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Backhand Shots: Women, Hockey, Narrative

Two years ago, give or take, I decided to become a hockey fan. When I say that I became a fan, I don’t mean that I jumped on the New York Rangers’ 2014 Stanley Cup bandwagon and sort of forgot to get off. I mean that some loose threads in my life, my love for sports and my need for allegiance, got knotted together into a fundamental life change akin to joining a church or giving up meat. It is somewhat embarrassing for an academic to care deeply about a professional sport, particularly one that is blindingly white, carries all the weight of male privilege and sexual transgression, and frequently results in brain damage. (In academia, questions like “How can you watch that?” are often more than, well, academic.) And when you have spent a good deal of your thinking life cultivating – or being driven to – cynical distance, the sloppy, unchecked emotion of sports fandom can seem like either an affront or a revelation.

I chose revelation.

Eighteen years ago, on the very first day of my very first class for my very last – I think – graduate degree, my professor described Isabel Archer, the protagonist of Henry James’ 1881 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, as “the first accurate example of female consciousness in fiction.” He said it cheerfully, an off-the-cuff insight he was delighted to share and thought we would be thrilled to receive. Instead, the room rumbled like a distended stomach, and my appalled, mostly female classmates began to fire back names: Jane Austen. The Brontës. Harriet Jacobs. George Eliot. I was fresh from a masters program focused on theory and gender studies – plus I can read – so I thought he was kidding. I love Portrait as much as the next girl who wants to make her life a work of art, I really do. But for a white male professor at an eminent institution to dismiss the ability of any and all pre-1880 fiction written by women about women to effectively portray what it was like to be a woman … that had to be a joke, right?

It wasn’t. That was a revelation, too. We don’t always get to choose.

51ET3q6-9uL._SL500_BO1,204,203,200_I thought of this moment often while reading Amazons, the 1980 book that claimed to be “An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League,” but wasn’t. Don DeLillo and his colleague Sue Buck created Cleo Birdwell, a scrappy, sexy blonde Ohioan who allegedly joined the New York Rangers sometime in the late 70s. Amazons, I soon realized, is the secret every remotely-bookish hockey fan already knows. The novel surfaces every so often, usually in relation to DeLillo (whose authorship was expediently outed by Christopher Lehman-Haupt in his review for the New York Times), less often in writing about hockey films and fiction, and rarely – only once, in fact, that I could find – in an essay about women’s sports: aptly, a piece on the invisibility of women’s hockey in America, by Nick Ripatrazone at LARB. Ripatrazone was also the only writer who mentioned Manon Rheaume, the very real French-Canadian goaltender who played two exhibition games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992-93. The rest of the writers, it seems, knew more about a fictional female NHLer than they did about a real one.

Sadly, that’s not surprising. Media coverage of women’s sports is so brief and infrequent that it can seem almost dreamlike. So today, in the wake of the US women’s FIFA World Cup victory (where they captured not only first place but also record-breaking numbers of TV viewers), and in anticipation of the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League, might be the ideal time to think about what, if anything, a 35-year-old literary hoax can help us understand about sports, gender, and media. Amazons reminds us that professional sports rely on narratives, and that narratives are constructed truths. No other pastime is simultaneously as diligent about its facts, as blindly invested in its legends, or as resistant to new kinds of stories. And somehow, in the world of sports, women are always a new story.


amazons_brit_pbWas Amazons a new story? Yes and no. Cleo spends the novel claiming that “All I wanted to do was play hockey,” and like any other player, she scores goals, gets beat up, and throws punches in return as her team plays, wins, loses, changes management, and spends endless nights on the road. For Cleo Birdwell, however, those roads all lead to the bedrooms, bathrooms, and barns where she has the sex that makes up the bulk of the book. The problem isn’t that Cleo has sex, so much as where (everywhere), with whom (everyone), when (constantly), and how (obligatorily – she turns only one man down completely); she has it, to the point where even she wonders, “Am I letting things get out of control? Are these men starting to back up on me?” For me, reading Amazons at 45 was the reverse of reading Judy Blume’s Forever at 11. Ripatrazone put it well: “the claustrophobic, awkward sex in the novel makes readers long for actual hockey.”

The absence of “actual hockey” makes me wonder what readers of the book actually expected to find. The intimacy suggested in the subtitle, along with the sultry “author photo,” imply from the get-go that hockey is only one of Cleo’s skills, an impression she upholds when describing the media coverage of her debut:

Everyone said I made a blazing entry into the NHL. They wrote about my honey blonde hair flying in the breeze, my silver skate blades flashing, my plucky work in the corners, my style, my stamina, my milky blue eyes, my taut ass and firm breasts, the nightmarish bruises on my downy white thighs.

Cleo is well-aware that her fame has as much if not more to do with what her agent and sole female friend, Floss Penrose, describes as her “box-office appeal” as it does her prowess on the ice. But is DeLillo critiquing that double standard, or banking on it? (Amazons made more money than any of his novels to that point.) Is Cleo in on the joke, or just in it?

The truth is that she’s both, although she doesn’t always know it. The book takes its title from the ancient race of women warriors, and at first Cleo, the first woman to play a brutal sport alongside and against men, fits that description. By the end of the book, however, “Amazons” is the name of a snack food she is asked to hawk for the “Kelloid” Company: “Women-tested Amazons. The snack we packed for women.” When she refuses, they get a more conventional female athlete, a figure skater, to sell the snacks instead. Cleo may be the first woman to play in the NHL, but she’s also easily replaceable, perhaps because the “snack” her character represents is not “packed” for women at all.


41ual08feWL._SL500_So who exactly is Amazons “packed” for? Sports fans? DeLillo fans? Rangers fans? (The few old-timers I surveyed had never heard of it.) It seems unlikely that the book is aimed at women, whether they’re interested in a novel about a female athlete or a sport they happen to love. There’s no on-ice romance with a sexy linemate; in fact, Cleo never sleeps with another active player. She just has strange, often sad sex with damaged, inappropriate men. Perhaps DeLillo thought that sleeping with teammates would cheapen Cleo, but it’s hard to understand why she would not once have sampled the wares of a teammate whose dick has its own name (“Erik was Torkelson; his penis was Torkle”). Or maybe it’s because, in the sexual hierarchy of sports, a woman who finds male athletes attractive is basically the worst thing you can be.

Cleo seems at first to give new meaning to “fantasy sports:” she’s beautiful, she’s sexually available, and she knows her game. However, her nonstop conquests upend the team’s traditional power structure, which suggests that female sexual agency has no place in an all-male world. Nearly four decades later, men still have their sports served up with a side of half-naked (and poorly-paid) women: cheerleaders, “ice girls,” and the come-hither vixens in beer commercials. Yet a woman who comments on a male player’s looks is almost inevitably dismissed or belittled by the guys who serve as gatekeepers for conventional fan communities. Stacy May Fowles and others have argued that women can love both the players and the game; finding men attractive shouldn’t automatically diminish our status as committed, knowledgeable fans. Nor does it automatically objectify the men involved, because, as Fowles points out, “their sexual attractiveness isn’t systemically oppressing them.” Henrik Lundqvist isn’t a hockey player because he’s phenomenally handsome; he’s a hockey player who just happens to be phenomenally handsome. So what’s wrong with admiring both the handsome and the hockey?

A lot, apparently. By institutionalizing straight men’s desires while policing and/or mocking women’s, professional sports constantly remind us that we are not their target demographic. This is why the questions Amazons raises for readers who are also feminist sports fans – me, for instance – are so important; they look a lot like the questions we ask ourselves on any given Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday. When we see scantily clad women doing promotional work for the teams we follow, or FIFA describes star center Alex Morgan as “easy on the eyes,” or yet another article points out that Serena Williams is not a skinny blonde white girl, or, most recently and most disturbingly, when a league and a team decide to close ranks around an accused rapist instead of suspending him, we’re left wondering, Who is this for? Am I supposed to be enjoying this? Am I even supposed to be here?

The answer that sports teams, media, and many male fans send, over and over, is no.

Phyllis Kessel, a hockey blogger for Pension Plan Puppets, writes:

Many of the stereotypes about women sports fans – that women are not knowledgeable or committed … that they are only fans because of attraction to players/to please a boyfriend or husband/to get a boyfriend or husband – position (heterosexual) femininity as anathema to sports fandom … This is because maleness and masculinity are the standards against which sports fandom is measured. To be a fan, in short, is to be a man – or perhaps, in the case of some of the participants, to be a fan is to be like a man.

Kessel’s point about default masculinity extends beyond fandom to reveal something complex in the construction of Cleo’s identity, for some of the most disturbing moments in Amazons occur when Cleo plays, or desires, “like a man.” Her own near-constant objectification seems to teach her nothing about boundaries, respect or consent; she simply replicates the treatment she receives, and worse. In the first chapter, she drags tennis player Archie Brewster, her friend’s lover, to her room to have sex with him while he sleeps. (He agrees enthusiastically only after waking and finding the act already begun.) Later, during locker room hijinks, Cleo “got caught up in the merrymaking and took a friendly little swipe at [her teammate’s] cock.” (As God is my witness, I have no idea what this would entail, but I imagine it looking something like a cat batting a dishrag):

“What are you doing?” he said. “Hey!”

“Just playing around.”


“Don’t be so touchy.”

“That’s my penis.”

“I know what it is. It’s from the Latin.”

“Well, you can’t do that.”

“It’s locker-room stuff,” I said. “Fergie’s always grabbing your penis.”

“He doesn’t grab it; he grabs at it. There’s a world of difference.”

“He grabs at it, okay. And Dougie grabs at Fergie’s. It’s locker room.”

“Well, if you don’t know the difference between their grabbing at it and your grabbing it, I don’t know what to tell you.”

I handed him a towel and he covered up.

“We’re teammates, Bruce. It was just an impulse. I didn’t mean to violate you.”

“Well, okay, I guess, but try to watch it from now on.”

This interaction has all the elements of sexual harassment: the unwanted touch, the aggressor’s insistence that the contact was just a joke, the appropriation of the language of rape to mock the victim for overreacting. Cleo’s second target takes the time to articulate what she did wrong (“this is my body; you do not have permission to touch it; you are acting inappropriately and making me uncomfortable; don’t do it again”). But Cleo doesn’t apologize; she simply explains that he misunderstood her intentions. Sound familiar? Taken together, the scenes read, chillingly, like rape culture ur-texts, and rely on the readers’ knowledge of real, horrible stories for their un-funny punch lines. They also imply that a woman, given a male athlete’s prestige and opportunity, will be just as sexually aggressive – and as little concerned with consent – as male athletes can be, and are. Cleo is a hockey player; therefore, Cleo doesn’t need your permission.

We can’t overlook what Cleo’s transgressions reveal about the dark margin between sex and sports. Still, there are moments when she’s admirable, particularly when she’s fighting – physically or verbally. Her best rant isn’t aimed at the NHL, or the advertising business, or the men who pursue her for sex. It’s against the Arab oil magnates who buy the Rangers and begin to police her activities (and those of the male players) in much more clear-cut ways: curfews, bed checks, surveillance of her apartment. When they demand that she play veiled, however, Cleo puts her skate down:

Just the face, or do they want me wearing the full-length veil? Because it could impede my slap shot, all that flowing material. I could probably get off a pretty good wrist shot, but the slap shot would definitely be a casualty of the full-length veil … I’ve been meaning to ask Jeep to let me kill penalties. The full-length veil might be a big help there. I could envelop people in it. Neutralize the other team’s power play. Of course, this could lead to an additional penalty. Two minutes for veiling. “Birdwell goes off for veiling LaFleur. She veiled him viciously from behind. You saw it, folks. Another gutless attack by the Veiled Marauder.” Do I have a home veil and a road veil? Can I wear a number on my veil, so people know who I am, ha ha?

It’s a funny speech, but it’s sad that Cleo gets angrier – and, ironically, says more about hockey – in response to a ludicrous threat that never actually materializes, than she does about the sexism she encounters in everyday life. The Arabs become the bad guys, while all the men who watch her, trade her, buy her, sell her, fuck her, punch her, and treat her as a trash can for their All – (North) American anxieties get off scot-free.


Amazons-by-Cleo-BirdwellIn many ways, Amazons is as prescient as it is reductive – but perhaps it is prescient only because the media’s approach to women in sports continues to be reductive. 35 years later, we’re (re)telling the same stories, and yet, like Cleo, we don’t seem to be learning from them. Amazons relies but does not explicitly comment on congruences between the bodies of professional male athletes and those of women in general, their commodification and the expiration dates on their biological, social, and professional potency. DeLillo understood that a hot female athlete was a marketable commodity; he also deduced, apparently correctly, that her athleticism could function as the enabling fiction for her sexual freedom.

Suddenly I understand why Cleo Birdwell reminds me of Isabel Archer. Perhaps a female Ranger was DeLillo’s 20th century edition of a Jamesian heiress: tragic vulnerability mistaking itself for omnipotence and opportunity. In a significant way, Cleo is one of a long line of heroines who seems unaware of what game she’s playing, or what kind of book she’s in. At the end of Amazons, Cleo is alone in her Arab-owned apartment, tending anxiously to the sleeping body of her sort-of-boyfriend after getting drunk and forgetting where she left him. She is not playing hockey, and she is not happy. Ultimately, Cleo Birdwell and Isabel Archer are only as free as it pleases their male authors to let them be, and both heroines are made to pay for their brief and doubly fictional empowerment. This is not feminism, by any stretch of the imagination. These are not “accurate depictions of female consciousness.” This is the world as it is and always has been.

For DeLillo, the complex intersections of sports, sex, and gender were apparently not lasting concerns, but brief comic relief from the loftier material (academia, conspiracy, terrorism, baseball) that would become his canon. In 1985, Amazons character Murray Jay Siskind reappeared in White Noise. At the same time, DeLillo asked his editor to delete Amazons from his list of works. He let the book go out of print and won’t allow it to be republished. Like Cassandra, Cleo foretold the future, but no one believed her. And now she’s gone.

If DeLillo thought he could make hockey’s female Sidd Finch disappear completely, he underestimated the tenacity of sports nostalgia. “Athletes aren’t supposed to die,” wrote Cleo, and today, thanks to the internet, they almost never do. We have a bottomless repository of facts and stats and video rendering practically every professional athlete in every sport virtually immortal. When it comes to women, however, the record is much shorter, or maybe no one cares to look. The most high-profile mention of Amazons in recent years was in the New York Times, where Keith Gessen wrote, “But of course there has never yet been a woman player in the N.H.L., and certainly not one named Cleo Birdwell.” I’m not sure which is worse: if Gessen didn’t know about Manon Rheaume, or if he knew but thought she didn’t matter enough to mention. The general manager who signed Rheaume was none other than Phil Esposito, who, had Cleo actually played for the Rangers in 1979-80, would have been on her team. Yet to many hockey fans, Rheaume is as fictional as Birdwell, which is too bad. All she wanted to do was play hockey.

Today, 35 years later, women still want to play hockey, and other women –and many men – want to watch. But it’s not easy. This year there will be not one but two professional women’s hockey leagues, the American NWHL and Canada’s CWHL, but as of right now, neither will have their games shown on TV. Even the World Series of the women’s game, USA vs. Canada, can only be watched online. This may be in part because hockey is America’s least popular professional sport (and thus perfect for Cleo, since its relative insignificance mirrors her own). Still, I’m reminded of Adrienne Rich, writing about how it felt to be a woman in a university classroom in the early 70s: “I do not deserve to take up time and space.” Sports networks regularly feature such arcane activities as duck hunting, fly fishing, and log tossing, but very little attention – 3.2 % of network sports coverage, according to one recent study – is given to women. Is it really all about profitability? Or is it the lingering belief that women don’t deserve to take up the time and space traditionally given to men?

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “no world is so set off from the disorganization and disenchantment of the quotidian than the world, or worlds, of sports.” This may be true for men, but I would argue that women, be they athletes or fans, are never for a moment allowed to forget the quotidian, the everyday reality of their bodies, and the absence – or deletion – of those bodies from the dominant sports narratives; this is doubly true for trans women and women of color. We play and watch sports by the grace of the men in FIFA and the men at ESPN and many other men who never once dreamed, I don’t think, that female athletes would ever actually share the story with them, or be more than a half-time show, Left Sharks to “real,” i.e. men’s, sports. (Like “women’s fiction,” all sports are men’s sports unless explicitly labeled otherwise.) To these men, all female athletes are Cleo Birdwell – novelty acts and one-offs, good for close-ups, but not worth sustained interest or investment. And female fans who aren’t buying pink apparel or in the kitchen making dip are simply off the radar.

I’m not mad at DeLillo for writing a sexist book. I’m mad at him for disowning it and refusing to allow us to learn from it. I’m mad at him for believing that the issues raised by Amazons are not still worth debating in book groups and literature classrooms and the smarter side of sports media. I’m also glad he wrote it. Amazons lifts sexism and sports beyond Oates’ quotidian, so that we can see its impact and implications. But DeLillo’s continued rejection of his creation confirms and perpetuates the widely-held belief that women’s sports – and, by extension, women’s experiences – don’t belong on the same stage (or page) with loftier male concerns.

These stories are not new, but we’re still waiting for the men at the top to have their revelation. No matter how many ways we demonstrate our willingness to support women’s sports, we can’t buy what no one is selling, we can’t read what no one is publishing, and we can’t watch the veiled athletes no one will let us see.

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion of Amazons. The impact of Title IX on women’s empowerment, in sports and in all aspects of sports, cannot be dismissed. But the minimization of women athletes is no less real. Great work.


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