as a distinctively public way in which to enact and witness that dramatic transformation.

Judith Butler



(1)  The images referred to have not been reproduced in this volume (Ed.).

(2)  See Maurice Merleau-Ponty on "the flesh of the world" and the intertwining of touch, surface, and vision in "The Intertwining—the Chiasm," The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968) 130–55.

(3)  Sigmund Freud, "The Ego and the Id," The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, trans. and ed. James Strachey, vol. XIX (London: Hogarth Press, 1961) 26. Trans. of "Das Ich und das Es" (Leipzig: Inernationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1923). Footnote first appeared in the English translation of 1927.

(4)  What is striking about Freud's remarks, though, is that he attributes a primary sense of ourselves as bounded beings in the world, as spatially self-identifical and self-persisting, to a projected sense of a surface, an imagining of skin, of morphological contour, of that part of the body that is, at least in part, exposed to others to see, available to perception and publicly constituted. As an imagined surface, it is not, strictly speaking, an empirically verifiable surface, and no representation will be able to instance this imaginary projection for us—the bodily ego has a psychic reality. This projection is also understood to be derived from bodily impulses, where those bodily impulses are understood to be derived from the surface of the body.
If we are to locate a discourse on the kinesthetic in Freud, it would be here in the bodily sensations that form the basis of this imaginary projection of a body, a projection without which we have no bounded sense of ourselves; without a bodily ego, there can be no ego. That which centers us is, then, paradoxically outside of us as the projection of a surface that is not, strictly speaking, the same as any empirical surface we might present. This projection might be construed precisely as an imaginary ideal, one that is exterior to the body, but whose exteriority to the body is proper to the body itself.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.