Running Towards Patriarchy?

As much as I’m an individual that thinks about and engages with the act of running, I’m equally an individual that thinks about and engages in social politics, though I often try to keep the two separated. For one, there isn’t a lot of crossover between the two. But also, politics is tiring. Wait…running is tiring too…but in a different sense. Anyways, I try to keep my running intense, but not weighed down by the trappings that seem to consume political action and groups. Sometimes, though, things need to be said, and today I engaged in a race environment that left me with a lot to say. So here goes…

I joined Laura at the Indianapolis Women’s Half-Marathon and 5k race downtown this morning, there as a supporter and spectator. This race has been plagued with a number of issues the past couple of years, the responsibility of which lay directly with the previous race director. This year the race was taken over by a much more professional and respectable promoter, bringing back a number of runners who had sworn it off due to the previous complications. Overall, the race was handled well, despite a few unfortunate logistical mishaps, and the promoter should be congratulated for salvaging a struggling event.

With that said, there are other issues with the overall presentation that I think are worth addressing. To summarize the event, it’s a women-only race, that seeks to engage women in the running community and, I have to assume, bring them into an activity and event that welcomes and supports them. I think that’s great…although, admittedly, I’m not quite sure the running community has ever been an environment where women have not been welcomed. I believe the gender breakdown overall falls in favor of more women at running events than men, though don’t quote me on that. Regardless, this isn’t football culture. This is running.

And I think it’s this generally gender neutral promotion of events that makes the running community so diverse. It’s also why I think there is a little pushback when it comes to the aesthetic and logistical promotion of these events. I know for a fact that a number of runners were put off by the stereotypical “feminine” aesthetic of the promotions, using flowers and butterflies and other dainty, pretty, soft elements. On the other hand, I got word that the butterflies were taken off this year’s logo, and there was such a swell of complaints that one of the butterflies was put back on the logo and this years Tech-T. Well, you can’t please everybody, of course. I will say, the dark blue Tech-T’s were a good color choice in staying away from the typical feminine aesthetic, and seemed to be received well.

The race, as races go, was a pretty standard start to finish affair, and that’s great…and although the “pump up” music at the start was a little cheesy, especially the dance remix of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, that can be overlooked. I’m not convinced it falls into my overall critique and frustrations. Speaking of that critique, it all came together at the end of the race.

At the finish line was the normal digital clock, MC calling out names and encouragement, and a suspiciously stacked finish spread. There was the expected water and bananas, but then pizza, cookies, strawberries, and more. Again, I don’t want to LOOK for critiques, but was this just good planning or a touch of extravagance for the female crowd? Anyways…there was something else at the finish that put me off. Roses. For ever runner. Roses. I have NEVER been offered flowers at the end of a race. And guess what, I like flowers! I would actually like a flower at the end of the race, but, of course, no one would think to give flowers to all the finishers, because really, only women like flowers. Right? Right. I digress a little here.

There was another thing. At the finish there were very “manly men” draping medals over each woman before they were given a rose. These men were National Guard soldiers, stereotypes of the type of men our culture tells women they are supposed to desire. Strong. Protectors. But let me address one thing…it turns out these soldiers were volunteers for the race and were there from the start, helping set up the event, and helping close it down. They weren’t, as far as I know, “staged” as representations of “manly men” offering medals and roses to the expectedly swooning women. These volunteers may be nothing more than, if I may use the term, “collateral damage”, in the war on sexism, but the fact stands…other women-only races end with models, scantily clad dressed men, firefighters and other archetypes of the “desired male” handing out medals, jewelry (yes, jewelry), and flowers to the women. So, these soldiers may not have been set up to present this specific “extravagance” on the women, but we can’t separate gender stereotypes from well-meaning actions in this context, and that’s too bad.

So here are some of my thoughts about all this. Unfortunately, we live in a society severely skewed by gender privilege. We live in a patriarchy where men have the privilege, have the resources, and exploit them to their needs, which often amounts in subjecting everything “not male” to their desires. Women can be included in this hierarchical structure in so much as they serve roles to men. They can be waitresses, sexually-tinged dancers, and other objects of subjection. They are, at best, not taken seriously. They are, at worst, dehumanized slaves…literally. And, unfortunately, the processes of sexism range from the overt to the incredibly subtle, in ways that can even be seen as supportive, or internalized by women themselves. And it is the accumulation of all this subjectivity, overt and subtle, that culminate in a patriarchal society where domestic violence seems to be the norm rather than the aberration. And that’s not ok.

So when I see events organized against, or in this case for, women, I become highly critical, because the end results of sometimes well-meaning gestures are not pretty.

What’s the big deal with a rose then?

Well, that rose represents so much more than an object of beauty, unfortunately. That rose represents a perception of women as fragile, dainty creatures who are more interested in pursuits of beauty than they are strength, confidence and accomplishment. And that rose, culturally, represents the exchange between males and females that is predicated on the male as the giver, the wooer, and the female as the passive recipient, the wooed. She should be touched and grateful that her gentle femininity is being acknowledged. As a tangent, I can’t help but think of the time Laura bought a new car and out of the blue a salesman brought her a rose as some weird thank you gesture. I bought my car at the same place and barely got a firm handshake. I’m not trying to exaggerate this seemingly nice gesture. Our culture is far beyond the idea of a chivalrous knight rescuing the helpless princess with a rose in his teeth. Because you know what, when I saw the winners of the half come sprinting down the last .1 of the 13 miles, their suffer faces on full display, I didn’t see anything dainty, weak, or concerned with nothing more than the advances of the knightly men around them. I just saw some badass runners killing it against all common sense.

But let’s talk about those men some more. Admitting that they might have been just inadvertently placed volunteers, and ignoring the gesture of the rose and the typical exchange it represents between man and woman, there are other problems to address here. Notably, I reiterate the presentation of these chivalrous or sexualized archetypes at other races. There are the fire fighters. The scantily clad models. The men in tuxes handing out Tiffany jewelry. These are blatant ploys of, not service to women, but representations AT women. These are archetypes of the “desirable” male, that both insult the varied preferences of women and the idea of what constitutes a desired male. What if, instead of sexualized male gender representations, the individuals at the finish were men who worked in domestic violence organizations, or partners of the participants, or teachers, or any non-sexualized, non-relationship based individuals. Or, at the very least, what if the men weren’t there to offer wooing gifts of jewelry or roses to the women, but were simply there as most other volunteers were there…as support. As encouragement. As the individuals who helped collapsing runners to the side, or gave water, or directed them to the bushes for post-exertion puking. (see, I can retain a sense of humor through all this). What if the race was simply just like every other race, but with women only, acknowledging that there IS a need to create space for women only, for anyone not on the top of the hierarchical structure, but without all this other gender-based baggage?

And there’s something else. The men at the finish, whether inadvertently drug into this problematic social dynamic between genders or deliberately placed there by race promoters (such as at other races), are men. And women are women. And not all women are attracted to men. So not only is this dynamic subtly or blatantly sexist…it’s also heterosexist. It’s isolating the women that simply don’t care about sexualized males as props. And that’s gotta suck to some degree…to not be acknowledged in this way. And the same critique goes the other way. There are few representations of women in sports more annoying than the ring girls holding signs for the crowd, or the podium girls of the Tour de France. Women don’t exist for men. They are not props and they are not sexually rigid.

Organizing any event for a wide swath of people without discouraging some is hard…maybe impossible, but when trying to create a supportive, encouraging event that is aimed at a very specific demographic, the nuances can be tricky to manage. With that in mind, the best route is neutrality, or simplicity. Even if one’s attempt to appeal to a specific demographic is done with the idea of support or encouragement in mind, it is very easy to isolate or misrepresent that demographic when we resort to stereotypes, assumed desires and interests, or even aesthetics. Sometimes, although I hate to admit it, being sterile and bland is the safest approach.

Ultimately, I think creating spaces and events for individuals lower on the rungs of social privilege is a needed and necessary action, but must be carried out in a way that allows inclusion of that specific demographic and little else. It doesn’t assume their interests. It doesn’t try to represent their lives. It just exists and enables their participation, allowing them to derive from the event whatever it is they need. It might be camaraderie. It might be accomplishment. It might be the avoidance of judgement. It might be any number of things to the individual.

You might be saying…dude…it’s just a little fun. Lighten up. Some women liked the roses. Some women loved the military men. Some women love scantily dressed models. This race was a good thing that brought a lot of women together. Yes…I completely agree. It’s not that some women didn’t enjoy those elements or that they SHOULDN’T enjoy those elements. Not at all. But in an event where such diversity of perspective is going to be inherent, and in a social context where women are still primarily subjects, nothing is beyond critique. Because these well-meaning gestures (or just thoughtless gestures) so easily lead to the next level of subjugation, that lead to the next, that lead to the next that lead to women’s lives destroyed by acts permitted by a patriarchal society. And I won’t apologize for the perceived exaggeration, because, unfortunately, it’s not an exaggeration.

I want to see this race continue. I want to see this race grow with even more participants next year, but I want it to exist as nothing more than a race OF women, not necessarily for women, meaning not an act of coddling or attempted representation. Let the individuals represent themselves. That will get us much closer to another example of gender equality than any forced attempt.


With all this said…I am of the privileged male sector of the population. I don’t attach myself to the “feminist” label because I’m too concerned with other things to worry whether I’m playing the game right or not. I’m just a dude trying to do good…that’s all…so these are thoughts influenced by my position of privilege and entitlement. Please feel free to add your own comments to this critique, whether as a participant of this race or just an individual concerned with the overall issue (or my critique itself).


And finally, Laura ran a huge 5k PR at this race, finishing 3rd in her age group and clocking in at 24:22. That made me walk away from this race with positivity more than any other feeling…so that’s awesome. 🙂


20 responses to “Running Towards Patriarchy?

  1. Oh thank god somebody wrote this! So sick of patriarchal stereotypes pervading events that are there encourage women in sports. Wish you were happy to be called a feminist though! 🙂

    • Thank you Zuckermitten….and it’s not that I don’t respect the term “feminist”, it’s just that I don’t feel the need to define myself by the association. I’d rather let my actions dictate my representations in this matter.

  2. It isn’t just “dude, come on, it’s just a race.” That’s the same thing men say when women complain about the sexist paraphernalia that objectify women in other events.
    And yes, I would find it quite patronizing and detestable to be greeted by a scantily clad male or a even just a male-only array of finish-line awarders at the end of my race. Really? What about all those National Guard female soldiers? Aren’t they good enough to congratulate other women? Can’t there be a mix?
    That would most definitely piss me off. I’m not running to be patted like a child or weaker creature by some male object; I’m there to cross that finish line for myself.

  3. I also like to race to be part of a larger community. That word, “community,” implies diversity. I’d rather be seen as part of that community, rather than be made a spectacle.
    (think you’ve touched a nerve. Thanks for posting)

  4. You know what objectification does? It takes away the individual’s right to express themselves as overtly feminine or masculine with whom they want and when they want. It forces the individual into a personna and takes away the right to freely be who one wants to be at any given moment. Trust me, I can be quite ‘feminine’ when I want to be, and it is much more fun when that time is my choice. Objectify, and I’m more likely to want to simply kick your ass.

    • Thanks for your comments dsue….I’m feeling apprehensive about what i’ve posted, in hopes that I didn’t exaggerate the situation, but I think the points you and others brought up are legitimate. Still…politics pisses people off. 🙂

      • But what you are saying needs to be said! It’s about power and freedom, for both male and female. And the need to be undefined. I refuse to be defined as an object or one-dimensional creature. So do you. So do many, many runners.

  5. Congrats to Laura on her big PR! That’s fantastic.

    As usual, great post. “Thoughtless gestures” sums up the vibe I get from those types of events. I remember seeing fliers for the first one of these and thinking that the race looked like a tampon advertisement (which are usually detestable, because they turn a woman’s menstrual cycle into something problematic and embarrassing). Femininity can mean much more than “delicacy and prettiness,” a phrase used in Google’s definition of feminine. Let’s have more of these female-only races. I’m all for sisterhood. But only if they’re held as an arena in which women can revel in their strength, not be wooed as objects to be won.

    • I’ll relay the congrats emma…she’s pretty excited about it….rightfully so!

      It sucks when “thoughtless gestures” cause unintended harm. It’s hard when
      “connecting the dots” of oppression isn’t the default in our culture and well-intentioned events turn out to be problematic. I don’t think anyone had malicious or exploitive intent with this event…but that doesn’t negate my critique.

      But yes, I’m all for the type of event you describe as well.

  6. YES! My minor in my undergrad was women’s studies, so as I’m well-versed in feminism and feminist Theory, I am so happy that you wrote this post and I want to share it with the world. I’m also a little bummed you don’t wish to be called a feminist, *but* I understand your reasoning and you elaborated well on it.

    • I’m glad you share similar sentiments Kelsey. I have called myself a feminist in the past, and will still do so if pressed, but I find that as soon as I associate with that term, people look for reasons to tell me I’m not a feminist….so I just pull gender equality sneak attacks! 🙂

  7. I wrote a letter to Mountain Goat race staff last year because I was mad women had to get a pink shirt. I wanted a blue shirt. I asked if I could switch and was told no. I steer clear of women-only events because it’s nothing more than pink-washing. I like pink. I like blue. I don’t want to pay to run and be given a pink shirt because I am a girl. Are we not beyond that? This is awesome. I am glad you wrote it.

    • Awesome Kate (hey! that’s your first name!), I think the more of us point out these issues, the more event organizers are forced to consider them. I plan on sending this critique to the organizers as well…not to chastise them, but to address issues i think are important to consider. Good on you for doing the same!

  8. Man, there are deeply complex social issues to unpack here. More difficult, of course, because I – like you – operate from a place of societal privilege. I’m a middle class white male from the middle of the country. To claim answers or special insight – just because I took some feminist and philosophy courses in college or something – would be a farce. But I like what you’re doing here. These are valid concerns, and good questions to ask. Prejudice and oppression can present with a smile – and even good intentions – as often as the opposite.

    • I completely agree Alex…which is why I always hesitate to even write about such subjects. But I’m sure no one else was going to address this specific setup, so I figured I’d give people the forum to respond if they wanted. I’m all about being called out on my shit, so I figured it was valid to present the perspective regardless. I also brought this critique to the race directors attention (the response confirmed my suspicions of their intent)….and now I feel much more confident in putting this out there.

  9. jemmy Bloocher

    This is a great article and I am grateful for having read it. Thank you. I have run one women only race and nothing like this was in evidence. I am in the UK so maybe there is slight difference. Reading this left me feeling a little appalled actually. In the UK I don’t see the necessity behind single gender racing and f anything I think it has the potential to undermine the work that has gone into creating a gender equilibrium over the last 3 decades. Interestingly though in Europe, races are massively skewed towards male runners, despite 50% of regular runners being female; so in Europe there is a way to go. I count myself lucky to be a UK runner. Nevertheless I think if races in Europe were along the lines of rose -giving and butterflies motifs, it would do infinitely more harm than good. Thanks again and Great PR Laura

    • Thanks for your comments Jemmy. It’s fascinating to learn what is commonplace at races (gender division themes, national anthem, prayer, etc.) in the states is quite shocking to those overseas. Again, thanks for the insight.

  10. Wow, you hit the nail on the head in this post! It’s cringe-worthy to see all those ‘girly’ stereotypes sprinkled around women’s only runs, breast cancer walks (why does everything have to be bright pink?!), etc. Sexism will flourish for as long as we are feeding stereotypes like these, no mater how much we talk about ’empowerment’.

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