Writing (here) for the (UK) Telegraph, reporter Kathryn Dobson covering the Wimbledon beat asks, “Why do women grunt?” The explanations proferred in the article include a tennis player’s desire to gain psychological advantage over one’s opponent, facilitate application of maximum force to a shot, enhance relaxation, and release tension. Some tennis insiders criticize the sounds as unsporting and distracting to other players. Indeed even the casual fan can tell you that the sounds can be distracting enough to cause television viewers to reach for the mute button on their remote controls.
To be sure, the “grunting” phenomenon is not limited to the women’s game. As quoted in the Telegraph article, Ivan Lendl said of Andre Agassi’s vocalizations that “when he goes for a big shot, his grunt is much harder, like he thinks he’s a winner. It throws off your timing.” But the vocalizations from women seem to be more pronounced and louder than their male counterparts’. To my ear, 104+ decibels from Maria Sharapova are more than “grunts.” They are in a far higher register than her speaking voice, too. As gendered as it sounds, I’d have to say that Maria Sharapova shrieks, whereas male tennis players grunt. Her noises bother me in a way that Agassi’s never did.
Why is that?
The knee-jerk analysis is that I am inappropriately criticizing a female athlete for doing what a male athlete does. If a woman and a man engage the same biomechanics, then it would appear that I register a “shriek” from a woman and a “grunt” from a man. The only physical difference is the register of the voice. Thus it is my sexist cultural conditioning that makes me label the female athlete a “shrieker” (always negative) and the male athlete a “grunter” (could be positive if I think it is “manly;” neutral if I think that’s just what guys do or it is “athletic”; or negative if it reflects bad manners).
But is there more going on? My suspicion is that female tennis players who vocalize to gain psychological advantage over one’s opponent, facilitate application of maximum force to a shot, enhance relaxation, or release tension could do so in a lower register. In other words, female tennis players could grunt like the men if they wanted. But vocalizing in a higher — and perhaps the highest possible — register emphasizes and maintains gender distinctions. In other words, even if the psychological/tactical/biomechanical motivations are the same for men and women, exaggerating pitch differences makes the female athletes as least like men as possible, under the circumstances. The athlete may be sweating like a man and performing a traditionally male activity (hey, look at the history of sports), but she makes herself audibly recognizable as a female.
That being said, I don’t think that vocalizing in a higher register is a necessarily a gender-aware, deliberate choice. News reports say that some of the female tennis players who are “noisy” in their 20’s were vocalizing even as youth players. But to say that any of us has ever existed pre-gender is to suggest a utopia that does not exist. Elite athletes certainly are not thinking about gender or sex while in a game situation. But is it too far-fetched to suggest that to the extent that female tennis players vocalize, it sounds a teensy-weensy orgasmic? Cultural tolerates certain sounds and not others from women.