Evie: You’re In The Loop! We’re here to discuss the ups, downs and sideways of the sport of figure skating and maybe give you +5 GOE along the way. This week’s hosts are: Evie,
Gina: and Gina.
Evie: Yay! We are on the fifth episode.
Tilda: So yeah, just a short introduction. I’m Tilda and I’m from Sweden. I’m a political scientist but I think it’s much more fun to talk about figure skating on here. My twitter handle is @tequilda.
Gina: I’m Gina, I’m from England but I live in Korea. My twitter handle is @4Atwizzles.
Lae: Hi, I’m Lae. I’m the Australian you mixed up with Evie in the first episode. I’m currently yolo-ing my life savings and post-graduation time to travel around Europe and the US and blogging about it. You can find me on Twitter at @axelsandwich.
Evie: Hi, I’m Evie, and I’m the Australian you mixed up with Lae in the first episode. When I’m not screaming about figure skating online, you can find me editing this podcast. My twitter handle is @doubleflutz.
Lae: Okay so we’re gonna cover briefly some figure skating news, because I said in the first episode that Evgenia’s move to Toronto was the biggest news of off-season and clearly the universe accepted that as a challenge because Daisuke Takahashi just announced that he would return to competition, so…
Lae: This is -
Evie: It’s pretty insane considering you know he’s 32, he’s been out of competition for what - four years now - and all of a sudden, out the blue, out of nowhere announces ‘I’m going to be coming back to competition this season’.
Tilda: To be honest, it’s the news of the decade.
Lae: It is, pretty much. And to be fair, he’s not, he hasn’t explicitly stated anything about returning to international competition. I’m pretty sure his goal right now is to make the Japanese Nationals. But even that will be pretty insane. Like, we were joking about Yuzuru potentially having to go to Regionals and now like literally the poor kids at the Kinki Regionals in Japan are going to be competing against Daisuke Takahashi. Like, let’s just stop and soak that in for a bit.
Evie: It’s pretty insane. And like I also commend the fact that he said in his interviews and stuff that he would feel bad about taking those international spots away from other Japanese skaters if he did make it to Nats, so that’s kind of admirable to see him say that in those interviews after he announced his return to competition.
Gina: I think it’s a really great message it sends, like, you don’t have to retire like at a certain age and you can come back. And it doesn’t matter if you are thinking about winning - you can just enjoy competing.
Tilda: Yeah I love that, I love that perspective. Something else that happened is Yuzuru Hanyu got the People’s Honor Award and he also brought his two Olympic gold medals to support a school in Fukushima that had only recently opened after the 2011 disaster.
Lae: We finally got the Yuzuru - we finally got Yuzuru and his two Olympic gold medals. But I think it’s just lovely that it’s like a testament to how much he is focused on the recovery of Sendai and the entire Tohoku province to have brought out the two Olympic gold medals in this sort of significant occasion - literally for the children.
Evie: And the People’s Honor Award that he did receive is the highest civilian honor that Japan bestows to its people, so, you know, that’s a really big deal. And he’s also the youngest recipient of the award ever, so -
Tilda: And the only figure skater to get it -
Evie: And the only figure skater -
Tilda: Yeah, so it’s a big deal for him. Something that is not quite as fun is that Britain is going to reduce spending for winter sports.
Gina: Yeah, so UK Sport has announced that they will be completely removing all funding for speed skating, figure skating and bobsled, so on the way into the 2022 Olympics, those sports are getting no funding whatsoever. Great Britain doesn’t have a lot of internationally active skaters, but I am concerned for Coomes and Buckland for ice dance. They are the strongest British team and they just came back from injury. It would be really sad if it’s difficult for them now because they can’t get any funding.
– end segment – 4:36
START: Gender Bias Segment
Lae: Well, we are going to focus the main segment of this episode on issues of gender bias in figure skating. And it’s a huge topic, so we’re not going to be able to cover everything but Evie’s here first of all to give you a historical perspective on figure skating in the early years.
Evie: Finally, finally my degree is coming in handy, I’m very excited about this -
Lae: Your time to shine -
Evie: In the beginning of figure skating, you know, the early years of figure skating, especially around the development of the ISU itself, gender and figure skating had a much different relationship to it than it does now a days. Figure skating wasn’t so much barred by gender, it was much more barred by class. Because you know, very few people had the resources to not only compete internationally, but even travel internationally. And there were no firm rules in competition that barred women from competing. In fact, in 1902 at the World Championships, Madge Syers who represented England got the silver medal behind I believe a Swedish male figure skater. So - and she was the only woman to compete that year.
Lae: So it was mixed competitions initially?
Evie: Yes, it was completely mixed in the early years. In fact, Madge Syers winning the silver medal kind of got the ball rolling to bar - basically barring women from competition. They originally wanted to completely bar women from all the ISU Championships and they actually - it actually passed in the ISU in 1903 to do that much to the neglect mainly of Britain because, you know, they have a World silver medalist now, they don’t want to lose her because she’s not allowed to compete anymore. And so in 1906 they relented and established the ISU Women’s Championship, which was separate completely from the actual World Championships and women did not become World champions, they just became the generic ‘ISU champions’.
Gina: Of course.
Evie: ‘Cause we can’t have nice things.
Tilda: Basically the Congress this year wasn’t so bad. It could have been a lot worse. (Laughs).
Evie: It could have been much worse! And then in 1924, the Women’s Championships were merged with the Men’s. And in fact, figure skating at the first Winter Olympics, once the Winter Olympics became separate from the Summer Olympics, figure skating was the only sport available to women.
Lae: So there was this shift.
Evie: Yeah, definitely. There was a definite shift in the late 1800s to early 1900s to 1920 of women who were slowly gaining more confidence to go and compete in figure skating and also being allowed to compete in figure skating to then not being allowed to compete in figure skating, there were a lot of changes. The main turn I feel for the way that gender is perceived in figure skating was Sonja Henie who competed for Norway and her success in the field of women’s figure skating. So she was a 10-time consecutive World champion and she was the Olympic champion in 1928, 1932 and 1936. Sonja is - she’s credited for beginning a lot of major trends in Women’s figure skating, so she popularized wearing white boots, short skirts and dresses while skating, and wearing very cute, kind of traditionally girly fashion kind of thing. You have to think that in the early days of figure skating, the differences between the styles were very… less complex than they are today. In the early days of figure skating, you barely ever saw arms being lifted above the waist and there was really not that much difference between Women’s figure skating and Men’s figure skating in terms of style; they were very similar. But Sonja Henie’s style of figure skating very much changed that; she cited that a lot of her programs were based off of ballet and dance, and this also - especially when she was competing in the 20s and 30s, when dancing was sort of popular especially among the upper classes, the interaction between her skating and dancing kind of popularized it amongst a lot of the higher classes. And so not only she rose to fame, but Women’s figure skating rose to fame in a way that Men’s didn’t. And so she was definitely seen as the face of figure skating, especially after she quit competing and got a movie deal in the States. So when she was in her prime, the US Figure Skating Association reported like a 63% increase in those taking figure skating proficiency tests between the seasons of 1939-40, and 1940-41, so that’s a massive increase in people taking those tests. And the majority of people taking those tests were young girls - specifically, middle to high class, white American girls. So they were the main target audience now for figure skating around the 1930s-40s. And Sonja Henie was a figure-head to look up to - she changed the entire landscape of how figure skating was perceived. And of course, around that time as well, Men’s figure skating was being brushed aside because World War II was happening/just about to happen, and conscription was a thing. And of course, with the majority of young men going off to fight in WWII, as all these girls came into the sport, all the boys left for military service. So the Toronto Skating Club organized practices around the military duties of the men and others offered free membership to those serving nearby. But figure skating really didn’t have any kind of use in a military point of view, because it wasn’t rough and it wasn’t tactical in the way that other sports that were practiced in the military at that time were. So masculinity at that time was being shaped by the image of the soldier and the image of the figure skater in that time was aligned in direct opposition to that. So by the time conscription had ended, the sport was so popularized by Sonja Henie - there were so many more girls in it that to just let the boys back into the sport was almost seen as troublesome or just, in general, not great.
Tilda: So basically there’s a historical reason for why figure skating is perceived the way it is today as well.
Evie: Definitely, yeah.
Tilda: Goes far, far back. It’s very interesting.
Lae: So, I think that actually leads us into a perfect segway into talking about issues that ladies face and I think that a lot of that can be attributed to this lingering legacy and image that Sonja Henie started and popularized. That was also obviously continued by media and Hollywood movies, and just, everything over the ages. And so Tilda, take it away.
Tilda: So, there is an inherent contradiction in women doing sports, because to be competitive and want to win is considered to be “not feminine.” So if a competitive nature is “un-ladylike” then all female athletes in all sports face an inherent paradox, because they can’t be soft and gentle and still be competitive and want to win. So in other sports, say, football, the female athletes can be aggressive and seen as masculine or at least not feminine. And that sort of comes with its own issues for them, but it’s also part of the deal of being a female athlete in a lot of cases. And most female athletes aren’t scored based on how well they perform femininity. But for figure skaters, it’s trickier because the sport incorporates an element of performing art and the predominant image of the sport is what we talked about - and that’s still sort of these qualities of being delicate, lady-like, a pretty figure, which on one hand, the female skaters have to be athletic - they have to do these incredible, difficult things - but on the other hand, they also have to present this sort of image. So the question then becomes, how can you be gentle and delicate and still be an elite athlete?
Gina: I mean there used to be a stronger division for what constitutes Ladies’ skating and Men’s skating. Now those restrictions have been lightened and we find it very interesting, especially this season, when the Men’s free skate has been shortened by 30 seconds and has a reduction of one jump element. So, it actually now matches the requirements of the Ladies’ free skate. Yet, I think we can say that although there’s no longer strict requirements on elements like spirals and Biellmanns and laybacks, certain moves are associated with Ladies’ skating that it’s unusual for men to attempt them.
Tilda: Yeah, because Ladies’ skaters tend to be sort of pigeon-holed into two categories: athletic, powerful - which is often code for ‘masculine’ - or delicate, graceful, feminine. And ladies can be praised for either, but it sort of ignores the fact that there’s a lot more nuance. Graceful, delicate skaters can also be very powerful and athletic skaters can also have a lot more to them than just having, you know, big jumps. But rarely do the female skaters transcend these pigeon-holes. In fact, as figure skating is a very technical sport, these ladies are doing most of the same types of content so the dichotomy between graceful skaters and athletic skaters seems inherently wrong. And I personally think it’s quite clear that graceful and feminine is the ideal, and that this can lead to ladies who don’t get perceived as such to be seen as lesser, like they’re already at a disadvantage and have to compensate in other ways.
Lae: Yeah, I think there’s nothing wrong with being either of the two, but I suppose the concern is whether these pigeon-holes become ways of maintaining the boundaries in what is, I think, still quite a traditional and conservative sport at heart. So it’s kind of - if you’re only categorizing or only making available these two boxes for Ladies’ skaters to be characterized at, that really just maintains this idea that femininity can only be one or the other. Even if you’ve expanded these boxes by adding another one saying ‘women can be athletic and powerful’, I think even just the existence of the two boxes still kind of makes femininity and its definition quite rigid. And I think art is about innovation, and if we look at remixes in other performing arts, we have, for example, Swan Lake interpretations that completely challenge these conventions. And the question is, if we had Swan Lake in pants and a new interpretation in ballet or in acting or drama, that wouldn’t be seen as something different or something negative. But I think that in figure skating, there’s this undeniable feeling that there’s a certain way to play safe, because it’s a competitive environment and people are judged on that program and it does affect their marks, and so that’s generally where warhorses come in, for example - they’re classical European pieces from ballet and opera and we’re sure that the judges would like it, because they’ve been performed over and over 20, 30 years ago. And if we think of popular warhorses like Swan Lake, Carmen, Scheherazade, Miss Saigon - these are all very limited archetypal female roles that female skaters across the ages have performed over and over again, and you can almost exactly picture the type of costume and look they’re going to go for for each. Like rarely have we ever seen any kind of new or different interpretation of these programs.
Tilda: It’s that need for the ladies to look pretty - you know, look pretty and you may be rewarded compared to someone with, like, a bland unpretty costume or someone who doesn’t wear a skirt. It makes me wonder if we’re doing a disservice to the athletes by giving so much weight to the aesthetic. Would it be preferable to say, as any other sport, to not have costumes so it’s only the skill of the athlete that’s being judged? I feel like the mom in the Ice Princess movie right now. (Laughs).
Gina: But even then, I think judges would find a way to work that bias in. They will still give the extra points to the girl who looks the prettiest. On Maé-Bérénice and Vanessa James, I do find that in a lot of sports, not just figure skating, that masculine, athletic label is applied far more readily to black athletes than their white counterparts. You look at some - a lot of the Canadian women, they have very good muscle definition, they’re not always so feminine - they can skate quite aggressive - but they don’t get that label.
Lae: They’re quite powerful.
Gina: Yeah, the Canadian ladies are pretty powerful skaters. They have amazing, athletic bodies but they don’t get saddled with that label.
Tilda: You have to mention that race is an issue in this situation too, because the ideal femininity is definitely tied to whiteness.
Evie: Probably the most famous example of this is in figure skating is Surya Bonaly. She’s a 5-time European champion, she was a black French skater, and she was constantly criticized for lacking artistry but praised for athleticism and her technically difficult programs. So yeah, I think there’s always a question of how the lower scoring was due to actual weakness in her skating and how much of it was racism. But, anyway, she tried to raise her artistry score through trying to adhere to the more feminine ideal in figure skating. But you could definitely argue that she was doomed from the start due to the Eurocentric ideals upheld by the judges and the skating world in general, I feel.
Lae: Yeah, and, I think even when powerful athletic performances are praised, they’re sometimes done in a way that just sort of entrenches this dichotomy right? So for example, when Johnny Weir was praising Wakaba Higuchi’s free skate at the Cup of China last year, he was sort of saying that, like, ‘oh, it’s great to see her doing something so powerful, unlike the other Japanese ladies who tend to portray wilting flowers’. And I doubt that Johnny was deliberately trying to insult the other Japanese ladies, but it really just reveals how these attitudes are still almost played in opposition to each other, like you can’t have one or the other. And I think this sort of attitude really limits originality in the sport and this idea that it’s not safe to do something very, very unconventional with an established piece or try to challenge new music. I think it keeps it stuck with its classical image, and it makes it really difficult for figure skating to appeal to new audiences, especially in the Ladies’. So, an example that comes to mind is Jimmy Ma’s “Turn Down For What” program last year, which like, it was exuberant and amazing and it went viral precisely because it was completely unexpected to do a figure skating program to that music. And that’s the sort of stuff that would get casual viewers more interested in figure skating. And, you know, music and art is constantly evolving, and skaters should also do so with the modern times. And if there’s this constant underlying concern about being underscored or punished for skating to something outside the box, that’s something that makes it very difficult for them to break new boundaries. So while I don’t think, for example, like Alina Zagitova’s Swan Lake/Moonlight mashup was done with any kind of finesse in music or choreography - I found the music cuts kind of awkward - I can at least appreciate the attempt to make it slightly different.
Gina: On that note, Ivett Toth should have been given so much more praise for her ACDC program because the moment I saw that, I was like, ‘I love this, it’s so different and it’s so fun’. When I was getting into figure skating, one of the things that stopped me was, I had this idea of figure skating being same-y and boring, it was girls in pretty dresses skating to the same music and not really having any kind of sense of fun or performance or connection.
Lae: I think it really shuts people out if they’re not into classical music and opera, because that is the predominant stereotype that you associate with figure skating. As someone who was at Worlds, Ivett Toth’s program came on there was this noticeable… jump in energy in the arena because people are like ‘oh my god I know this song, we can sing along - we know this!’ And it’s those sort of moments that will gain attention not only among figure skating fans, but also in general media. And if we’re trying to popularize figure skating more as a sport, it’s that sort of moment that really help it along.
Evie: I think it’s important to mention that the majority of figure skating judges and the ISU itself, they’re all in the… later half of their lives, basically. (Hosts laugh). Okay, okay, I’m not saying the entire ISU is full of old, white men but you know… that’s exactly what I’m saying. (Laughs).
Gina: You wouldn’t be wrong.
Evie: Exactly. There’s certain things that those judges like and of course, figure skaters are, especially in Olympic years, I find, they want to appeal to the judges more and staying in the boxes of what’s traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine is much safer in terms of scoring or in terms of being perceived by the judges overall.
Tilda: Another thing is that, in my view, non-figure skating fans tend to underestimate how difficult figure skating is, because of this perception that it is something young pretty girls do and therefore it can’t be so difficult if they can do it. And you know the ladies then seem to showcase that by their gracefulness on the ice which often makes them appear delicate - which of course, this is absolutely false, because anyone who knows anything at all about figure skating should realize that appearing graceful throughout an extremely physically demanding program is one of the most difficult things ever.
Lae: Yeah and like every Olympic cycle, there’s always someone who’s like ‘figure skating is not a real sport’, like its clockwork by this point. And I hear two arguments about this usually - one, that it’s not a real sport if there are subjective judges. And a tangent - while we may have internal problems about how judges apply these marks, there are actually objective criteria for these so-called artistic subjective scores. And let’s not even go into the fact that sports like football also have subjective umpires judging stuff. But second, I think it’s hard not to sort of see that the glamour and performing arts side of skating, which is unique to it, does play a part in the skepticism that some people have about figure skating and like, let’s be honest, it’s because performing arts is conventionally viewed more as a feminine domain.
Tilda: Yeah. Consider Ashley Wagner’s comments in ESPN, where she addresses this specifically and said: “I think figure skating has this stereotype as a sport for little girls - that we are these pretty porcelain dolls”. That’s a direct quote. And she did get criticism for this because many felt that she was putting down a certain style of skating - you know, the ones that do present this image. But mostly it seemed to me that she wants to just defend figure skating against those who would not consider it a ‘real sport’. And the fact that she felt the need to do this, to play up the athleticism and put down the ‘sparkles’ shows that sort of - she has sort of an insecurity in how she’s being perceived. And there is that inherent tension between displaying that performance aspect, a certain image that is meant to be pretty, and then also being taken seriously as an athlete and it’s worth talking about how it feels like many athletes have to resort to playing down the prettiness as though it legitimizes them more if they do.
Evie: We’re going to touch more on this in depth in a later episode about health and figure skating and please be aware that this might be a triggering topic for some listeners, but it’s also undeniable that long and lean is the body type prized in a sport that prizes aesthetics of a performance as much as the physicality side of things. Both Adam Rippon and Gracie Gold have spoken out about the pressures to maintain their weight and body shape that led to eating disorders, which also impacted their propensity for injury.
Lae: Okay, so moving on to Men’s then. I think this inherent division between masculinity and femininity is even more starkly highlighted in this discipline. And I think it’s important to say these perceptions about men and femininity aren’t unique to figure skating, but it’s a sport of performing arts as well, so I think it’s important to talk about this. And personally I think there are many qualities like gracefulness, elegance and power that really shouldn’t be associated with a particular gender in the first place. And so, I’d put this as a caveat at the start by saying it’s like the subtext of all of this. But you know, since these qualities are still inevitably traditionally and conventionally seen as masculine and feminine, we’re going to kind of proceed with this understanding that, you know, that’s the framework we’re going to be adopting.
Lae: So I think there’s always going to be bias in performing arts overall and in society and that’s a sort of symptom of a whole bunch of gender issues in society, but I think what we’re going to focus on here is kind of examining how these gender biases are reinforced within the sport by its media and also by its audience. So I think there’s this perception in skating media that, like, men’s figure skating has to distinguish itself from female figure skating by sort of being manly enough or it won’t attract audiences or somehow be less respectable. And so I think this has led over the course of the entire history of the sport to this constant emphasis on masculine elements in men’s figure skating. So the quads, the strain on the bodies, like how difficult it is to do the quads. And that’s all fine, but then you have people like Elvis Stojko in 2009 saying that “They’ve got to really showcase that male skating is about masculinity, strength and power”. And you get comments about for example Nathan Chen before the Olympics, which emphasize how difficult the quads are, saying he was bringing like athleticism into figure skating, as if that was lacking before somehow. And you know, Plushenko’s outright just said “Without quads, it’s not Men’s”. So there’s this preoccupation, I think, with making sure that everyone knows this is male figure skating and it’s powerful and there are quads and they jump. And then you think about it and you’re like, ‘but for the most part ladies and men do pretty much the same elements’, apart from quads. But we see young girls landing quads now too and so technically, Ladies’ and Men’s figure skating are only a little bit separate in terms of the nature of the elements being attempted. So we see that this preoccupation with masculinity is kind of also a way of distinguishing the males from the females, but also I think it’s worth questioning how wide this definition actually is and how much they shape the packaging of male skaters.
Tilda: Since young ladies are landing quads now, are we going to start calling skaters like Alexandra Trusova ‘masculine’, is the question.
Lae: I mean, if we followed the media’s equation of ‘quads equals masculine and manly and powerful’, it does feel like a very artificial kind of association, or something that they’re very anxious to push, perhaps, is the better way to put it.
Gina: Especially since not all of the men have quads. Only the top, say, 6 or so have more than one quad, and out of the top ten, not many men have quads. There are still plenty of men that only have triples - are they less masculine?
Evie: I feel like a lot of the quad narrative in the media is just an attempt for them to differentiate between men figure skating and women figure skating. They have to find the divide somewhere because masculinity and femininity are always poised in opposition to each other, so the natural course of action is to say, well quads are masculine because there are basically no women doing quads, so we’re going to focus on the athleticism around that in our reporting of the sport.
Gina: Which really just proves how arbitrary the definition of feminine and masculine really is.
Lae: Yeah. And I think while there’s nothing wrong with being feminine, I think to just dismiss certain qualities like gracefulness and elegance as like ‘oh, he’s got feminine elements in his program’, I think ignores the fact that these qualities like elegance, emotiveness, expressiveness, they can be part of an overall expression of masculinity and occur within it. Just as masculine qualities like power and competitiveness and drive can be a natural part of how femininity is expressed. But when you label these qualifies as feminine or masculine, you’re still maintaining this divide between the two, instead of considering if this is simply a new or different expression of masculinity. And I think this is particularly interesting with the rise of Asian male skaters in the past quad as the top men, because in Asia, there are completely different cultural standards and codes of behavior for gender expression. And so things that you might, like, from a Western perspective, see as feminine, may be coded and understood completely differently in Asia.
Gina: I’ve been living in Korea for almost five years - I would say that’s exactly right. What is acceptable behavior for a man here is completely different than in North America or Europe.
Lae: I completely agree with you, Gina, and it’s interesting how for example, you can see the remnants of this traditional understanding of masculinity in older Western commentators, like Dick Button, who tend to be more effusive in praising, for example, Javier’s style which we understand is more traditional, because he tends to portray, like, debonair sort of male icons like Elvis or the Man of La Mancha. And even from a costume perspective, we can see a lot of male skaters tend to wear, let’s put it bluntly - really bland costumes. It’s like a shirt and pants in subdued colors, they’re simple cuts, they kind of look like they’re going to the store with them. And you tend to see, I think, less of this baggage, I suppose, or this trend with Asian men - for example, Japanese men’s costumes tend to be more theatrical. But in Japan, no one would ever look at that and think ‘oh, he’s skating in a girl’s blouse’, even if there are frills and ruffles everywhere. So I think it’s important to be aware that these expressions of gender are different across cultures and looking at it with only a Western lens is very limiting.
Tilda: Personally, I think that if costumes are going to be an inherent part of figure skating and - this is a discussion that exists, we’ll be talking about it in a future episode - but if it should exist, then costumes should be interesting and suitable for the programs. So if men instead opt for black clothes with simple cuts, what’s the point of using costumes in the first place? Why not then just go for uniforms like in any other sport?
Lae: Yeah and it’s important - like, we’re not bagging out male skaters for their personal choices necessarily. Like, Nathan Chen has said he just really hates sequins personally. And I think that’s fine - not every costume has to have sequins and frills and be over the top. But I think that a lot of male skaters tend to phone in on finding creative costumes that don’t involve sequins and frills. There’s this understanding, I suppose, that maybe costuming is less important maybe in the minds of some male skaters, from Western countries in particular, and it seems to go against this idea that if it’s a performing arts - if skating is a part of a performing art - then costuming and those considerations are important in the packaging.
Gina: I don’t particularly mind if costumes are lacking in creativity either. So long as what they end up with suits the program, it’s fine. In 2017 Worlds, we had Javier with Malagueña and Patrick Chan with his Dear Prudence, and they had the same costume, which was just black pants, black shirt. They didn’t really bother me so much, because the two programs were so completely different and the way they performed was so different that it didn’t really stand out too much. But I wouldn’t want to see every man dressing in the exact same thing in a uniform. I wouldn’t want to see every man looking like Kevin Reynolds in that outfit when he just looked like he was running late from the office. (Laughs).
Lae: And not every man has to wear sequins and be Yuzuru Hanyu. (Laughs).
Gina: No! It has to fit their body type, their skating style and their music. And not everyone is made for sequins. If you look at some of Javier Fernandez’s earlier costumes when he was a lot younger -
Evie: I’d rather not!
Gina: Yeah… he had some more showier costumes and it didn’t really suit him, like it’s embarrassing to look back at.
Tilda: Aww, okay, let’s not be mean!
Evie: Ouch! Poor Javi.
Gina: He had a glow up. He looks really good now.
Lae: We can agree on that.
Evie: Definitely. But it’s also important to mention that, previously, if you were a male skater who did like sequins or wanted to dress in a way that wasn’t conventionally masculine, you would have feared a lot of backlash for dressing in any other way other than the norm. So I think this is a good time to segway into our focus on the responses to two key skaters, which are Johnny Weir and Yuzuru Hanyu.
Tilda: Since costumes and packaging is one of the first things that new fans and unfamiliar audiences see, costume choices by male skaters also opens them up to mainstream scorn and suspicion around challenges to conventional masculinity. Like, Leslie Jones in the Olympics commented the Notte Stellata costume was a “girl’s top”, and interestingly, she was positive about Adam’s sparkly top, but hated Shoma’s outfit, so maybe it’s just an issue of taste.
Gina: It does make me think about a particular quote from, I think it was Eddie Izzard, where he’s like “no, this is not a woman’s dress, I bought this dress, it’s mine”. So, that Notte Stellata top was made for Yuzuru Hanyu; it’s not a girl’s top, it’s his top.
Lae: And Johnny Weir was a key victim of this mainstream scorn, like in the Vancouver Olympics, the French-Canadian analysts Alain Goldberg and Claude Mailhot commented that he should “compete in the women’s competition”, that he should “undergo gender testing”, and, you know, that’s stuff that was covered in the media. But I think Johnny should be acknowledged for continuing to put out programs that continue to challenge conventions, like his Creep with a long skirt. And I think this brings us to Yuzuru, who did benefit from the ground that Johnny paved. And I think while we can’t take the cesspool of Youtube comments as a full representation of responses, I think it’s interesting that a distinct portion of negative responses Yuzuru gets is sort of around how girly or pretty or childlike or feminine he is or his costumes are. And I think people are free to subjectively dislike his style, but it’s interesting that if you, for example, push a few to explain, a lot of the subjective dislike is rooted in this discomfort around the feminine qualities of his style. And I think - I’m using Yuzuru as a particular example because he happens to challenge, I would say, four of facets of masculinity at once: with his skating style, his appearance, his costume, and race. So he’s definitely not the only one subject to these comments and obviously as the most popular skater I would say right now, he gets proportionally more of these. But I think we’ll use him as a kind of case study or a representative of some of these wider issues.
Tilda: The fact that the skating of Nathan Chen and Javier Fernandez, who are seen as more typically masculine skaters - it’s not stronger by any means compared to what Yuzuru Hanyu does. You know, the enormous strength and athleticism required to perform quad jumps is present in all of them. So it’s not about them actually being stronger and more athletic. It’s just about how their skating styles are being perceived. And a lot of the perceived femininity comes down to skating style, but what exactly is feminine about his style? He values grace and softness in his movements, but you would have to have very strict division between masculinity and femininity to argue that he is a feminine skater, based on the fact that he’s graceful. Since, you know, that’s more about skill than anything. For example, Patrick Chan is graceful too, but he’s rarely being criticized for being feminine.
Evie: Even within technical elements themselves, there’s an inherent division of being traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine. Like for the traditionally feminine elements, you have the layback spin and the Biellmann, and Patrick Chan said that he couldn’t do a Biellmann spin, like he wishes, and then he followed up in an interview going “No, actually I don’t wish, you sort of lose respect among the men”.
Gina: And I quite like that even though Yuzuru has got some comments about his skating style and had some disrespect from other athletes about the elements that he does, instead of taking them out, he has moved them to be the highlights of his program. And my first exposure to Yuzuru was Sochi and I distinctly remember hearing some commentary or something that explained that part of his program was considered to be feminine, and that the Biellmann and the layback Ina Bauer were considered to be parts of female skating. And it was one of the things I found really interesting about him and actually brought me into the sport, because it was something not everyone else was doing.
Evie: Yeah, but Yuzuru’s not the only one who performs the Biellmann spin, there are skaters like Michael Christian Martinez from the Philippines, Adam Rippon does a layback spin, Jason Brown does spirals, and these skaters don’t seem to get the same kind of negative comments surrounding the fact that they’re ‘skating like girls’ or skating in feminine ways.
Lae: Yeah, you know, I rarely ever see anyone being like ‘is that a girl?’ for Jason Brown, but you get that all the time with Yuzuru. (Evie: Yeah). Or not all the time, but you do get that. And I think that potentially ties it into the second point, which is appearance, right? So Jason isn’t as, for example, slender or as androgynous as Yuzuru and even Johnny Weir. I think that allows him to dodge comments about ‘oh, I mistook him for a girl’ or, like, ‘is that a girl skating?’. And even, for example, with Shoma’s style of skating, he’s frequently likened to Daisuke [Takahashi] and described as charismatic and his costumes are just as ornate as Yuzuru’s, so it’s kind of interesting how these comments and these judgements are not applied evenly or based on anything that is concrete. Is it because Shoma’s expression and demeanor are more aggressive and intense? Does that exude more masculinity? Is it about body type? And I think interestingly, Adam Rippon, for example, looks very - he’s a beautiful man, let’s just put it that way. (Tilda: For sure, for sure). He’s very pretty, but since he’s openly gay, I think it’s actually - his sort of diva-esque qualities or perhaps what we would call his ‘feminine mannerisms’ in the traditional sense, they actually receive exuberant support from at least American media, because I think it fits with society’s understanding of what gay men are like. He’s kind of the archetypal gay man and he’s very proud of it and he owns up to it, and I think that’s wonderful, but I think somehow it feels like it’s treated with more suspicion if that’s not the case. And, you know, Yuzuru has never spoken or been asked publicly about his sexuality, but I think it challenges people more when there’s this possibility of ‘oh, this guy might be straight, but he still acts like this, how is this possible?’, like, there’s this sort of cognitive dissonance or this higher level of questioning and suspicion and controversy around gender when in this sort of context.
Gina: It’s because as a society we have a narrow understanding of gender expression and sexuality, and we think that there’s just this box - you’re either straight or you’re gay, you’re either masculine or you’re feminine, when in reality everything is a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on that spectrum and everyone identifies in a way that has some elements of femininity, some elements of masculinity; gender isn’t one or the other. And I would even argue that a lot of Yuzuru’s programs that are typically labeled as feminine are more agender. He’s not really expressing a gender, he’s focused on a particular concept or an aesthetic and is unconcerned about the perceived femininity of the costuming or the elements or other aspects of his presentation. So, for example, his new exhibition program Haru Yo Koi, he has the pink, he has the floaty sleeves, and rather than feeling feminine, that gives me the impression of spring, which is the point of the program. When he goes into that spin and he out-stretches his arms, it feels like a breeze coming through a blossom tree, and I think that’s more of why his costumes are chosen to fit his style of skating and his music and his preferred aesthetic. Programs like Étude [in D-sharp Minor] and Chopin [Ballade no. 1] and Hope and Legacy, for me they seem completely unconcerned with gender and so lack masculinity as a result, but they’re also not feminine. His only outright feminine program in my opinion is his 2013-2014 free skate where he was deliberately playing the role of Juliet. And he has more masculine programs too, and they’re also expressing masculinity through the lens of specific roles or characters, like Prince and Abe No Seimei and Romeo.
Lae: Yeah, and I think - it feels like my interpretation is that he’s not so constrained in his creative expression by concerns of what is masculine or feminine, like, there’s not this sense that ‘oh, I can’t do this because it’s not masculine or it doesn’t fit with my masculine self-image’. I think he puts the concept and the desire to create this ethereal feeling or emotion first, and those feelings are not necessarily ones that we associate with masculinity, um, but it feels like it transcends or it kind of blurs the boundaries and puts the focus on something other than gender, which is kind of refreshing.
Tilda: Yeah. I mean, I don’t really perceive Yuzuru as feminine at all. He has a certain flair in his costuming that is not so common, but he doesn’t dress like lady skaters do, like, he does wear pants. So there’s a lot more color and details than a lot of the men but that’s more a personal aesthetic, I feel.
Evie: Yeah, I think it’s really important when we’re discussing Yuzuru and his perceived femininity to also bring in the subject of race, because I think a lot of the perception of Yuzu’s skating style and his appearance out on the ice is very rooted in the way that Asian men - specifically East Asian men - are perceived as un-masculine or sort of in a sense of otherness. Gina, you mentioned how he has more masculine programs and one of the programs that he did in 2016-2017, Let’s Go Crazy, you know, his performance out on the ice is more traditionally - you would think that it would be a more masculine character, he’s trying to be cheeky out on the ice, he’s flirting almost with the crowd, but judges didn’t really praise his performance of masculinity in the same way that they would have praised other maybe non-Asian skaters, I feel.
Gina: I also feel like the same is kind of true for his Parisienne Walkways. (Evie: Yes). He was very boyish, he was very cheeky, very flirty, and he also didn’t really get - it doesn’t really get discussed much as one of his masculine programs. And again, I found that really interesting when he was also skating it with the Romeo and Juliet, because he had a masculine program and a feminine character at the same time, and I think that’s especially really brave to do in Russia.
Tilda: Yeah, for sure.
Lae: Yeah. And even with the boobskirt, you know, the very feminine -
Lae: The RJ 2 costume, it’s interesting to me how frequently I see comments about, like, ‘oh, I thought he was a girl’, because literally I don’t think he’s ever been accused of that by Asian audiences and so I think Western cultural perceptions definitely factors into their interpretation of his costumes and his programs. His mannerisms and demeanor read completely differently in Asian context and not to mention me speaking Japanese, but he definitely has masculine speech patterns and it’s sort of undeniable if you listen to him speaking Japanese that he is, like, a guy, um. (Chorus of agreement). So, it’s just - I think it’s important as figure skating audiences and when you’re considering your initial reaction to not just Yuzu, but to any skater, to be aware that you are influenced by your cultural upbringing and by how your culture defines masculine and feminine and gender in general.
Gina: I get the distinct impression that whenever - particularly white - men complain about feminine male skaters, like Yuzuru, like Johnny, it’s more that they’re upset about their own responses to a skater rather than a valid subjective issue that would warrant lower scores or them being bad for the sport. They don’t like how looking at Yuzuru makes them feel, they didn’t like how looking at Johnny made them feel, because they’re both pretty. (Hosts laugh). It threatens their own understanding of their own masculinity and sexuality and they project that on them. Johnny Weir knows who he is; he’s perfectly fine with his identity. Yuzuru Hanyu knows who he is; he’s perfectly fine with his identity as a man. Both of them have no issues with their masculinity, but the men who are upset and saying they’re too feminine - they’re really just upset about the way that looking at these pretty boys skating makes them feel. (Hosts laugh).
Tilda: Of course, we can’t speak of gender bias in figure skating without talking about homophobia, since the accusations of femininity inevitably follow up with ‘oh, they must be gay’.
Lae: And I would add, first of all, it’s none of our business as figure skating fans or media to really speculate on sexuality in the first place. This is sort of - I want to sing this out as the underlying song of the people, like, someone’s sexual preference or sexuality does not affect their performance as a figure skater, it shouldn’t really even be part of the conversation, but it is. If we’re going to address it, it’s problematic to assume that being feminine - again, what even defines femininity? - or that performing these sort of traditional feminine associated mannerisms or costumes or programs, it’s problematic to assume that that means they’re gay or to use it as evidence for someone’s sexuality, because it’s not only irrelevant, it’s also perpetuating stereotypes about sexuality and homosexuality in particular.
Tilda: Definitely. It’s also problematic to assume that figure skating is not a homophobic sport or to take for granted that it’s easy to come out because everyone assumes you’re already gay, because it is quite stigmatized as well. Male figure skaters still have this stereotype of being gay outside of the figure skating world’s perception, and, you know, there’s this anxiety to erase that, because it’s perceived to be bad for business, therefore overemphasizing masculinity in figure skating as we talked about before.
Evie: It’s important to note that very few figure skaters came out during their Olympic eligible careers. So skaters like Adam Rippon and Eric Radford, Rudy Galindo and Jorik Hendrickx, they’re all skaters that have come out in the time that they were eligible and competing.
Gina: Obviously, it has improved, the situation has improved for, say, Adam Rippon - he still I don’t think is treated particularly well, but compared to how Johnny Weir was treated or the way that Rudy Galindo was treated, Adam Rippon and Eric Radford have a much better time of it. Jorik Hendrickx as well, but when he came out he was mostly embraced by figure skating fans. But we do have that history in the sport and I think it needs to be taken into account, especially when you consider that compared to some skaters that may be perceived as being more masculine, Adam Rippon’s scores, particularly for Performance Components, weren’t particularly high.
Lae: I don’t know if you could necessarily draw a direct connection between low PCS and homophobia or hostile attitudes towards homosexuality.
Gina: I think we maybe could with Johnny Weir, because he was always assumed to be gay because of his flamboyancy, and he is one of those memorable skaters that people will think about for years to come as being a driving force to really changing the way that certain skaters skate and opening up the kinds of expression that Men’s skating exhibits. But he wasn’t always well treated by judges or by the media.
Lae: Or even by his own teammates, I’m pretty sure. There were some pretty nasty -
Tilda: Evan Lysacek, with the homophobic tweets or transphobic, however you want to classify it when he questioned Johnny’s gender, basically.
Lae: And I think it also is important to say that homosexuality, for example, is still very taboo-ish in Asia and Russia and so in Russia male skaters are perceived differently and there is this emphasis, I suppose, built by skaters like [Evgeni] Plushenko on styles of being masculine and being a masculine ideal living up to that. So I think it would be incorrect to kind of say ‘oh, everything is okay in the skating world regarding homophobia’, just because skaters weren’t treated as egregiously as Johnny Weir was throughout his entire career.
Tilda: Yeah. And also one thing that’s interesting is the whole thing that - in media, the qualifying of male figure skaters in articles by mentioning proof of their heterosexuality, like interest in other sports or their relationships, if they have girlfriends or wives. Like there always needs to be a disclaimer, you know, ‘not gay’.
Gina: Yeah, no homo. (Hosts laugh).
Tilda: Imagine if articles on football players had to, like, reaffirm their heterosexuality, you know, it would be crazy.
Lae: And I mean, that being said, if you’re in an article that asks you “What are your other interests outside of figure skating?”, I think they can be valid article questions, but I think there is that defensiveness in some ways.
Tilda: The way it sounds like ‘oh, I wear sparkles, but I’m actually a man’s man’, you know? (Chorus of agreement).
Gina: At the weekends I chop wood. (Hosts laugh).
Evie: I drive a big car that’s very noisy.
Lae: So I think it’s just - it’s important to be aware that this is the kind of caveats that male skaters have to throw on the sport and we question whether that is, you know, deserved or healthy or any of those qualities. And it’s not a problem unique to figure skating, but it is a symptom of these wider issues about what masculinity can be and it’s just reflected very prominently in a sport like figure skating.
Tilda: Yeah. Also, let me just add that this entire conversation and this kind of discourse in figure skating is almost always framed in a very cissexist way - discussion on how male skaters or female skaters tend to favor or disfavor certain elements always operates under the presumption that everyone is cis. We’ve also split it into masculinity and femininity in this discussion and it’s so strange when we know that the world is much more nuanced than just these two twin poles. But in fairness there has never been an openly trans skater competing on an elite level, which of course has a lot of reasons.
Gina: I think it would be extremely difficult for a skater to come out as trans and transition. I mean, these skaters that get to the senior level, they first have to go through juniors, and they have to go through puberty under the eye of the judges - it would be extremely difficult for them to transition while competing. They wouldn’t be…
Tilda: Yeah, there are certain requirements that are quite invasive - you can compete at the Olympics if you meet certain conditions as a trans athlete, which is quite strict with regards to surgery, etc.
Gina: Yeah. So the requirements for performing under your chosen gender - so if you are a trans person, if you wanted to skate as a trans woman and you wanted to skate in the Ladies’ field, you would have to be on hormone treatment for two years and you would also have to have the surgery. And the surgery in particular I think is incredibly invasive and also completely pointless, I don’t have any idea how that surgery makes any difference to how they would perform in the sport. The hormone therapy I can kind of understand, but the actual surgery itself? No. I don’t understand how that’s relevant at all.
Tilda: Yeah, and also intersex challenged, because they’re often forced into a gender box that doesn’t completely fit.
Evie: And it also kind of reinforces the fact that the biology has to match up with the psychological side of things, because not all trans people choose to medically transition, it might not be for them, and a lot of trans people aren’t able to, there’s a large financial investment involved and a lot of people simply can’t afford, so I think it’s very shallow of both the ISU and the IOC to put a lot of these boundaries up in place for trans athletes.
Tilda: We do have things like the Gay Games, for example, where trans skaters are openly allowed to compete without these requirements and I think it’s great that we have something like the Trans Games [Correction: Gay Games], as a way to sort of be able to embrace yourself, even though of course the reason that we need to have those is because they can’t compete on equal terms in regular competitions.
Lae: I think also - you see it not as frequently, but there have been instances of skaters and commentators in the past that have espoused kind of anti-trans sentiments with little to no pushback and that extends to things like Evan Lysacek, you know, questioning Johnny Weir’s gender, all of that stuff is pretty hurtful and just very casually anti-trans and it’s just worth, I suppose, realizing that these sorts of issues are underlying and endemic in the skating world and while it may not be an active attack, it sort of plays into the frameworks in which commentators perceive things and commentate on things, like ‘oh, they’re very girly’ or ‘I mistook him for a girl’ or ‘I thought that was a female skating’, all of these things are hurtful in more ways than one and they not only show gender bias but it can be quite an issue for trans communities and trans fans and I think it’s just in this context where the ISU constantly stresses that figure skating needs to reach a wider audience, these are issues that should be considered and be brought into the spotlight as well.
Tilda: As conservative as the ISU seems to be with regards to gender issues in general, it does sometimes feel like we’re 50 years back in the skating world sometimes. I feel as though it will be a while longer before we can see an openly trans skater compete at the highest level, and when that does happen, I am certain that said skaters will be on the receiving end of a lot of scrutiny.
Lae: I mean, and the final sort of discipline issues maybe to touch briefly on is also that this sort of heteronormativity, this masculine and feminine is probably most stuck in Pairs and Ice Dance disciplines, and as well as that, there is also a disadvantage in that it is not only heteronormative, there’s also focus on romance and on the romantic dynamic between the male and the female in a pair or Ice Dance team, and so we see this in, for example, comments about the Shibutanis [Maia Shibutani / Alex Shibutani] throughout the Olympics and throughout their career, really, they’ve had to defend the fact that they are a sibling team and so they can’t perform a lot of the kind of expected genres or movements or have that dynamic of romance and will-they-won’t-they that is the basis of a lot of the pairs and Ice Dance teams, well in Ice Dance maybe more than Pairs.
Tilda: The theme for next season is straight up Tango Romantica, which shoves the skaters into a very very narrow box.
Gina: Yeah, I don’t blame the Shibutanis for sitting that out.
Evie: Yeah, I feel sorry for all the sibling teams that are competing next season under Tango Romantica. It’s just really unfortunate.
Tilda: I mean, it ends up in a very stereotypical performance of heterosexuality. You know, the strong man shows off the delicate, graceful lady, there’s a certain performance of traditional romance where the man literally and figuratively has to carry and lead the woman.
Evie: Well I think that - that’s also based on the fact that Ice Dance, as a discipline, is very rooted in ballroom dancing and a lot of the same tropes appear in both sports.
Tilda: But this sort of leads to, especially in Ice Dance, they end up playing the same story over and over.
Gina: Also in Pairs and Ice Dance I find myself only watching the lady. I don’t watch the man at all, which is not helped by the fact that the men are almost always in entirely black and just disappear while the female skater has a more typical showy costume.
Tilda: Yeah, it’s very clear what type of costumes are acceptable for men and for women, and also the fact that women are not allowed to wear pants in Ice Dance unless it’s specifically allowed, like for the hip hop theme, etc.
Lae: I just think structurally, figure skating as a sport is still held back a lot by these traditions, and it’s just a question of whether if they want figure skating to be more attractive to modern day audiences and want it to gain attention in mainstream media, that’s really not the kind of flavor and the atmosphere - especially in the Western world, I suppose, things that are attracting attention are things that challenge convention and challenge gender expression, and so I think these issues still remain in the sport and amongst its media and even through a lot of its fans and so it’s just something to keep in mind if the ISU’s really gunning for wider audience interest and coverage.
Tilda: My personal wishlist - same-sex Ice Dance. Please, in the future, let us see same-sex Ice Dance.
Gina: I really don’t understand why they wouldn’t have it, because if you look at, say, gymnastics, gymnastics is a similar sport in many ways and they have, particularly for the athletic gymnastics [Correction: aerobic gymnastics], they have teams of mixed gender, they have mixed gender and same gender pairs that compete against each other and it’s not an issue, it’s not something anyone is really worried about.
Tilda: Please, ISU, if you’re listening, we want same-sex Ice Dance and Pairs. Please give it to us.
– end segment – 1:05:13
START: Shoutout of the Week Segment
Tilda: We are trying out an end segment this week, which will be called the ‘Shoutout of the Week’, and hopefully we will do it for future episodes as well, and shoutout of the week goes to Nobunari Oda, teasing return from retirement after Daisuke Takahashi announced his, which I think is very very cruel because there are a lot of us who would actually want to see him return from retirement.
Lae: Yeah, so it was just a joke, but… That was cruel, Nobu, that was very cruel.
Evie: Please, Nobu, come back.
Gina: With Daisuke Takahashi coming back and proving that you can skate and be over 30 it would be really nice for Nobunari to come back as well and be landing a quad lutz at over 30.
Evie: I for one would like to see the return of all the Team Japan uncles.
Tilda: Definitely. If you’re listening to this Nobu… we want you back. Please.
– end segment – 1:06:14
Evie: Thank you for today, we hope to see you again in two weeks for Episode 6, where we’ll be discussing iconic figure skating news stories.
Gina: If you want to get in touch with us, then please feel free to contact us via Twitter @InTheLoPodcast or on Tumblr at inthelopodcast.tumblr.com.
Tilda: We’re on Youtube as well, just search for In The Loop Podcast and you’ll find our episodes there too.
Lae: And if you’re listening on iTunes, please consider leaving a rating and a review if you enjoyed the show. Thanks for listening, this has been…
Lae: and Lae. See you soon!