As August approaches, the excitement for the 2016 Summer Olympics grows – and with the occurrence of the Women’s Gymnastics Trials on July 8th and 10th, so does the prevalence of the “gymternet.” The gymternet is a term applied to the social media, podcasts, and journalism that relate to gymnastics. It is a place to support the athletes and keep up-to-date on their information. The gymternet is a place to celebrate these strong female gymnasts.
However, it is also a place that is tangled in gender divide and feminization. Coded language litters many of the posts, often reducing the gymnasts to their gender. The gymnasts are referred to as “adorable,” “fun,” or even, for a particularly energetic routine, “hyper.” It seems as though how the female gymnasts look is more important than their skill. For example, Olympic alternate Ragan Smith was called “Little” more than her actual name. In contrast, commentary on men’s gymnastics focuses primarily on their strength and precision. Comments using cutesy adjectives are made by professional commentators as well as community posters on the gymternet. NBC made some of these comments during the San Jose Olympic trials.
Social media has come a long way since the gymternet first took off in 2012, during the London Olympics, so why are comments towards women’s gymnastics still so gendered?
It could be because mainstream sports commentators such as those on NBC still use that language, so people assume that it is okay for them to do so as well. It could also be because appearance is important to gymnasts. Makeup and hair must be done perfectly and so it appears as though the feminization is of their doing. For instance, my younger sister is a competitive gymnast and for a while had to keep her hair long to do the exact bun that was required for competitions. It could even be everyday gender roles making their way into yet another aspect of our society. It could be for any number of reasons. There is no way to really pick out one specific root cause.
So the next question is, what do we, as an audience and community, do to turn the gymternet around and close the gender divide between men and women’s gymnastics? First and foremost, cut the gendered adjectives from your vocabulary when referring to athletes. Instead of commenting on how tiny a gymnast is, take the time to think about why she is short. Gymnasts often have overdeveloped muscles, which can result in stunted growth. Instead of commenting that the gymnast is not smiling through one hundred percent of her floor routine, appreciate the strength and focus it takes to do multiple flips in a row. It is possible to push back against the gender politics of the gymternet, but the effort has to made. Let’s return our focus to the skills of the sport.
NOTE: This article refers specifically to women’s gymnastics, but the author would like to note that other aspects of the sport do have issues as well.
Here is a look at the 2016 Women’s Gymnastics Team, if you are interested in that as well!