The world of figure skating has drawn to our attention the current controversy regarding a female athlete’s unsportsmanlike comments and unladylike conduct. Bringing to center stage the 22 year-old women’s US national champion Ashley Wagner, reports are being fired left and right claiming that her “unfiltered comments and facial expressions are bad for the sport” (Palleschi). This comment leaves me to question whether these types of comments would be made if the skater was male or if we were talking about a different sport entirely, like football or hockey.
The history of figure skating has always preserved a particular essence of elegance, grace, and prestige, which skaters are expected to embody and uphold on the ice and through their skating. As former figure skater and writer Amanda Palleschi points out in her article in the Atlantic, this is greatly due to the “sport’s close kinesthetic relationship with ballet.” Like with ballet, there is this paradox that skaters must be strong, athletic, and push their bodies to the brink, yet perform with effortless ease and poise.
Skaters must throw themselves through the air and spin on cold hard ice while relying on only a quarter-inch thick blade and trusting that their pick will support their weight as they land. However, they must do all of this without discernible acknowledgement of exerted force.
Gender roles have been explored within the realm of figure skating, especially given that it is predominantly a female-centered sport, which is rare these days. With this said, when women in the sport threaten the sense of ‘skater-as-princess’ ideal, fingers start pointing at the culprit. Within the women’s skating community, Ashley Wagner is not one of America’s sweethearts, as compared to her counterpart Gracie Gold.
Following her upset at the Sochi Olympics, Ashley Wagner verbalized her frustration with the new scoring system, the anonymous status of the judges, and consequently the unaccountability of the judge’s scores. Her comments regarding results from previous women’s competition, her “meme-worth faces” and her unwarranted mutters have brought into question whether she has what it takes to be a successful figure skater.
As Palleschi points out, “in women’s figure skating there is no room for loudly emotive Richard Shermans or even lovable bad boys like Bode Miller. If you want to be beloved as a female skater on the international stage, you must behave more like Peyton Manning.”
Historically, if one were to compare the statistics of male coaches in relation to female coaches, the prevalence of male coaches greatly outweighs the number of female coaches. This is just one example of the gender gap within sports where women take on rolls of subordination and men are in positions of leadership and power (11).
As I mentioned earlier, there is a certain vision for what makes a perfect figure skater which many skater strive to uphold. In Messner’s Taking the Field, historian Susan Cahn describes the quintessential female athlete as one who has “fused appropriate female athleticism with a middle-class concept of womanhood characterized by refinement, dignity, and self-control” (139).
Figure skaters are often times considered the beauty queens of the ice. Essentially, they subject themselves to a panel of judges who score and rank them according to technical and artistic merit. However, the artistic merit is comprised predominantly on aesthetic appeal. This score is heavily influenced by what a skater wears, how she behaves on and off the ice, and how she presents herself as a woman figure skater. This is one of the reasons Wagner expressed her frustration with the current judging system. In the past, we have seen this system make or break a skater based simply on physical attractiveness.
One of the greatest known scandals in the history of figure skating existed between America’s sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan and ugly duckling Tonya Harding. Harding faced constant ridicule by skating fans and the media for her lack of class, tasteless outfits, and candid attitude while Kerrigan received praise by those who watched her skate as she captured viewers with her Vera Wang dress and her delicately pinned back hair.
Along with the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup one wears, a skater’s sexual appeal is inherent in the sport of figure skating and has prevailed among most women’s sports. In the media, it is common for women athletes to be portrayed in a sexually appealing manner, photographed wearing minimal or no clothing at all. The media, according to Messner, is “much more likely to pull women athletes to the center of cultural discourse when they are athletes who can be appreciated and exploited for their sexual appeal. Others, they are relegated to the margins of the cultural radar screen” (103). This statement perfectly exemplifies the controversial ‘princess-and-the-pauper’ relationship between Kerrigan and Harding.
So, how much of a skater’s fame, success, and positive media attention is based on the luck of the draw and what genes you get? Time and time again history has proved that women athletes are crammed into a mold that the society of sports has created for them and if they do not fit that mold, their career suffers in one way or another. At only 22 years of age Wagner is already being condemned by the figure skating world and with all the negative attention she is receiving it leaves you to wonder what is in store for her future career as a figure skater.