How “Hip Checks” Betray Our Gender-Mediated Gaze

Erica Rand applies the sports method, “hip checks”, to explore race and gender bias in ‘The Small Book of Hip Checks’.

The Small Book of Hip Checks: On Queer Gender, Race, and Writing
Erica Rand
Duke University Press
January 2021

Identities aren’t all about being born this way, even if it can feel like that.

Erica Rand

Hockey fans are likely familiar with the hip check, a term used to describe a player dropping his or her stance and swinging their hips toward a player on the opposing team. The purpose of a hip check is to knock the opposing player off balance, and this unbalancing is one of the ways Erica Rand uses the term in The Small Book of Hip Checks.

Along with the hip check as a means of redirecting one’s thinking–whether author or reader–Rand also sees hip checks as a kind of flirtation, an opening or slant of the hips that invites the gaze of the other. Finally, and crucially, the hip check is also about checking gender through hips traditionally coded as both female and feminine. Rand considers how hips play a role in gender expression and perception through a series of connected essays.

Only a few of these are fundamentally personal essays, yet Rand consistently checks her own position and perspective. She also openly discusses the process of writing and editing this collection, hip-checking herself. Her hip checks involve circling back and raising questions for the reader and herself, rendering the book as a living document, rather than one fixed in perpetuity. 

It also creates uncertainty, not in a way that negates anything Rand writes but rather leaves open possibilities. So much of what we call theory–perhaps better thought of as ways of trying to ascertain why and how things are–aspires to be definitive, the end-all reason with attribution granted to a particular critic or philosopher. Rand is engaged more in observation and contemplation, both of which have their own kind of truth. Uncertainty, though, is not Rand’s dilemma. 

At one point, she describes her revision and rumination process as a writing dilemma, looking for the language that can best articulate the complexities of gender, race, and culture. This is the intersection where much of Rand’s writing is situated. It’s also informed by some of her own subjectivities. That she has competed in the U.S. Adult National Figure Skating Championship and skating in the Gay Games gives Rand a particular perspective on hips, both physical and metaphorical. For skaters identifying as women, figure skating demands both femininity and physical strength. Whether that’s a paradox is also a hip check: despite a broad array of women who are amateur and professional athletes, as revered as their male counterparts, this is still an uncomfortable place in mainstream culture. 

One essay focuses on figure skater Debi Thomas’ unitard and another recalls the cultural impact of skater Dorothy Hamill’s haircut. Rand writes about the effect of skaters’ skirts that flip up when a skater jumps, spins, or performs a spiral, revealing the matching uniform bottom: a distinctly feminine gesture but also one that is easily sexualized. She argues that Hamill’s incredibly popular hairstyle could be seen as a metaphor for the skirt since her bob of hair moved in a way that resembled the skirt.

Where Hamill might have been seen as “cute” or “feminine”, Thomas is more often seen as “strong”. Thomas’ choice of wearing a unitard, with stirrups at the leg bottom that wrap under her skates, denies the possibility of sexualizing her in a mainstream, hegemonic manner. Rand notes that skating costumes hide the powerful butt and thigh muscles required for skating. “Stereotypically associated with Black people, [the muscles] get in the way of the white-European standards of ethereal femininity rewarded in figure skating presentation,” Rand notes. “A Black woman in a costume that doesn’t obscure muscles fails twice to meet those standards, especially since the attribution of strength to Black women specifically often threatens to disqualify them from the category of woman itself.”

The categories of gender, and the fluidity among those categories that are often overlooked, inspires a fascinating yet emotionally fraught essay on gendering bodies at the US-Mexico border. Rand’s interest here began at a Day of the Dead ritual honoring those who died crossing the border. She noticed three different Spanish words to mark the crosses recognizing those whose names were unknown: desconocido (male), desconocida (female), and desconocido/a (male or female/unknown), indicating the biological sex of the body.

This essay ruminates how the first step in studying skeletal remains is to determine the deceased’s sex. Unsurprisingly, hips are often one of the places where bones give a clear indication of sex and inclinations about race. Spinning out this particular hip check into a larger cultural concern, Rand wonders what is lost for those whose gender identity is not indicated by their hips that don’t always tell the whole story of how a person identified themselves in the world. 

In these essays, Rand hip checks the NBA, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, a Burger King ad campaign for the Proud Whopper situated at a Pride parade, blue jeans, a somewhat pornographic moment in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather that was secretly circulated among her classmates, and, toward the end, lavender-colored dildos. She not only asks readers to question their assumptions, she also performs that inquiry through her writing.

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