Cinderella at the Big Dance

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week you might not have noticed that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is underway. My own fandom encompasses many different kinds of sports each for different reasons, but far and away the men’s tournament is the most entertaining televised event of the year. We’ll just have to set aside the irony of recognizing the problematic nature of elite-level college sports while enjoying it as faculty. Sorry! That’s a whole other post. Here I want to bring up a semiotic curiosity and get your feedback.

Non-sports fans, let me set the stage.

Over the course of the basketball season the teams play each other and develop reputations for their skill (or lack thereof), and the culmination of the season is a tournament in which only select teams are invited to play. There’s a lot of drama leading up to the tournament as a convoluted selection process decides which teams will play and in what order they will meet. As the anticipation builds and the media hype machine goes into overdrive we often hear the basketball tournament marketed as “the Dance” or “the Big Dance.” In this narrative the selection process is likened to a courtship ritual, with the teams as available women each of whom wants to make herself appear as desirable as possible in order to draw the most attention from suitors.

The selection process results in a numerical ranking for each team that represents their quality. The contest begins by pitting the weakest against the strongest. In theory this should give the strongest teams the best chance for advancing, but every year their are surprising upsets in which the underdog beats a heavily favored team.

If an underdog wins twice in row it is said to be a “Cinderella.” In this well known folktale, Cinderella, a girl in a structurally disadvantaged position in her family, undergoes a transformation in which she is revealed to be more beautiful and powerful than her mother (and sisters) who had previously tormented her. In the Disney version of this tale, the version most popular among young people in America, Cinderella goes to a dance with her identity masked and while she’s there she is courted by a Prince as her sisters and mother look on powerless to stop her.

Note how the tournament proper begins with 64 teams. The games commence and the winners advance to the round of 32. After the conclusion of the second round of the tournament there are only 16 teams remaining and these are said to be the “Sweet Sixteen.” Sweet Sixteen is also the name given to an American coming of age ritual, typically for girls.

Thus it is possible for a college basketball fan to say something like, “Well at first it didn’t look like we were going to make it to the Big Dance but we had a Cinderella season and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen.”

Isn’t it interesting that the success of male athletes, who are celebrated for performing a particular kind of masculinity that emphasizes physical prowess, would be heralded in a narrative that prominently featured feminizing metaphors! What is going on here?

I came up with two ideas.

One. What is feminized about the team is all of their emotions, their hopes and dreams of success. This part of the team is delicate and vulnerable like a woman and thus in need of protection. By winning in their sport the athletes are full of glee and their emotions run over like girls at a dance. These pleasures are even more special to Cinderella because once she was below her sisters and mother, now she is in the spotlight enjoying things denied to those who would presume to be her betters. Victory at sport keeps this precious girl safe and at the dance a little longer.

Two.The teams are feminized in the way that men might name a car or a boat after a woman. As objects women can be desired the way that cars are desired, they’re beautiful and status symbols. They make other men envy you. Similarly for the basketball teams, the more they win the more their fans can celebrate them by possessing them, they’re victory makes you superior to the fans of other teams. There is some overlap here with first interpretation because desirable objects are also in need of protection, particularly from theft.

The tournament champion then has the chance to be remasculinized and its the tournament itself that is made feminine. The losing teams then become like failed suitors who must leave the Dance rejected, while the champion team is the one that has been chosen by the prettiest girl. At the end of the last game the winning team gathers to have their picture taken with the trophy and give it a symbolic kiss.

Tell me I’m not crazy. Y’all analyze random stuff in your minds all the time too, right?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

4 thoughts on “Cinderella at the Big Dance

  1. If the shoe don’t fit your team must-a quit?
    It’s sure worth exploring this. But is the terminology so deterministic? It seems that the terms cinderella and sweet sixteen and perhaps even the big dance itself can “operate” in a gender-neutral zone because of a structural correspondence between stages of transformation. You should still keep at it. There are some very good studies of the linguistic (and other) imagery around football, and Bradd Shore (and perhaps others) made a very interesting attempt at “translating” what is going on with the very “odd” game of baseball. It seems equally plausible that the choice of metaphors applied to March Madness (Cinderella) reflects how (professional) football and baseball had already claimed certain linguistic and imaginative territory. That is, the two older sisters already got their game, and all that was left (linguistically, metaphorically) was the littler step-sister who was not a member of high society.

  2. And, while I am at it, there is the question of fratriarchy, considering that this is men’s basketball. Olatz Gonzalez-Abrisketa just uploaded a paper on academia-dot-edu called Visualizing Basque Fratriarchy, that has a very nice section on young men staring at, comparing, and talking about, balls that are all different. Analogous but not the same. That is, out among the contenders there is a different game going on.

  3. Very nice. A good example of how an anthropologist can take a familiar topic and make it strange and wonderful. But let’s get serious. How about some comparative analysis? After all, every major team sport on the planet has tournaments in which the numbers lf teams shrink from 32 to 16 to 8…at last to 1. That’s a given when pairs of teams compete for a championship. Is the same terminology used for basketball, that Big Dance, Cinderella, Sweet-Sixteen meme, used for other college or professional sports? And what about basketball itself? Are similar terms used for NBA championships? Or tournaments outside the United States? If not, why not? Sounds like an interesting topic to explore.

  4. Why do you think that I must have been living under a rock because I have not noticed that the so-called “NCAA men’s basketball tournament” is underway? Do you think people in the whole world care for such regional sport events? Why such ethnocentrism in an anthropology blog?

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