The Gender Anachronisms of Figure Skating

by | December 5, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Artistic Impressions Book Cover

The 2011-2012 figure skating Grand Prix Final is starting this week in Quebec City, but according to Queens University Kinesiologist Mary Louise Adams, figure skating’s gender roles are running at least a few decades behind the times.

Adams is the author of Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport, which I highly recommend for figure skating fans, skaters, and anyone with a passing interest in the gender dynamics of sport.

Last year’s Vancouver Olympics brought the gender dynamics of figure skating to the public’s attention more than ever before as the battle between male skaters Evan Lysacek and Evgeny Plushenko turned into a debate on whether men skating without a quad jump was “effeminate”, and former US champion Johnny Weir was the subject of homophobic remarks by French commentators. Over the years, skaters like Elvis Stojko have argued that figure skating needs to be re-branded as more masculine to appeal to young boys. And organizations like Skate Canada have on occasion taken up that torch with ad campaigns.

Adams’ book gives historical perspective to these issues, showing how figure skating originated as a gentleman’s sport in which women were not even allowed to participate. But over time society changed, and so did the technique, rules, artistry, and demographics of figure skating so we now see the sport dominated by younger and younger women.

(Note: Adams’ book and this article only look at the singles’ events. The gender dymanics of pairs and dance events are too much to get into here.)

“The thing about skating more than other aesthetic judged sports is the division between presentation and aesthetic qualities and also technique and athletic qualities. The relative weight and balance of these things and what they mean for both the sport and for the people who participate in the sport has been a debate since the beginning of the 20th century. It’s changed over time. It used to be about class and now it seems to be more about gender,” Adams told me in an interview.

Adams points out that the very way we score skating today is based on arbitrary gender constructions. In addition to obvious gender markers like women’s revealing, skirted costumes (women skaters weren’t allowed to wear pants in competition until recently) the women’s long program is thirty seconds less than men’s. It’s based on the idea that men are stronger, but it has real implications in terms of the scoring. Adams points out that women’s world champion and Olympic gold medalist Yu Na Kim will never be considered “the best” under the current scoring system because women’s scores are very likely to always fall below men’s. Adams continued:

“The thing that surprises me most is that these rules persist – the spirals, the timing – and the illogicalness of them given, say, that pairs skaters skate longer. The anachronisms of figure skating are stunning given what women figure skaters do now and have done. They pretty much always do what the men have done except for one or two things – and we then place the emphasis on those things.”

“Those things” includes the quad jump: widely purported to be the ultimate goal for male skaters. Male skaters like Evan Lysacek who do fail to work quad jumps into their programs are frequently attacked with homophobic accusations of effeminacy. In the upcoming Grand Prix final, watch out for reigning World champion, Canadian Patrick Chan. Until this season Chan did not have a consistent quad jump in his arsenal, but he was able to make it to the top with impressive artistic expression and incredible technique on other difficult elements. However, Adams points out that Chan’s discourse has started to change this season now that he feels he has a reliable quad, to line up with those who argue men have to have the quad to be on top of the podium.

Mary Louise Adams

Mary Louise Adams

“There is nothing in the world apart from ideas that makes jumping the most important thing in skating. There are other things that are very hard for some people to do, but we don’t put so much weight on them,” Adams states,” We value the athleticism more for men partly because that is seen as more a masculine way of physical expression. And so to compete the athletic and technique ends up counting for more.”

Adams points out that homophobia is a huge factor structuring figure skating and limiting figure skaters in the men’s and women’s competition:

“The fear of men who are feminine is huge. This is not just in skating or in sport, but in many parts of our culture. It makes feminine and expressive activities very threatening for men…We can see that binary operating in a really clear-cut way as men are expected to be the more athletic skaters and women are expected to be the most artistic skaters. For skaters who challenge those assumptions they…ruffle people’s feathers.”

For those of us raised on the strong gender divides of modern figure skating, it can be hard to visualize what a more open competition would look like, but Adams believes artistic and conceptual change would greatly benefit the future of the sport.

In her book, she talks about a young girl who loves powerful skating but who may have trouble getting far in the sport because of the demands upon girls and women to take on the pretty side of things while the men are pushed into jumps and more visibly athletic components. In that way, a focus on re-branding figure skating to argue its masculinity can be alienating for more “effeminate” boys who might be attracted to the artistic aspects of the sport.

“I think it’s really important for Skate Canada and other skating organizations at the local level, coaches, etc…to be really explicit to say we want to be encouraging boys to express themselves in whatever way possible. Part of the thing is we don’t believe there’s gay kids. It’ll be 2012 and we should be able to say we’re an organization that can say it’s not just supportive but safe and an environment where gay kids can thrive,” Adams says.

For the coming week’s events in Quebec City, Adams suggests keeping an eye on Japanese men’s skater Daisuke Takahashi: “I like Takahashi a lot, mostly because he has different versions of himself on the ice and he hits everything. He clearly is using this as a form of self expression or artistic impression. He is his own person on the ice, which is what we want.”


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  • Kate

    Yes, well the whole dominance “conquest” paradigm which is controlled and promoted to support the illusion of male “superiority” has always required a double standard set by the boys. Also each time females reach up to the glass ceiling of that standard the the boys simply shift emphasis/value to an factor peculiar to their skills. This happens in all arenas not just figure skating. Heaven forbid reality evers topples the illusions of their “superiority”.

    I find it totally ironic that this woman or any women spend time on issues of “oppression” toward boys by boys. When there are so many oppressions directed exclusively at girls. I hate the homophobia that males use to try to diminish both male and female athletes, in whatever ways. After all, any female who excels at ahtletics faces her share of “lezzie” accusations for ignorant arrogant pricks.

    The macho male skaters eg Stoiko, Pushenko, Wiess were all prime example of arrogance and rather obvious male conquest proponents and they seemed constantly to worry about being accused of being homosexual… which is simply and extension of their own homophobia. Their skating bored me. so there….

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks Kate. One of the parts I liked best about Adams’ book was when she talked about how Elvis Stojko complained about the “feminine” standards of the sport, when in actuality he simply had less technique than many of the other skaters in terms of lines and arm position. Their skating bores me too – I’m much more excited by male and female skaters who push the bounds and try new things, not just in terms of harder jumps but in terms of artistry and performance.

      One reason it’s important to spend time on the ways boy skaters are pigeonholed is because it comes from this homophobia and devaluation of the feminine. This has a ripple effect that ends up making women figure skaters even more restricted for fear their appearing more “athletic” would threaten the male skaters’ masculinity.

  • Heather Freeman

    I remember back in the 90s when I followed skating closely, the furor over French skater Surya Bonaly, who very obviously favored the athletic end of the spectrum. She was endlessly attacked for it (no doubt her race also figured into this; she had to face down a double oppression there by being both athletic and black). She was forbidden from doing a back flip in competition because, the international association ruled, a back flip couldn’t be landed on one foot. And she went out there and landed a back flip on one foot, something nobody had done before and I don’t think has been done since! And did she get praised for the achievement? More often it was framed as freakish, on top of everything else that made her not a “real” women’s champion.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks, Heather. I didn’t know that story about Surya Bonaly.

    Adams does touch briefly on the racial dynamics, how racialized & “othered” women are even more suspect in figure skating though they have been the ones who have most pushed the boundaries in terms of challenging what it’s assumed women can’t do.

    You could do a whole other book on the racial dynamics of skating, both the pressure on skaters of colour and how skating is used as a “project of whiteness” to quote Adams, with often ridiculously caricatured performances of other races on the ice (last year’s ice dancing being a prime example).