Confusing, inspiring, enlightening

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Julia Rönnbäck
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Natalie Barker-Ruchti
Women’s Artistic Gymnastics: An (Auto-)Ethnographic Journey
236 sidor, hft.
Basel: edition gesowip 2011
ISBN 978-3-906129-73-0

I am very interested in auto-ethnographic methodology and I don’t know anything about women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). So when I was asked to review Natalie Barker-Ruchti’s PhD-thesisWomen’s Artistic Gymnastics. An (Auto-)Ethnographic Journey, I was thrilled. Having read the book, I am even more thrilled. Mostly because I almost got the same amount of information about the author’s thoughts and feelings during the writing process as I got about the sport and the gymnasts. This was expected, since auto-ethnographic work is about making the researcher and his/her interpretations of his/her experiences and situated and procedural construction of knowledge visible. However, it was both refreshing and intriguing. This was a treat and a treat I would love to have again. Let me try to explain how and why.

Part one of the book sets the tone. And it is an unusually personal one, mildly put, since Barker-Ruchti starts off by providing her readers with a dream she once had about being late for gym training. The dream is followed by her asking herself questions about her own involvement in WAG and describing the difficulties she encountered when switching from holding on to idealistic memories and beliefs in gymnastics’ positive qualities to a critical stance towards the sport. After that Barker-Ruchti describes her own gymnastic past in a section with the same title. The following citation sums up the content of part one pretty well:

I acknowledge my subjectivity by weaving my memories and personal reflections of my gymnastics involvement together with the data I have collected … As well as my passions for and involvement in gymnastics and the political motivation to affect the sport, I have a third reason for the choice of the project’s topic – my desire to question who I am (p. 13-14).

Questioning who you are is not uncommon. However, I think it is uncommon writing a PhD-thesis with a desire to do it (although writing a PhD-thesis usually means constantly questioning yourself, everything and everyone else and therefore having existential life crises on regular bases whether you like it or want it or not). Most uncommon is being open about it. But I like that. There is a delicate line between excellent reflexive writing, which is the goal with auto-ethnographic work, and excellent navel-gazing. Barker-Ruchti, in a few passages, is on the verge of the latter but succeeds in accomplishing the former.Although I very much enjoyed the visibility of Barker-Ruchti in the text and her invitation to the reader to think and feel with her story, which I certainly did, I was somewhat disappointed realising that she had left out a discussion on how her experience of WAG must have posed some problems. According to Barker-Ruchti her personal experience of WAG is a forte. But it can also be a pianissimo. Or at least vary between these two.After the first six pages about Barker-Ruchti herself, she states that there is limited research with regard to the socio-cultural and historical complexities of WAG, and that her study is an attempt to fill this void. Accordingly, there is much work to do and Barker-Ruchti wants to do plenty. This is made clear since the aims of the thesis are many. Some of them are: to illustrate how WAG reflects contemporary systems of control and normalisation by getting “inside of the local meanings” of the gymnastics bodies and performances. Based on the critical framework, which is Foucauldian augmented by feminist theory, and with a point of departure that no single truth exists, she also aims to highlight that today’s situation in WAG could be different. Furthermore, she aims to illustrate how gender is an important factor in the control and normalisation of the gymnasts’ bodies and personalities.

The aims are formulated as follows:

  1. An ethnographic portrayal of how current women’s artistic gymnasts experience their sport;
  2. A critical description of how the current situation in WAG has been able to develop;
  3. A critical feminist Foucauldian analysis of WAG, in particular the historical, political and cultural construction of gymnasts’ selves and lives. (p.21)

In order to reach her aims Barker-Ruchti used various research approaches; case study, ethnography and auto-ethnography.  She did questionnaires, observations, interviews, archival collection and personal correspondence. Using a broad spectrum of data collection methods is inspiring. It is also difficult because it involves a greater risk of making the study broad, shallow and fragmented rather than profound and focused. I prefer studies of the latter kind, which is characteristic of auto-ethnographic research, and unfortunately Barker-Ruchti’s is a mixture with tendencies towards the former.

Fair enough; but are all these details really relevant if they are not being analyzed?

Furthermore, I would have liked the aims to be more tangible. For example: the gymnasts are 10–15 years old and they are Australian or at least currently living in Australia (from what I understand). So the portrayal is actually about current young women’s artistic gymnastics in Australia, which could have been made clear.

Another shortcoming is that although Barker-Ruchti very much situates herself, she does not situate WAG in Australia. Being a Swede and not knowing much about WAG in general and even less about WAG in Australia in particular, I was curious about when the sport was developed and how popular or non-popular it is “down under”, and so forth. Unfortunately, after having read the thesis I am still curious since this information was nowhere to be found. What I have found, though, is detailed information about the school that the gymnasts she interviewed and observed attended (it has over 1,100 pupils and excellent facilities), about their coaches (what they usually wear and how their home is decorated), and about the gymnasts themselves (what they enjoy doing: shopping, reading, drawing or playing the drums etcetera). Fair enough; but are all these details really relevant if they are not being analyzed? Which they aren’t, or at least I don’t think they are.

Also, I found myself rather puzzled by Barker-Ruchti’s description of the girls’ personalities: one is quiet and one is shy, etcetera. Locking the gymnasts’ identities in that kind of way is paradoxical to statements such as: “the text highlights how subjectivities are fragmented and dynamic” (p. 66), and I would have preferred more open and non-stable descriptions such as “during my observations I perceived her as shy”. Barker-Ruchti also states that “the diversity of backgrounds guarantees that athletes will have various, and at times, contradictory identities” (p. 50). I concur with Barker-Ruchti’s statements; identities are dynamic, contradictory and influenced by diverse backgrounds, and I wonder: what are the gymnasts’ backgrounds? One of the gymnasts had moved with her family to Australia from overseas in order to get better gymnastics training opportunities. From where did she move? And what about the gymnasts’ socio-economical status? To me, that kind of background information is more relevant for understanding the construction of subjectivities and identities than the non-dynamic personality descriptions exemplified above.

In part one Barker-Ruchti also outlines her theoretical framework. Although I enjoy reading Foucault and the feminist critique of his work as much as anyone else, I think 20 pages of theoretical framework is a bit overkill. I think theoretical frameworks should be tight and slim, and this one isn’t. The theoretical framework is followed by a presentation of the research methods where Barker-Ruchti describes how she chose to present the data she had collected in its naked and non-analysed form. Accordingly, she separated the ethnographic accounts and the analytical section (with an ambition to allow the readers the freedom to interpret and evaluate the story from their unique vantage points). I’m not sure that it is possible to perform such a separation. Writing is never free from interpretation and analysis. I think Barker-Ruchti again agrees with me, and again is contradicting herself, by stating that the stories in the book, influenced by her poststructuralist views, represent a mixture between literary quality and theoretical penetration and that “I cannot, however, deny the impact that previously and currently acquired theoretical insights had on the writing on the narratives” (p. 64). So why even try?

Bearing this in mind, I didn’t think I would appreciate part two, “The Modern Gymnast”, which entails a public and a private representation of WAG. However, I did appreciate it seeing that it retained a great analysis regardless of Barker-Ruchti calling it “presenting examples, field notes and personal reflections” and leaving out references. According to Barker-Ruchti, the two representations shed light upon the vast gap regarding the content and quantity of what the public experiences gymnastics to be – a glittery, happy and perfect world – and what actually goes behind the scenes – hard work, pain and tears. If that isn’t an analysis, obviously not theoretically based but still, what is?In the rest of the thesis there are many brilliant parts that compensate for what initially (the content of part one and two) perplexed me and vexed me and even made me snooze a little. So let’s move on to them.

Although I enjoy reading Foucault and the feminist critique of his work as much as anyone else, I think 20 pages of theoretical framework is a bit overkill.

In part three, “The Past Gymnast”, Barker-Ruchti looks to the past to shed light on how the present-day experiences (presented in part two) have been able to develop. She chose to examine Swedish gymnastics (Per Henrik Ling’s exercise regime) “because it was introduced during an epoch within which, according to Foucault, governments introduced institutional tactics to control populations” (p. 124). The aims of the governments were to improve the health and order on the working-class population and “[t]he manipulation of their well-being was considered necessary for the future labourer to become economically useful” (p. 139)It also had a clear gender dimension fused with the aspect of class“… the training included a particular shaping of the female body. Swedish drill, coupled with team games were designed to emphasis the social characteristics of femininity, especially that of the privileged classes” (p. 139-140).

According to Barker-Ruchti there is no definite developmental link between Swedish gymnastics and WAG but the idea of governmental control exercised through Swedish gymnastics can be found in the disciplinary nature of WAG. This was a smart and interesting conclusion.

Even smarter was not limiting the genealogical description of the gymnastics developments by linking current WAG merely to Swedish Ling-gymnastics. Barker-Ruchti also portrays the dramatic transformations WAG experienced in the late 1960s and 1970s. She relates these transformations to the goal of the East European and Soviet Communist states to achieve success at international events, for both male and female athletes, in order to demonstrate that socialism was superior to Western forms of democracy. In WAG this encouraged coaches, researchers and gymnasts to develop and practice new gymnastics skills. Consequently, during this time period WAG changed from emphasising emotional expression and grace to emphasising composure, automation and precision. This changed the nature of the sport (more complex, risky and acrobatic) and the bodies of the gymnasts (smaller and underdeveloped).

What Barker-Ruchti illuminates is how gymnastics has been used as a governmental instrument for controlling and shaping citizens, as well as how elite gymnastics has been used as an instrument for demonstrating or maybe even propagating political ideology. And she also shows how this exercise of power was highly gendered since a certain type of femininity was central in the enterprise, not only in the Swedish Ling gymnastics, which is exemplified above, but also internationally.

Furthermore, Barker-Ruchti shows how the transformations of WAG were affected by the media which, according to her, glamorised the acrobatisation of the sport at the same time as it diverted the attention away from the strength, power and courage of the gymnasts and focused on the gymnasts’ sexual appeal, their emotional responses and the paternal care they received from their predominantly male coaches.

According to Barker-Ruchti the Swedish influence diminished whilst the acrobatic trend together with the dominant ideals of femininity, supported by the media, remained paramount in WAG. However, the ideals of femininity, in the transformed WAG, entailed an androgynous touch diverting the focus from mature women to children. The underdeveloped bodies and the appearance of cute little girls was and is perceived more neutral and thus neither challenge mature-aged ideals of femininity nor threaten masculinity. A strong, acrobatic and courageous woman, not having an underdeveloped body, performing risky gymnastics, being evaluated exclusively on her performances and not on her looks is, as made clear by Barker-Ruchti, sadly not the custom in contemporary society. However, the contingency and temporality of WAG, which Barker-Ruchti illustrates, show that it could be otherwise. It could be different, she states. And I hope it also will be in the future.

The focus on the gymnasts’ looks and the veiling of their hard work is problematized further in part four, “Feminist Foucauldian Interpretations”, which is my favourite part of the thesis. There are so many text passages that are so exquisite and I just can’t do them justice. I mean, just have a look at this: “WAG expects its athletes to display acrobatic routines, while simultaneously concealing the strength and power required for their execution” (p. 180) and “The gymnasts’ physical and emotional efforts are concealed and hence, subordinated to the importance of their appearance” (p. 191).

What Barker-Ruchti concludes in this part of the thesis is that

this sport signifies and reinforces feminine characteristics on an ideological and institutional level. Its disciplinary practices physically shape and construct an ideal feminine gymnastics body and performance. The gymnasts internalise these characteristics, which is reflected in their work ethics, how they see and treat their bodies (p. 192).

Hence, the coaches and gymnasts do not question their gymnastic world. By entering WAG they accept the rules and regulations of the sport. They internalize, instead of contest, its dominant discourses and understandings. The coaches and gymnasts embody their sport’s culture and in that sense internalisation illustrates how power, not only works in a top-down manner, but also works from below: from each individual body.

WAG is, however, not entirely as depressing at it first comes across. Barker-Ruchti declares that spaces and opportunities for personal agency and resistance exist. These spaces and opportunities are explored, also in part four, where Barker-Ruchti points out that individuals are able to limit the inscriptive affects social control has on their selves by critical evaluation of the self and society. I agree. But are all people given the opportunity to obtain critical lenses? And perhaps more importantly, what can be done on a structural level?

Barker-Ruchti furthermore proposes that change within WAG may be achieved through women’s critical self-formation. It may. But I would propose that change within WAG may, more likely, be achieved through women’sand men’s critical self-formation. And by critical examination of not only the gymnasts themselves, but also of the structures they are negotiating with and that are stipulating the rules of the sport.

Part five, “Reflections”, is Barker-Ruchti’s reflections on the research questions, aims and what she has learned through her project. She contends that she has shed light on WAG and has put marginalised stories into the public domain. And by all means she has. She also suggests that she can influence others through her changed self and I think and hope that she can.

The overall impression of Barker-Ruchti’s thesis is that it is sprawling, an epithet that some might perceive as a bad rating; but it’s not. Parts of the thesis confused me, parts of it inspired me and parts of it very much enlightened me. One of the objectives of the book was to leave an impression, and it did that. Read it.

Copyright © Julia Rönnbäck 2012.


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