Sex Dilemmas, Amazons and Cyborgs: Feminist Cultural Studies and Sport


  • Helena Tolvhed Department of History, Stockholm University, Sweden



Cultural studies, history, gender, body, sport, feminist theory


In this article, I discuss sport and physical activities as a field of empirical investigation for feminist cultural studies with a potential to contribute to theorizing the body, gender and difference. Sport has, historically, served to legitimize and rein-force the gender dichotomy by making men “masculine” through developing physical strength and endurance, while women generally have been excluded or di-rected towards activities fostering a “feminine suppleness”. The recent case of runner Caster Semenya, who was subjected to extensive gender tests, demon-strates how athletic superiority and “masculine” attributes in women still today stir public emotions and evoke cultural anxieties of gender blurring. But the rigid gender boundaries have also made sport a field of transgressions. From the “Soviet amazon” of the Cold War, transgressions in sport have publicly demonstrated, but also pushed, the boundaries of cultural understandings of gender. Gender verification tests have exposed a continuum of bodies that cannot easily be arranged into two stable, separate gender categories.

In spite of the so called “corporeal turn”, sport is still rather neglected within cultural studies and feminist research. This appears to be linked to a degradation, and fear, of the body and of the risk that women – once again – be reduced to biology and physical capacity. But studies of sport might further develop under-standings of the processes through which embodied knowledge and subjectivity is produced, in a way that overcomes the split between corporeality and discursive regimes or representations. Furthermore, with the fitness upsurge since the 1980s, the athletic female body has emerged as a cultural ideal and a rare validation of “female masculinity” (Halberstam) in popular culture. This is an area well-suited for “third wave” feminist cultural studies that are at ease with complexities and contradictions: the practices and commercialized images of the sportswoman are potentially both oppressive and empowering.


Apelmo, Elisabet (2012): “Falling in Love with a Wheelchair: Enabling/disabling Technologies”, Sport in Society, 15:3, 399-408.

Atkinson, Paul (1987): “The Feminist Physique: Physical Education and the Medicalization of Women’s Education”, J.A. Mangan & Roberta J. Park (eds): From “Fair Sex” to Feminism: Sport and the Socialization of Women in the Industrial and Post-industrial Eras, London: Cass.

Bederman, Gail (1995): Manliness and Civilization, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Birrell, Susan & Cheryl L. Cole (eds) (1994): Women, Sport, and Culture, Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics.

Birrell, Susan & Mary G. McDonald (eds) (2000): Reading Sport: Critical Essays on Power and Representation, Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Bonde, Hans (1991): Mandighed og sport, Odense: Universitet forl.

Bordo, Susan (1993): Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bornholdt, Kerstin (2010): Between Exhausting Sports and Swinging Rythm: An Inquiry Into Medical Knowledge Production about Women’s Sports and Women’s Gymnastics in Norway, Denmark and Germany in the Interwar Years, Oslo: Universitet i Oslo.

Boyle, Raymond & Richard Haynes (2010): Power Play: Sport, the Media and Popular Culture (2 ed.), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Brabazon, Tara (2006): Playing on the Periphery: Sport, Identity, and Memory, London: Routledge.

Braidotti, Rosi (1994): Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, New York: Columbia University Press.

Brookes, Rod (2002): Representing Sport, London: Arnold.

Butler, Judith (1993): Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1998): “Athletic Genders: Hyperbolic Instance and/or the Overcoming of Sexual Binarism”, Stanford Humanities Review, 6:2.

Cahn, Susan K. (1995): Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cardell, David & Helena Tolvhed (2011), “Kulturstudier, idrott och forskningens utmaningar”, Helena Tolvhed & David Cardell (eds): Kulturstudier, kropp och idrott. Perspektiv i gränslandet mellan natur och kultur, Malmö: Idrottsforum förlag.

Cavanagh, S., & Sykes, H. (2006): “Transsexual Bodies at the Olympics: The International Olympic Committee’s Policy on Transsexual Athletes at the 2004 Athens Summer Games”, Body & Society, Vol. 12(3): 75–102. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X06067157

Cole, C.L. (2006): “Close Encounters: Sport, Science, and Political Culture”, i Toby Miller (ed.) A Companion to Cultural Studies, Blackwell, Malden, Mass.

Connell, R.W (1987): Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics, Cambridge: Polity in association with Blackwell.

Connell, R.W (2005): Masculinities (2 ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press.

Creedon, Pamela J. (ed.) (1994): Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Dahlén, Peter (2008): Sport och medier: en introduktion, Kristiansand: IJ-forlaget.

Diprose, Rosalyn (2002): Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, Albany: State University of New York Press.

During, Simon (2005): Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge.

Dworkin, Shari L. & Faye Linda Wachs (2009): Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness, New York: New York University Press.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, New York, NY: Basic Books.

Fuller, Linda K. (2009): Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations, Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan.

Gilman, Sander L. (1985): Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth (1994): Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Halberstam, Judith (1998): Female Masculinity, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hall, M. Ann (2005): “From Pre- to Postfeminism: A Four-Decade Journey”, Pirkko Markula (ed.), Feminist Sport Studies: Sharing Experiences of Joy and Pain, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hall, Stuart (1997): “The Spectacle of the Other”, Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage.

Haraway, Donna (1991): Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Books.

Hargreaves, Jennifer (1994): Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports, London: Routledge.

Hartman-Tews, Ilse & Gertrud Pfister (2003): “Women’s Inclusion in Sport”, Ilse Hartman-Tews & Gertrud Pfister (eds.), Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective, London: Routledge.

Heywood, Leslie (1998): Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Body Building, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Heywood, Leslie (2007):Producing Girls: Empire, Sport, and the Neoliberal Body”, Patricia Vertinsky & Jennifer Hargreaves (eds), Physical Culture, Power, and the Body, London: Routledge.

Heywood, Leslie & Shari L. Dworkin (2003): Built to Win: the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1994): Nationer och nationalism, Stockholm: Ordfront.

Jönsson, Kutte (2007): Idrottsfilosofiska introduktioner, Malmö: Idrottsforum förlag.

Kidd, Bruce (2005): “Recapturing Alternative Olympic Histories”, Kevin Young & Kevin B. Wamsley (eds), Global Olympics, Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Kimmel, Michael S. (1996): Manhood in America: A Cultural History, New York: Free press.

Koivula, Natalie (1999): Gender in Sport, Stockholm: Stockholms Universitet.

Lundqvist Wanneberg, Pia (2004): Kroppens medborgarfostran. Kropp, klass och genus i skolans fysiska fostran 1919 – 1962, Åkersberga: Stockholms universitet.

Lundqvist Wanneberg, Pia (2011): “The Sexualization of Sport: A Gender Analysis of Swedish Elite Sport From 1967 to the Present Day”, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 18, 265-278. DOI: 10.1177/1350506811406075

Mangan, J.A (1989):“The Social Construction of Victorian Femininity: Emancipation, Education and Exercise, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 6:1, 1-9. DOI: 10.1080/09523368908713674

Mangan, J.A (1995): “Introduction”, J.A.Mangan (ed.), Tribal Identities: Nationalism, Europe, Sport, London: Cass.

Mangan, J.A (2012a): Manufactured Masculinity: Making Imperial Manliness, Morality and Militarism, London: Routledge.

Mangan, J.A (2012b): “Epilogue: Heritage, Progression, Regression and Advance!”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29:2. DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2012.641253

Mangan, J.A. & Roberta J. Park (eds.) (1987): From “Fair Sex” to Feminism: Sport and the Socialization of Women in the Industrial and Post-industrial Eras, London: Cass.

Markula, Pirkku (2001): “Beyond the Perfect Body: Women’s Body Image Distortion in Fitness Magazine Discourse”, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 25.

Markula, Pirkku (2004): “Turning into One’s Self: Foucault’s Technologies of the Self and Mindful Fitness”, Sociology of Sport journal 21:3, 302-321.

Markula, Pirkko & Richard Pringle (2006): Foucault, Sport and Exercise: Power, Knowledge and Transforming the Self, London: Routledge.

McClintock, Anne (1995): Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, London: Routledge.

McRobbie, Angela (2009): The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, London: Sage.

Messner, Michael A. (2003): Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miller, Patrick B. (2004): “The Anatomy of Scientific Racism: Racialist Responses to Black Athletic Achievement”, Patrick B. Miller & David K. Wiggins (eds): Sport and the Color Line. Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Routledge.

Olofsson, Eva (1989): Har kvinnorna en sportslig chans? Den svenska idrottsrörelsen och kvinnorna under 1900-talet, Umeå: Umeå University.

Oriard, Michael (1993): Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Osbourne, Carol A. & Fiona Skillen (2010): “The State of Play: Women in British Sport History”, Sport in History, 30:2, 189-196. DOI: 10.1080/17460263.2010.488378

Rowe, David (ed.) (2004): Critical Readings: Sport, Culture and the Media, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Schulze, Laurie (1990): “On the Muscle”, Jane Gaines & Charlotte Herzog (eds): Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, New York & London: Routledge.

Scott, Joan W. (1996): Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shilling, Chris (1997): “The Body and Difference”, Kathryn Woodward (ed.): Identity and Difference, London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Sloop, John M. (2012): “This is Not Natural: Caster Semenya’s Gender Threats”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 29:2, 81-96. DOI: 10.1080/15295036.2012.670876

Svender, Jenny (2012): Så gör(s) idrottande flickor. Iscensättningar av flickor inom barn- och ungdomsidrotten, Stockholm: Institutionen för pedagogik och didaktik, Stockholms universitet.

Tasker, Yvonne (1993): Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, London: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9780203221846

Tolvhed, Helena (2008a): “’Damolympiaden’ i Göteborg 1926 och det olympiska spelet kring kvinnlig friidrott”, Idrott, historia och samhälle. Svenska idrottshistoriska föreningens årsskrift 2008.

Tolvhed, Helena (2008b): Nationen på spel. Kropp, kön och svenskhet i populärpressens representationer av olympiska spel 1948 – 1972, Umeå: Bokförlaget h:ström Text & Kultur.

Tolvhed, Helena (2012a). “‘Sådana borde alla kvinnor vara, sunda, spänstiga och välbalanserade’ Svenska kvinnors centralförbund för fysisk kultur och tidskriften Tidevarvet i mellankrigstid”, i Riksarkivets årsbok 2012.

Tolvhed, Helena (2012b): “The Sports Woman as a Cultural Challenge: Swedish Popular Press Coverage of the Olympic Games during the 1950s and 1960s”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29:2, 302 -317. DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2012.641248

Trangbæck, Else (1998): “Gender in Modern Society: Femininity, Gymnastics and Sport”, Henrik Meinander & J.A. Mangan (eds): The Nordic World: Sports in Society, London: Frank Cass.

Vannini, April & Barbara Fornssle (2011): “Girl, Interrupted: Interpreting Semenya’s Body, Gender Verification Testing, and Public Discourse”, Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies, June, 11: 243-257.

Vertinsky, Patricia A. (1994): The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Doctors, and Exercise in the Late Nineteenth Century, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Vertinsky, Patricia A. (2001): “A Militant Madonna: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Feminism and Physical Culture”, J.A. Mangan & Fan Hong (eds.), Freeing the Female Body: Inspirational Icons, London: Frank Cass.

Whannel, Garry (2002): Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities, London: Routledge.

Witz, Anne (2000): “Whose Body Matters? Feminist Sociology and the Corporeal Turn in Sociology and Feminism”, Body & Society, 6:2, 1-24. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X00006002001

Woodward, Kath (2009): Embodied Sporting Practices: Regulating and Regulatory Bodies, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI: 10.1057/9780230244658

Woodward, Kath (2012): Sex, Power and the Games, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI: 10.1057/9781137023049

Young, Iris Marion (2005): On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays, New York: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/0195161920.001.0001

Yuval-Davis, Nira (1997): Gender & Nation, London: Sage.




How to Cite

Tolvhed, H. (2013) “Sex Dilemmas, Amazons and Cyborgs: Feminist Cultural Studies and Sport”, Culture Unbound, 5(2), pp. 273–289. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.135273.



Theme: Feminist Cultural Studies