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.