As you may have noticed, at this very moment, the Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi. For many people, I know, this year's Games are emblematic of a complicated, problematic history of poverty, human rights violations, and corrupt politics in their host city and country. For others, they're an excuse to get hammered and watch sunburned people on galvanized boards slide down a hill and then pile on each other. And for still others -- namely, PR professionals -- they're a fortnight-long news hook.
Take the email that the xoEditors received this week from a dating website.
"What’s better as a woman: watching the Winter Olympics on your couch or scoring goals in the sack with a hockey player?" asked the person who'd likely been assigned to make the Olympics "fun" for ladies. "Unsurprisingly, 2,275 single females prefer the latter."
Apparently -- at least according to a poll conducted by this particular dating site -- hockey is this Winter Olympics' "sexiest" sport. "All women may not relate to the Winter Olympics, but one thing is certain: all women can relate to sex," the email concluded.
I'll give you a minute to unstick your face from your palm before we continue. No, no, I'll wait.
I mean, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The "fake sports girl" meme is nothing new, as is the stereotype that women are only interested in sports for the hot dudes. Earlier this year, the Chicago Blackhawks, my hockey team of choice, infamously implied that the way to get more female fans interested in the game would be to promote the good-looking guys more heavily -- or, as they called it, "sharpening the lens on the players."
Kat, who runs the popular Blackhawks blog Runs on Duncan, pointed out to me via email that as a young woman of color, "When I first started going to games, it wasn't hard to notice three things: it skewed heavily white, heavily male, and heavily older. Which makes sense -- hockey, more than any other sport, has been a sport for white males for a really long time. ... With the Blackhawks getting better, [other younger people like myself] are going to games, and now I don't stick out like a sore thumb anymore. That's always nice." So as gender parity has increased among sports fans, it's not exactly surprising that marketing people would hop on the laziest ways to try to squeeze a few extra advertising or merchandising dollars out of a growing fanbase.
However, that doesn't make it any easier to be told that I'm probably only interested in a sport that has led to more emotional highs and lows than any of my past romantic relationships because I want to bone the players.
For one thing, have you seen the U.S. men's hockey team?
I always wonder which athletes, exactly, these people who peg female hockey fans as lust-crazed clit-monsters are watching. Love them as I do, these dudes are not exactly Jesse Williams. (Needless to say, this theory also completely disregards the existence of queer women and/or the equally superior U.S. women's hockey team.)
More to the point, though, is that like it or not, a lot of sports fandom is about the privileging of an athlete -- or a group of them -- as a superhuman celebrity. There's more to it than that, of course -- there's the speed, agility or physicality -- but for a lot of fans I know, it's difficult to become emotionally attached to the general idea of a sport.
It's far easier, especially for newbies, to turn their attentions and energies toward a specific athlete. When you cast a person as a hero, even arbitrarily, it's as if they become a fictional character. You root for them like you'd root for a knight slaying a dragon, or a wizard confronting evil. They become stars of escapist theater, and their stage of choice is the rink, field or court.
For men, this worship translates into being a fan of their favorite athlete of choice. For women, it means wanting to fuck them.
The thing is even if that were the case -- even if every female fan I know only wanted to bang Nick Leddy like a screen door in a hurricane -- in a perfect world, it shouldn't matter. Enjoyment is enjoyment, and reducing someone's interaction with a medium to trivial because you don't approve of it is a small-minded, infuriating thing to do.
But of course, it isn't true: many female fans I know are just as capable of nerding out at length over save percentages, hybrid icing or the penalty kill as the dude ones are. In fact, most of them are, because chances are they'll be asked to trot out that information to prove they're a "real" fan the next time they're at a sports bar.
Back in October, when the Blackhawks were reporting huge increases in ticket sales to female fans this year, I asked Mark Lazerus, who's covered the Hawks for the Chicago Sun-Times since January 2013, whether he'd seen a change in attitude consistent with the shallow mentality that female sports fans supposedly have.
Lazerus replied via email, "I hate and generally disagree with the NBC Olympics broadcast concept that women need more human interest and more personality to root for than all those Neanderthal men out there (women like the big hits and the toothless grins as much as men do, and men like to feel they know and can genuinely like the players just as much as the women do)."
Though Lazerus, who interacts with fans quite a bit via Twitter, did point out, "If you go by the flawlessly scientific method of how many retweets I get on different types of tweets, women certainly respond in a big way to stories and quotes about the Hawks becoming dads, or getting married, or things like that," he said overall, he's "been pleasantly surprised by how many knowledgeable, funny and (gasp) reasonable people are out there on Twitter. Male and female."
Tracey Myers, who reports on the Hawks for CSN Chicago, agreed, also via email, "I've gotten good, respectable messages from male and female fans and I've gotten spiteful, bitter, cowardly messages from both genders. That doesn't come down to the sex as much as it comes down to a person's unhappiness or insecurity. Good and bad in both men and women out there. And yes, that goes for folks criticizing players. Most fans are fickle, regardless of the team or sport or gender. They rant when a team loses and mellow out when they win."
Naturally, though, as even-keeled or informed as female fans can be, the marketing toward them still skews toward the "pink jersey" -- or, as with that Olympics PR pitch, trying to make sports relatable to women through sex and sex alone.
Like Kat said via email, "I have no problems with women choosing to wear these jerseys (especially if they can pull off Pepto pink -- then go on with your bad self). But! When these are the only choices presented to us -- wear pink/bedazzled or wear clothing designed for men -- then there is a big problem, and you need to try harder. Women fans are as multifaceted as male fans, and all I ask is for the multitude of choices the guys get for women's apparel."
As the Winter Olympics continues, I'm sure some people will watch the hockey for the dudes, just like some will watch the skiing for the ladies and the figure skating for the Johnny Weir costumes. But assuming that a group of fans will only be interested in a certain element of any event because of their gender is tired and sexist. Hopefully, by PyeongChang 2018, we'll all be able to scream in various states of patriotic passion without being dogged by the fear that we're only in it for the star-spangled butts.
When it comes to men's hockey, Kate is actually kind of rooting for Sweden. Sorry. You can yell at her: @katchatters.