Submitted by: Karen McGarry
This paper is based upon qualitative, anthropological fieldwork conducted between 2000 and 2002 among Canadian journalists, high performance (ie. National, World, and Olympic level) figure skaters, coaches, sponsors, and others involved in the production of mediated representations of figure skating for mainstream Canadian television networks and other print media. With the permission of various organizations, I conducted participant observation and fieldwork in skating arenas and in the media centers of major competitions to understand the role of figure skating in shaping a sense of Canadian national identity. As standard practice in anthropology, the names of those interviewed are withheld to protect their anonymity. The goal of this paper is to highlight the role of the media in promoting particular gendered images of figure skaters for public consumption, thereby drawing attention to two issues: 1) the socially constructed nature of various representations of men and women in the sport, and; 2) the ways in which particular gendered images of sports figures are promoted in the interests of nationalism.
Figure Skating the Media, and Canadian Culture
Figure skating is viewed by many Canadians as an integral part of Canadian culture. Records of ice skating date back to at least the 1700s, and figure skating, along with hockey, receives prime-time television coverage on major Canadian television networks. Figure skating, in fact, is ranked second only to hockey in terms of television spectatorship, government funding, and corporate sponsorship (Skate Canada 2002). Its popularity among fans is heightened by the fact that since the 1940s, Canadians have won more than 500 international medals, making it one of the nation’s most competitively successful amateur sports. Skaters such as Elvis Stojko, Kurt Browning, Elizabeth Manley, Barbara Ann Scott, Toller Cranston, and Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, to name a few, have become household names and national icons in Canada.
Given figure skating’s high spectatorship levels, it is not surprising that Skate Canada, the sport’s amateur governing body, and CTV, Canada’s self-declared “official figure skating network” have opportunistically marketed figure skating as a distinctly “Canadian” sport and a sport of national significance:
Figure Skating is a sport of national significance to Canadians and is part of our heritage. Canadians have excelled in figure skating, achieving international success and celebrity status (Skate Canada Fact Sheet 2002).
It’s part of our Canadian heritage. That’s why CTV – ‘Canada’s Figure Skating Network’ – is committed to bringing you the best figure skating in the world. CTV has been partnered with the sport since 1961, and makes figure skating its core sports property (CTV website, July 16, 2001).
For Skate Canada and its top skaters, sponsorships are relatively easy to obtain (in comparison with other amateur sports). In fact, Skate Canada has become a primarily self-sustaining organization over the years, thanks mainly to lucrative sponsorship opportunities. While the organization continues to receive government funding, this represents a small portion (7%) of its annual operating budget (Skate Canada 2002). This means that the task of promoting a sense of national identity among Canadians has, in the case of figure skating, moved increasingly into the hands of non-state actors, and particularly the mass media and its sponsors and advertisers. Throughout my research, I learned that there exist powerful alliances of interest between skating sponsors and various Canadian media outlets, who have a vested economic interest in promoting various national representations that appeal to entertainment spectacles. These alliances, in turn, indirectly influence the gendered representations upheld for Canadian audiences. For example, at one event, I talked with a television sports network executive from a major media outlet. Very excited to be there, she had this to say about her company’s agreement with Skate Canada:
When they [Skate Canada] approached us, we were excited to be a part of it all. We were looking for the best sports ambassadors for Canada to support. What’s better than figure skating? They’re good, clean-cut kids. We’re proud too of our association with skating and our advertisers have really supported Elvis Stojko over the years.
Karen: What was it about Elvis that makes him appealing?
Executive: He’s successful and a champion. And he’s such a strong, masculine presence. And he’s a great public figure for the sport and for the country. People just love him. I remember when a commentator at the X network said something bad about one of his skates a few years back and people were upset. So were we. And we made that quite clear. There’s no reason to be bad-mouthing such great skaters on live broadcasts.
In this example, we see how the media and their sponsors can influence various representations on ice, and the alliances of interest at stake. Top skaters recognize the importance of their sport to the country, and they rarely doubt that their image will not be promoted favorably. Their bodies have become commodified to the point where, as one skater confidently told me, “I’m not trying to be arrogant here, but they [the network] would have my people [his sponsors] down their throats if I got criticized. I’m worth a lot to them.” In many ways then, figure skating represents an opportunity for understanding how the Canadian media and television, in conjunction with advertisers, influence the production of gendered, commodified identities on ice, and in doing so, produce highly specific gendered bodily representations of the nation.
Gender and Figure Skating
The gendered categories of “masculinity” and “femininity” are socially constructed concepts and societal ideals about an appropriate masculine or feminine behavior vary spatially, from culture to culture, and temporally, depending upon various socio-historical circumstances (eg. Butler 1990). In other words, what is considered “socially appropriate” behavior for a female or male (today) is not the same as a century ago. Given the lucrative sponsorship potential of the sport, it is not surprising that the Canadian mainstream media and its sponsors and advertisers have sought to endorse “clean cut” mainstream, heterosexual images of masculinity and femininity for public consumption.
While figure skating is rumored to have the highest proportion of homosexual men of any amateur competitive sport (Pronger 1999), it is ironically a sport in which men must exhibit the most blatantly heterosexual signs to be successful and to receive commercial endorsements. Since the late 1980s, Skate Canada, the media, and its sponsors have made a concerted effort to de-emphasize figure skating’s balletic heritage, a tradition strengthened in the 1970s by skaters such as Canadian Olympian Toller Cranston, an openly homosexual competitor who introduced flamboyant costumes, thai cosmetics, ballet, and choreography into men’s skating. Male homosexuality, it seems, is considered a financial liability to the sport. In 1998, for example, the two-time Olympic silver medalist, Brian Orser, was “outed” in the media during a palimony lawsuit. Orser was devastated by the media exposure and claimed that such allegations of homosexuality would threaten his economic livelihood. Similarly, at the 2001 World Championships in Vancouver when a well-known male Canadian skater was contacted by a gay magazine about the possibility of doing a feature story on him, he was told by Skate Canada that he must decline the request. As one coach said to me, “that is not the sort of picture that Skate Canada wants to paint for the country, especially in an international forum.” Every effort is made to construct such skaters as heterosexual.
The heterosexual masculine images of World Champion skaters like Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko were endorsed enthusiastically in the media throughout the 1990s, a point also noted by Adams (1997). Usually skating to rock and roll music, or adopting the traditionally masculine personas of characters like ninjas, Scottish warriors, or karate experts, Stojko was constructed in the media as “Canada’s Terminator.” At one competition I attended, I watched Stojko warm up backstage with balletic exercises, but the camera technician, who was instructed to film Stojko’s pre-competitive routine, waited until he decided to jog to film him. As he said to me, “Elvis is such a macho guy; we want to show that side of him.” By emphasizing male skaters’ athletic abilities in media portrayals, links are made between the supposed “strength” of the male figure skating body, and the “strength” of the nation. As one sponsor said to me, “we want to promote strong images of our male skaters to show the Americans and other nations that we are an important force to contend with.” The bottom line is that images of male heterosexuality sell to a broader, and hence more lucrative, spectator demographic.
Similar sorts of gender expectations and pressures exist for Canada’s female skaters. Women are expected to emulate a soft, delicate femininity reminiscent of, as one coach told me, “an Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly era.” The competitive future of female skaters who fail to project such images may, in some cases, be threatened. One female skater I spoke with, for example, told me that, subsequent to a competition, she was informed by a judge that her earring (she had three piercings in each ear), her nose ring, and her weight, were “unfeminine” and that she might fare better in the future should she comport herself “more accordingly and ladylike.” She also suggested that the skater should lose five pounds, as this would make her more attractive to the media.
Clearly then, the gendered images performed in figure skating are culturally constructed images, oftentimes produced in conjunction with the media. Some skaters I spoke with, for instance, informed me that they consult their agents and media organizations for input before deciding upon their annual costume and program themes.
The gendered images favored in figure skating are important to discuss here because they have a variety of negative consequences for the sport. First, the persistence of idealized representations of gender can lead to the onset of debilitating emotional and physical disabilities among skaters. For women in particular, figure skating is notorious for the existence of eating disorders and a variety of other physical and psychological ailments (eg. Davis 1997; Ryan 1995) as a result of the desire to achieve an “idealized femininity.” The narrow range of opportunities for gendered identities also hampers the individual creative talents and artistic abilities of skaters, coaches, and choreographers, many of whom feel limited in the range of options available. Also, it is somewhat surprising, in the supposedly tolerant, multicultural, and inclusive environment of a nation like Canada, that such a rigid and narrow definition of gendered identities is accepted and promoted (oftentimes unconsciously) for public consumption. Clearly, this is a growing concern within the sport due to the increasing power and hegemony of the mainstream media and its powerful position in shaping modern identities. As nation-states gradually begin to lose control over the production of national identities in increasingly globalized contexts, non-state entities like the mass media are taking over or supplanting the state’s role in nation-building. As this article has suggested, this has important connotations for the future of increasingly mediated sports like figure skating, where the bodies of skaters are heavily commodified and mainstream representations of national bodies dominate.
- Adams, M. (1997). To be an Ordinary Hero: Male Figure Skaters and the Ideology of Gender. Avante 3(3):93-110.
- Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
- CTV (2001). CTV and Figure Skating. http: www.ctv.ca/sport, July 16, 2001.
- Davis, C. (1997). Eating Disorders and Hyperactivity: A Psycho-biological Perspective. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 42:168-175.
- Pronger, B. (1999). The Arena of Masculinity: Sport, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Ryan, J. (1995). Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. New York: Doubleday.
- Skate Canada (2002). Skate Canada Fact Sheet. Ottawa: Skate Canada.