Professor uncovers surprising historical roots of figure skating
Mary Louise Adams originally set out to examine popular ideas about sexuality and gender by looking at the assumptions many people make about the masculinity of male figure skaters. However, she discovered that a sport that is now primarily the preserve of middle-class girls used to be practiced almost exclusively by aristocratic men in England and elsewhere in Europe.
“I thought I was doing a contemporary study,” says Dr. Adams, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. “But this discovery led to my project shifting focus. I wanted to look historically at how skating changed gender so completely.”
Dr. Adams has recently published the first English language scholarly history of the sport entitled Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport. Her research explores how changing cultural expectations around gender over the last two centuries have had an impact on people’s participation in figure skating and on their perceptions of the sport. In the 1930s, Hollywood films starring Sonja Henie brought figure skating to a large public audience for the first time. Her popularity among young girls, followed by the loss of many male figure skaters to the military in the late 1930s and 40s, helped to give figure skating a feminine reputation.
Dr. Adams focuses on masculinity and male skaters as a way of understanding broader ideas about class, gender and sexuality.
“A central argument of the book is that we have made strides in changing expectations about how women use their bodies, with them participating in activities as diverse as ballet and rugby, but it’s still not cool for a young man to say he has grown up figure skating,” she says. “We need to allow for there to be a whole range of possibilities for young people to express themselves as they want, without worrying about gender. We diminish ourselves as a society by limiting what our children think they can and can’t do.”
Artistic Impressions: Figure Skating, Masculinity, and the Limits of Sport is published by the University of Toronto Press.