I’m a figure skater. I’m what U.S. Figure Skating calls an “adult skater,” which means I took to the ice after my chances at Olympic glory had passed but before I was technially dead. It’s a trait I share with Erica Rand, professor of art and visual culture and of women’s and gender studies at Bates College and author of Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure On and Off the Ice. (Which I just finished reading while camping in 30-degree weather in the Boyne Highlands of Michigan, because I’m like that.)
Professor Rand and I also have one other thing in common: we’ve both spent considerable time thinking and writing about the sex and gender issues highlighted and enforced by the sport. We’re both well aware that we’re in love with a sport that is obviously sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, and transphobic. Yet we both refuse to be part of any kyriarchical overthrow that does not involve figure skating. If it doesn’t have ice in it, count us out.
It’s been about ten years since I did any serious writing on figure skating, and when I did, my interest (at the wise old age of nineteen) was figure skating’s obvious sexism problems. The sport has gotten only marginally better in the last decade. “Ladies’” programs are still scored at an automatic 20 percent deduction merely because they are skated by women. Women are still expected to display a hyperfemininity that is not only frowned upon in men, but can actually get them barred from some of the sport’s major events. But that’s certainly not the end of a sex-and-gender-focused critique of figure skating. Heck, it’s hardly the beginning.
Red Nails, Black Skates goes further, into territory my straight cis heteronormative conventionally femme boots (and blades) never much considered: that the sport privileges and reinforces conventional gender dimorphism at the expense of extraordinary opportunities to showcase human expression. (Okay, so I made that last bit up: Prof. Rand herself sticks mostly to description, and manages to explain the sport’s problematic bits without ever being pessimistic or judgmental. Unlike, you know, me.)
Some of the topics Red Nails, Black Skates covers include:
- Costumes for skaters, especially female skaters, and especially the ever-so-gender-specific black versus white skate boots. (Riedell offers multiple colors, including blue and pink, as custom options, but I have only ever seen one skater wear them.)
- Sandbagging, scoring, and the impossible bind of knowing exactly what the judges want – and exactly how your gender presentation is working for or against you in competition
- Femininity in figure skating. Masculinity in figure skating. Johnny Weir: too gay for figure skating? (I could seriously write a book about Johnny Weir’s skating. And another book about Johnny Weir’s sartorial sense.)
- Hockey, roller derby, and why some women choose these sports – and who we’re choosing to be when we do.
- Racism, classism, and other lurking marginalizations in the sport
- Pleasure, pain, and risk-taking, both how they look on the ice and what they mean to us as human beings.
Here’s the thing: I love skating, and you can take it from me when you pry my blades from my cold dead hands. Professor Rand pretty obviously feels the same way. So we’re both openly biased about the joys and beauty of the sport. But it’s a bias that makes Red Nails, Black Skates *more* honest, not less, because it’s a bias that balances what are some serious social justice issues that figure skating currently embodies. It’s a bias that sees not only what the sport is, but what it can become, a bias that pushes figure skating toward, in the words of the World Figure Skating Museum, the realization of its own power “to stir the imagination, lift the spirit, and realize human potential.” Not bad for 300 pages.