Published: April 13, 2024

Name: Jaimie Jettmar  
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Velda Khoo 
Class: Ling 2400: Language, Gender, and Sexuality
Semester: Fall 2023
LURA 2024


Female and male athletes are not treated exactly the same in discourse, but in the case of rock climbing this may be a good thing, as it creates and redefines a new type of femininity. In taking the course Language, Gender, and Sexuality taught by Professor Kira Hall, I decided to investigate the way that female climbers are discussed in competitive situations. Dr. Hall and the teaching assistant Velda Khoo both nominated me for this award and I'm honored!

For my paper, I analyzed one competition in particular. I chose the most strength-based type of climbing competition (bouldering) to see if sport journalists use commentary that contradicts expected gender norms. Bouldering requires a ton of power, which resonates more with the stereotypical image of masculinity rather than femininity. For an up-to-date discussion, I chose the 2023 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Championships in Bern, Switzerland, where six women competed for the world title in bouldering. The commentary provided by the IFSC was done by one woman and one man: retired female climber Shauna Coxsey, an English athlete competing from 2012 to 2021 with multiple golds in the Bouldering World Cup, and climbing announcer Matt Groom, who does not compete but is a climber himself and is currently the lead commentator for IFSC.

Throughout the 2 hour women's bouldering competition, a variety of adjectives and verbs were used to describe the way the athletes moved, behaved, or looked. Specific excerpts were selected for analysis, with attention to whether or not the commentary recognized how these women climbers balance their femininity with their participation in a more masculine sport. The guiding questions that helped identify key moments were the following: Are climbing announcers able to grapple with women doing traditionally masculine activities without belittling them? How do the announcers’ unique ways of talking about the topic of climbing reflect the climbing community’s perspectives on gender?

There are quite a few moments within the competition that provide answers to these questions, but the most key moments in my opinion would be, first, the commentary surrounding Natalia Grosman's attempt on the first of four boulders and second, the commentary surrounding Oriane Bertone's eventual completion (top) of the second boulder problem. With respect to the first key moment, sportscaster Matt Groom says the following:


Jaimie Jettmar text image 1

The mention of a "big smile" is definitely a descriptor used more for female athletes than male athletes in competitions. In order not to be viewed as rude, women are expected to smile at almost all times. This is in sharp contrast to expectations for male athletes, for whom variation in facial expression (including just a resting face) is far more acceptable. Bucholtz and Hall’s (2010) model of identity would view this as a type of adequation, whereby Natalia is “adequated” (or described as sufficiently similar to) the traditional feminine. In this case, the commentary is delivered by a man, Matt Groom, who is strikingly underqualified in comparison to his co-anchor, Shauna Coxsey. This irony is interesting, to say the least, but as the competition continues it is clear that Matt means no disrespect. As seen in the passage below, he clearly admires every one of the athletes, including Oriane, who he describes in similar terms. 


Jaimie Jettmar text image 2

In this passage, we also find lots of smile descriptors again adequating the athlete with the traditional feminine. Furthermore, Matt's failure to initially notice the nails, as well as Shauna's response "I think Zelia has the same too," both show that traditional gender norms are still quite present for these two announcers. The former comment suggests that women are discussed with attention to detail regarding their physical appearance, while such descriptions appear to matter much less in the male social sphere. Shauna's use of a hedge ("I think”), rather than being direct, further conforms to what has been described as the apologetic feminine (Dilley 2006), which is still quite pertinent and well known in social spheres.

Although Matt describes Oriane’s "wildness" in the above excerpt as a childish attribute, it can also be seen as a masculine attribute. Oriane’s deviance from the traditional masculine and traditional feminine is what makes her great in this context, carving out a space for the uniqueness that every one of these athletes brings to the competition. The complexity of this situation can be better understood through the lens of what Judith Butler (1990) calls gender performativity. In my paper, I ultimately argue that what is seen in these excerpts is not the illegitimation of female athletes, but rather the authorization and active creation of a new form of femininity. These women are competing for world titles with daintily painted nails and gorgeous braids, knowing full well that they'll be scraping the paint off on the wall and making powerful moves which will certainly loosen their neat hair. They embody certain elements of the traditional feminine, but they also subvert these displays through their actions during competitions.

These contrasts are legitimized by the commentary: the women athletes are not devalued for their gender but rather recognized and applauded for traits typically understood as both masculine and feminine. The climbing community’s recognition of a more powerful and boundless form of femininity will hopefully carry over into the broader perspective on climbing beyond the community, potentially allowing for this more complex understanding of femininity to break into general discourse and give women more than the social position of the traditional feminine.


Title Image Credit

Public domain pictures - free stock photos. (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2022, from  


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  2. Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2010). Locating identity in language. Language and identities18(1), 18-28.

  3. Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble. ‎Routledge, pp. 191-193. 

  4. Dilley, R. (2006). Climbing tales: Gendered body narratives and stories of strength. Thinking Gender-the NEXT Generation.

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