On the Minnesota rinks where I spent many days of my childhood, the skates made the man—or the boy, to be more accurate. Hockey skates had a boot of tough leather and a reinforced toe to protect against sticks and pucks, like work boots mounted on thick, sharp, rounded blades. In contrast, girls wore figure skates. The boots were made of softer leather, laced high up the ankle, with a tapered toe. And of course, the girls’ boots were white, whereas our hockey skates were black, preferably with plenty of scuffs. There were figure skates for boys and men, and these also had a black boot. But rare was the male who stepped on my neighborhood’s outdoor rink with figure skates. The few times it did happen, heads turned, fingers pointed, and the teasing was cruel. “Fairy nice skates” is what the boys said.
Although we didn’t realize it, our taunts expressed a deep-rooted stereotype in the United States and Canada: figure skating is an activity for girls, and men who skate are certainly effeminate, and most likely gay. Like most stereotypes associated with gender, this view of figure skating as inherently feminine was not always held. A century ago, figure skaters were almost all men, and their performances were regarded as exhibitions of controlled and graceful athleticism. Only since World War II has skating come to be viewed, in North America, as an activity for cute, pixieish girls and dandy men with a taste for sequins. Periodically, there have been attempts to draw more boys into the sport, with the spotlight placed on the athleticism of a Dick Button or the ruggedness of an Elvis Stojko. But the boys on the rinks of Minnesota or Ontario, and their parents, are hard to convince.
Sociologist Mary Louise Adams examines this gender history of figure skating in her book Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport (University of Toronto Press, 2011). As even she discovered in her research, the transformation of the sport is surprising. Our interview, and her book, reveal how influential a single athlete—in this case, Olympic champion Sonja Henie—can be for the popularity and the perceptions of a sport. And Mary Louise raises the troubling point that now, in an age of women’s boxing, rugby, and water polo, the gender limitations in sports might not be on what girls are able to do, but on what boys are allowed.