Girls Can’t Be As Good As Boys!

So, first, we had the whole Caster Semenya saga: a female athlete who is really good… so good indeed that it is suspicious. Is she really a woman? Let’s test. Ok, she is. But she is not feminine enough, so, let’s pump of her full of hormone to increase her femininity and lower her performance because she is getting way to close to men’s performance levels and that is just wrong.

And now, we have the Chinese Superwoman, as Le Monde calls her. We are talking about Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who’s killing it at the Olympic Games in London. She’s good. Too good. Well, she’s obviously a woman so her men-level performances can only be explained by doping (Chinese, y’know).

“The world of swimming may have spent 36 hours in a ferocious debate over the means by which she could achieve such astonishing feats, but the 16-year-old had other things on her mind. As the electronic beep sounded to mark the start of the race, she leapt from the blocks, put her head down, and swam.


On Saturday, Ye had stunned a crowd that thought it had already seen the shock of the evening 40 minutes before, when the great Michael Phelps failed to win a medal in the men’s 400m individual medley.

In the women’s race of the same event, Ye swam a final freestyle leg of such jawdropping acceleration that she overhauled the race leader, finishing almost three metres ahead in a time which shattered the world record. On Monday, in qualifying for Tuesday night’s event, she had gone on to break the Olympic record for the longer distance.

It was awesome, astonishing, unbelievable. And it didn’t take too long for a leading US coach to say what many had been muttering.”

And the real issue is this:

“La Chinoise Ye Shiwen, 16 ans, médaillée d’or sur 400m 4 nages samedi, a battu le record du monde de cette éprouvante discipline (4 m 28′ s 43 centièmes), mais elle a surtout crawlé les cent derniers mètres de sa course presque aussi vite queRyan Lochte (58 s 68 contre 58 s 65), sacré la veille chez les garçons, au terme du deuxième 400m 4 nages le plus rapide de l’Histoire (4 m 05 s 18 centièmes).”

She swam almost as fast as the male winner in the same category. Something is wrong. Except not:

It is interesting that when women performance improve and get closer in line with male performance, then, that is an issue. The same thing happens with scholarly achievement. How many books have been (and continue to be) written about the relative greater success of girls in school and women in universities? All of them deploring the loss of gender supremacy for boys and men. And sometimes calling not so subtly for a restoration of such supremacy through intervention (all couched in terms of making school less ‘feminine environments’ and more attuned to alleged masculine needs).

The case of these women athletes getting closer to men performance levels generates the same kind of anxieties, if not direct intervention, as in the case of Caster Semenya.

3 thoughts on “Girls Can’t Be As Good As Boys!

  1. “Something is wrong. Except not:

    What does that “except not” mean ? What does that official say that proves or brings anything? Do you realize the time it has taken to prove that almost all of the Tour de France podiums were completely doped (months at best, years in most cases, in some cases there is still no official proof)? Do you think that this official could possibly say “please keep discussing weirdly outstanding performances, this is an interesting and sane public debate about the limits of human performance”?

    (There is an actually interesting discussion of this performance here: . It explains well why this performance is really outstanding, and why any (male or female) outstanding performance in swimming is regarded with skepticism due to the history of sport in both swimming in general and in China.)

    (Thanks for your blog btw, which is interesting for a non-sociologist like me. But some days I feel you could frame *anything* as sexism. 🙂

    • WordPress ate part of my comment. The beginning was something like:
      “Something is wrong. Except not: …official explains that there is not yet any proof of doping and that he wishes you would not distract us from the Coca-Cola commercials with your journalist speculations…”

    • The thing is that we tend to accept high / exceptional performances by athletes from our countries unquestionably while we get skeptical about others (compare the way accusations of doping against Lance Armstrong in the US media v. athletes from other countries considering that doping is widespread in cycling at that level). So, yeah, the Chinese get greater raised eyebrows. Many cases don’t take months to resolve.

      The fact that a lot of things can be seen as sexism is because sexism is a system, therefore, it operates throughout all institutions (education, politics, sports, etc…) and at all levels, from the most macro to the most micro. That is why it is everywhere but often not seen because it is so embedded in everything we do, what issues we treat as issues, how we discuss these issues, etc.

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