Queer sports spectacles stage fantasies in which the body becomes another body, and also play with what it means to be in a body, with others. Soccer (2004) features Wu Ingrid Tsang and Math Bass performing as the queer collaborative couple “Marriage.” Dressed in satin bodysuits with pads slipped over their knees and elbows, Tsang and Bass run in place while they rehearse the basic gestures that define soccer training. In this short video (the first of their Fortunate Living Trilogy) the two look like aliens belonging to a third or forth sex. Should we see them as boyish girls? Girlish boys? They have the ungainly and inchoate sexual presence peculiar to the teenage: an inherently queer failure to aspire to “adult” sexualities. They run in place and sweep the ground to their left and to their right as they shout: “touch left” and “touch right.” They jump in the air and jerk their heads as they shout: “head left” and “head right.” They each awkwardly juggle a ball with their feet, knees, and shoulders. They kick the balls against the wall. Sometimes they just sit. Or stretch. Or catch their breath. One seems slightly more competent than the other, but both seem unsure. They are clumsy, goofy, and shy in relation to each other–ill at ease, too, in and of themselves. They are sweet, and weird.
Marriage produced Soccer as a DVD insert for an issue of the ‘zine LTTR dedicated to the subject of “queer failure.” This weakly choreographed, lo-fi and oddball work gestures towards the specifically queer nature of the girls team–and towards what Judith Halberstam describes as the “utopian vision of a world of subcultural possibilities” associated with transgender experiments in gender ambiguity.7 That utopian impulse registers on the screen in gestures– in a shy look, a stolen glance, and in a slight discomfort with being caught in this setting, in which the two are both perpetually together and not. An odd tenderness develops between the two “players” as they rehearse these routines together, moving in parallel lines towards some form of unspoken intimacy. If I describe this work as queer it is not because it depicts girls wanting to be boys (they are far too gender ambiguous to be that for the viewer), nor because it shows two girls together (they are “together,” but they do not exactly interact with each other as a romantic couple). It is more nearly because it playfully draws out the erotics specific to queer fantasies about what it means to play together–and what it means to play together as boys. Soccer is a half-baked dream and an atypical sports text.
Where the male athlete figures prominently in American visual culture, images of female athletes are more rare. In fact, it has taken the transformation of U.S. sports culture initiated by Title IX to put the female athlete into circulation as a subject of representation. Popular takes on girls and sport tend to look like the story told in Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), or the more recent film Gracie (Davis Guggenheim, 2007). In both movies, a girl overcomes opposition to her desire to play with, or more nearly like, the boys. That opposition is animated in no small part by the challenges that her desires pose to what it means to be a girl. The full complexity of that challenge was an explicit part of the original story idea for Chadha’s international hit. Early in the film’s development, Chadha had imagined the central character Jess’s relationship to soccer as intertwined with her romantic involvement with Jules, another girl on the team. That story was re-written in the interest of maximizing the film’s marketability. Chadha decided to take on the issue of homophobia indirectly. Both characters were de-gayed, and the “lesbian” story took on a comic angle as Jules’s mother worried that her daughter might be a lesbian while the audience was reassured by the knowledge that the two girls were tied not by desire for each other, but by a rivalrous competition for the attentions of their male coach. The happy ending of the film has both girls headed to the U.S. on the athletic scholarships made possible by Title IX.
Gracie was produced by the sibling actors Andrew and Elisabeth Shue, and fictionalizes aspects of their childhood. In this film, the adored eldest son is a soccer star in a family of soccer fanatics. He and his sister (the only girl in a large brood) enjoy a special closeness around a shared love of the sport; the film opens with shots of the two passing a ball back and forth as they race home (in a loose, relaxed version of the sociability of Marriage’s video). Her interest in the sport is clearly tied to her affection for her brother and a desire to be “seen” by her father. But her passion and talent are invisible to everyone but her eldest brother, who dies in a car accident. Gracie mourns him by declaring a desire to train and try out for her brother’s high school team–to, in essence, become him. As the story unfolds in the late 1970s, there is no girl’s team at the school. Gracie uses the recently passed Title IX to force the coach to let her try out for the boys team. Like Bend It Like Beckham, characters express anxiety about Gracie’s sexuality, and the audience is reassured that although Gracie wants to be like a boy, this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to be liked by boys. The film is in many respects a traditional sports narrative. It is about an unlikely hero–an underdog–who overcomes the odds to help her team win the big game. It is a fantasy based on Elizabeth Shue’s own experiences as a girl who loved soccer and played it with her brothers. Unlike Gracie, however, Shue gave up the sport at a young age because in the 1970s, there was not even an imaginary space into which a girl might project an image of herself as a player. It is hard to project yourself into a fantastic space if you’ve never been given even the most rudimentary material with which to construct that fantasy. Gracie substitutes a story about participation for the darker reality in which the desire to participate is extinguished before it can even be articulated. (That decade, I should say, did offer two gold nuggets to inspire the queer girl athlete’s dream life–Billie Jean King’s 1972 match against Bobby Riggs, and Tatum O’Neal’s delicious turn in Bad News Bears .)
The queer feminist sports text conjures up fantasies of community in which “girls” enjoy a different kind of visibility–and, crucially, a different kind of body. Perhaps the most iconic figure to indulge this kind of fantasy is Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, the tomboy heroine of Little Women (1880). I think of Jo muttering “I wanna be a boy” a thousand times. I picture her slouching in the doorway, failing to sit still in her chair at the dinner table, and tossing her scandalously short hair as she expresses her impatience with everything. The closest the ur-tomboy of American fiction gets to actually saying “I wanna be a boy,” however, is probably the following declaration: “If I was a boy, we’d run away together, and have a capital time.”8She says this to her similarly gender ambiguous neighbour Laurie (a girlish boy who mirrors Jo’s boyish girl), as she indulges in a fantasy not of heterosexual coupledom, but of shared boyish adventure. Girls have crazy ideas about what boys do when they are together–and our attraction to team sports is in no small way fuelled by those queer notions.
Walt Whitman notes this gap between what girls think about what boys do when they are alone together and what boys think about what they do when they are alone together in “The Twenty-ninth Bather,” an often-cited section of “Song of Myself.”9 There, the poet spies on a woman who in turn spies on “twenty-eight young men” as they swim naked together. “All so friendly,” these young men enjoy an easy and unselfconscious freedom of which she can only dream. “Sitting stock still in [her] room,” looking through her window she dreams of the freedom and pleasure they enjoy. About midway through the poem, we find ourselves in the middle of her fantasy, swimming with her alongside these men and caressing their bodies. Whitman is clear that her participation must be secret, invisible, imaginary. “The rest did not see her,” he writes, as her dream-body swims alongside the others:
- Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 96.↵
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (New York: Penguin Classics, 1989), 213.↵
- I use this passage to discuss women in Warhol’s films in Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire, 81-86. See also John Vincent’s discussion of the geometries of desire in this poem in Queer Lyric (Difficulty and Closure in American Poetry) (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 167-168.↵