I’ve never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink T-shirt has me fascinated. The T-shirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and had a longer, more feminine hairstyle.
The fashion statement couldn’t have been clearer: I’m a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.
With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. She has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her “masculine” appearance at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin led to her being withdrawn from professional athletics while her gender was being determined and as the world watched and gossiped.
The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded “more like abuse than science”:
She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not “drink poison” and end it all.
Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, part of South Africa’s attempt to prove that speculation over the young athlete’s gender were sexist and racist — by kitting her out in western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover.
Now she’s been declared fit to run, it’s clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks. So here she is, in her pretty pink get-up, hoping to placate a global media that has no time whatsoever for women who don’t look how women are supposed to look.
This week, Senator David Vitter attacked the left-wing talk-show host Rachel Maddow for “not looking like a woman” on a radio station in the United States. When he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow “did not deserve” what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.
More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That’s part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested. And, in an atmosphere of competition which demands that people fit rigidly into boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable.
That Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, that she clocked up one of the quickest 800m times in the world in 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs.
I do not wish to contribute in any way to further speculation over Semenya’s gender. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; and the insistence by the IAAF and the international community that Semenya “prove” her female identity before being allowed to compete would have been sexist on every level, even if there were any foolproof way of doing such a thing, in a world where there are more than two human genders, where there is a whole host of gender identities and physical arrangements, and where 0.2 per cent of the population is intersex.
Semenya’s physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us, but I remain disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-achieving woman who is not stereotypically “feminine” is an aberration, and must therefore actually be a man.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s suppose just for one minute that Semenya had, in fact, been found and declared to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.
Suppose that this wonderful athlete — who says that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and who expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women’s sports, as a female and feminine physical feat — happens to be among the 0.1 per cent of women without an XX genotype. Why would that be such a huge problem? And why should that have threatened to disqualify her from women’s sports? What, were sports officials going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others?
Or could they have been planning to continue to ignore and belittle any contribution to human progress and prowess not made by people who conform personally, biologically and physiotypically to western notions of the two-gender binary?
Back to that pink T-shirt, the colour of corporate femininity, of brand woman, stretched provocatively over Semenya’s chest in a statement of submission and conformity — as if anyone could blame her after what she’s been through.
If, indeed, Caster Semenya had been found to have any sort of genetic “advantage” over other women, the simplest solution might have been to force her to run in a miniskirt and tottering high heels to even the odds. Her talent is such that she would probably have won anyway. And, more importantly, she’d have proved to the world that she’s a proper girl — which is what really matters.