What it Means to be a Female Ultimate Athlete in Italy

Anna Ceschi shares the female ultimate experience in Italy.

Anna Ceschi in the semis at EUCF 2019. Photo by Quentin Dupre La Tour of Focus Ultimate

This article was written by guest author Anna Ceschi of CUSB Shout, Italy Women and Raleigh Phoenix. The article has also been approved by teammate Laura Farolfi and some of the members of CUSB Shout. It was edited by Hannah Pendlebury.

2018 was a very important year for the Italian women’s ultimate movement. Our established elite Bolognese women’s club team CUSB Shout had a season full of competition at the highest level, which culminated in winning the gold medal at the European Ultimate Championship Finals. This was the very first time that an Italian team had won an EUCF title in any division: an unprecedented achievement. This accolade has been matched this season with another EUCF gold, this time on Italian soil in Caorle in October. Many of CUSB Shout’s team members also played pivotal roles during both of the impressive campaigns of the Italian women’s teams at the European Ultimate Championships and at the Under 24 World Championships this year.

In light of the successes we have enjoyed on the field and some of the ways in which we have been represented off of it, we feel that the time is right to start a serious discussion about what it means to be a female athlete in the Italian ultimate community. This is a vital issue for us, as we have invested vast amounts of time and energy into developing this movement and are keen to see it reach its full potential. So here we are, to start this important conversation!

What kind of conversation?

Firstly, please let me be clear: I do not intend to denounce or accuse any individual in this piece. On the contrary, the main aim is to stimulate a general reflection for the Italian ultimate community and, to some extent, the ultimate community as a whole. This article is not a declaration of a “sex war” as some of you may claim in order to deflect or avoid discussion. Nor is it about blame or guilt. Instead I hope that this article can be an instrument to encourage empathy, to allow all members of our community to listen to others and empathize with their views without undermining their feelings.

I will begin by describing one specific instance of the kind of attitudes which female ultimate athletes in Italy have been asked to tolerate. I will then explore how these experiences fit within the wider context of western society, specifically in relation to the perception and treatment of female athletes in the west. This is necessary in order to present the wider social implications of the ways in which current perception of women in the sporting realm can impact our status within the ultimate community.

As you read this article, I urge you to remain open to being challenged without resorting to what has at times been a counterproductive, defensive reaction – the kind which this topic often elicits. As such, it is essential to be mindful that this shift is not about a hostile takeover from women at the expense of men, but rather it is about improving the athletic aspects of our community — as well as the human and social ones — for players of every kind. With a continued emphasis on mixed competition at the highest level, ultimate presents a unique and ideal laboratory where a major shift towards gender equity can be formulated. It is my hope that by placing yourself in the shoes of those with a different perspective, we can bring about a better understanding and hopefully a better resolution.

So keeping that attitude in mind, let’s begin.

The situation in the Italian community

The initial catalyst for writing this article was an unpleasant event which occurred during the summer of 2018, involving a Facebook page dedicated to satirizing Italian ultimate. During the page’s existence it has made several “humorous” posts specifically directed at the supposed athletic deficiencies of female players, and it often boasts the allegedly terrible experience of playing mixed.

Photo posted by an Italian satirical facebook page.

However, by far the most offensive content this page has shared to date related to the World Ultimate Club Championships in Ohio. The post in question featured an image of our men’s team, CUSB La Fotta, in a post-game huddle. Photoshopped into the middle of this huddle were the spread legs of a woman, with a more subtle suggestion made explicit in the caption: “CumShout”. This of course refers to the pornographic sexual practice of a cum shot, directed at our women’s team, CUSB Shout.

This image, posted with casual disdain, prompted many questions regarding the status of female athletes in the collective imaginations of ultimate players. The levity with which such vulgar and sexually aggressive content was shared within a community that professes inclusivity demonstrates, to my mind, that the severity of this issue is deeply underestimated.

The most frequent justification for this kind of sexism was freedom of speech. However, when posts of this kind were subsequently criticized, such countering remarks did not benefit from the same treatment. Rather than being respected as fair comment, the perspective that the creation and sharing of such posts qualified as sexist behavior was minimized and silenced. Those in support of the content creator dismissed such concerns of sexism not through reason, but by resorting to personal criticisms such as stating that those who opposed the post simply lacked a sense of humor.

However, is it right to only consider such content from the perspective of those who created and support it? Should we limit the discussion to only include the voices of those who denigrate the experiences of an oppressed group and deem that this post is simply satirical?

From our point of view, as the subjects of this “joke,” it is important that we clearly call out the particular approach taken by the creators of this image, which is so frequently used to target and silence women. In our view, such behavior finds its root in a stereotype of women as simple and accessible objects, particularly in the sexual realm. Such treatment diminishes our value as both women and athletes. In this case, the female athletes of CUSB are firstly reduced to a pair of faceless, widespread legs, ready for sexual use and violation by male athletes. Then when those same reduced persons voice legitimate protest, their perspective is denied: there is no concern given for their experiences or feelings. They are dismissed and mocked.

Whilst a single instance of sexism may perhaps be rationalized for another purpose, this kind of thinking must be understood from a broader context. Unfortunately, in western society, this kind of treatment of women and in particular female athletes is not uncommon. See the replies below any ESPN tweet about a female athlete and you’ll find tweets about how she should get back to the kitchen. It shares the same collective mentality at the heart of acts of gender violence, which are far more serious than a post on Facebook. These attitudes, whilst given the guise of innocence in this case by superficiality and ignorance, are concrete expressions of such negative ways of thinking and acting. These expressions undermine our efforts on the tiring path towards recognition for female sporting achievements on a par with men, for which we all fight.

When you feel humiliated in this way, it is important to raise your voice and publicly claim your feelings of unease. To try and ensure that even those who either fail or choose not to understand are educated, so that they at least have the respect to listen and consider that there may be another way to consider these issues. Starting from these little things we can change the collective mentality and create a more inclusive environment, permeated by gender equity.

Looking Forward

Gender equity workshop in Bologna

Luckily, it is not all bad news for the Italian ultimate community! There seems to be a change in the air, and players are beginning to recognize the importance of this issue. Here in Bologna, CUSB has pioneered a wonderful and exciting project about gender equity aimed at high school ultimate players. With the assistance of their main sponsor Balsamiq, the University of Bologna Sport Center (the CUS of CUSB) has organized a number of gender equity workshops around Bologna’s schools.

The project has been designed by Laura Farolfi, a former captain of CUSB Shout and two-time EuroStar, in collaboration with other CUSB Shout players. Local coaches were trained by Maya Mileck, also of the EuroStars and an expert on this topic, to engage young players in activities which address the issue of gender equity. The main goal of this project is to increase awareness among male and female players in order to grow as a community, to listen to each other, and to learn to respect diversity. I had the opportunity to participate in this project as a coach, and it was very exciting to interact with young adults who were able to express their own views, whilst also being ready to listen and discuss with others. It was clear by the end that this was a very enriching experience for everyone involved. These projects are the kinds that we need to move forward in this important area!

There have also been efforts to counter some of the problematic attitudes which might diminish women by focusing on the promotion and celebration of female athletic skill. For the past three years, CUSB Shout have collaborated with other female athletes all over Italy to promote the development of women’s ultimate and gender equity consciousness. This project is called MUD and is sponsored by the Italian Ultimate Federation, organizing various clinics and hosting public meetings to stimulate wider debate on the issues female athletes face. I am pleased to say that things are moving in our community, but there is still much work to be done to raise Italian women’s ultimate to its very best!

Other Thoughts on the Issue

While I have already covered much of the ground I intended in this article, at this point I would also like to share some personal points of reflection. The issue of how female athletes are treated is something which women in the ultimate community must encounter in everyday life and this affects our feelings, choices, and goals.

Even when intended as a compliment, statements like “she plays like a man” or “he throws like a girl” echo in the minds of female athletes, reinforcing language that assumes the masculine as good and the feminine as bad. We are also tired of arriving at practices or winter leagues and being approached by inexperienced but enthusiastic male players, only to have them explain how to play the zone we have been practicing for years. Though their desire to educate may be genuine, their natural assumption of our incompetence compared with their own knowledge due to our sex is insulting.

Maybe it’s time to work together to destroy the entire set of values which affirm and assume male superiority in the athletic realm. Right now, at every level of our sport, players look at women’s ultimate and interpret its diversity as an inadequacy or shortcoming against the benchmark of men’s competition. This is also true of the sporting world at large. With male sport as the sole true measure, the way women play will never reach this ideal no matter how hard they try. This is a mechanism which necessarily devalues difference and sets the stage for women to only ever be second class.

I think it is time to change the perspective on female athletic diversity, to accept and embrace it without trying to distort it. Therefore, the challenge is set. In our sport which contains so many elements beyond the physicality of how fast you can sprint or how high you can jump, how can we best appreciate the performance of female athletes? How can we value their achievements, not in direct comparison to or competition with male athletes but rather alongside them, attaining equal value? Surely the only way in which we can do the diversity of athletes justice is to free them from the hierarchical relation to which they have until now been shackled.

Part of this will no doubt include moving women into leading positions both off and on the field. Consider this: are you ready for women to take on the same leadership roles that men do? Are you ready to be trained by a female coach or to be led by a woman captain? Do you think you could learn something from a female athlete? If the answer to any of these questions is no, I would challenge you to ask yourself “why”?

Conclusion

I would like to try and communicate the incredible opportunity that our community has to create an environment which might help to harmonize the status of being both an athlete and a woman. This is crucial because sport can be a fundamental and powerful tool for personal growth and for the acquisition of self-confidence and empowerment. Particularly for women and girls, sports can present a realm in which to mitigate the typically object-obsessed approach to the female body and instead shift from the aesthetic towards a functional focus. Rather than training the body to appear a certain way in order to attain status, value can instead be acquired through athletic functionality and peak performance. Woman in the spotlight not as a passive, often-sexualized object, but as an active, powerful subject.

This is the key opportunity that sporting pursuits offer to women: a way to free themselves from a cliched way of being. Yet each time that we allow female athletes to be diminished and pushed back into the assumed stereotype, we waste this potential. All athletes and coaches of every gender and level should be aware of these implications, so that they might embrace and protect each polarity of diversity that surrounds them.

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