These fundamental dynamics lay thick in the concrete of colonialism and they continue to grow, affecting blanketed patriarchal systems whose veins run deep in pop culture, mainstream media and athletics.
Caster Semenya, is currently the world champion in the women’s 800 metres. But new regulations by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) stipulate that she’ll never be able to win that race on the global stage again as… a woman. In order to compete as one, Caster will be forced to endure hormonal treatments as well as rather invasive procedures to her body.
In a nutshell. Caster has been cast – for lack of a better word – as not being a woman because she has naturally elevated levels of testosterone in her body. In order to be classified as a woman, these levels would have to come down to a degree that is an “acceptable range for females”.
One could then argue that men, who in many instances have lower testosterone levels than what is the average for males should then also be subjected to competing in their own categories, or better still, against other women.
However, the opposite is true. Men with lower levels of testosterone are allowed to heighten their hormones by what is essentially doping – in order for them to compete. While Caster’s levels remain biologically natural, there is nothing natural about externally increasing your testosterone levels.
The IAAF has tried to legitimise all of this in a rather contradictory fashion: we are “in no way intended as any kind of judgment on, or questioning of, the sex or the gender identity of any athlete.”
It doesn’t however take a genius - or for that matter a perfectly conservative thinker to come to the conclusion that telling a woman she can’t compete with a woman is exactly that: a judgement on her sexual identity and race.
This is also not a first. Historically, black women were critiqued and fetishised because of the sexuality they exuded and their bodies under the guise of empowerment. We’ve seen this in the most obvious example: Saartjie Baartman. A victim of both human trafficking and the headline act of a freak show whose agency was minimised by the wealth her body brought because it was marketable to an audience who drew great fascination from the Hottentot Venus.
The ultimate symbol of beautiful black femininity. A freak show exploitation in the name of profit housed in a rather negative mental and physical cage purely devised to dehumanise the black woman in question. But controlling the black female body in quite such a severe way has ended and with its end we find the opposite. A witch hunt and freakish nature of the black woman who is rather “unfeminine” and who uses her ability to break through an enforced cage and excel instead.
There is without question the fact that women athletes do not in all cases have “female typical” bodies. Traits change with regime, biology, diet and training. Women raised as girls and playing as women do not always have female-typical bodies. A typical female athletic body simply does not exist. Not in any race. Take someone like Jarmila Kratochvílová another record holder of the women’s 800m race.
She has never endured criticism and if a Maria Sharapova look is what we’re after, well, she hardly falls into the vaguely adjacent category either. Yet Jarmila has hardly been the subject of a witch hunt or the lead act in a freak show. Why?
This prodding of Caster persists. Is it fascination? Is it fetish? Is the treatment of Caster Semenya any different from the soulless animals native women were categorised as in the past. Something to prod and point fingers at - the subjects of dehumanising atrocities.
When Saartjie Baardman died a plaster cast was made of her body before she was dissected. Her skeleton was preserved, her brain picked, her genitals probed. All these parts that made a human body of difference, were then placed in jars and displayed at Paris's Museum of Man until 1974. A grotesque ode to the black female body, to remain ridiculed and commodified. Remind you of something?
These are not once off atrocities. Serena Williams continues to face a decades worth challenge of the same nature. No hormone testing here, but undoubtedly a dissection of her femininity, strength and “masculinity”.
John McEnroe even once commented that perhaps she should play on the men’s circuit to even out the women’s championships and lower her own ranking because she would not perform as well among her male counterparts.
In far worse and more damaging ways, Semenya continues to be the subject or “object” rather – because that is how she is treated, of a terrifying and slandering international campaign where she has been forced to disclose personal medical and very private information.
She has and is being hounded, and has been the object of a long and terrifyingly international campaign where she remains the cut out version of an athlete who has excelled in spite of the unfair advantages many women athletes face in poorer more disadvantaged communities. So really, what’s so unfair here?
She is the product of under resourced sports fields, far and few between schools programmes, a limited choice of coaches, and what I can only imagine is - or what once was, a nutritional programme that pales in comparison to any of her competitors born of more privileged backgrounds. So the testosterone argument, frankly, is a joke.
They are not upset about hormone levels. What are they really upset about?