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OUT OF BOUNDS: COLLEGE WOMEN' S ULTIMATE FRISBEE AND THE PRACTICE OF
JOANNA WINN NEVELLE
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
O 2007 Joanna Winn Neville
To my teammates, past, present and future
First, I would like to thank my family for their support and encouragement. I would also
like to thank my supervisory committee chair (Florence Babb) and members (K.L. Broad and
Heather Gibson) for their knowledge, patience, and encouragement. In addition, I thank the
faculty and staff from the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research, especially Paula
Ambroso, for their support. I could not have accomplished this task without the participation and
support from my Ultimate Frisbee teammates. They continue to help me on and off the field.
Last, but not least, I would like to thank my partner, Matthew Tennant, for all of his support,
encouragement, and love.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. ...............4.....
1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............8.......... ......
Proj ect Obj ectives and Methodology ................. ...............8...............
Hi story of Ultimate Fri sbee ................. ................. 12.............
Playing Ultimate ................. ...............14.......... .....
A Typical Tournament............... ...............1
2 REVIEW OF GENDER AND SPORT LITERATURE............... ...............1
3 PLAYING WITH GENDER IN ULTIMATE FRISBEE .............. ..... ............... 2
Ultimate Bodies: Physicality in a Non-Contact Sport ......____ ..... ... ................ ..31
Talking Tough: Language Use in Ultimate Frisbee .............. ...............37....
Skirts or Shorts: What to Wear for Ultimate .............. ...............41....
4 ULTIMATE FRISBEE: A SPACE FOR FEMALE ATHLETES?............... ...............4
The Ultimate Bond: Relationships in Ultimate Frisbee................ ..... .. ............4
Erotic Play: Expressing Sexuality in College Women's Ultimate Frisbee.............................55
The Ultimate Athlete: Expressions of Female Athleticism in Ultimate Frisbee ....................60
5 CONCLUSIONS .............. ...............67....
LIST OF REFERENCES ............ ..... ._ ...............74...
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............77....
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
OUT OF BOUNDS: COLLEGE WOMEN' S ULTIMATE FRISBEE AND THE PRACTICE OF
Joanna Winn Neville
Chair: Florence Babb
Major: Women's Studies
My research examines what happens when an emerging sport, such as Ultimate Frisbee,
does not reinforce stereotypical gendered identities and gendered practices. There are two areas
of my research on women' s Ultimate Frisbee. The first area examines the individual gendered
practices of players such as attire, language, and physicality. I argue that these individual players
manipulate and negotiate "masculine" identity practices, making them their own and thereby
creating a distinct space. The second area of my research examines the space that college women
Ultimate players create. My observations suggest that these players feel comfortable in an all-
female space and can freely express their sexuality among themselves. The data for this proj ect
come from my ethnographic research, group interviews, and one-on-one interviews that I
conducted while participating on a college women's Ultimate Frisbee team. During the spring
season, I attended practices, tournaments, and other social events off the frisbee field.
My proj ect builds on important gender and sport scholarship. For my research, l use the
concept of formulating gender as a social institution wherein people "practice" or "do" gender
but are also part of a larger social structure. By conceptualizing gender as a social institution, I
am able to analyze the specific practices of gender in Ultimate Frisbee while also noting that
there are other important structural components to gender. My research builds on important
existing sport scholarship. Several sport scholars address the construction of gender identity,
specifically hegemonicc masculinity," within the culture of sport. The concept of hegemonicc
masculinity" is important when discussing gender identities in sport because it is the primary
College women' s Ultimate Frisbee may challenge structural levels of the institution of
sport and gender. At the individual level, women Ultimate players sometimes "perform" their
gender outside of their "acceptable" gendered identities. However, this is acceptable because it
exists in a culture where college women's Ultimate players incorporate aspects of both
categorical and individual gendered identities in order to destabilize these oppositional
categories. These actors in the space transform and change perceived masculine gendered
identities in order to create a culture without a distinct hierarchy. In this space, college women
Ultimate players transform masculine gender meanings and thereby feel a level of comfort and
camaraderie with their fellow players. Through my observations, I have found that college
women's Ultimate Frisbee allows women to cultivate relationships with one another and may
sometimes allow for playful erotic expression. These exchanges may signal an adoption of
hegemonic masculinity, heterosexuality, or male sexuality, but they may also indicate that these
women feel at ease in this space and can express themselves sexually and playfully among other
women on their teams. I argue that college women's Ultimate Frisbee challenges the institution
of sport by creating a location for female athletes that is outside the "center" of mainstream sport
culture. This location may disrupt the overall culture of mainstream sport by challenging ideas
on gender and sport.
Gender is a critical and core category of analysis when understanding the culture of sport,
but how does gender function in a sport unmediated by the ideologies of mainstream sports? This
work will critically analyze how gender functions in the emerging sport of Ultimate Frisbee.
Often female athletes must "fit" into a culture of sport designed for men (Theberge 2000: 10). I
will show how college women's Ultimate Frisbee players negotiate and reshape current
mainstream sport ideologies in order to create a space for themselves as women and as athletes.
This space provides a site for an alternative sport community that focuses on women's
relationships. Women in this space may often feel comfortable freely expressing their sexuality
and camaraderie with each other. Based on current scholarship on gender and sport as well as my
own research, I formulate conclusions about the relationship between gender and Ultimate
Project Objectives and Methodology
The data for this proj ect come from my ethnographic research, group interviews, and one-
on-one interviews. During spring 2006, I conducted ethnographic research while participating on
a college women's Ultimate Frisbee team called Discs. This research was approved by the
institutional review board and each participant was aware of my proj ect. Discs is a sports club
under the division of recreational sports at a large southeastern university. During the spring
season, I attended practices, tournaments, and other social events off the frisbee field. While at
these events, I observed language use, mannerisms, dress, and other behaviors closely associated
with gender. When I made an observation while playing, I remembered what I had seen and as
SThe names of players and the team name were changed for privacy.
soon as I came off the field I recorded it in my notebook. I took my notebook to social events,
tournaments, and practices and recorded my observations.
My one-on-one interviews and group interviews allowed participants time to discuss how
they consciously perform gender and how this relates to their behavior and physical appearance
as well as their mental state. Most interviews were informal and lasted for approximately one
hour. During the interviews, I used a tape recorder and also took notes in my journal. I used the
same notebook for interviews that I used for my ethnographic notes. Most of my ethnographic
data came from the spring season and most of my interviews were conducted during the fall
season. During these periods I would highlight interviews or observations that were particularly
important for my work. At the end of the fall season I highlighted sections of my ethnographic
work, as well as sections of my interviews. This step helped me to organize my data so when I
began to write I could easily interpret my work.
Participants came from established Ultimate Frisbee programs where the average player
had played Ultimate Frisbee for approximately three years. My research sample consisted of
women who were predominantly white and from a middle-class background. A degree of
diversity existed within the sample insofar as some participants came from Hispanic and Asian-
American backgrounds. I interviewed 27 women and the average age of these participants was
21, most of them undergraduate students. A maj ority of players had played a sport before they
began Ultimate. The sports that they played varied from team sports such as soccer, basketball,
softball, and crew to individual sports such as track and cross-country. These varied experiences
in sports may have influenced the player's participation in Ultimate.
As a researcher and an Ultimate player, I have a distinct advantage in understanding the
culture of Ultimate Frisbee and in noticing "patterns" in the sport that others might not see.
However, my position could also create potential problems in my research. As Gelya Frank
notes, "there is often a conflict of interest and emotion between the ethnographer as 'authentic,
related person (i.e., participant)' and the ethnographer as 'exploiting researcher (i.e., observer)'"
(Frank 2000: 15). At times I found myself "cheering" for college women' s Ultimate and the line
between "self' and "other" became a blur.
In a collection of essays compiled by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, feminist
ethnographer Lila Abu-Lughod (1993) writes about "traveling" past the "impasse of the fixed
self/other or subj ect/obj ect divide" when describing her experiences with pregnancy in United
States and Egypt. Abu-Lughod (1993) notes how her feelings and friendships with the women in
Egypt led her to explore more complex ways to represent and make more apparent the
complexities of their lives and individual experiences. I also noticed my feelings on how to
"represent" the complexities of the female athletes in the Ultimate community. Abu-Lughod
recognizes that the personal experiences of the researcher may be shaped by the knowledge and
lives of the women she comes to know (Abu-Lughod 1993). When I acknowledged that the lives
and experiences of the community around me shaped my knowledge, I began to interpret the data
For my research, I conceptualize gender as a social institution wherein people "practice" or
"do" gender but are also part of a larger social structure. This concept stems from Patricia
Yancey Martin's (2004) sociological work in gender scholarship. Martin argues that we must
frame gender as an institution because it "underscores gender's sociality; directs attention to
practices, practicing, and interaction; requires attention to power; reinstates the material body;
acknowledges disjuncture, conflicts and change; and challenges micro macro dualisms"
(Martin 2004: 1261). By conceptualizing gender as a social institution, I am able to analyze the
specific practices of gender in Ultimate Frisbee while also noting that there are other important
structural components to gender.
My research builds on important existing sport scholarship, including Shelia Scraton and
Ann Flintoff's (2002) edited collection of essays, Gender and Sport, and Susan Birrell and
Cheryl Cole's (1994) collection, Women, Sport and Culture. Several sport scholars address the
construction of gender identity, specifically hegemonicc masculinity" (Connell 1987), within the
culture of sport. As Messner notes, "in contrast with 'rational' or 'professional' masculinity
constructed in schools, the institution of sport historically constructs hegemonic masculinity as
bodily superiority over femininity and over non-athletic masculinities" (Messner 2002: 20). The
concept of hegemonicc masculinity" is important when discussing gender identities in sport
because it is the primary identity formed. Like organized institutional sports, some emerging
sports may construct gender in ways that reinforce notions of gender difference and masculine
hegemony (Anderson 1999:22).
My proj ect examines what happens when an emerging sport, such as Ultimate Frisbee,
does not reinforce the usual notions of stereotypical gendered identities and gendered practices. I
argue that in college women's Ultimate Frisbee, players use "masculine" practices and language
found in sport culture because they have no other way of expressing themselves as competitive
athletes. Although they use "masculine" language and practices, they do not use them in a way
that reinforces gender inequality. Women Ultimate Frisbee players reformulate the meanings of
masculine practices and language into their own, thereby creating a distinct space. In this space,
these players reshape masculine practices and identities, challenging the hierarchy and power
that hegemonic masculinity often creates. I will argue that insofar as the ideology of Ultimate
Frisbee exists outside the culture of mainstream sport, the maj ority of these female athletes
create a safe space, without a marked gender hierarchy, to nurture female bonds and
My research suggests that in college women's Ultimate Frisbee, women's sexuality does
not exist solely in opposition to male sexuality or simply reinforce heterosexuality. Often in the
culture of sport, sexuality is solely heterosexual and created in opposition to homosexuality
(Messner 2002:3 5). My observations suggest that college women' s Ultimate Frisbee provides a
space that cultivates women's relationships with each other and may sometimes allow for playful
erotic expression. This suggests that these players feel comfortable in an all-female space and
can freely express their sexuality among themselves.
College women' s Ultimate Frisbee challenges the culture of mainstream sport by creating a
subculture. My critical analysis contributes to the field of women' s studies and to gender and
sport studies because it offers Ultimate Frisbee as a possible model for greater equality in the
culture of sport. In addition, my research highlights gender inequality in mainstream sport and
describes how some female athletes work against it. Therefore, to some degree, college women's
Ultimate Frisbee may serve to destabilize men's institutionalized sport and challenge dominant
ideas on gender.
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee college teams travel all around the country competing in highly organized
and highly competitive tournaments.3 The sport has come a long way since its humble
beginnings in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1967. The game known today as "Ultimate Frisbee"
began at Columbia High School when a student, Joel Silverman, presented the idea of "Ultimate"
to his student council. Within the year, the first recorded game was played between the student
3 The information on the history of Ultimate is from World Flying Disc Federation at:
ht tp u\ sawfdf.org/index.php?page=history/ultimate~t
council and the newspaper staff. Today, games are played out on the best fields, lined with chalk,
and set off by cones. However, in the early years boundary markers were such things as railroad
tracks and telephone lines.
Players do not need expensive equipment but only a 175-gram Frisbee (also know as a
flying disc) which costs approximately ten to twelve dollars. The "Frisbee" became a trademark
item in 1958 by the Wham-O Company; Wham-O still exists today and produces many discs
used in flying disc sports. Before to the Wham-O company, the name Frisbee came from the
Frisbie Pie Company, a small company in Connecticut. The Frisbie Pie Company made their
individual pies in metal tins and one day the company discovered that these tins could fly a short
distance if thrown into the air. The company soon started calling these flying contraptions,
"discs." Students at Yale University, located in close proximity to the pie company, started to
"toss the disc" as a way to pass time. In 1948, Fred Morrison recreated the metal disc using light
durable plastic. The new form flew much better and the "tossing of the disc" became
increasingly popular. In 1954 the first recorded game using a disc started at Dartmouth
University and was nicknamed, "Guts."
As Silverman began developing the rules for the game of Ultimate, ten years after the
creation of the "Frisbee," disc sports grew in popularity. Over the next few years, games between
the student council and newspaper became structured with the new guidelines. Soon Columbia
High School students grew tired of playing each other and approached Milburn High School
about interscholastic games. Columbia High School won the first interscholastic game in 1970
against Milburn High with a score of 43-10. As students began to graduate and go on to college,
they took the game of Ultimate with them. As students formed teams, the game of Ultimate
began to spread to more campuses. On November 6, 1972, Rutgers University defeated Princeton
University in a competitive Ultimate Frisbee game with a score of 29-27. Three years later Yale
University held the first Ultimate Frisbee college tournament. Eight teams attended the
tournament and Rutgers University pulled out the overall win. That summer at the Second World
Frisbee Championship, Ultimate made its first public appearance. Since the Championship was
held at the Rose Bowl, many on the west coast got their first glimpse of Ultimate and the game
spread quickly. In 1979, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) became the governing body for
Ultimate Frisbee and one of the first flying disc sport organizations. Today the UPA is a player-
run, not-for- profit organization based in Colorado with over 24,000 dues-paying members. The
UPA establishes and publishes all rules and regulations, and oversees the three championship
series (Club, College, and Youth) of Ultimate Frisbee.
Although Ultimate may have diverse players, most players come from a middle-class
background. During the 2006 year, the Ultimate Players Association had 22, 079 members. Fifty
percent of those members were college players, 33 percent were regular players and the
remainder played youth Ultimate. Seventy percent were female and thirty percent were male.
Eighteen percent of the regular club members had a household income over $100,000 and 55
percent earned over $50,000
(http://www3 .upa. org/fil es/06_Ab out~thePAffactsheet_10w. pdf).
At their 2001 Strategic Planning meeting, the UPA Board of Directors formed a definition
of Ultimate: "Player defined and controlled non-contact team sport played with a flying disc on a
playing surface with end zones in which all actions are governed by the "Spirit of the Game"
The current game of Ultimate Frisbee incorporates skills and athleticism similar to sports
like soccer, basketball, and football. The "playing field proper," or the field where you are in
play, is seventy yards long and forty yards across. At each end of the field are end zones, which
are twenty-five yards long and forty yards across
(http://www.upa. org/files/11lth_ed Fin_1_25_07 .pdf). Games typically take two hours to play to
a score set by the tournament director (e.g., 15 points). Players start the games by lining up seven
players at each end zone. When the defense pulls, or kicks off, to the offense, the point begins
and does not end until the offense scores a goal worth one point. A player cannot move after
catching the disc, or else a "travel" is called. The defense may "mark" the person with disc for
ten seconds; this forces the thrower to throw in a specific direction.
There are two basic throws in Ultimate: a backhand and a flick. There are variations of
these throws: long, short, inside-out (the traj ectory of the disc goes from the inside to the
outside), outside-in flick (the traj ectory of a disc goes from outside to inside) low, high, or
around the mark. The offense and defense may use strategic offensive plays or deceptive
When a disc is up in the air, it may change possession if the defense catches it or if the disc
falls to the ground. There is no intentional physical contact between players and if this does
occur, the player calls a foul. If a defensive player encounters an obstruction (from a teammate or
other player) and cannot play defense, she may call a "pick" and play stops so that the defense
may catch up with the offense. The Spirit of the Game," meaning there are no referees, governs
Ultimate Frisbee and it is up to each player to enforce the rules to the best of her ability. Some
believe that the Spirit of the Game is Ultimate Frisbee's most defining and important
A Typical Tournament
After playing Ultimate Frisbee for five years, I have noticed a pattern when preparing for
a tournament. In the following two chapters, I draw on my ethnographic material to discuss
specific moments from the culture of college women's Ultimate Frisbee. In this section, I
describe the events of a typical tournament so the reader may fully understand those moments.
These events typically occur when Discs prepares for a tournament. Ultimate Frisbee
tournaments typically start on Saturday morning and end Sunday afternoon. Tournaments are
usually held on fields at a university or soccer complexes and are hosted by a college team. The
tournament director chooses a format to use during tournament play. The format usually begins
with pool play on Saturday, followed by an elimination bracket on Sunday. Teams must pay a
tournament fee to attend; the fee covers water, minimal food, field space, and any additional
costs paid by the host team.
The Monday before a tournament, the team begins to prepare for the upcoming weekend
by trying to drink, eat, and sleep well. Tuesday, they make sure to go over their skills and plays
during practice and decide how they will travel to the tournament. Generally, on Wednesday and
Thursday the team rests or has a very easy and light practice. Last minute emails go out on the
listsery to remind the team of what to bring, what car they will be traveling in, directions,
tournament schedules, and other relevant information. Most cars leave at the same time but there
is nearly always a "late car" which arrives at the tournament hotel late, waking the players trying
to sleep. The late comers must step over sleeping, snoring bodies in sleeping bags. The team has
reserved two rooms at the tournament hotel and tries to cram eight to ten people into each room.
At the end of the first day, the small hotel room begins to mix the smells of sweat and dirty
cleats from all those crowded in the room. The team is usually tired from the trip and does not
stay up late. The next morning the team awakes early to cell phone alarms and clock buzzers.
Everybody goes downstairs for the free continental breakfast and tries to load up on
carbohydrates for the long day. Saturday pool play typically begins at 9am and ends around
5pm. During pool play, teams will usually have a round off. Discs and most other teams arrive
on the fields an hour before play to warm-up and prepare for the day. Tournament directors will
usually provide water, bananas, and bagels for the teams. Many members bring extra food items
in their field bag. For example, I bring soups and apple sauce because these items are easier for
me to digest.
At the end of the first day, Discs goes back to the hotel and team members take turns
showering. Discs usually calls a "team dinner" to regain team cohesion and discuss the events of
the day. After dinner, they begin to prepare for the tournament party, usually held at a local bar.
At the party there are various typical party events, including the "boat race." The team selects
seven players to line up across seven players from another team with half full beers in their
hands. The boat race is a relay race; the first person must finish their beer before the next person
goes. After the boat race the team continues to drink and dance. Depending on the level of
competitiveness of tournament play, the Discs team will sometimes stay until the end and try and
"win the party." If your team has the most representatives left at the end of the party then your
Sunday morning begins early and team members must be ready to play their first game.
These rounds start early because teams must travel long distances home. The team may have one
game or three depending on whether they win games and continue to advance to the finals.
Whether the team wins or loses, the ride home is always long and full of talk on the frisbee
events of the weekend. Sometimes team members change clothes before the ride so they do not
have to sit in their dirty and sweaty clothes. The Discs team arrives at their respective homes
tired and ready to shower and go to bed. Some have homework or papers to finish, but most are
exhausted and make a decision to go to bed and get up early to work. They return to practice on
Tuesday and get ready for the next tournament.
REVIEW OF GENDER AND SPORT LITERATURE
Current sport scholarship frequently discusses the relationship between gender and sport
and the formation and consequences of masculinity in sport. At the core of this literature is R.W.
Connell's concept of "hegemonic masculinity" and "emphasized femininity" as introduced in his
1987 work, Gender andPower. Connell (1987) states that hegemonic masculinity does not
always correspond to the actual experience of masculinity by men in society. In fact, the
"winning of hegemony" or cultural hegemonic masculinity involves the creation of idealistic,
exemplar, and fantasy heroes, such as star athletes and their "heroic" ois(onl 97.I
reality, at the local level most men and boys do not live up to this model of masculinity. This
hegemony of masculinity functions through the production of these cultural symbols of
masculinity. How does the development of athletic male bodies and careers based on specific
notions of success serve in the creation of specific masculine identities?
In his work on sport, Michael Messner (1992) extends Connell's concept by noting that
athletic success is based on "physical power, strength, discipline, and willingness to take, ignore,
or deaden pain inclined men to experience their own bodies as machines, as instruments of
power and domination--and to see other peoples' bodies as obj ects of their power and
domination" (Messner 1992: 151). Connell (1987) states that all forms of femininity in this
society are constructed in the context of the overall subordination of women to men; for this
reason there is no femininity that holds among women the position held by hegemonic
masculinity among men. The option of compliance, according to Connell, is central to the pattern
of femininity, which is given the most cultural and ideological support at present, called
In a more recent work, Connell revises his previous concept with scholar James
Messerschmidt by discussing and analyzing the four maj or critiques of hegemonicc masculinity."
Here Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) suggest a "review and reformulation" of the concept.
Specifically, they reformulate the framework surrounding the locations of hegemonic
masculinity. They list three levels of analysis: local, regional and global. In emerging or
alternative sports the emphasis is on the local level because of the sport' s reliance on a sense of
community. At the local level hegemonic masculinity is constructed in the "arenas of face-to-
face interactions of families, organizations and immediate communities" (Connell and
Messerschmidt 2005:849). At the regional level, hegemonic masculinity is constructed at the
cultural level or at the level of the nation-state. Finally, at the global level it is constructed in
arenas such as world politics, transnational business and media. These levels relate to each other
to constantly reproduce and reformulate conceptualizations of hegemonic masculinity (Connell
and Messerschmidt 2005:849). Hegemonic masculinity, at the regional level, manifests itself
symbolically through the actions of specific local practices with regional significance, such as
those practices constructed by such images as professional sporting athletes (Connell and
Messerschmidt 2005). Sport thus provides the heroes that hegemonic masculinity needs for
survival; the body of the sporting hero exhibits the physical signs of strength, speed and agility
There are numerous empirical research studies that investigate the relationship between
gendered identities and sport. For example, there is empirical research on the sport of
bodybuilding which calls for conceptualizations of gender, sexuality, and the body, arguing for
the collapse of gender as an unambiguous principle. Camilla Obel (1996) suggests there are
different readings of identity in the sport of bodybuilding. This work suggests that there are far
more contradictions and ambiguities experienced by women than men in the sport. There is the
potential for women bodybuilders to both support with and resist dominant notions of gender and
also to expand definitions of "emphasized femininity" (Obel 1996: 192). However, their agency
is still contained by structures and ideology of female bodybuilding.
Timothy Curry (1991) notes how hegemonicc masculinity" and male privilege is
reinforced through sexist locker room talk. Through participating in sport, young men learn how
to adhere to a dominant masculinity that denigrates women and marginalizes men who are
perceived as different. Men's talk reveals how masculine identity is affirmed through
conversations about women, competition and heterosexuality. Sport provides an arena for male
bonding and the constructions of hegemonic masculinity (Curry 1991). Kristen Anderson (1999)
found in her research on snowboarding that there are different ways of constructing gender
within the institution of sport, resulting in many sport masculinities. Anderson (1999) found that
sport is often depicted as an institution that creates and maintains male dominance, but the
construction of gender differs greatly in the various activities that constitute sport. Snowboarding
is developing in a different social and historical context from that of organized men's sports, and
these contextual differences are salient to the particular ways in which it becomes gendered. Like
organized sports, some emerging sports are constructed in ways that reinforce notions of gender
difference and masculine hegemony (Anderson 1999).
Using Connell's framework of hegemonic masculinity, the sporting body is an important
part of maintaining hegemonic masculinities. Sport thus provides the images and "standards"
that hegemonic masculinity needs to continue; the athletic body exhibits the physical signs of
strength, speed, and agility (Connell 1990:83). Although current images of female athletes
seemingly represent a greater definition of femininity, there are still societal expectations of the
femininity of female athletes that includes expressions of heterosexuality and a non-threatening
"feminine" body image.
Sport scholar Pat Griffin (1992) notes that this need to present a heterosexual body is one
of the six manifestations of homophobia in women' s sport, also known as the promotion of a
heterosexual image. The other five categories of homophobia Griffin (1992) defines are silence,
denial, apology, attacks on lesbians, and preference for male coaches. The "lesbian label" is used
to define "acceptable" boundaries for women in patriarchal society, and women in sport are
outside of these boundaries (Griffin 1992). When placed within the context of Judith Butler' s
"heterosexual matrix," all female athletes are perceived to feel pressure to present a heterosexual
feminine body. Butler (1993) describes the "heterosexual matrix" as the way in which
heterosexuality encodes and structures everyday life. In their 2000 case study using the
"multiple bodies model," Cox and Thompson (2000) note how the presentation of a heterosexual
body, even in cases where the female athlete is not heterosexual, exists in order to combat
suspicion and shift focus to the athletic ability of the athlete. By using this model, Cox and
Thompson advance a theoretical perspective that understands the complexity of the constituting
human bodies in sport. Cox and Thompson state, "They [conformed to standards of
heterosexuality and femininity] to gain acceptance as team mates, to overcome prejudices
associated with negative stereotypical images of lesbians and to help preserve their own and the
team's credibility in the broader sporting realm" (Cox and Thompson 2000:8).
Sport sociologist Nancy Theberge (2000) advances research on gender and sport as she
analyzes the relationship between bodies, physicality, force, and power in sport. Theberge (2000)
discusses how there is no body checking in women's ice hockey and how this constructs ideas of
gender in the masculine sport of ice hockey. Women's ice hockey is often seen as "inferior" to
the "real" game of men' s ice hockey, which is full of bodily contact, force, and power (Theberge
2000:133). Connell notes, "images of ideal masculinity are constructed and promoted most
systemically through competitive sport, where the combination of skill and force in athletic
experience becomes a defining feature of masculine identity" (Connell 1987:85). Based on this
aspect of competitive sport, Theberge argues that physicality, bodies, and force as represented in
competitiveness help to create and sustain hegemonic masculinity in sport.
Is hegemonic masculinity the only way to conceptualize masculinity in sport? Judith
Halberstam (1998) introduces the concept of "female masculinity" in her discussion of
butch/femme roles within lesbian communities. Halberstam (1998) tries to disrupt the connection
between masculinity and the male body by providing an alternative masculinity in a female
body. Halberstam asks, "[if] female born people have been making convincing and powerful
assaults on the coherence of male masculinity for well over a hundred years, what prevents these
assaults from taking hold and accomplishing the diminution of the bonds between masculinity
and men" (Halberstam 1998:15).
Halberstam's (1998) insight into masculinity offers a greater perspective on gendered
practices, identities, and power. She is careful not to catalog female masculinity into a concrete
definition. She notes that there are several types of masculinities and not all are born to male
bodied men. At times, Halberstam says, "these new masculinities are produced as new renditions
of male masculinities and sometimes they are produced as original forms of a growing
subculture" (Halberstam 1998:277). Halberstam very briefly addresses the need for the
reformation of the gender binary within the context of sports. She builds on Susan Cahn' s (1994)
work on gender and sexuality in twentieth-century women's sport. Halberstam builds on this
work in order to show how if women want to be competitive then need to build traits that are
associated with masculinity and the male-born body. Cahn argues that these traits should not be
associated with gender but should be "human" traits. Halberstam acknowledges that society is
not moving toward the elimination of gender and argues that these traits should extend to women
as female masculinity, a masculinity not associated with male-bodied individuals.
Messner (2002) discusses the role of "subculture" sport or "alternative, extreme" sports
outside of institutionalized organized men's sport (Messner 2002). Located outside in the
margins, extreme sports hold the ability to challenge the dominant model of sport. Belinda
Wheaton (1998) utilizes the emerging sport of windsurfing to analyze how these new
"subculture" sports challenge the center of sport. Messner asks, "Who were these 'alternative'
athletes who seemed to revel in doing sports differently and autonomously, in the relative
obscurity of sport' s 'extreme' margins?" (Messner 2002:81). Current research indicates that
these "alternative" athletes are males who tend to come from white middle-class backgrounds,
where they have access to models of such "extreme" athletes as skateboarder Tony Hawk.
However, if the current status of institutional sport already benefits white middle-class males,
then why are they moving away from the center into the margins? Messner suggests that these
young white male middle-class athletes are attracted to "extreme" marginal sports not because
they are rej ecting or rebelling against organized men' s sport, but because they see the center of
sport (basketball, track and field, and football) as thoroughly racialized as "black sports" and
therefore fear this perceived racial center. Messner writes, "this fear is based, in part, on a
contemporary myth of black physical superiority (and 'natural' orientations toward physical
violence), played out most publicly in men's sports" (Messner 2002: 82).
Empirical research by Sarah Banet-Weiser (1999) on the intersection of race and gender in
the sport of basketball indicates that there are specific representations of athletes. Banet-Weiser
examined the depiction of gender and race in the WNBA. She found that there exist gendered
and racialized meanings that surround both male and female professional basketball players. The
WNBA women, the promotional hype promises, offer fans a "return to the purity of the game,"
this purity was positioned against the backdrop of the image of the rich, spoiled, violent, highly
sexualized and very "black bad boys" of the NBA (Banet-Weiser 1999:405). In short, the
WNBA were coded as women, the athletes of the NBA are coded as black (Banet-Weiser 1999).
Research by Ben Carrington (1998) offers an alternative focus on race and sport. Through
ethnographic research in a Northern England cricket club, he develops an account of the
meanings associated with sport in relation to black masculinity and the use of sport as a form of
cultural resistance to white racism. Carrington identifies three themes in his work. The first
theme is the sport of cricket and its role in the contestation of racial and gendered identities. The
second theme he identifies is the construction of black sports institutions as black spaces
(Carrington 1998: 289). Last, he shows the use of an African American Cricket Club as the
symbolic marker of community identity. The study conveys how sport can provide an arena for
some black men to assert a masculine identity in order to restore a unified sense of racial identity
One more empirical research study explores the connections between ethnic and gender
identities and identifies how femininity is constructed and experienced for these women through
racialized power relations that regulate ethnic identity. Specifically, Sharon Wray (2002) uses
participant observation, focus groups, and in-depth interviews with women between the ages of
36 to 56 years of age and primarily identified themselves as Muslim Pakistani women. Here she
illustrates the connections between gender, ethnicity, and physicality. The study showed how
women participated in athletic activities in order to benefit their health rather than adjust the
appearance of their bodies because they did not wish for their bodies to conform to western
ideals of femininity and feminine bodies. Instead, they wished to improve their health and
constructed their feminine bodies that were circumscribed by ethnic and religious identities
Other empirical studies indicate that there are more differences within the categories of
"women" and "men" than there is between them. Messner notes that, "in terms of physical
abilities, there are some identifiable average differences between women and men but these
differences are never categorical. And it is social practices...that produce ideologies of
categorical difference between the sexes" (Messner 2002: 171). However, according to Candace
West and Don Zimmerman's (1987) innovative work on gender, "doing gender involves a
complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast
particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine 'natures'" (West and Zimmerman
1987: 126). They propose an ethnomethodologically informed and therefore sociological
understanding of gender as routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment. The key reason
of why we adhere to our gendered identities, according to West and Zimmerman, is that we are
held accountable to them. These authors write that "doing gender" requires acknowledgement in
any given situation that our acts are gender appropriate or as in cases where they are gender
inappropriate, then it is held accountable (West and Zimmerman 1987). Often female athletes
"do gender" outside of their institutional gendered identity and therefore suffer negative
consequences. While it is individuals who enact gender, it is interactional and institutional in
character, for accountability is a feature of social relationships.
One critique of the work by West and Zimmerman (1987) is that it does not recognize the
structural meanings surrounding individual actions. Why or how does society consider
something genderedd?" More recent gender scholarship focuses on the power and agency of the
social actors within structures. In her work, Patricia Yancey Martin (2004) states that gender is a
social institution. Martin incorporates West and Zimmerman's idea of enacting gender at the
individual level into an analysis of social structure. In addition to placing agency with the social
agents, Martin also uses her concept of linking theory with empirical work. She outlines the
definition of a social institution and proceeds to illustrate how gender is an institution. Moreover,
she clearly describes the utility of conceptualizing gender as an institution.
Martin notes that her concept "affirms gender' s sociality" and focuses on the practices of
its social characters. Martin (2004) writes that reflexive and non-reflexive practices need
attention. Individuals may or may not intend to perform a genderedd" activity and may not know
exactly what their gestures mean. Does putting on a "feminine" style of clothing or using
"masculine" language require us to think about our gender? In addition, this concept may
highlight power but may point toward disjuncture, conflict, and change. Institutions have a great
ability to persist over time and hold a great deal of power. Indeed, to consider gender as an
institution highlights gender' s ability to yield power by placing few in positions of power. By
showing gender as a social institution, it also brings the focus back to those who embody it.
People make up institutions. Most importantly, Martin challenges the distinction between the
individual level or micro level and the structural level or the macro level. She shows that there
are individual actors but that they are also constrained by structural meanings. Certain behavioral
practices are only given meaning when they are located in society because society structures the
interpretation of gender and gendered practices. Martin calls for gender scholars to interpret how
individual acts constitute one another as well as the larger structure.
In my research I build on current gender and sport scholarship in an effort to offer new
insights on how to destabilize men's mainstream sport culture. In the next two chapters, I offer
ethnographic research from the culture of college women's Ultimate Frisbee. In chapter three I
focus on the language, attire, and physicality found in women's Ultimate. These three areas
highlight the individuality of gender in sport. Chapter four focuses on the space that college
women's Ultimate players create for themselves. In this supportive space they often feel able to
openly acknowledge their own bodies, relationships, sexuality. In my conclusion I illustrate how
individual enactments of gender in Ultimate Frisbee combined with an overall structural analysis
of sport, may offer insights into ways of challenging the center of mainstream sport culture.
PLAYING WITH GENDER INT ULTIMATE FRISBEE
Most people are unaware that Ultimate Frisbee is a sport. Most assume it is a leisure
activity that involves throwing a frisbee with a dog. Ultimate is not soccer, it is not football, it is
not basketball. It does incorporate aspects from these sports but in the end Ultimate is just
Ultimate. For the players, Ultimate is not just a sport; it is a culture. In my experiences, I have
found that Ultimate can find partners for people, it may raise children, it lets you borrow its car,
it calls you when you are sick, and it chooses its people and stays with them forever. Ultimate
takes over lives. Ultimate Frisbee has its own clothing, language, and uses bodies to work.
College women' s Ultimate is a subculture within the culture of Ultimate Frisbee, with its own
bodies, clothing, language and people.
Each player has a pre-game ritual or a good luck charm, and the "necessary" items in her
field bag. My field bag has countless items and always includes a first-aid kit. Team members
always ask me for that one item they forgot and most of the time I have it. Discs eat on the road
and arrive at the tournament hotel the night before playing, sometimes late or sometimes early.
At one spring tournament I awake to see Sherrie leaving the crowded hotel rooms in her team
j ersey to take advantage of the free continental buffet, fighting for the last scrap of packaged
cereal. After I put on pants and my generic sweatshirt, so no other team can recognize my team
name, I head downstairs to try and grab some food. When I emerge, I notice Wendy heading
straight for the coffee; she will rely on energy bars to nourish her body throughout the day.
Sometimes players talk to each other and sometimes they know they will be in a heated
competition later in the day and choose not to look at each other. Discs players arrive on their
field an hour before game time for the same warm- up jog, stretch, and drills. They bring the
"jam box" or radio to dance along to and act silly. Some teams have long pre-game pump-up
cheers, some have loud ones, and some don't cheer at all. On the Discs team some players that
tall, some short, some wear dark colors, some wear long sleeves, some wear skirts, some wear
shorts. But once they step onto the playing field they are all the same, they are Ultimate Frisbee
players. Each player knows that for the next two hours she will have to tell her body to run,
catch, and throw all along the seventy-yard field that feels miles and miles long. Neither wind
nor rain will stop the game and both conditions are just as tough to play in. I always check the
weather forecast and if it does rain I take out my bright orange rain coat to keep my body from
soaking in water. If the forecast predicts windy conditions the Discs team must change its game
plan because zone defense works better. In the wind, players cry when they see how it takes the
disc to places they did not want it to go. Rain ruins the usually easy catch because there are no
dry hands available. But some days are perfect when the sun is bright and cheerful, the air is
crisp and clean and the green grass is soft. These days the disc begs to soar through the air and
wishes to be caught.
The players in college women's Ultimate Frisbee have diverse body types, attire, and
personalities. The culture of Ultimate Frisbee exists outside the culture of mainstream sport.
Media, money, or other aspects of mainstream sport heavily influence the dominant sport culture.
In hi s work Messner describe es the mainstream sport industry as a sport-medi a-commerci al
complex" where economics, mass media, and commercial industries work to endorse masculinity
and male privilege in sport (Messner 2002:77).
How does this influence the identities of athletes, specifically college women Ultimate
Frisbee players? What does their attire or language say about identity? I argue that these players
incorporate "masculine" practices from mainstream sport into their identities as athletes but
reshape and reformulate their meanings into their own. In owning their meanings, players
challenge the detrimental effects of hegemonic masculinity in mainstream sport culture.
Ultimate Bodies: Physicality in a Non-Contact Sport
Ultimate players know that they must score in the twenty-five by forty-yard section outside
of the playing field known as the end zone. It is difficult to describe what goes through the mind
of players as they run around on the field. They do know that the end zone is vital; they know
they must catch the disc by any means possible. They also know getting there is the tough part; it
is physically demanding on the body. There is no contact, no traveling, no fouls, and no picks.
The Spirit of the Game regulates the game, not referees. Each player is familiar with the rules.
Throw a backhand, throw a flick, throw a hammer, throw a blade, throw inside-out, throw
outside-in, throw it forty yards, or throw it ten. Cut to the open side, cut to the break mark side,
catch it behind, catch it laterally, or catch it in the end zone. These are some of the many
decisions in the ten-second possession of the disc. Discs player Karen feels pressure when she
has possession of the disc saying, "All I think about is who is the most open. If we are playing a
tight game and I know that we need to move this disc it can definitely be stressful. I usually freak
out once I hear eight." (Karen/Interview)
I do know from personal experience the exhilaration when the disc advances into the air,
its movement is clear, the arc of the disc, and its traj ectory all come together. When this happens
in a game, I sprint to the area where I think the disc will finally settle and adrenaline pumps
through my veins as blood hits my muscles. I scream at my muscles to work faster, but the
defense wants the disc too. The disc drops back towards the ground and we bend our knees, push
off from our toes, and launch into the air. I watch the disc move down in slow motion, and see
the white plastic lip fading away as I stretch my fingers to grasp the edge. I struggle to grip it,
knowing I must not drop it. The defense knows she has only one attempt at tapping it away from
me. As we hit the ground, our elbows bruise first and then our stomachs hit and finally the tops
of our knees. But I do not feel the pain, not today anyway. I know that will come tomorrow. For
now, I have the disc. In the distance, cheers float in like a song, people flood me. The defense
acknowledges my effort with a slap of the hand and I appreciate this gesture.
The culture of sport and specifically the "center" of organized mainstream sport
emphasizes the bodily manifestation of hegemonic masculinity as the "heterosexualized,
aggressive, violent, strong male athlete" as well as emphasizing the "heterosexualized,
flirtatious, moderately muscled female athlete" (Dworkin and Messner 2002: 24). In Ultimate
Frisbee there are no standards of what an Ultimate player' s body should look like; there are
different types of bodies within the sport. Players considered "superstars" within the sport have
various body types. Outside of Ultimate, there are "standards" for feminine and athletic bodies,
which are "acceptable" to the culture of sport. How do college women Ultimate Frisbee players
incorporate their own ideas of the "feminine" body and physicality into ideas of what their
"athletic" body should look like? How do they use their bodies in play? Ultimate Frisbee is a
non-contact sport; however, it is still very physical.
Using Connell's framework of hegemonic masculinity, the sporting body is an important
part of maintaining hegemonic masculinities. Sport thus provides the images and "standards"
that hegemonic masculinity needs to continue; the athletic body exhibits the physical signs of
strength, speed, and agility (Connell 1990:83). Although current images of female athletes
seemingly represent a greater definition of femininity, there are still societal constraints on the
femininity of female athletes. Female athletes still must exhibit an image of heterosexuality, as
well as, a non-threatening "feminine" body image (Dworkin and Messner 2002:23). For
example, Florence Griffith-Joyner was applauded for her muscular and sculpted body yet still
competed in extremely feminine outfits and wore long, feminine painted fingernails (Dworkin
and Messner 2002:24).
How does the physicality of a sport affect the body and mind of a female athlete? Sport
sociologist Nancy Theberge analyzes the relationship between bodies, physicality, force, and
power in sport. She discusses how in a sport like ice hockey, in which there is no body checking,
ideas of gender are constructed. Although body checking is not allowed, many of the women
athletes prefer the physicality of the sport and say it is "part of the game" (Theberge 2000: 133).
Many outsiders perceive women' s ice hockey as "inferior" to the "real" game of men' s ice
hockey which is full of bodily contact, force, and power (Theberge 2000: 115). Connell notes,
"Images of ideal masculinity are constructed and promoted most systemically through
competitive sport, where the combination of skill and force in athletic experience becomes a
defining feature of masculine identity" (Connell 1987:85). Based on this aspect of competitive
sport, Theberge argues that physicality, bodies, and force help to create and sustain hegemonic
masculinity in sport.
Women' s Ultimate Frisbee has the ability to expand traditional notions of "femininity" in
Ultimate Frisbee and to challenge hegemonic masculinity. At times, some college women
Ultimate players, despite stereotypes, still see their bodies as "feminine" bodies. The following
example comes from my observations at a very competitive national tournament:
The coach referred to the body types of the other team, to make us feel we were
better. They are just "fat, slow big girls." The team accepted his comment by laughing.
Does this remark suggest that as athletes, college women Ultimate players must adhere to a
more "feminine" body type that is skinny and non-muscular? Or was this simply a tactic for
motivation? Ultimate Frisbee has many different types of bodies, yet there are some body types
that are celebrated more than others. For example, tall women have an advantage in catching the
disc. However, if you can run faster, catch better, and throw farther it does not matter what body
type you have.
In Ultimate Frisbee, there is no intentional physical contact between players in both the
women and men' s games. If there is contact between players, the player calls a foul and both
players decide if the call is indeed a foul. Spirit of the Game guides the interpretation and
enforcement of the game. However, players can come in contact with the ground by "laying out"
or "going ho" (i.e., horizontal). Players can also lay out on defense to interrupt the other team' s
possession of the disc or the offense can lay out to maintain that possession. The act of laying out
often results in bruises and other injuries. In my observations, hitting the ground can result in
injuries ranging from bone bruises and broken collarbones, to dislocated fingers and broken
wrists. Although I myself have injured myself from laying out, I still do it. In a Regional
tournament a couple of years ago, I attempted to lay out on defense while my knee was bent and
landed on my knee cap resulting in a very painful bone bruise. Currently, I wear a kneepad on
my right knee. There is a build up of scar tissue and swelling from the number of times I have
landed on it. Nevertheless, laying out is a signal of intensity and a high level of play that often
excites teams. One specific cheer by Discs illustrates the intensity of laying out:
Response: Huck [throw long] that disc.
Response: Catch that shit.
Response: Lay out bitch, yeah!i
La tOrt a tot
Lay it out, Lay it out, Lyi u
If you can 't lay it out do the best that you can but
You better have the mother fuckin disc in your hand...
Fellow players often shout out enthusiastically to those in the field of play to lay out for an
otherwise out-of-reach pass. For Ultimate players it shows an intense willingness to catch the
disc. Amy restates this point when she talks about laying out:
I do feel like I am more competitive and it's the competitive will that takes me to that
level to hit the ground for the disc. I would consider it a serious disadvantage if a player
didn't lay out when a disc is within reach and if you don't do it, you are less of a player. I
couldn't idolize somebody who can't lay out. (Amy/Interview)
Therefore, this may suggest that college women Ultimate players often promote
aggressiveness, competitiveness, and intense physicality during play. Is this an incorporation of
the ideology of men' s sport and hegemonic masculinity or is it a form of resistance? I would
argue it is a form of resistance despite the fact that college women Ultimate players accept the
current core ideology of men' s sport. Even though they perform aspects of hegemonic
masculinity, they also reform and reshape it. These players use their bodies for physicality but
also respect their bodies' injuries and don't "play through the pain" or see their bodies as
"machines" (Messner 2002: 57, Theberge 2000:129). Theberge notes in her research that women
ice hockey players saw injury and pain as symbols of weakness outside of hegemonic
masculinity and therefore not traits of an athlete (Theberge 1997:83). College women Ultimate
players are challenging, at times unknowingly, theories on bodies and physicality and their place
between power and sport. They do not always see injury and pain as "weaknesses." They use
their bodies as powerful sites for athleticism but also places of empowerment and nurture. The
act of laying out is not only a sign of competitiveness, as Amy notes, but also a skill that a player
can learn. Amy goes on to say "I don't feel like I'm magical at laying out. I taught myself."
Sherrie, a newer player still trying to "leam" to lay out says "it's a particular skill. I'm not afraid
to hit the ground, I just can't figure how."
In a recent collection of essays, Andrew Thornton (2004) comments on the act of "laying
out" in Ultimate Frisbee. He examines the Ultimate community and the construction of identity.
Thomnton states that even though Ultimate players (his research comes from coed teams in
Canada and the UK) dislike the aggression, competition, and physicality celebrated in the
"center" of men' s sport culture, they still celebrate it in the act of laying out. He writes:
The fear of not being seen as a 'real' sport I argue is most profoundly expressed in the
regulation of the boundaries of physical aggression Players do not want to be physically
violent, but they still express a desire for physical dominance and experience pleasure
through physical exertion. This identification is expressed by Ultimate players' reservation
of the highest praise for those who 'go ho" (Thornton 2004: 192).
Although I might agree with Thomnton' s assessment of the whole community of Ultimate
Frisbee, I disagree that this happens in the specific space of college women's Ultimate Frisbee.
Janice and Elsie, both veteran Discs players, do not ignore the body pains and injuries and note
I very much listen to my body and try and keep it happy. If it' s not happy I try to
understand why and try to fix it. (Elsie/Interview)
I also listen to my body. It is important to listen to your injuries and take care of them
By paying attention to bodies and physicality, college women Ultimate players challenge
hegemonic masculinity by also knowing their bodies as loving, empathic, and nurturing. Often in
the culture of sport, athletes are taught to see their body as "a machine" that move through injury
and pain. In his work Power in Play, Messner (1992) shows that athletes often "give up their
bodies" to their sport because of the influence of external factors and the pressure to achieve a
full masculine identity. The external influence of teammates, coaches, fans and media pressure
athletes to play through the pain or he will be negatively judged. Messner also notes that athletes
wish to embody a masculine identity, resulting in a separation from their feelings and making
them more inclined to see their body as a machine or instrument (Messner 1992:79).
Talking Tough: Language Use in Ultimate Frisbee
Vocabulary in Ultimate is different from mainstream sport- all sports have quirks but
Ultimate is more accessible. (Deidre/Interview)
Ultimate has so much personality. Personally, I haven't seen it in another sport.
As in many sports, Ultimate has its own vocabulary to refer to everything from plays and
positions to incidents and acts. At one practice, I was on the offensive line getting ready for the
pull and Lynn asked, "what popper will get the pull and dish it to the turn style or a handler and
keep a chilly O?" For those who do not play Ultimate this common phrase might seem like
another language. The word "popper" refers to the offensive position in a zone where the player
moves between the areas covered by the opposing team in order to disrupt the defense. The
"pull" is when the defense "kicks off' at the start of each point to the offense by throwing it to
the end zone. A "turn style" and "handler" are both offensive positions and are experienced
throwers who frequently receive the disc. When a player says "keep a chilly O," she is
reminding the offense to stay steady and to make wise decisions. The terminology for Ultimate
may suggest a culture, as Deidre says, "different from mainstream sport." One of the veteran
players, Casey, notes the difference:
The whole spirit thing was new to me; I usually was involved in academic-geared activities
like marching band. Ultimate has a different language, environment, and vocabulary and at
first I didn't understand it. (Casey/Interview)
This may suggest that Ultimate offers a more "accessible" environment and vocabulary
than other sports and activities. New players may feel at ease within Ultimate because its culture
and terms create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Although the overall culture in
college women's Ultimate Frisbee may be more "accessible," players may still rely on
mainstream sporting terms to describe specific acts of athleticism. My current research suggests
that college women Ultimate Frisbee players define their athleticism in masculine terms; that
emphasize aggression, competitiveness, and physicality. I argue that these players must use this
"masculine" language because they have no other way of expressing themselves as competitive
athletes. College women Ultimate players use "masculine" language and practices; they do not
use them in a way that reinforces gender inequality. Women Ultimate Frisbee players
reformulate the meanings of masculine practices and language into their own, thereby creating a
In an article on dialogue in male athletes' locker rooms, Timothy Curry (1991) lists
categories that emerge from his pro-feminist analysis of the locker room talk. One category
involves the dynamic of competition, status attainment, and bonding among male athletes (Curry
1991:123). Curry (1991) states that competition becomes an important part of the male athlete
and his sense of identity. In college women's Ultimate, most do not use competition as a way to
establish themselves as athletes, instead defining their identity through the culture of Ultimate.
At times when play becomes intense and heated, the language turns increasingly vulgar. The
vulgarity is often used by the player about herself rather than about others on her team. Ultimate
players promote camaraderie and support among players with encouraging and supportive words.
Veteran player Carolyn notes that she would not punish her teammates for a mistake:
I would never curse at other people, on the field. I might curse at myself or out loud, it
helps my aggression. For example, if somebody scored over a stupid mistake I made, like
misreading [a pass] or if I jumped too soon I would curse out loud to show I could have
done better. (Carolyn/Interview)
This may suggest that college women Ultimate players may use competitive language to
motivate themselves but not in relation to their teammates or other players.
Curry notes that bonding in the locker room between male athletes often occurs when they
joke about women, femininity, or homosexuality. The bonding of these male athletes comes at
the expense of others. At practices and at tournaments, I would hear some of these same types of
"bonding" language. For example, some of the players make "your momma" j okes during
practices and tournaments. At one practice I was on the offense and the opposing team pulled the
disc out of bounds. As I went to retrieve the disc, Deidre calls out, "your momma." I was
confused and unsure of what she said so I asked her and she said, "I didn't know any other
insults." Even though these jokes are at the expense of others they are so outlandish and
impersonal that they often do not carry any special meaning as a put-down. At a competitive
tournament, one that drew top teams in the nation and set a higher level of play for Discs, I heard
the following from two fellow players:
Ronnie: You look slow out there. Are you feeling better? [She was not feeling well earlier]
Lynn: Yeah, so is your mother! I'm feeling okay, thanks.
These j okes are not meant to directly insult women. They are making fun of these j okes by
showing the absurdity of them. This may suggest that female athletes change notions of gender
when the competition increases. The word choice and language becomes more explicit and
vulgar, as games become more tense or close. The jokes became more vulgar as well. Although
language may become vulgar, it is not at the expense of others.
How do college women Ultimate players use language to describe other players as well as
themselves? I argue that they use "masculine" language to describe specific acts of athleticism
by themselves and other players. The following is an example from my field observations during
another high-level tournament:
Ana, Lynn, Tina, Emma all refer to a prominent and very skilled female player by her last
name and refer to her as a more "masculine" player. All other references to players are by
their first names. Ana and Amy refer to Karen as a 'beast' or 'animal' or 'sick' because she
makes very difficult catches. There are numerous other references to good plays with the
These terms emphasize aggression and competitiveness in a single defensive play or sequence of
plays. The emphasis is on the play and athleticism of the individual during that play and not at
the expense of the other player. Players will often praise their opponent for an impressive play,
saying "nice bid" [for the disc] or "nice catch." Often players refer to notable outstanding players
on other teams in their region by only their surname.
Before games, teams try to "pump" up one another by cheering or singing songs in a
huddle. In research on women' s rugby, Broad (2001) notes how the maj ority of men' s rugby
songs "vilify women and homosexuals" by singing sexually explicit songs. Women's rugby
songs reinterpret and rewrite these songs and assert "active, fluid, and multiple sexualities"
(Broad 2001:193). Cheers from women's Ultimate teams vary, most are not sexual and are not
rewritten from men' s cheers. Most of the men' s Ultimate teams' cheers have vulgar and sexual
content. Discs' cheer uses the first letter from the team name and creates a supportive phrase
that is repeated three times. The team stands in a huddle with players' arms wrapped around one
another' s waists and all the women jump up and down. Another rival team sings the American
anthem as a cheer before games. This may suggest that these Ultimate players "pump" each other
up in a supportive manner creating a space that encourages aggressive, competitive behavior but
not at the expense of other players. After games, teams also cheer each other, regardless of who
won or who lost. Most of the cheers are parodies of old or popular songs. Each team comes over
to the other team after the game and serenades the opposing team. The other team gathers around
listens, sits, and claps along with the cheer. Teams jump around, follow poorly written lyrics, and
even teach dances. At the College National Championships, another team taught the Discs team a
dance. Discs had won a tight and intense game and was prepared for a fast cheer. However, the
other team came over with a radio and started to teach each member a step of the dance. The
opposing team said that Discs must use the dance at the tournament party later in the day.
In my observations, at the end of men' s games players look as if they barely want to slap
hands with their opponent. In the college men' s Ultimate, teams do not cheer at the end of the
game or congratulate the winning team on a well-played game. Discs player Sherrie feels that
cheering is an important part of college women' s Ultimate. She notes, "It' s what keeps Ultimate
different. [Cheering] kind of brings back the whole spirit aspect. It is also nice when they go out
of their way to think of something specifically tailored for your team." (Sherrie/Interview)
Skirts or Shorts: What to Wear for Ultimate
When a good team wears all black it is intimidating. (Carolyn/Interview)
When I first began to play Ultimate I wore short skirts, ankle-length socks, women's
soccer cleats, a purple visor, no wristbands, and my team jersey. I would always wear a black
skirt on the Saturday of tournament play and a white skirt on Sunday. In my mind I felt the skirt
was more comfortable and easier to play in than shorts or other athletic attire. Once, at a
tournament, a player asked me "Why do you wear a skirt?" I annoyingly replied, "because I can"
and then proceeded to walk onto the field. After developing as a player on highly competitive
teams, I realized that I wore skirts because I was uncomfortable with my athleticism and the
masculinity associated with that image. In order to combat any notion of masculinity, I wore
short tennis skirts to be more "feminine." Now I wear men's long black basketball shorts, black
socks, football cleats, wristbands, and a baseball cap. This attire is typically viewed as more
masculine. It can also be more practical and comfortable.
As noted, research suggests that women who are college Ultimate Frisbee players define
their athleticism in masculine terms because there is no other vocabulary to describe competitive
athletes. Players may also wear more "masculine" attire to intimidate their opponents. These
players use such terms and methods because they have no other way of expressing themselves as
competitive athletes. Although most players may claim to dress in a practical and comfortable
manner, most also use intimidating attire, such as wearing all black.
What is practical in Ultimate? Since Ultimate is a non-contact sport, there is no need for
body pads or helmets. In Ultimate Frisbee, it is necessary to wear cleats because of the stop and
start nature of play; however, there is no protocol for specific types of cleats. Ultimate is played
in all conditions with no preset uniform for cold, wet, or dry weather. The individual player
decides what is best for her play, both mentally and physically. They may use the typical
depiction of "masculinity" and uniform in sport but reshape these ideas into their own. Women
Ultimate Frisbee players reformulate the meanings of masculine practices and dress on their own
terms, thereby creating a distinct space and self-identity. In this space, these players claim their
own identity and restructure masculine practices and identities, challenging the hierarchy and
power that hegemonic masculinity often creates.
There are no mainstream images of hegemonic masculinity or feminine bodies specific to
Ultimate. However, I would argue, college women Ultimate players utilize conceptualizations of
hegemonic masculinity in order to constitute themselves as athletes. Specifically, women in
college Ultimate often use masculine sport concepts such as physicality, competitiveness, and
aggression but do not adopt them as deeply-felt identities. Terminology and attire in women's
Ultimate often reflects masculinity, such as dressing as an aggressive and intimidating player.
Therefore, college women Ultimate players must use these terms because they have no other way
of expressing themselves as athletes. Ultimate players do not have a definition of an Ultimate
athlete and bring their own definition of athletic ability to the sport. In addition, in my
observations many female college Ultimate players wear clothing that is "masculine" in order to
"feel" like a competitive athlete. The following comment came from Carolyn, during a
conversation with the team about her "style" when she first started playing with Discs:
When I first started playing I wore dance shorts, T-shirts and at tournaments I would wear
tall socks, skirts and my jersey. Honestly, the first year I thought about appearance- I
wanted to look coordinated. For example I would think about matching socks to my jersey.
In a statement after the competitive season ended she changed her position on appearance and
opted to be more practical in order to perform at a higher level:
My motive now is to wear what I need to be comfortable in that climate, it' s about being
smarter about playing a sport, it doesn't matter how you look. Wear what you need to play
This may suggest that when college women Ultimate players first begin to play organized
Frisbee they bring their normative views of femininity, masculinity, and athleticism with them.
As they progress in the sport and as players, they may begin to shed these ideas of "masculinity"
and "femininity" as athletes and accept their space in women's Ultimate.
Other players expressed similar feelings about their attire. At the competitive level, most
players on Discs said they would rather be more comfortable and wear items that are more
practical, rather than "look good." One of the veteran players, Amy, thinks about aspects of
practicality, not femininity, when choosing what to wear for a tournament:
I mostly wear knee-length [surf] board shorts because my legs might get scraped up; it's
not to wear to be intimidating but more practical. I usually scrape my elbows badly so I
will wear wristbands and sometimes a hat because I am trying not to have skin cancer. I
don't wear makeup because I don't want it to run down my face, I don't take extra steps to
be feminine, and it' s not the place. (Amy/Interview)
Again and again during interviews, I heard that practicality was more important than an
"image." Although most claim to wear "practical" dress items. The Discs team choose to wear
the same brand of long black shorts with the logo on the lower corner of the short. Discs wanted
to be more "intimidating," noting that the old pair of shorts didn't "do the trick" because it made
them appear short. Teams often choose colors for their j erseys according to their school's colors.
Many women' s teams may also choose different styles and types of jerseys. There are three
maj or licensed companies that sell Ultimate Frisbee apparel, including customized j erseys for
women and men. Most teams use one of these three companies. Each team chooses a style, fit,
cut, and colors. The Discs team voted for a white and black woman' s cut j ersey with sleeves. The
shorts are black to match the black j ersey for an "intimidating look." As Discs progressed as a
team, players began to incorporate a logo, colors, cut, and styles into their jerseys. This may
suggest that the culture of Ultimate Frisbee allows female athletes to use a more "masculine"
image as intimidating athletes and not to feel apologetic for their behavior. The concept of the
"female apologetic" in sports, first articulated by Jan Felshin, describes female athletes'
participation in the masculine world of sports as an anomaly (Felshin 1974). In an interview with
Ultimate player, Deidre, she notes that in the culture of Ultimate Frisbee there might not be a
need for female athletes to "apologize":
In those sports [basketball, softball] female athletes have to restate their femininity because
it' s assumed that they are masculine as athletes. In Ultimate, people don't care. Ultimate is
androgynous in general. (Deidre/Interview)
I suggest that college women Ultimate players may not feel the need to restate their
femininity in the sport of Ultimate. These players are not "unapologetic" with their athleticism
but rather present a different form of their own masculinity. K.L. Broad (2001) finds in her
research on female rugby teams that "women's sport can be characterized by an unapologetic,
marked by transgressing gender, destabilizing sexual identities and 'in your face' confrontations
of normativity" (Broad 2001:199). Broad (2001) draws parallels to women' s resistance in rugby
and queer activism that suggests that there exist forms of queer resistance in women's sport. I
suggest that these college women Ultimate players are not expressing a conscious form of
resistance but rather participating in a culture that nonetheless resists "normativity."
However, not all gendered identities in college women's Ultimate express a form of
masculinity. Some bring conventional forms of femininity into their identity and attire. For
example, many players wear men's surfing board shorts, but they buy them in a more "feminine"
color such as pink. In addition, many female college Ultimate players use wristbands, baseball
caps, and wear men' s football cleats but usually incorporate a sign of their "femininity." This
sign may be the color of the wristbands or pairing women' s soccer socks with men' s football
cleats. People outside of college women's Ultimate, such as college men Ultimate players, may
"approve" of such expressions of "masculinity" only if their femininity or sexuality is also clear.
At a recent competitive tournament, one of the players from the men' s team told Karen the
Karen you are the only girl I know that wears men's football cleats, not stupid women's
soccer cleats. That is awesome, that is why you rock!
Everybody knew that Karen was dating a member of the men's team and therefore her femininity
was not questioned, she did not feel the need to justify her expression of masculinity.
In Ultimate it is popular to choose the color of your cleats. The colors of cleats on the
Discs team range from orange to polka dots. This last bit of color may add a "feminized" and
distinct individual style for the player. One year, many of the players bought pink Nike women' s
soccer cleats. If players have a distinct piece of "flare" that they wear, other teams may use this
to characterize them. Teams often refer players on other teams by their distinct sporting attire.
One year Discs referred to a player on a rival team as "shiny shoes" and a player on another team
as "pink cleats."
What happens off the field? Do college women Ultimate players feel as if they need to
establish their femininity off the field? In her research on women' s ice hockey, Nancy Theberge
(2000) notes that some players feel the need to counter stereotypes of female ice hockey players
being overly masculine. From her observations, she writes about one of the players:
There is an important irony in this player's concern about image. She is a strong and
powerful player, one of the most physical and heavily penalized on the team. Although
concerned to counter the stigma of masculinity off the ice, on the ice she has a particularly
'masculine' game. (Theberge 2000: 88)
In sport culture, ice hockey is perceived as a "masculine" sport. Ultimate Frisbee does not
rely on bodily contact and therefore is not perceived as an overly "masculine" sport; this may
affect how female Ultimate players consider how to present a gendered identity. At tournament
parties, many of the Discs members ultimately choose comfort over presenting an image of being
highly feminine. Janice, a Discs player, states the following, "I want to look like a girl but I don't
want to put much effort into it. I would never dress up for a frisbee party." (Janice/Interview)
This may suggest that these players feel a level of comfort within college women's Ultimate and
do not feel obligated to present femininity to counter the perceived masculine characteristics that
mainstream sport culture associates with a high level of athleticism.
ULTIMATE FRISBEE: A SPACE FOR FEMALE ATHLETES?
Discs team members generally attend tournament parties, which often are at local bars in
the city where the tournament is held. At one spring tournament, I observed the same "routine"
as at most tournaments. As usual after the first day of competition, the Discs team showers at the
hotel, puts on "comfortable" and "feminine" clothing, and departs for the party together. This
particular tournament party is held at a small local bar where the beer is free but not very good
and the music is loud. At the games that day, the tournament director had given each team
wristbands for admission into the bar.
The Discs team members have a drinking game that they organize at tournament parties
called Boatracing. On this occasion, the boatrace "captain," Tina, screamed at players to come
over and line up. These seven players competed against seven other players on a rival team. The
first person to completely finish a glass of beer and turn the cup over her head would win. In this
race, the last girl on the opposing boatrace team took her cup full of beer and poured it over her
own head. The Discs boatrace responded by saying that this was poor boatrace etiquette. The
other team stated that she had sacrificed for the team. The opposing team had won the race and
received seven very nice pint glasses. However, Discs went on to win the tournament and the
team received their own pint glasses. Some team members said they wanted the boatrace pint
glasses and that the other team had cheated. As in other boatraces and similar drinking games,
this was not solely a competition to see who can drink the greatest amount of alcohol in the least
amount of time. The game also served as a tool to bond between teams and within teams. At
more than one tournament I witnessed, and even participated in, several boatraces by Discs used
water rather than beer so the players would stay hydrated for the next day of play.
After Discs left the boatrace, they moved to the dance floor where they provocatively
danced with one another. There are certain songs that the team likes and as they played the team
fervently dances to them. Other onlookers tried to dance with them but they gently refused and
continued to dance together as a team. The members decided to return to the hotel because they
had a long day of tournament play the next day and they wanted to be prepared to win.
In their research on college women' s athletics, Blinde, Taub, and Han (1994) studied the
ability of sport to empower women at the team and societal level. They found that athletes
bonded with their teammates and created important relationships with them (Blinde et. al 1994).
My research illustrates that college women's Ultimate Frisbee teams also bond with their
teammates, creating important and substantial relationships in their lives. This may suggest that
women's Ultimate creates a space where these athletes are able to exhibit athleticism and also
nourish relationships with their teammates. Often in the culture of sport, sexuality is solely
heterosexual and created in opposition to homosexuality (Messner 2002). My observations
suggest that college women's Ultimate Frisbee provides a space that cultivates women's
relationships one another and may sometimes allow for playful erotic expression. This also
suggests that these players feel comfortable in an all-female space and therefore can freely
express their sexuality among themselves as women on the team.
How do researchers accurately represent the experience of the female athlete? The
sociological model of multiple bodies, as proposed by Cox and Thompson, (2000) is an effective
tool to interpret the experience of female athletes. By dividing the body into four theoretical
components, Cox and Thompson (2000) illustrate the complex and uncertain process of how
female athletes understand their bodies. These theoretical bodies often challenge each other and
when placed in juxtaposition they often challenge mainstream discourses on femininity,
sexuality, and stereotypical gender roles. This analysis of the multiple bodies model helps to
illuminate how female athletes in Ultimate Frisbee may experience their bodies. It also illustrates
the complexity of this process for these athletes. College women' s Ultimate Frisbee may be
different from other sports in mainstream culture because it can create a "safe" space for its
athletes. However, there are still aspects of mainstream sport that these players must negotiate
when playing Ultimate.
The Ultimate Bond: Relationships in Ultimate Frisbee
After playing my first tournament with members of this team, it became even more evident
to me how important good communication, patience, and a willingness to help and learn
are to a successful team. I witnessed behavior on the part of members of other teams that I
balked at, knowing how much healthier and more fun an encouraging environment is.
The history and culture of Ultimate may help to create a supportive space in college
women's Ultimate Frisbee. In my observations, the interactions vary from team to team but most
report an encouraging environment, different from other women's sports. In her research, Nancy
Theberge (2000) noticed challenges to team cohesion during the two seasons she spent with a
women's ice hockey team. She notes that although the team promoted the concept of team unity,
the team had several "stars" that put their own interests above the teams, causing "egos to clash"
In May 2006, Discs traveled to the College National Championships in Columbus, Ohio
where we competed against sixteen of the top college women' s teams in the nation. During the
three-day tournament, Discs played close-scoring games with all of our opponents. Although
players described each game as "long and tough," the team worked hard to earn a high place the
tournament. Pre-quarterfinals were held in the early morning on the second day of the
tournament. Discs knew the team would face its Sectional and Regional rival and had to be
prepared to play well. The team arrived as the sun was just coming up and the grass was still wet
from dew. No team members would admit that they were nervous. The team went through its
pre-game warm ups, drills, and its cheers. As the game began, a van full of fans from Discs'
hometown pulled onto the Hield and flooded the sideline. The van had traveled the entire night to
come cheer for their hometown teams. I could feel the team's added nervousness, and the
increased intensity. When the game started, Discs came out with strength and speed and "got up"
(quickly scored) on their opponent with numerous scores. It was clear from the Discs players'
actions and language that they were feeling good and confident in their offense and defense. The
game soon turned and their adversary began to score. I could see Discs players panicking and
making poor decisions, such as throwing the disc to the opponents' best defender and repeatedly
dropping passes. Soon their opponents were "within two" points and time was running out.
Discs had to score the last two points to win. On the last point of the game, Discs had the disc on
offense, we "worked it up" and the throw went up. It sailed high towards the end zone where it
was only Discs player Casey and her defender waiting for the disc. Casey and her defender went
up high for the disc but Casey used her body to win the best position to make the grab. Both
players came down and Casey held on to the disc. The game was over and the Discs had won.
The team went on to the quarterfinals of College Nationals. After the game, a television station
covering the championship came over to interview Casey. The interviewer asked Casey what it
felt like to catch the winning goal. Casey replied, "I may have caught the winning goal, but I
wouldn't have been able to without the throw that got it there. It was a team effort and I am just
glad that we won and are advancing to quarterfinals."
In my experience, most Ultimate teams indicate the importance of "chemistry" for their
team. Teams talk about their offense "flowing" or "gelling" together in order to create effective
offensive plays. A team may become more comfortable with one another on the field and know
how each of the players work together. During the spring season, Discs never indicated that they
had one "superstar" on the team or that another player "needed" to perform well. Discs player
Laurie notes the importance of chemistry and team cohesion for an Ultimate team:
I think it is very important for chemistry to exist between players on the field. To know
each other' s strengths and weaknesses is absolutely crucial, so you, as an individual, can
help the team as a whole. Some players' strengths lie in speed and catching skills, others
are great defenders. It is important to recognize how to utilize each player to their
strengths, and to improve their weaknesses, so that they can become a better player.
Nothing is more demoralizing while playing a sport than not being given the opportunity to
do something that you excel at. I think that without chemistry, it is difficult for the team to
recognize who works well together, and to put a strong line out every time.
Third year Discs player Karen indicates that a team's success is from the team's unity and not
because of a few key players:
Unlike most teams that are dictated by a few people, we all respect each other on the field.
We are light hearted off the field and we don't ever get down on each other or blow up on
each other on the field. I think that is very important in order to have a team succeed, to
make sure that there is a mutual respect and a team bond. (Karen/Interview)
Each year in college women's Ultimate and men's Ultimate, teams nominate a candidate for the
Henry Callahan Award. This annual award is for the most valuable player in College Ultimate.
After each team nominates one player, all eligible college women's Ultimate players go online to
a voting system and vote for the three best women's candidates. The candidates are tallied and
one female is presented the award at the College National Championships at the end of the
season. Recently on an online forum for Ultimate Frisbee, a previous female Callahan winner
observed that women' s Ultimate teams tend to select players based on talent, skill, and spirit. She
went on to say that men's Ultimate teams tend to select a player based only on skill. Another
female Ultimate player, and a coach in college women's Ultimate Frisbee, commented on the
initial thread concerning the Callahan award:
I think that women seem to value the spirit aspect of the award and carrying a team on your
back while the men seem to value being the leader and go-to player on a great team. All of
the last seven men's Callahan winners have led their teams to a Nationals appearance, six
made it to the finals, and five won it all. By comparison, only five of the last seven
women's Callahan winners were at Nationals the year they won, only one made it to finals,
and none earned a title. (http ://icultimate.blogspot. com)
This may indicate that college women' s Ultimate Frisbee promotes a sense of team unity and
cohesion, which seems to be missing from most mainstream sports. Teams may rely on their own
total unity and structure in order to exhibit the players' individual athleticism and physicality.
Individual players often promote their team's success over their individual success in order to
highlight their school's program and growth rather than the individual players, as seen in Discs.
The most successful programs in college women's Ultimate include numerous key players rather
than a select few superstars.
In their research on college women' s athletics, Blinde, Taub and Han (1994) studied the
ability of sport to empower women at the group and societal level. They found that athletes
bonded with their teammates and created important relationships with them (Blinde et al. 1994).
In their research, they found the following:
Athletes felt it was 'easier to relate with someone who goes through the same thing.' A
second factor concerned the frequency and regularity of athlete interaction. Athletes
constituted the major network of friends for nearly all respondents. Such sentiments were
expressed by a swimmer who stated, 'We are just always there for each other. Because of
the time you spend and the things you go through, I guess it creates a certain bond between
teammates' Athletes frequently described their teammates as 'best friends,' 'close knit,'
'family,' and 'people you love to death.'(Blinde, et.al 1994:53)
In my research, I also found these sentiments to be widely shown. The teams I have observed
work together throughout the season to develop as a team by training and practicing together.
They also develop relationships off the field. Discs player Taylor notes her relationships with
It would've been hard not to [create relationships.] At this point, ninety percent of my
friends are ultimate players, and the few that aren't know how much time I spend doing
Ultimate-related things and they just accept it as a part of me. (Taylor/Interview)
In addition, Sherrie notes the following:
After a whole semester of spending at least three days a week of practice and almost every
weekend together, they become like family. Granted you still feel closer to some than
most, but you still share common goals and have been through so much together by the end
of one season. (Sherrie/Interview)
Most of the players interviewed indicated that the time spent with their teams help create strong
relationships off the field. These players spend time training, practicing, traveling and attending
tournaments during the five-month college season. Ultimate player Laurie indicates that
spending time with her team has helped to create lasting relationships as well as strengthen
already existing relationships:
But as I've played and traveled with the team, I've become increasingly comfortable. When
you travel eight hours to a tournament, you learn quickly to get comfortable with each
other. Also, rather than Ultimate helping to form significant relationships, Ultimate has
also formed much stronger already existing relationships. For example, my boyfriend who
I met six years ago plays Ultimate. Being in a long-distance relationship, Ultimate has
provided a way of seeing each other. It's a similar story with my roommate. We have been
friends since middle school, but had we not both decided to play for [Discs], we probably
wouldn't have ended up as roommates or such close friends. (Laurie/Interview)
This may suggest that college women's Ultimate Frisbee creates a space that promotes
relationships and bonds among its team as teammates as well as friends. College women's
Ultimate teams spend time training as athletes through track, gym, and practice. Through the
years as Discs has become more competitive, the outside training has increased during the
season. A typical week for the Discs team during the spring season would includes: a three hour
practice on Sunday, rest on Monday, a two hour practice on Tuesday, a forty-five minute track
workout on Wednesday, a two hour practice on Thursday and an additional speed workout
during the weekend. As training increased, so did the bond between players, as noted by Karen
in the following example:
I feel more comfortable with my teammates than I do with my roommates now because
they understand why I spend so much time playing Ultimate, running track etc. I also think
that because we spend so much time together, doing all these things makes me more
comfortable with my team. We have the same or similar schedules, and therefore we can
hang out more outside of practice. (Karen/Interview)
Teams spend a significant amount of time training and they also spend a significant
amount of time in social settings. At a recent practice, a new player to Discs asked me what was
on my lower left ankle. I looked down and replied that it was a tattoo of the image from the
Discs team logo, a design of a flame. In my third year on the Discs team, two other team
members and I decided to get tattoos of the logo on different parts of our bodies. For me, the
logo represented the entire community. In this community, I found strong, supportive, and loving
relationships. Many Discs members said that they have found their relationships in the Ultimate
community to be meaningful and long lasting. One of the newer players on the Discs team noted
The person I'd consider my best friend is on the team, my boyfriend is on the [men's
Ultimate] B-team. I feel like I spend more time with the Frisbee community than my other
friends lately and I don't really mind, I consider pretty much all of them my friends.
This may suggest that although college women's Ultimate creates a competitive and athletic
space for competing, it also extends its community to form important relationships. College
women's Ultimate takes from mainstream sport culture the desire to win by training and working
hard it goes farther in creating a community that does not rely on key individuals of the team.
This community creates a positive and supportive space that fosters important relationships in
Although many Discs members feel close in their relationships to other team members,
not all share that closeness. Blinde et al. (1994) found that female bonding did not always occur
among teammates. They found that because teammates were competing for playing time and
positions, some players became jealous and distrustful of other players and their intentions
(Blinde et al. 1994:54). During interviews with the Discs team, players never expressed these
types of feelings to me. However, some players stated that they felt more comfortable with team
members with a comparable skill level. Discs player Lonnie expressed the following:
For the most part I feel at ease with my team members, but I definitely feel more at ease
around the players that are close to my skill level. It seems that there is a hierarchy on the
team that is based on playing ability, and the ladies tend to hang out with other ladies that
are around their same ability. I would certainly not feel comfortable hanging out with the
starting offense if I was the only one there not on it. (Lonnie/Interview)
Although Lonnie states that she feels more comfortable with specific players on the team, she
does not directly express feeling competitive or suspicious of other players on the team. The high
level of competitiveness in college women's Ultimate Frisbee may call for team cohesion and
unity and does not often rely on individual "superstars." This may create a distinct space that
does not foster a system of hierarchy and power found in mainstream sport culture. In her
research on women's ice hockey, Nancy Theberge observed the ice hockey team go through two
phases: a "friendship first" season to a "for the hockey" season (Theberge 2000:55). She
describes the emphasis of these teams to be on either the cohesion or closeness of the team or on
games and the development of skills. I would argue that college women's Ultimate is able to do
both. Teams need team cohesion and unity and this in turn creates close relationships and female
bonding, but it also fosters athletic skills and development as athletes.
Erotic Play: Expressing Sexuality in College Women's Ultimate Frisbee
It was our semester meeting for Discs and everybody was there. There was lots of food and
wine during the meeting. I could see that Sherrie was standing in the room with her back to
Elsie and Ronnie. Elsie and Ronnie were whispering and looking at Sherrie. I knew
something was coming. They began to advance around Sherrie and soon they quickly
grabbed her breasts and slid their hand across her crotch and yelled, 'Taco' and
'Milkshake.' Sherrie smiled and replied, 'I can't believe I fell for that one!' Everybody
laughed. (Field Notes)
Often when female athletes play sports, they enact identities outside of their expected
feminine gendered identity and therefore they may suffer negative consequences. The concept of
the "lesbian label" defines "acceptable" boundaries for women in patriarchal society, and women
in sport are outside of these boundaries (Griffin 1992:252). With the inclusion of sexuality into
the culture of sport and the construction of the female athlete in opposition to masculinity, a
climate of homophobia may exist. When female athletes present traits similar to those of
masculine male athlete, their sexuality becomes an issue. Particularly when placed within the
context of Judith Butler' s "heterosexual matrix," all female athletes perceive pressure to present
a heterosexual feminine body. Butler describes the "heterosexual matrix" as the way in which
heterosexuality encodes and structures everyday life (Butler 1990:42).
Sport scholar Pat Griffin (1992) notes the need to present a heterosexual body as one of the
six manifestations of homophobia in women' s sport, also known as the promotion of a
heterosexual image. Griffin (1992) notes, "where presenting a feminine image previously
sufficed, corporate sponsors, professional women's sport organizations, some women's college
teams, and individual athletes have moved beyond presenting a feminine image to adopting a
more explicit display of heterosex appeal" (Griffin 1992:255). The other five categories are:
silence, denial, apology, attacks on lesbians, and preference for male coaches. Silence, as Griffin
(1992) writes, is the most consistent and enduring manifestation of homophobia in women' s
Female athletes often live in fear of drawing attention to themselves by achieving athletic
success and therefore drawing attention to their sexuality. When a female athlete's "status of
heterosexuality" comes into question to their coaches, managers, and even the athletes
themselves will deny it. This denial, another categorical manifestation of homophobia, results in
the erasure of lesbians in sport. In order to "apologize" for possible appearances or associations
outside of femininity, female athletes, their coaches, sponsors, and managers often promote an
ideal feminine image that is consistent with white heterosexual images of beauty. Women in
sport suffer not only detrimental psychological consequences but also physical effects. Griffin
writes, "in a style reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism some coaches proclaim their anti-lesbian
policies as an introduction to their programs. Athletes thought to be lesbian are dropped from
teams, find themselves benched or are suddenly ostracized by coaches and teammates" (Griffin
Homophobia affects all women in sport; the idea or "lesbian label" marginalizes women's
sport and all female athletes. However, without outside influence of media women' s Ultimate
Frisbee resists the need to promote a sense of heterosexualized body. As Susan Cahn (1993)
notes the figure of the mannish lesbian has "acted as a powerful unarticulated 'bogey woman' of
sport, forming a silent foil for more positive, corrective images that attempt to rehabilitate the
image of women athletes and resolve the cultural contradiction between athletic prowess and
femininity" (Cahn 1993:343). The idea of the "mannish lesbian" still pervades thinking about
female athletes, yet the overall camaraderie of a women's Ultimate Frisbee team overrides a
homophobic climate in sport. Even so, players may create a heteronormative atmosphere, mainly
through j okes, and may still promote a sexuality that is distinctly heterosexual.
Although college women' s Ultimate Frisbee incorporates aspects of mainstream ideologies
of sport, such as competitiveness, aggression, and physicality, the sport still resists all facets that
promote hegemonic masculinity. The following is from my observations at practice:
Karen starts with 'Viagra j okes' as her throws are too low and they need to get higher in
order for the receiver to score. The j okes include 'taking Viagra in order to, get it up' and
'I took my Viagra, my throws are up.' Everybody else either partakes in the jokes or
laughs at them.
At another practice I overheard two new players talking about how to learn the flick (snapping
the wrist to release the disc) throw:
Margo: I was running around and I overhead one of the guys teaching a younger player on
the men' s team on how to throw a flick. He told him it's just like slapping an ass when you
snap your wrist. (She mimics the act of slapping an ass)
Beatrice: Oh that' s easy to remember! I will just think of when I am slapping a guy's ass
whenever I go to throw flick (She also mimics the act of slapping an ass.)
In these observations, players are making j okes using aspects of heterosexuality and male
sexuality. Karen is joking about Viagra, a drug enhancer for men with penis erectile
dysfunction. I would argue that this type of joking may create a heteronormative environment
where some players might feel uncomfortable. However, those telling these jokes may be
adapting and manipulating aspects of male sexuality to make them their own. These aspects of
masculinity may help these players to think of themselves of athletes. As I argue, college women
Ultimate players use aspects of masculinity to think of themselves as athletes because they do
not have an alternative vocabulary. These players reshape these ideas so that they do not generate
a hierarchy of power.
Aside from practices, at competitive tournaments the jokes increase in vulgarity and
heteronormative language. The following is from observations made at the most competitive
tournament of the season:
Jane is talking about Einding the water jugs in the morning before our first game. The
conversation turned into talking about breasts, and Janice recalls her nickname of 'jugs.'
Tina makes the comment that she prefers the word 'tits' to any other word.
Taylor and Ronnie both yell the phrase of 'pussy footing' to players on the Hield when they
are not running hard or in the huddle before games.
On numerous occasions at practices when players would go to change colors to play on the
offense or defense, other players would j oke about giving them a little striptease and say things
like, "take it off!" Although both of these comments may create a heteronormative environment,
they may also indicate that this environment creates a space for all women to feel comfortable
with themselves and each other. My research suggests that in college women's Ultimate Frisbee,
women's sexuality does not exist solely in relation to male sexuality and heterosexuality. Often
in the culture of sport, sexuality is solely heterosexual and created in opposition to
homosexuality (Messner 2002: 35). My observations suggest that college women's Ultimate
Frisbee provides a space that cultivates women's relationships with each other and may
sometimes allow for playful erotic expression. This may also suggest that these players feel
comfortable in an all-female space and therefore can freely express their sexuality among
themselves. These expressions may include playful interactions, playful touching or jokes.
Karen' s joking about Viagra and Margo' s joking about how to throw a flick may signal an
adoption of a form of hegemonic masculinity but it may also indicate that as a woman she is
comfortable in this space and can playfully express her sexuality.
Most of my observations occur when teams are in all-female settings. If these events
occurred in a mix gendered setting, these actions might be misinterpreted. For example, if a
men's team were present when these teams exhibit erotic play they might interpret these acts as
expressions of heterosexuality towards them. At a competitive preseason tournament, Discs lost
in the quarterfinals. Discs played another losing team in an isolated field removed from the other
competing teams. The two teams decided to enj oy this game since this game did not change the
outcome of the tournament for either team. During the game the opposing team members took
off their shorts exposing underwear or tights. The team encouraged Discs to take off their shorts
and many members complied. Both teams had players on the field that had their underwear or
tights on during the entire point. There were shouts from both teams' sidelines to "take it off!"
These teams felt a level of comfort that allowed them to express their sexuality with one another
in an uninhibited way.
On the Discs team there are long lasting jokes and playful gestures that team members
often use with each other. These jokes continue through the seasons even as team members
graduate and move on from their college years. One of them is the "taco." A "taco," mentioned
earlier in this section, is where one woman quickly runs her hand across the front part of another
woman's pelvic area, as noted earlier. The opposite of a "taco" is a "butter knife" because the
hand quickly slides over the backside. When one woman places her hands on the breast of
another woman and moves them up and down, this is a milkshakee." The origin of these j okes or
pranks is unknown among the Discs team. This may suggest that these players feel comfortable
in an all-female space and therefore express notions of female sexuality among team mates.
These women flirt playfully with each other as they touch their bodies in a sexual manner.
Although the culture of college women's Ultimate Frisbee is very supportive of lesbian
relationships, I would say that it does not identify as a lesbian culture. These flirtations may
signify romantic relationships between players, but this did not appear to be the case during my
research with the Discs team. In general, these exchanges occur because players feel comfortable
in an all-female space. I would argue that since women's Ultimate Frisbee is outside the
mainstream culture of sport, these female athletes may create a safe space to nourish a female
bond and relationships where female sexuality does not exist solely in relation to male sexuality
and heterosexuality. My observations suggest there is a space in women's college Ultimate
Frisbee that celebrates women's relationships with one another.
The Ultimate Athlete: Expressions of Female Athleticism in Ultimate Frisbee
I identify as an athlete and Ultimate is my sport. (Deidre/Interview)
As I was parking my car at a tournament, I read this bumper sticker on another car,
"Ultimate ruined my life." There is generally no external validation for a long, hard day of
physically demanding Ultimate. The team does not usually receive public recognition for its
efforts, as in mainstream sport. There are no paychecks, no benefits, and no crowds waiting at
home. There is no mass production of jerseys for the "superstar" on the team, no autographs or
photo shoots. I have found in my research that players speak of a desire to play the game of
Ultimate, a desire to play with their team through easy and hard games and through good and bad
weather. In these conditions, how do female Ultimate players express themselves as athletes?
Can outside comments affect the psyche of the female athlete who plays Ultimate? Can
researchers, including myself, accurately relate the experience of the female athlete? What
specific areas of mainstream sport might these athletes bring into Ultimate? Can college
women's Ultimate bring their existing ideas of sport and athleticism and still create a "safe"
space to express their athleticism? I would argue that by understanding the complexity of how
female athletes regard themselves as athletes, researchers are able to depict their experience.
This past spring, Discs participated in a competitive tournament in cold rain, wind, and
snow. The team knew that there would be inclement weather and yet the players still chose to
attend the tournament. I observed that all my teammates wore at least three layers of clothing and
they were soon soaked. Many of the players tried adding layer after layer and when that did not
work, we huddled together to try to salvage some warmth. Casey, Ana, Karen, and Jane were in a
tight huddle and Casey remarked, "I am going to put my hands down my pants because that is
what the football players do when they are cold and need to keep their hands warm." The only
thing getting them through the day was the thought of a hot shower. During the middle of the
day, I tried to give a "pep" talk by asking the team to visualize that hot shower. At one point
when I was on the line waiting to play defense, I tried to speak but could not feel my face, nose
or lips. I looked at Carolyn and her lips were purple and I knew she could not feel her face either.
The players' hands were too cold and wet to throw the disc properly. We huddled again on the
sideline with arms and hands locked together still trying to concentrate on the game. When a
game ended early, the team ran from the fields into the nearby middle school and defrosted in the
bathrooms. Player after player came into the bathroom and tried desperately to wash the mud off
and put their cold hands under the hot water. After the shower, after eating, we would talked
about the day and even laugh about it later because they were a team, a team of athletes who
would play together through the good and the bad
Ultimate does not generally incorporate mainstream sports ethos into its culture. At times,
players notice the differences between Ultimate and other sports. Deidre relates her experience
with club soccer and Ultimate saying, "I tried out for club soccer and they were mean, different.
In Ultimate, you are encouraged to keep learning, it' s unique." (Deidre/Interview) Amy also
relates her impression of club soccer players in comparison to Ultimate players by saying, "I
know plenty of soccer bitches and they are conceited, selfish and have all the bad qualities of an
athlete or 'a jock.'" (Amy/Interview) This may suggest that Ultimate creates a space that does
not incorporate the negative aspects of mainstream sport. However, Ultimate does not exist
completely outside of mainstream sport culture; participants may bring their beliefs from other
sports into their game.
Studies in feminist research often analyze the importance of the image of the female body.
From theory of the sexuality of human bodies and their meanings to current feminist research on
the female body, the image of the body is an important concern. How can researchers accurately
represent the experience of the female athlete? The sociological model of multiple bodies, as
proposed by Barbara Cox and Shona Thompson (2000), is an effective tool to interpret the
experience of female athletes. The research by Cox and Thompson (2000) based on in-depth
interviews and participant observation with a premier New Zealand soccer league. By dividing
the body into four theoretical components, Cox and Thompson (2000) illustrate the complex and
uncertain process of how female athletes understand their bodies. These theoretical bodies often
challenge each other and when placed in juxtaposition they often challenge mainstream
discourses on femininity, sexuality, and stereotypical gender roles (Cox and Thompson 2000:17).
The athletic body, one of the four theoretical bodies, is a body of physical strength and
endurance and it is able to perform athletics at the desired level (Cox and Thompson 2000:10).
When Cox and Thompson asked what an "ideal" athletic body would entail, "All sketched a
picture, particularly at elite level, that was relatively thin, muscled, athletic and strong" (Cox and
Thompson 2000: 10). Physical strength offers more autonomy and less reliance on the strength
of others. In addition, Cox and Thompson (2000) note how the physical strength of the body
transferred into a better psychological self. Several of the Discs players consider themselves to
be athletes because of their athletic physical body and high level of fitness. Amy states the
I always considered myself as an athlete but when I started playing Ultimate, I was in
decent fitness but now I have achieved a new level of fitness. I gained a new identity as an
Team members appreciated their ability to perform within their sport. The better the physical
body, the better the performance of the athlete, both mentally and physically. In addition, the
number one body concern among participants in the case study by Cox and Thompson was fat.
Fat is a factor that is "controllable" and "opposite" of the idea of the athletic body (Cox and
Thompson 2000: 13). In turn, this influenced their evaluations about performance and athletic
ability, of themselves and their teammates. Karen notes how weight and fitness may affect her
performance in Ultimate, but is different from "female attractiveness":
I feel that I plan to get in shape, and in return I lose weight and that helps my performance
on the Hield. Ultimate is not about sexy or feminine, in my opinion. (Karen/Interview)
A new player to Discs, Margo, also notes the following:
If I happen to get in amazing shape from Ultimate I won't deny that I'd be really glad. And
I don't really want to bulk up, but if I had to choose between looking really feminine but
being slow and weak or being good at Ultimate but looking kind of manly, I'd go with the
manly body. (Margo/Interview)
The second body within the model of the multiple body perspective is the private body.
The private body represents the body located within the private spheres such as the dressing
room or showers. In the private sphere the private body may become public when undressing and
when showering. Cox and Thompson (2000) found in their research that female athletes are
anxious about their naked body. An example is the way the athletic body highlights the
awareness of women' s comfort, appreciation, and enj oyment of their physicality. However,
when we place the athletic body in opposition to the private body we can see how the private
body reveals women's concerns with fat or body weight and the "attractive" female athletic
body. The athletes may feel the need to incorporate the traits of the feminine body to maneuver
within the culture of sports. Ultimate player Karen indicates some anxiety over undressing in
front of her team:
If I am butt naked, I would feel very self-conscious. But as far as changing my shirt in
front of a bunch of teams it doesn't really bother me. Usually I am in a hurry to change
whatever I need to so it doesn't really matter who is watching. On the other hand, if I have
the opportunity to change in the bathroom, I probably would. (Karen/Interview)
The private body is now a space where an attractive femaleness and the heteronormative female
body coexist (Cox and Thompson 2000:12). Therefore, while body weight is an issue of
performance and athletic ability, it was also a way to recreate female attractiveness.
In the following, Discs player Laurie relates her experiences in other sports as well as
When I began weight training for basketball in high school, I was concerned about
becoming too muscular. However having trained heavily for basketball with no significant
muscle mass changes, I am not really worried about maintaining my 'feminine' physique
while training for Ultimate. I think my body will look more or less the same regardless of
my Ultimate training. (Laurie/Interview)
Furthermore, women' s appreciation of the ability of the athletic body also affects the confidence
of the female athlete. Carolyn considers herself an athlete because of her training for Ultimate
and her role on a team:
I am an athlete; I play for a team and compete. I play against other teams across the nation.
We have an off-season and on season and I train to play. (Carolyn/Interview)
It is important to acknowledge the fact that each female athlete may experience her body in
different ways and the multiple body models reveal the complexity of this process. When we
place each of these theoretical bodies in juxtaposition with each other, we can see how the
female athlete must maneuver and negotiate within different discourses and contexts. The body
of the female athlete is constantly contradicting the dominant social discourse on identity,
gender, and sexuality.
How do these athletes communicate within their team? What expressions do players use to
teach a skill, play, or to motivate? I argue that college women Ultimate Frisbee players consider
themselves as competitive athletes within the space of women' s Ultimate, but may feel
conflicted in interactions with the outside community. Ultimate player Barbara describes hearing
some of the men' s team describe women' s Ultimate:
I remember overhearing them describe women's Ultimate and say thing like, 'women's
Ultimate is men' s Ultimate underwater.' They run slower and make decisions at a slower
pace In regards to the men's team, you are often defined by things like being a girlfriend,
and hear, 'she only plays because she is dating a guy.' (Barbara/Interview)
Deidre also describes the opinions of male players of Ultimate in the following:
Men's Ultimate, in general, does not respect women' s Ultimate. They would say that
younger guys aren't good throwers for women because they are direct and for women you
have to cater to their lesser athleticism when throwing. (Deidre/Interview)
Carolyn also notes the following:
Men's Ultimate sees women's Ultimate as less important; in their mind, it' s a lower grade
of what they play. I would think that every man on the men' s team would think they would
know the game better than every woman of the women' s team. (Carolyn/Interview)
These expressions come from all areas of the players' lives, including their coach. At one
practice, I heard the following comment from Discs' male coach, as the team was getting ready
to scrimmage the men's B team:
They may be taller, faster, and jump higher but don't be scared. They are also dumb. You
will be fine. You get three tries to score and don't worry you can score against these dumb
boys. Be patient and concentrate on throwing and catching.
I argue that these players receive criticism about their athleticism as Ultimate players but they
do not internalize the comments. They use them to create a space in women's Ultimate in which
they celebrate their ability as athletes. In the following, Ultimate player Melinda hears the
criticisms of women' s Ultimate but finds their concerns to be humorous:
The only comment that outsiders tend to make is that Ultimate isn't a real sport. But I
never feel conflicted about this. I just laugh because I can definitely see where they're
coming from. All they see are parties and hippies, not the practices and track workouts.
This may suggest that college women Ultimate players consider their identity as athletes and as
teammates. This may create a space within the sport to exhibit both athleticism and expressions
of support as teammates. This analysis of the multiple bodies model helps to shed light on the
experience of the female athlete in Ultimate Frisbee. It also illustrates how complex this process
is for the athletes. College women's Ultimate may create a "safe" space for its athletes, but there
are still aspects of mainstream sport that these players must negotiate when playing Ultimate.
These players are sometimes conflicted about their own athletic body in Ultimate as how to
conceptualize themselves as athletes.
The formation of gendered identities, specifically masculinity, in mainstream sport often
results in an unequal distribution of power whereby masculinity in sport is favored above other
forms of masculinity and above all expressions of femininity. Empirical research on gender and
the institution of sport indicates how hegemonic masculinity may sustain and maintain a
hierarchy of gender. There are few structural analyses of gender and sport, and much of the
research still relies on Connell's (1987) notion of hegemonicc masculinity." In his early work,
Messner (1992) relied heavily on hegemonicc masculinity" and the "gender order." Messner
notes in this earlier work that, "the gender order is thus a social system that is constantly being
created, contested, and changed, both in the relationships and power struggles between men and
women, and in the relationships and power struggles between men" (Messner 1992). However,
in his later work Messner (2002) develops a broader structural analysis of gender.
Can research better conceptualize gender in sport through Judith Butler' s (1990) concept of
"performativity" of gender? How can this research use a critical analysis of gender and sport,
whether through notions of performativity or a structural framework, in order to disrupt the
current gender hierarchy in sport? Can we use research to change an existing and established
social structure, a social structure that is embedded in the gender fabric of society? By employing
feminist research methods and using a critical analysis of gender, this research will expose the
weakness of the structure. Specifically, by combining a critical analysis with specific individual
characteristics of college women's Ultimate Frisbee, this research may begin to destabilize the
center of institutionalized men' s sport. With a structural change, individual acts may become
significant and consequential in changing the overall structure of sport. Female athletes, at all
levels, should see themselves, as male athletes are able to, as strong, and self-confident, not as
In her work, Gender Trouble, Butler (1990) criticizes the assumption that there is a "core"
or "essence" to a preexisting gendered social being that willfully enters into social contracts and
relationships. Butler states, "the performative invocation of a nonhistorical 'before' becomes the
foundational premise that guarantees a presocial ontology of persons who freely consent to be
governed and thereby constitute the legitimacy of the social contract" (Butler 1990:5). This
premise leads most feminist theorists to mistakenly assume that there is some sort of gendered
ontological woman that desires to be "free" of social attributes that essentializes their being.
Butler goes on to write, "the feminist subj ect turns out to be discursively constituted by the very
political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation" (Butler 1990:4). Butler suggests
the notion of gender as a performance where there is no preexisting being, but an "effect" that
happens in everyday performance. Many scholars misinterpret this idea of performance as being
a matter of free will or choice. Therefore Butler notes:
In this sense, gender is not a noun but rather a set of free floating attributes, for we have
seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the
regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse of the
metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative that is constituting the identity
it is purported to be, gender is always a doing though not a doing by a subj ect who might
be said to preexist the deed. (Butler 1990:33)
Is Butler' s notion of a performative gender useful to an analysis of gender and sport found
in college women' s Ultimate Frisbee? Does Butler suggest that if we can use other performative,
or subversive, acts to destabilize these effects, then we can challenge the very systems and
subjects that are simultaneously producing one another? If this is Butler' s message, how can we
illustrate the absurdity of gender effects while women athletes are still held accountable to them?
Although Butler might disagree, a structural analysis of the institution of gender and sport
combined with Butler' s notions of performativity will generate an insightful critique and useful
dialogue on gender and the culture of sport.
Messner (2002) points to three levels of analysis in creating a structural framework for
discussing gender and sport. The first level is an interactionist theoretical framework that
illustrates the ways that social agents "perform" or "do" gender in order to describe how groups
of people reproduce or challenge boundaries that create "natural" categorical differences
between women and men. The next level is a structural theoretical framework that highlights
how gender is inscribed in institutions. This level helps to show how under certain conditions
social agents "mobilize variously to disrupt or to affirm gender differences and inequalities"
(Messner 2002: 25). Last is a cultural theoretical perspective that shows how symbols and
images are carefully incorporated into culture and used, reproduced, or contested in different
locations in society. By combining this structural framework of analysis with specific subversive
acts, as located in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee, we may challenge detrimental consequences of
To build on this gender research, Martin (2004) merges the individuality of gender with a
structural analysis. Martin states that institutions do not "stand alone" and may often interact
with one another (Martin 2004: 1265). If we frame gender as an institution, it is possible to notice
how the institution of sport and gender are reacting and reconstituting each other in mainstream
sport. Martin explains that the members of these institutions, including sport, may use gender
expectations to construct the social relations and dynamics of its institution (Martin 2004:1266).
Martin notes, "without question, other institutional spheres 'use gender' to construct (some)
practices, social relations, rules, and procedures" (Martin 2004:1266). I argue that the institution
of mainstream sport "uses gender" to emphasize hegemonic masculinity as a "natural" trait of
athletes and to disregard other forms of masculinity as well as traits of femininity. By framing
gender as an institution, I am able to show how gender can both work against and, sometimes,
for the institution of sport. College women's Ultimate Frisbee reshapes gender expectations so
that gender identities are no longer reproduced to create a hierarchy of power.
College women' s Ultimate Frisbee may challenge structural levels of the institution of
sport. At the interactionalist level women Ultimate players sometimes "perform" their gender
outside of their "acceptable" gendered identities. However, this is acceptable because it exists in
a culture where college women's Ultimate players incorporate aspects of both categorical and
individual gendered identities in order to destabilize these oppositional categories. My research
suggests that women who are college Ultimate Frisbee players often use their athleticism in a
typically masculine manner, though with a difference. I argue that these players must use
"masculine" practices and language found in sport culture because they have no other way of
expressing themselves as competitive athletes. Players may also participate in gendered identities
by wearing "masculine" attire to express intimidation. Although many players may claim to
dress themselves in a "practical" manner, most still recognize intimidating attires such as
wearing all black.
Another example of "masculine" practices is language use in college women's Ultimate
Frisbee. Although the overall culture in college women's Ultimate Frisbee may be more
"accessible," players may still rely on mainstream sporting terms to describe specific acts of
athleticism. College women's Ultimate Frisbee may offer a more "accessible" environment and
vocabulary than other sports and activities. New players may feel at ease within Ultimate
because its culture and terms create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. This research
suggests that college women Ultimate Frisbee players define their athleticism using masculine
language; they use terms that emphasize aggression, competitiveness, and physicality but do not
use these terms or language at the expense of other teammates. College women Ultimate players
use "masculine" language and practices, but they alter their purpose so that it does not perpetuate
gender inequality. Women Ultimate Frisbee players reformulate the meanings of masculine
practices and language into their own, thereby creating a distinct space.
These actors in the space transform and change perceived masculine gendered identities in
order to create a culture without a distinct hierarchy. In this space, college women Ultimate
players transform masculine gender meanings and thereby feel a level of comfort and
camaraderie with their fellow players. I would argue that since women's Ultimate Frisbee is
outside the culture of mainstream sport, these female athletes are able to nourish female bonds
and relationships. Through my observations, I have found that college women's Ultimate Frisbee
allows women to cultivate relationships with one another and may sometimes allow for playful
erotic expression. This may also suggest that these players feel comfortable in an all-female
space and therefore can freely express their sexuality. Some expressions may include playful
interactions, touching, or j okes. These exchanges may signal an adoption of hegemonic
masculinity, heterosexuality, or male sexuality, but it may also indicate that these women feel at
ease in this space and can express themselves sexually and playfully among other women on
I emphasize that these practices are specific to college women's Ultimate Frisbee, even if,
in the overall culture of Ultimate Frisbee, there are some interactions and exchanges that
reinforce gender inequality. My research is specific to college women's Ultimate Frisbee,
because this sport has characteristics that I argue are different from those found in other
women's sports. Characteristics such as attire, language, and physicality may be similar in other
women's sports, but those sports can often reproduce the same inequality and gender hierarchies
found in men's sport culture. For example, in Theberge's (2000) work, she found that even
though there is no body checking in women's ice hockey, there can be a large amount of
physicality in the game. These players use their bodies for physicality and "play through the
pain," and may also see their bodies as "machines" (Messner 2002:57, Theberge 2000:129).
Theberge noted that players saw injury and pain as a sign of weakness outside of hegemonic
masculinity, and therefore not suitable traits of an athlete (Theberge 1997:83).
In addition, some women's sport culture and its practices may form in response to the
culture or climate found in its men' s sport counterpart. In Broad' s (2001) work on women' s
rugby, she examines how women' s rugby responds to the destructive culture of men' s rugby. She
draws parallels between women's resistance in rugby to queer activism, suggesting that there
exists forms of queer resistance in women's sport. I argue that college women's Ultimate Frisbee
does not react directly to practices in men's Ultimate, nor does it reproduce gender inequality
found in men's sport culture.
At a structural level, college women's Ultimate players move outside the gendered
hierarchy of institutionalized sport. Here they are free of divisions based on categories of gender
that could have a detrimental influence on female Ultimate players. There are powerful
masculine sporting images and symbols of sport which influence Ultimate, but, college women
Ultimate players choose to manipulate these images in order to disrupt perceptions of
"naturalized" differences between female and male athletes. In the future college women's
Ultimate Frisbee may become more "mainstream" and begin to incorporate practices found in
mainstream sport that may reinforce gender inequality. As Ultimate begins to grow, the media
may intervene and change the dynamic found in college women's Ultimate. However, at this
moment I argue that college women's Ultimate Frisbee challenges the institution of sport by
creating a location for female athletes that is outside the "center" of mainstream sport culture.
Therefore, college women's Ultimate Frisbee may serve to destabilize men's institutionalized
sport by challenging gender ideologies that hold it in place.
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Joanna Winn Neville was born on January 2, 1981 in Louisville, Kentucky. She soon
moved to Miami, Florida where she attended Howard Drive Elementary School, Palmetto
Middle School, and Palmetto Senior High School. Joanna received her Bachelor of Arts from the
University of Florida in 2003 and began working at a publishing house in Gainesville, Florida.
Joanna has played Ultimate Frisbee for 5 years and began her Ultimate career with the
Gainesville women's team in 2002. Since then she has played with successful coed and college
teams. She has played in the Ultimate Players Association Club Championships Series, and the
Ultimate Players Association College Championship Series.