Context Matters: On Femininity, Figure Skating, and Complementarianism

[Update: About two minutes after posting this, I looked back over the Piper article, and realized I'd missed that the author of the piece is one of Piper's associates, John Ensor, the president of a pro-life political organization. It was endorsed by Piper and I assumed that he wrote it as it appeared on his website. My apologies for the confusion - the article has been updated to reflect the change].

So earlier today, a friend linked to this piece by pastor John Ensor, he of the complementarian sect. And my first thought, after some raucous laughter (followed by a coughing fit, as I’m getting over a cold), was that Ensor knows nothing about pairs figure skating.

Ensor's thesis is that pairs figure skating is a beautiful example of the complementarian philosophy for marriage, “a visible model of what male leadership and female support are all about.” He proposes that pairs figure skating shows us men leading, taking responsibility for the performance of the women, and acting in beautiful concordance with each other. She takes her cues from his leadership, trusts him to keep her stable, and supplies him with joy through a good performance. Likewise, he takes responsibility for her pain, gives her glory (by giving her roses at the end?) and together, they can win the gold!

Unfortunately, Ensor is giving pairs figure skating a very surface level reading that reaches a level of absurdity that is out in left field. Ensor's reading of pairs figure skating is only possible if you’ve basically watched the performances on mute and only through your fingers.

Now, I’m not experienced in pairs figure skating or as an athlete. I don’t claim to know more about it than the average person. But even the average person’s knowledge of the sport should be enough to discourage a reading like Ensor's. 

In pairs figure skating, as in any art performance based sport, the artistic routines have some very basic and important rules that they have to follow – one of which is that through certain set pieces, the man and woman have to match the other’s movements in a synchronistic manner. In other words, if one is “leading” and the other “following,” they are doing it wrong because they are out of sync and not sharing equal skill. Both play equal roles and both have to trust the other not to injure them by making a mistake.

Aspects of physical build and ability play a much larger role than aspects of gender – some pairs have to overcome height differences that make certain lifts and jumps hard. Others have to adjust their jumps and movements to the abilities of the weaker partner. Still others play to the strengths of certain partners – a particular jumping skill, an ability to land well, certain moves are emphasized depending upon the acts.

What all this takes is collaboration – each partner figuring out which roles and duties suit them best, and planning that out on the ice. It is, you might say, an egalitarian project. 

But even to say that, on my part, ignores important context of the sport of figure skating. There have been a number of recent longform articles about aspects of gender presentation in figure skating, particularly women. In a fascinating piece in The Believer magazine, Sarah Marshall explores the effect that constructions of femininity had on Tonya Harding and her competition with America’s sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan. Marshall writes of Kerrigan’s performance in 1992:

Her performance at the 1992 Games was not a triumph of athleticism—though even then Nancy was a far more formidable athlete than anyone gave her credit for—but it was a triumph of image-making. To the commentators, she was “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated,” and the audience agreed. … Even her lack of competitive savvy gave her an air of innocence and sincerity: she was radiant when she landed a difficult jump, and appeared near tears after making a mistake. She had the style and grace of a woman, but the bashfulness and sincerity of a girl. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak, and in the end she embodied no quality quite so perfectly as she did the set of draconian contradictions that dictated a female athlete’s success.

Image matters in figure skating – femininity in particular. Though scoring rules have improved since Kerrigan and Harding took to the ice, the subjective readings of femininity still remain. Female figure skaters, like many female athletes in subjectively judged sports, often must rely on the presentation of a demurely feminine presence to boost the judgment of their art.

Women who do not fit the traditional mold of feminine figure skaters – women like Tonya Harding, or black French-American skater Surya Bonaly – are required to break the mold in other ways, to work harder and to perform in undeniably athletic and groundbreaking ways. Kathy Hovencamp explains Bonaly’s challenges to femininity as a black woman skater over at The Hairpin:

She was the antithesis of what you’d expect to see at a figure skating competition: a muscular black woman from France. France! The French hadn’t medaled in ladies’ singles at the Olympics since 1952, and hadn’t shown up on the ladies medal stand at Worlds since 1963. And suddenly, here was Surya Bonaly, just dominating everyone insofar as athletics were concerned. … While dazzling everyone with her powerhouse jumps, Surya was also earning a reputation for her unapologetic bad attitude. Her frequent and flagrant derision of the whole judging process was so in-your-face that it almost became endearing in a soap-opera-villain sort of way.

Bonaly was famous for performing an incredibly athletic backflip on the ice and landing it on one foot. Her unbridled athleticism challenged the “ice princess” white femininity that has dominated much of the figure skating world.

As Marshall notes in her piece, Harding faced similar backlash against her lack of femininity and made up for it by becoming an undeniably powerful athlete, the second woman to ever land a triple axel in international competition.

What Ensor reads as complementarianism is actually strict gendered roles that frequently confine and box in female athletes who take to this sport – it is not necessarily an example of complementing strengths in the vein of theological gender roles. Rather, pairs figure skating acts as an example of the tired preservation the double burden that women face – the need to be unbelievably feminine while also having enough strength to perform at the same level as men. Ensor's shallow reading fails to contextualize what we are actually seeing, and therefore missing larger points about the ways in which gender is performed and how these pairs work in mutuality, not complementarity. He is imposing his worldview onto an idea that resists such a reading at every turn, a practice indicative of a larger desire to simplify the stories that surround us every day.

Unfortunately, when all you see is the literal surface, simple is all you'll get.