July 2, 2021
4,676 words for 30-minute presentation
Thank you all for joining my dissertation defense today on Princesses, Divas, and Mother Runners: Gendered Institutional and Vernacular Rhetorics in Running Events. From a logistics standpoint, I want to drop a link to the script in the chat window so you can follow along or review afterwards.
<<Slide 1>> Intro
My journey in writing this dissertation began years ago…years before the dream of pursuing my doctorate became a reality. My expedition in becoming a runner is not dissimilar to my journey in becoming a scholar. As I was writing this dissertation, it became clearer with every word, paragraph, and chapter, that the metaphor of running was apropos to my writing and research process.
Over the past ten years, I have run over 100 road races—from 5Ks to full marathons, traveling across the United States to participate. As I ran in these runs, one thing became clear—the rhetorics of gender affected women’s participation. But how? I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. Feeling this sense of difference inspired me to focus my dissertation on gendered rhetorical themes in running events. A central concern of my dissertation involves demonstrating how coed, women’s, and virtual running events are gendered—through both institutional and vernacular rhetorics.
My dissertation sought to answer three primary questions:
1) In what ways are rhetorics of coed and women’s running events gendered?
2) What are the similarities and differences between institutional and vernacular rhetorics in these events?
3) How are rhetorics in virtual events gendered digitally?
To answer these research questions, I first examined the gendered rhetorical history of women’s running.
In Chapter 2, I examined historical running artifacts, such as paintings at smock races, which provided insight into how women were sexualized even in these running events of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
I studied the pedestrienne craze of the eighteenth century and accounts of women pedestriennes, Bertha von Hillern and Ada Anderson.
I reviewed the International Olympic Committee meeting minutes to better understand why women’s running events of greater than 800 meters was banned until 1928 and then again until 1960.
I analyzed the groundbreaking moment in running when Kathrine Switzer crashed the Boston Marathon and ran under the guise of a man. When race director, Jock Semple, found out a “woman ran his race” he attempted to rip off her bib and push her off the course.
Because of this fanfare, many sources actually incorrectly named Kathrine Switzer as the first American woman marathoner, when in fact, it was
Bobbi Gibb, who ran the Boston Marathon one year prior to Switzer in 1966. She quietly crossed the finish line and her contributions to women’s running have often gone unnoticed.
In Chapter 3, I explored the institutional and vernacular rhetorics in four coed running events that occurred between 2019 and 2020:
The Chicago Marathon (October 2019),
Boston Marathon (April 2019),
New York Marathon (October 2019), and
London Marathon (2019).
I chose these events due to their popularity, size, significance, and ratio of male-to-female runners.
To compare and contrast coed with women’s running events, In Chapter 4, I researched three women-focused in-person running events in that same time period:
Disney’s Princess Half Marathon (February 2000),
Divas Half Marathon (May 2019), and
The USA Women’s Half Marathon (November 2019).
In Chapter 5, I examined three virtual running events that occurred post-COVID-19, including
The Virtual Chicago Marathon (October 2020),
The Virtual New York Marathon (November 2020), and
The Virtual Boston Marathon (April 2020). These virtual events are particularly relevant to this study since I include their in-person counterparts in the coed running chapter.
Of these ten events, I personally participated in seven of them (The Chicago Marathon, Disney’s Princess Half Marathon, Divas Half Marathon, The USA Women’s Half Marathon, The Virtual Chicago Marathon, The Virtual New York Marathon, and The Virtual Boston Marathon). By exploring both the in-person and virtual versions of these events, I was able to effectively understand material differences and similarities that occur due to the modality.
My dissertation employed a bricolage approach to apply three methodologies, including material feminist, embodied vernacularity, and intersectionality.
I applied a feminist-materialist methodology, which seeks to understand how materiality, language, and the everyday work jointly as an integrated experience. Through using this method,
I examined race medals, swag bags, and jewelry.
I also examined the physical nature of the gendered urban design of the city, examining seemingly mundane items such as porta potty design.
I spoke earlier about institutional and vernacular rhetorics and I want to make sure it is clear what I mean by those terms.
Institutional rhetorics are the “official” voices of the events
Expressed through communications from the race directors through the official websites, social media channels, race maps, and event guides.
Vernacular rhetorics are voices of individuals who are not in positions of power. Specifically, I leveraged Liz Barr’s “embodied vernacularity,” which accounts for the power of the community to influence dominant narratives through actions.
From a vernacular rhetorics, perspective, I conducted interviews with women runners, read social media posts, read runner blogs, and examined participant-created race costumes.
Now that we have established the events that I studied and the methodology and methods that I used, let’s explore the key themes of my findings.
There are Five Big Themes that I plan to discuss today: Rhetorics of running events are gendered through rhetorical themes of 1) heteronormativity, 2) rhetorics of altruism, 3) rhetorics of morality, 4) urban design and 5) rhetorics of protection and violence.
As I pursued this work, I originally thought that I would focus solely on women’s bodies—at the intersection of fat studies, gender, rhetorics, and sports. However, as I began to dig into the artifacts, I discovered more areas of oppression related to gender and running placing many women on the sidelines. I discovered themes related to hegemonic femininity, sexuality, morality, and motherhood. At that moment, it hit me—the rhetorics of running are gendered and create dynamics of power over a variety of women. Whether women are being pushed to the margins because of their gender, sexuality, reproductive capability, or body size—the effect is the same—running rhetorics reinforce dominant power structures that privilege the masculine experience.
I am going to start by discussing a theme that may not be too surprising: the world of running is brimming with expectations for women to conform to heteronormative constructions of femininity.
Given that the women’s races in my study included the Disney Princess Half Marathon, USA Women’s Half Marathon, and the Divas Half Marathon, I was not surprised to see overt articulations of femininity, such as sparkly race medals and women running in costume. However, as I looked deeper at the rhetorics in both vernacular and institutional spaces, I discovered that much of this messaging is rooted in homophobia.
There are many examples of how both coed and women’s running events convey the message of heteronormative expectations.
Of course there are the obvious examples, such as the linguistic sexism present in the titles of each of these races and accompanying materials. I call your attention to the fact that these gendered rhetorics, that are laced with sexist, violent, and heteronormative themes, extend beyond the language of sports; in fact, institutional and vernacular gendered rhetorics are embedded in the material and everyday practices of running.
Heteronormative rhetorics also pervade the space through a focus on heterosexual relationships. For example, The Divas Half Marathon has shirtless firemen at the finish line.
The USA Women’s Half Marathon has men in tuxedos handing out Tiffany jewelry.
The Disney Princess Half Marathon offered photo opportunities with Disney princes, every mile-marker had a different heterosexual couple featured, and the race award was Cinderella’s Glass Slipper.
There is also an expectation for women to appear heterosexy, meaning to appear sexy for the sake of appreciation of her looks under the male gaze. One way in which this occurs is through the practice of dressing in costume. Which interestingly, is primarily pervasive in vernacular rhetorics.
Another example, this time in the institutional rhetorics, is through the practice of providing tight women’s athletic shirts instead of unisex shirts. These shirts demonstrate the focus on the female body. Take a look at this photo that compares a unisex t-shirt, which the Disney Princess Half Marathon used to provide, with a women’s athletic shirt. Notice the differences in the nips and tucks around the waist and breast areas.
There are certainly negative implications to running events reinforcing heteronormativity. I am particularly concerned about the implications for transgender women runners. Recent rulings in the sport of running, such as NCAA’s new policy regarding transgender participation in sports may seem inclusive, but they are actually more damaging than helpful. The new rule places arbitrary parameters around testosterone levels, which can actually cause more exclusion than inclusion.
However, I want to make it clear that I am not disparaging the practice of women running in costumes. In fact, many women have taken to running in costumes as a way to reclaim a space in which they were previously denied and leverage this practice as embodied vernacularity and activism. For instance, Monika Allen, who was wearing a tutu to raise awareness of her experience with a cancerous brain tumor. Self magazine ran an article with Allen’s photo in their “legit or lame” column, dubbing the practice as “lame” without understanding the context for why she did this.
I liken this practice to what Karlyn Kohrs Campbell found among women rhetors who leveraged a “feminine style” in the masculine space of public speaking to enhance their ethos. I posit that women runners have leveraged a “feminine style” of dressing in costume to create a space for themselves in the running world and embody empowerment. And I argue that by criticizing the practice of dressing in costume, that is reinforcing patriarchal structures that privilege traditional masculine practices.
Rhetorics of Altruism <<point 2>>
Related to the rhetorics of heteronormativity, I now shift to discuss the rhetorics of altruism. These rhetorics of altruism articulate that women runners are expected to run for someone outside of themselves.
For example, during the first Olympics, married women were not allowed to participate or even watch, but single women were to attend since it could help them attract a mate.
In the smock races of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, women were expected to run to attract a husband. As you can see from this painting, it seems as if women were running more for the pleasure of the surrounding men rather than for sport. Notice their ample breasts spilling out of their dresses and the men ogling over them.
A sporting magazine at the time wrote, “Maids who wish to be wives, cannot do better than run for the smock, as it will afford ample opportunity to demonstrate their strength and pliability when called into action” (qtd. in Goulstone 13).
Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, women were told that they should run to attract a man, but to be careful once they were married. They should only run if their husband also ran. In 1988, Marc Bloom wrote in the New York Times that many couples got divorced before women could run because men spent their free time running.
This cartoon accompanied the article, which shows a man heading out the door for a run while his wife tugs on him begging him to stay with her. As if her life is unfulfilled and meaningless without a man.
Bloom argued in this article that since women could now run, they could run with their husbands and improve their relationships. However, they should be careful about running on their own, as he warned women runners to make sure to choose a partner who was also a runner because
“[t]he man who does not run often feels threatened by his mate’s emerging independence” (Bloom C8).
In modern day running events, the theme of women running for someone outside of themselves primarily showed up through the expectation for women to run for their children.
In coed running events, we saw this show up through interviews with women runners, such as Stephanie Bruce, Kara Goucher, and Alysia Montano. Boston Marathoners Bruce and Goucher are renowned athletes, however the focus in news coverage of their marathon finishes centered on their role as a wife and a mother first and foremost. Alysia Montano has been dubbed the “pregnant runner” even though she holds plenty of other titles, including a 2012 Olympian and seven-time USA Champion.
Stephanie Bruce took to Instagram to speak about how she takes her kids with her on the road, but for those times she cannot take them, she says, “I hope my boys remember mom was leaving so often for a reason. That I wasn’t just going on vacations but living out my dreams, racing” (Bruce).
Of course the underlying message was that women shouldn’t leave their children for personal passions or pursuits, but doing so for a “reason” was ok.
Bruce ended the post with the hashtag, #momguilt
The hashtag #momguilt, is pervasive throughout the gendered rhetorics of running.
Consider that the hashtag mom guilt has 160,951 thousand posts on Instagram. Hashtag #dadguilt has 1,078
Women are often told that they should strive to “have it all” which is a myth. The pervasive running rhetorics contributes to an arbitrary set of rules and expectations that women can run “if”…If they are doing so to improve their ability to be a good wife or mother…If they are feminine or sexy…If they are running for altruistic reasons….This message of “if” conveys that women can only pursue running as a recreational activity if she continue to prioritize their role as a wife and mother.
Morality <point 3>
Related to the rhetorical theme of motherhood and the message of having it all are the rhetorics of morality. Running is an activity tied closely to moral attributes of discipline, selflessness, and dedication. As such, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that running rhetorics are tied with messages of morality.
We saw from early times that women runners were judged for their morality. During the pedestrienne craze, Bertha Von Hillern and other women pedestriennes who were judged and criticized for bucking Victorian moral standards because running was seen as immoral.
Motherhood and morality are closely linked. In the runDisney blogs surrounding the Disney Princess Half Marathon, Disney conducted an interview with a mother runner who focused on how even more important than running the half marathon was seeing her “little man” participate in the diaper dash.
Both the Divas Half Marathon and USA Women’s Half Marathon reinforce the “wine-drinking mom” trope through offering of mimosa and champagne and the finish line and wine drinking mom shirts.
The Disney Princess Half Marathon also correlated morality, weight, and gender through the juxtaposition of Ariel and Ursula on the race medals. The Disney Princess Half Marathon featured Ariel, the heroine in The Little Mermaid, on their 5K medal. Ariel represents innocence, morality, and nativity.
In juxtaposition of Ariel’s morality, Disney portrays the villain Ursula in their villains race. Ursula, the villain in the movie, is a fat sea urchin who represents evil, immorality, and lack of discipline. Women with a large body size are often portrayed as morally irresponsible and lacking self-control
If you look at the photo I’m sharing of the medals, notice how Ariel’s body is the focus on the design. She is wearing just a bra, with her tiny waist and breasts featured. Ursula, on the other hand, is displayed with just her face above one tenacle.
The subtle messaging behind this these materials are that larger women are both immoral and should loathe their body.
Urban Design <point 4>
I now shift to discuss the interesting rhetorical theme of affective rhetorics through gendered urban design in coed running events.
The design of the city intermingles with the race course, creating a new gendered narrative on race day. I posit that the gendered narrative experience is shaped both through what is added and what is taken away.
For instance, in the Chicago Marathon, the addition of course marshals on every corner, lighting in areas that were previously dimly lit, and the presence of police and EMTs creates a safer environment for women to run.
Consider the “booziest street” in Chicago that runners run past on the marathon course. During the marathon, women do not have to worry about being catcalled, harassed, or attacked when running past these bars. But during other times of the day or night, a woman cannot walk down that same street with a level of safety nor free from fear.
Coed events are also more closely tied in with the gendered narrative of the city design given the tremendous focus on location in the race rhetorics. Consider, for example, how all of the coed events in this study center on the location of the event: Chicago, New York, London, and Boston.
Conversely, the women’s running events in this study focus on aspects of being a woman: princess or diva, rather than the race location. Given this focus, I posit that the race location is more gendered and holds greater rhetorical significance in coed running events.
Comingling space, place, and gender creates special considerations for the hybrid space of virtual running events. Consider that the New York Virtual Marathon required the use of Strava. This practice created a hybrid space in which runners ran alone, yet together. And while it may seem counterintuitive, I posit that the hybrid space of virtual running events is actually more social and more networked than in-person events. I found that runners connected more in these spaces as location did not act as a barrier. From a gendered perspective, another interesting trend emerged, which is that women used mobile and locative media and self tracking technologies differently than men. While men tended to upload their latest Strava time, pace, and distance to social media, women engaged in social networking forums to ask advice, connect with other runners, and share experiences. However, the virtual running events in this study seemingly ignored that component of runners lived experiences and focused on using these technologies for competition not connection.
Rhetorics of protection and violence <point 5>
Coinciding with the gendered rhetorics of urban city design, I now shift to discuss the rhetorics of protection and violence. I discovered rhetorical themes related to women needing protection against their own propensity to act immorally.
Ironically, this messaging, which is particularly visible through the damsel in distress archetype, articulates that women need men to protect them. The message is that a woman needs a man to save her.
A study conducted by Runner’s World found that 84 percent of women have been harassed or assaulted while running—
94 percent reported that the perpetrators were men.
One example of how these rhetorics manifest in vernacular rhetorics in women’s running events is through the “Princess Protection Committee” shirts that are made for men running in these events. This messaging is particularly infuriating because it conveys that men would only run in this woman-focused event if it is to “protect” a woman. But protect a woman from what? Another man?
I don’t want it to seem like women are the passive recipients of this messaging. Many women are leveraging embodied vernacularity to speak out against this messaging by creating their own shirts, such as this one that says, “This Princess Saves Herself”.
Of course, one could make the argument that women who sign up for a Disney race should fully expect the “damsel in distress” archetype to make an appearance. While that’s a fair point—the matter becomes complicated when you tie together the rhetorical themes of women needing protection alongside the violence in these events. Women do not sign up for the misogyny, harassment, and violence that manifests, partly because of this trope.
To illustrate this point, in the vernacular rhetorics of the Disney Princess Half Marathon, consider how women runners are subject to violence and harassment. As a case in point, consider the Dead Last Start Challenge, which was created in the vernacular space of the “runDisneyrun” Facebook group. In the rulebook for the “Dead Last Start Challenge” male participants are encouraged to start in the last corral and count the number of “princesses” (aka women runners) passed, called “kills.” This is just one example, among many, of the violence and harassment that women receive on their runs.
In virtual races, this violence and harassment become even more of a pronounced issue. When women run in virtual races, they do not have the safety mechanisms in place that exist in physical races. Additionally, given that many of the events require the use of Strava and other mobile tracking applications, this can result in a dangerous lived reality for women.
As a case in point, I discovered that there are instances in which women have been followed on their runs by perpetrators using Strava to stalk their location.
For the future of running, virtual events are on the rise—a trend that began prior to COVID—rising from 479 events in 2016 to 15,080 in 2020.
Given this, I hope to focus future work on the effects of virtual running on gendered rhetorics. While it is still too early to tell what the effects of this move to virtual will be, we already know this will be a gendered topic given that a recent study found that while the percentage of women runners had already tipped the scales into the majority in 2019, the nature of virtual races widened this gap.
In 2020, 75 percent of virtual runners identified as women compared to only 25 percent men (“Race Registration Trends”). And while COVID certainly has played a role in the rise of virtual running, I don’t see this trend going away any time soon. I foresee a future of virtual racing where hybrid spaces become the norm versus a misunderstood concept in which physical and virtual are deemed separate and distinct.
Given the change of landscape in the world of running from in-person to virtual events, we are going to see an increase in how gender relations shape digital leisure practices and online activism.
Another area of research that I want to expand upon is digital activism and advocacy for women of all races, genders, and sexualities. There are pockets of this inclusion today and I am encouraged that this trend will continue.
As such, I plan to extend further research into embodied vernacularity and quiet activism through mobile and locative media.
Hijabirunnersleeds Shahid founded Hijabi Runners to dispel stereotypes within her community on
Overall, in this dissertation, I established that there are both similarities and differences in the way the gendered rhetorics manifest between coed, women’s, and virtual running events. Running events reflect an extension of our heteropatriarchalsociety in the sense that official voices extol a move towards inclusivity, but the lived experience demonstrates that the real everyday embodied experience of women runners is still not being fully considered.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the process of writing this dissertation is not dissimilar to running a marathon.
I round the corner to mile 26 of the Chicago Marathon, I have only .2 miles left. I look to my left and see spectators lining the streets—holding signs, clanging cowbells, and shouting words of encouragement. I remove my headphones, wanting to soak in the ambiance. I glance to my right and see fellow runners trudging up the hill leading us to the finish line.
This journey has been long and filled with both potholes and triumph—blood, sweat, and tears. Of course, there were moments of feeling defeat, detours, heading in the wrong direction, and needing to course correct. I tripped over a few cracks in the sidewalk and ended up with some skinned knees. There were times I headed out in one direction and took the long way down the path, only to discover I was running the wrong way. But I put one foot in front of the other.
I spot the bright pink compression socks of a runner whom I had been solidly behind for the majority of the race; I felt a sense of connection with her even though we have not uttered a word to each other.
One foot in front of the other.
What seemed impossible 26 miles ago is now upon the horizon, and I can see the finish line ahead. Crossing the finish line does not solely represent the completion of 26 miles on the streets of Chicago on this windy October morning.
Rather, it is the culmination of four months of training, sacrificed weekends, scorching hot summer runs with air so humid it felt like running in a steam room, and negotiations with myself and my family to dedicate a portion of my life to achieve this goal. Just like a marathon, this dissertation is not about the trials and tribulations—it is about resiliency. The ability to pick myself back up each time I fall and learn lessons for next time—do not go that route, apply this technique, and don’t eat that brownie before getting started (ok, so maybe that one just applies to running). But here we are—at the end of the course. Sweaty, exhausted, and a bit out of sorts, but the experience was invaluable. The feeling of exhilaration cannot be put into words. I raise my arms in the air as I cross the finish line and welcome the medal around my neck. On to the next race.
As I come to a close, I want to thank those who supported me on this journey. My advisor, Michelle Smith, has gone above and beyond in supporting me in my dissertation process. Dr. Smith provided tremendous support, encouragement, and coaching, reviewing my long (and rough) drafts, meeting with me weekly, and helping me achieve my goals on an accelerated timeline. Jordan Frith sparked a passion within my soul on digital rhetorics and the relationship to virtual running and activism in his seminar. I am grateful to Bryan Denham for his direction on conducting sport and communications research, especially during the independent study Dr. Denham led. I appreciate Kristen Okamoto for pointing me toward important resources along the way. I want to thank Dr. Cynthia Haynes for her inspiration in using the mystory style. I am also indebted to Dr. Jan Holvemik for introducing me to Adobe products, which has been invaluable. I also want to thank Dr. Blakesley for taking a chance on me and hiring me as Managing Editor for The WAC Journal. And special thanks to Dr. Ursoy for introducing me to the narrative architecture concept, which inspired chapter three of this dissertation. I also want to thank my Dissertation Writing Group members, Victoria Houser and Sarah Richardson, who have read and offered valuable feedback on drafts and ideas. Writing a dissertation is both an intellectual and emotional journey. As such, I extend a special thank you to Katie Rubin and Kate Anthony who provided emotional support for me in this journey. Lastly, but most importantly, I am incredibly grateful to my children, Joshua and Emily Cacciatore, for being there for me every step of the way. They are, and always have been, my source of inspiration.