1. Always the same, as in character or degree; unvarying.
2. Conforming to one principle, standard, or rule; consistent.
3. Being the same as or consonant with another or others.
4. Unvaried in texture, color, or design.
1. A distinctive outfit intended to identify those who wear it as members of a specific group.
2. One set of such an outfit.
tr.v. u·ni·formed, u·ni·form·ing, u·ni·forms
1. To make (something) uniform.
2. To provide or dress with a uniform. (Free Dictionary)
Judith Butler once said, “Gender performativity is a matter of constituting who one is on the basis of what one performs.” Our subjection to a specified uniform, both literal and figurative, is an aspect of performativity that has intrigued me of late, specifically within the realm of athletics. While I obtained my undergraduate degree, I played softball for the University of Illinois-Chicago. This was an incredible opportunity to obtain my education loan free. What I didn’t realize was that this realm of collegiate athletics was an entirely different subculture. I played softball with women from around the country and while that brought together a variety of differing cultural identities, the uniform united us.
The softball uniform has done some evolving in the past fifteen years. My freshman year our uniform consisted of three different varieties: a red, blue, and white set with two pairs of pants and a set of shorts. We even had stirrups. As extraneous as this may seem, it is vital to my argument. Softball uniforms are mirrored from baseball uniforms, minus the shorts and even those went by the wayside after a year. Thus, the uniform takes on a rather androgynous quality, some would even argue a masculine undertone, when combined with the overall attitude of an athlete. This persona is amplified during competition. “…drag is an effort to negotiate cross-gendered identification…”(Butler 235). The uniform serves as the softball player’s “drag.” The softball player’s performativity exerts itself on the equitable “stage” of the person in drag. It also allows us to destabilize social genders.
Uniforms function as gender performativity, especially when your personal expression is limited. However, may of my teammates found a way to distinguish themselves from other athletes. Many women wore bows or headbands in their hair or make-up on their face to distinguish themselves from their teammates and their competitors. This public display of femininity was meant to distinguish themselves from their queer teammates and the potential of being misidentified by a member of the opposing team or a spectator. I remember these distinctions very vividly. In Colorado, for example, young girls wear bows in their hair to distinguish themselves from those who identified as queer. In the Big-Ten Conference, players and coaches wear visors to portray that they are, in fact, queer. Many women on my team wore armbands to identify and perform their queerness. This is not to say that all queer softball players are masculine and lack feminine qualities nor am I arguing the opposite. My purpose here is to identify the effort made by straight and queer women to perform their sexuality, to distinguish themselves from each other. Such self-inflicted social constructs, of this subculture, are constantly being performed on an evolving basis.
The control that we had over the way we looked in a softball uniform may seem limited but we found a way to exert individual and collective power. The uniform is a tool used for conformity and thus, exerts an overarching repressive situation. The uniform as a tool is both repressive and an exertion of power. Through performativity and expression of desire, my teammates and I thought we were exercising a certain level of power (the only power they had control over) that allowed us to subvert our repressive state, if only momentarily and discretely.
“For a long time, one of the characteristic privileges of sovereign power was the right to decide life and death” (Foucault 135). The “sovereign power,” in our case, was our coaches. While we were not subject to the loss of our life as exercised power, it often times felt like it. If we violated team rules or acted in a way that was seen as unfavorable there were consequences. Our coaches operated in a way to take certain privileges away i.e. make us run for two hours so we missed dinner in the dining hall. They had the power to do such things because our scholarships were in their hands. Uniformity implies an abundance of variables and our coaches sought for us to be uniform. Even our practice clothes were identical. Our shirts had to be tucked in at all times, we couldn’t vary from the colors red, white, or blue which even applied to the color of our hair ties and bows. Jewelry was not permitted in practice even though the NCAA allowed us to wear it during competition. Despite these variables, our sexuality and gender performativity was constantly battling a power structure. Our attempts at subverting the power structure in place were reinscribing the very repression we were facing. The very act of wearing a uniform reinscribes societies attempt at hiding individual sexuality.
The softball diamond was our stage. To the onlooker, everything seemed “normal.” The truth is, what goes on subversively at a collegiate softball game is anything but that. This stage provided a certain power and exertion for queer activity. From the moment we would arrive to the time we finished playing, we were performing in a way to reveal our sexuality. Women were constantly performing in a way that liberated them from the uniform, which repressed any expression of their sexuality.
Often, my teammates and I would guess who was queer on the other team by what they wore and how they carried themselves. We often did the same within our own unit and it often backfired. I can remember asking a freshman if she was a lesbian and to my dismay she reacted in a way that suggested she was highly offended. Now, obviously, I didn’t perceive being queer with something to be ashamed of so when she freaked out I didn’t know how to react. She spent the next year avoiding me and it subsequently ruined any friendship we could have obtained. I had more bold teammates who would venture out at tournaments and confront women from other universities. Some of those instances would end up with a girl becoming increasingly embarrassed and the conversation went on while other times it ended with laughter and eventual friendship and comradery. There were friends and enemies made on this stage. This subculture was a constant clashing of many bodies whose identities changed and shifted.
While I am seemingly circumventing an age-old stereotype, I think it is important to analyze the components of the subculture without the shroud of assumptions. The temporality of my experience may be concerning but after coaching for the last three years, I can safely say things haven’t changed much. Women’s athletics have always been largely stigmatized by queerness. Basketball, rugby, soccer, among others have all faced scrutiny of being a queer sport. Why is that? Athletics, in general, have allowed women to appreciate and celebrate each other. While in other aspects of our lives women tend to tear each other down, this platform (or stage) allows women to compete and either succeed or fail together. It is a collaborative process that is unparalleled to any other social activity that can be undertaken. This collaborative experience allows women to reveal their own power as well as to appreciate and uncover the power of other women. An unparalleled strength exists here. The uniform, in this situation, unites. There is no room for discrimination.
The uniform we wore for competition not only served as an avenue for performativity but it also helped many women deepen their understanding of their sexuality. It always seems that the center of our identity, during our time there, revolved heavily around our uniformity. I would also argue that this helped us create a safe space for those who were still trying to figure out who they were. At other times, it served as a very hostile environment when relationships disintegrated (some of my teammates use to date each other). In other words, we can never fully detach our identity from that moment in time. Queer or straight, our identities were shaped, created, redefined, or altered in some way through our performativity in uniform.
Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex” New York: Routledge, 1993.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
I enjoyed this a lot! You make some great connections between the visual signifier of the uniform, the reinforcement of uniformity, and the forms of resistance/self-expression that operate within what can appear to be a very homogeneous context. It seems that Butler’s ideas about gender and performance become very clearly evident when there are so many limits placed on how people dress and act — the ribbons, the visors, and more subtle kinds of conscious and unconscious gendering work as citation, each woman finding her place within and thereby reproducing a widely understood system.
I wonder if “repression” is the best term for the kind of power you discuss being subjected to as a college softball player. Your point about the sovereign power of the coaches with respect to your scholarships is an important one, but the ways that you describe the players responding to the rules placed upon you sounds more like the proliferation of terms and practices that Foucault uses to explain why silencing and repression are not the primary modest through which power operates. It seems that the imposition and expectation of repression provided a playground in which the athletes were able to express a range of gendered and sexual identities, perhaps similar to the way Foucault describes the pleasurable prospects of sexual discourses incited by what seems to be, but is not quite, repression.