Let's Get Physical: The Fourth Wave of Feminism as Sponsored by Gatorade and Nike

Theodora Carson

Issue 3 * Summer 2000

The fourth wave of feminism is here and it is based solely on physical achievement. Exercise and sport has become one of the few arenas in which female competition is welcomed and savored. Commercials feature prominent female athletes challenging males, chanting the slogan "anything you can do, I can do better." Due to a variety of factors--improved knowledge about women's health, decreased focus on child-bearing, a cultural ideal of a fit and trim body--athletic success is now an acceptable and applauded goal for women, but at what cost?

Part of this focus on the body must be due to the backlash against feminism. I am not speaking of Susan Faludi's theory and examples, but instead of a further backlash against her and everything for which she stands. The focus on the physical is a reaction against the intellectual. It is as if these women are saying "screw postmodern feminist theory. I've got work to do." I have met high school students who say feminism has nothing to do with them and that they are not feminists themselves, but these same girls win basketball scholarships and fight the school board to be placed on the football team. Where did the feminist label get such a bad reputation? Susan Faludi has some ideas in Backlash, but the student athletes will likely never read her book. They have little patience for feminist theory, but appreciate feminist practice. Instead of getting active in politics or academia, they get active on the courts and fields. Feminism has become not a battle of the minds, but a battle of the backhands.

When the United States' women's team won the World Cup, the nation rejoiced. Soccer is not known as an American game, especially with its worldwide popularity. For some reason though, women have often been encouraged to play soccer in physical education classes the past twenty years; this is likely because no special equipment such as helmets, padding, etc. is required, thus keeping public school budgets well in check. While the men's team lost, the women's team won. It gave the United States a source of patriotism, a rariety in these global times. However, what I heard most comments from spectators did not revolve around the game itself, but the moments immediately following the dramatic conclusion. When Brandi Chastain stripped off her jersey and ran in her sports bra, that was the image that most people remember. It's the image that magazines and the media snapped up. The message is clear: it's fine to be a sports hero, but just remember you're a woman. This placates the males, reducing the threat of aggressive women, and simultaneously reminds women that they are sex objects still.

Within a few months of that victory, there was Soccer Barbie, WNBA Barbie, and even Nascar Barbie to cash in on the athletic female craze. Commercials glorified girls in sports. Soccer moms felt vindicated. It was a great time to be a girl--as long as you played sports.

Tennis seems to be the new soccer for this latest phase. Due to a power vacuum in tennis with no predominant male tennis players (many are nearing their thirties and are thus "past their prime"), women's tennis has become more popular. Part of this is owed to the Williams sisters' play: Venus (winner of the the match and tournament) and younger sister Serena received a lot of attention when they played each other in Wimbledon. Perhaps the only other player to receive as much attention was Anna Kornikova, the blond player who fills out her sports bra completely and proudly, landing a generous advertising contract to prove her "talents." According to Lycos/Hotbot, "Anna Kornikova" is one of the most searched for terms on the Web. She has yet to win a Grand Slam tournament, but she garners a lot of attention based on her appearance. Kornikova epitomizes the dangers of a feminism that exists solely on athletic appearance and achievement. Yet feminism has become so heated a topic that sports seems the only safe venue for women seeking to make a difference: the power of one victory can reverberate throughout American society. But this is a shallow feminism, a feminism without substance, a feminism that merely takes advantage of past gains without any real concern for the future. It is a selfish feminism. Feminism through sports is also a proud feminism; we all have read enough Greek tragedies to know that a fall cannot be far behind.

The focus on physical prowess and feminism is not limited to organized sports: women as superheroes are becoming more common. Wonder Woman and Supergirl are no longer the exception. A movie of Charlie's Angels is expected soon and, given the line-up of Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz, and Drew Barrymore, promises to be less about jiggling breasts and feathered hair. Even the voiceover during the opening credits, the part where Charlie (the voice of John Forsythe) takes "three little girls" from the police academy, has been changed. Xena: Warrior Princess, played stunningly by Lucy Lawless, has been the topic of several discussions about feminism and the body. Even programs for girls, Sailor Moon and the Powerpuff Girls, focus on the powers of girls to fight evil-doers.

And it is in the Powerpuff Girls that we, surprisingly, get the most positive messages. Where Sailor Moon worries about gaining a pound and flirting with Tuxedo Mask, the Powerpuff Girls (Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup) only worry about beating up the bad guys--and they are almost all male. The only evil woman is Sedusa, the villian who seduces men to get jewels, cash, and other loot. The Powerpuff Girls series, which airs on Cartoon Network, first debuted as two short cartoons on the What a Cartoon Show. In "Meat Fuzzy Lumpkins," we find the only reference to vanity about physical appearance--Bubbles prides herself on her twin ponytails. Yet Bubbles' preoccupation with her hair is not an issue in the series. The only concern about physical appearance is in the episode where Buttercup refused to bathe. The Powerpuff Girls battle evil anytime, anywhere.

Part of this willingness to do battle without focusing on appearance must come from their age: the Powerpuff Girls are in kindergarten. They're not prepubscent teens like Sailor Moon and her fellow warriors. We can all learn a lesson from the Powerpuff Girls: it's great to battle evil, but you don't have to think about what you look like while you're doing it. The Powerpuff Girls use their bodies to further their cause, not to determine their cause. Why this both inspires me and scares me is that the creator of the Powerpuff Girls is not a woman--it is a man.

While I celebrate Craig McCracken's work with the Powerpuff Girls, I also encourage artists of all natures and genders to look past Anna Kornikova's breasts and get to the heart of the matter. This focus on physical appearance and performance cannot last; bodies get old, get injured, get damaged. The body cannot last, but philosophical discourse can. It is harder to co-opt feminist thought with corporate sponsorship than to let women's bodies continue to serve merely as vehicles for advertising. Let us interest our nation of female athletes not only in winning for the team, but in winning for women by thinking, writing, discussing, and appreciating their feminist roots and future. I do not want a single woman to forget how she got to the sports arena in the first place; at sake of repeating a symbol too often used and whose importance has been misplaced, I urge female athletes to remember the bra-burning activists as they wear their sports bras.