Social Science blog

4 posts from April 2011

28 April 2011

Synchronised swimming; part 2

Simone Bacchini writes:

In the previous post, musing on the hilarity that synchronised swimming often engenders, Gill Ridgley provocatively asks: “Is synchronised swimming a feminist issue?” Never one to resist temptation - and as an admirer of the sport myself - I’d like to add my voice to the debate by answering in the affirmative.

 Let me begin by quoting from a recently published novel I’ve just read: “Annabel”, by Canadian author Kathleen Winter. The book, which has now been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction (winner to be announced on 8th June, 2011), tells the story of Wayne, an intersexed child born in the remote Labrador region of Canada in 1968. Wayne’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, are shocked to discover that the child has come into the world with both female and male genitalia, a “true hermaphrodite.” After much thought – and relying on medical advice – they decide to raise it as male, and name him Wayne. I’m not going to spoil the readers’ pleasure by revealing too many details of the plot; or – God forbid – the denouement. However, I’m sure anyone can guess that, for Wayne and his family, it’s not all plain sailing. Winter skilfully depicts the fluidity of gender identity as we follow Wayne through his childhood, teenage years, and adulthood.

 Aged eight or nine, he is enthralled by symmetry; he loves geometric shapes and maths. Typical boy, one might comment. And yet … one evening:

 "The World Aquatic Championships came on television and Wayne watched them with Jacinta. He saw synchronized swimming for the first time. The Russian team turned into a lily. The lily turned inside out and became a decahedron. The hats of the Russian swimmers had starbursts of sequins at the crown, and they were turquoise. The suits were of Arabian paisley. Wayne was transfixed.

    “Mom. They’re making patterns. With their own bodies.”


    Wayne looked at his hands, his legs, and wished he had more than two of them. He couldn’t get over the Russian team. It was glorious. […] the Russian team had a symmetry that went beyond what Wayne had imagined possible. He dreamed about it that night. (pp. 78-79)"

 For the young Wayne, it’s the beginning of a love-affair: synchronised swimming has got symmetry and coordination, it requires strength and discipline. But it also has beauty, harmony, and glamour: the latter symbolised by the soloist swimmer’s bright orange bathing suit, which Wayne dreams of possessing.

 Throughout the novel, Wayne’s infatuation with synchronised swimming, its protagonists and accoutrements, most notably the orange bathing suit, comes to symbolise the protagonist’s mixed gender-identity. For him – or her –the sport fuses the stereotypically masculine with the stereotypically feminine: traits that make up his own personality.

 For society, however, it only represents the feminine and, as is often the case, is devalued. An activity at best, certainly not a sport, as revealed by a comment by Treadway, overhearing a conversation between Wayne and his mother on the advanced coordination skills required by synchronised swimmers:

 “Well, their time would be better spent,” Treadway said, “if they went to secretarial school and learned to do shorthand.” (pp. 80-81)

 In Treadway’s world of binary, well-defined gender roles, the numerous skills needed to engage in synchronised swimming are barely acknowledged, and then only to implicitly comment on their uselessness.

 Another Canadian, this time an academic, Laura Thomas (2000: 55-56), has noted that in her country’s imagination, synchronised swimmers are always conceived of as “bathing beauties”; this, in turn, has led the sport media and, crucially, sport scholars “to trivialize the athletic achievements of synchronized swimmers […]. That synchronized swimmers are legitimate sportswomen in their own right is subsumed by the assumption that they are too feminine, or sexual, in their appearance to be true athletes.” Beauty, so often used to flatter women, is equated with weakness; to comment on a female athlete’s beauty – or the beauty of the sport she engages in – becomes an act of disempowerment, by stealth.

 But don’t misjudge those smiling women; and don’t underestimate them, or their audacity. Canadian critic Jeanne Randolph (hang on: another Canadian; is there a connection here?), in her essay titled: Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming – how’s that for a title? – speaks of the deceptively jolly nature of synchronised swimmers’ smiles. Following Hegel, she argues that athletic competition revolves around death as a mediator; death which is present but must never be actualised.

 Death must be imagined. If [synchronised swimmers] smile, no matter what, always, always, smile, smile […], the spectators would merely imagine death, for jollity and drowning are mutually exclusive. Not only that, but a full grin is the only facial position that two athletes can maintain in perfect unison (1991: 153).

 So yes, I suppose synchronised swimming is a feminist issue, after all; and much more.


 Corey, S. Synchronized Swimming. Livingston, Al.: Livingston University Press. 1984.

London reference collection shelfmark: YD.2004.a.4139.

This is a collection of poems. The opening one is titled: Synchronized Swimming,


Randolph, J. Psychoanalysis & Synchronized Swimming: And Other Writings on Art. Toronto: YYZ Books, 1991

London reference collection shelfmark: YA.1995.b.8037.




15 April 2011

In the deep end

I love synchronised swimming, and I don’t remember seeing much of it on British TV at the time of the Beijing games - which strikes me as odd, because the sport combines everything: grace; beauty, skill, creativity. And yet it’s too often the butt of jokes. What’s actually ‘wrong’ with it? Too sparkly, too pretty, too showbiz, too female? Today I’d like to ask - a la Carrie Bradshaw  - “Is synchronised swimming a feminist issue?”

 The fact is, this sport sets out to hide its light behind a bushel. All that strength, flexibility, control, and effort, made to look simple, elegant and effortless; in much the same way as the gliding of a swan in a fast current hides the furious efforts going on under the water.

 Take a look at some of the displays of the sport on Youtube, like this one, of the US team in 2007:

 What’s going on here is something amazing and powerful. Forget the waterproof makeup. Look at how strong these young women are; and bear in mind that they are trying to make you think there’s nothing to it!

 The sport had its origins in the United States of America, as water ballet, and came from a strong showbiz background. There were quite a few proponents of the art who performed on stage in large water tanks, and who can forget the fabulous water ballet sequence in Busby Berkeley’s ‘Footlight parade (1933)  while Ruby Keeler sings ‘By a waterfall’. This is also on Youtube:

 I’m pleased to see that the British Library has some books on synchronised swimming in its collections, including Donna Moe’s tantalisingly entitled thesis Personality factors of university women participating in creative dance, speed swimming, or synchronized swimming, and Dawn Bean’s fascinating history of the sport.

 Let’s hope the GB team has a great 2012 Olympics and that their success will generate an Olga Korbut effect for aspiring young mermaids.

 Moe, Donna Adeline. Personality factors of university women participating in creative dance, speed swimming, or synchronized swimming.

{S.l.] : University of Washington, 1971.

Dissertation thesis (M.S.)--University of Washington.

Lending collections shelfmark: MFE/4660 *1*

 Bean, Dawn Pawson, Synchronized swimming: an American history.

Jefferson, N.C. ; London : McFarland, c2005.

DSC m05/.31151



08 April 2011

Olympic lives

Simone Bacchini writes:

What do Little Red Riding-Hood, the Book of Genesis, Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”, and William Baker’s “Jesse Owens: An American Life” have in common?

 They are all “myths”; not in the sense that they are not true – well, perhaps Little Red Riding-Hood” does contain one or two elements of fantasy and the account of the earth’s creation in Genesis is a tad unscientific – but rather in the sense that they all aim to coherently present complex stories. They all use narrative to make order out of apparently chaotic events; they aim to convey general truths, moving from the particular to universal and vice versa.

 As Dan P. McAdams (1993: 27), a professor of Human Development and Psychology, reminds us, “[h]uman beings are storytellers by nature. In many guises, as folktale, legend, myth, epic, history, motion picture and television program, the story appears in every human culture.” He continues by pointing out that “[t]he story is a natural package for organizing many different kinds of information. Storytelling appears to be a fundamental way of expressing ourselves and our world to others” (my emphasis).

 Telling stories, then, is fundamentally human; is it any wonder we all do it and like it so much? A few years ago, I was contemplating writing a book on it. Typical me, the book’s title was ready well before a single word had been written: “Homo Narrans”, the story-telling human being. Alas, someone beat me to it (well, many as it happens), to my disappointment and, I’m sure, the relief of the reading public.

 But how does all this relate to the Olympics? Where do these musings of mine fit into the stated aims of the Sports and Society website? Well, it occurred to me (and again, I’m not claiming any originality here) that participation in an event to which so many meanings and values are attached (rightly or wrongly), is in itself myth-making material.

 Browsing the British Library’s collection – or, for that matter, any well-stocked book store, the number of biographies or autobiographies about or by Olympians is staggering. For some, participation in the Games is the culminating event, the zenith of a life and sporting careers. For others, it is but one event, an extremely important building block in a personal myth.

 This is why we’ve decided to add a new section to the website. Work is well under way for the forthcoming “Olympic Lives” (provisional title). Its overall aim will be to explore the links between the Olympics and (auto)biography writing, as a type of “myth making”. In so doing, we aim to introduce existing and future researchers to the vast resources that the library holds, many of which have been only marginally explored. They include books, journals, newspapers and sound recordings.

 And this is not all. We are also working on an event to be held later this year or early in 2012 to bring together researchers working on biography from different perspectives (keep an eye on the website for more precise information).

 And if you already have written an article and would be happy to make it freely available to the public, please do not hesitate to get in touch by emailing me, Simon Bacchini, at

We’re all very excited here in the Social Sciences team; we hope you’ll join us!


 Baker, W. (1986). Jesse Owens: An American Life. New York City, NY: Free Press.

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.1987.b.2061.

 Mandela, N. (1994). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London: Little.

London reference shelfmark: YC.1995.b.1399.


McAdams, D.P. (1993). The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1998.a.69.

 Niles, J.D. (1999). Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.200.a.13558.

 Schmitt, C. (ed.) (1999). Homo narrans: Studien zur populären Erzälkultur. Berlin: Waxmann Münster.

London reference collections shelfmark: YA.200.a.20105.



01 April 2011

Riches revealed

Yesterday evening I joined colleagues from the British Library at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell to meet fellow professionals in the world of culture and archives, and to celebrate the launch of a wonderful new website called Winning Endeavours, which hosts digitised research resources on the London Olympics of 1908 and 1948.

The BL has contributed newspaper articles to the site, and there are numerous other fascinating materials from 24 other archives and repositories. The website is fully searchable by keyword and each item is helpfully annotated with background information, details of copyright status of the image, date and location. It’s a truly marvellous resource for anyone with an interest in the Games, from school students (there will soon be teaching packs available on the site) to the general public. Here’s the link:

 In many ways this site is emblematic of the riches held by archives not only in London but throughout the UK. It’s also illustrative of the terrific opportunities provided by the internet for research and lifelong learning - where formerly you had to traipse for miles to hunt the stuff down (‘in my day’ etc…) now here it is at the click of a mouse!

 Nevertheless, I think it’s important to understand that websites like this one don’t spring fully armed out of nowhere. The archives had to be canvassed and their enthusiasm awakened and encouraged, and the project team had to bid for funding for the digitisation process and for the work of a researcher to coordinate, manage and edit the website. This aspect alone involved protracted discussions involving the drawing up of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid (I know because I was present at some of these), and then came the drafting and revising of the bid, all of this before the ‘real’ work of identifying and digitising the documents had even started.  So it all required enormous commitment and perseverance on the part of a large number of people.

So what’s there? Have a go with a keyword. I tried ‘tickets’ and came up with some very interesting documents, among them a report in the Daily Mail on the arrangements for London 1948. With just three weeks to go before the opening ceremony the paper reports “The dog track at Wembley has practically disappeared, and today a fleet of lorries moved in with the first 100 tons of red surfacing for the running track”. Cutting it fine, or what?!

 The other good news is the BL will be archiving the website at the end of 2012 in the UK web archive, where it will join a great number of other fascinating websites.