• Not Like Other Dykes: On Femininity, Basketball, and the Caitlin Clark Effect

    Mac Crane Examines What It Means to Perform Identity on the Court

    First, I slathered my face with foundation, one of those shades of beige after I realized medium made me look orange. Then, I set the foundation with powder, brushing it lightly all over my face, and highlighted my cheekbones with some bronze blush. Next, I applied my dark brown espresso eyeliner. I never was very good at drawing a straight line, but I did the best I could. Finally, I applied dark brown mascara, the kind that claimed to make your eyelashes longer. Ah, my face was on; I could finally breathe.

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    Beside me, my roommate and teammate, Kamile, went through a similar routine while we bumped Trey Songz or Big Sean or whatever. We fussed with our freshly washed and gelled hair, finally pulling it up, making sure every flyaway was tamed, every hair perfectly in place.

    “Look good, feel good, play good, baby,” she said, she almost always said. And I would agree, because there is, I believe, some shred of truth to it, to confidence starting way before you step on the court. And back then, I never really questioned the absurdity of it, of beautifying myself before playing something that was, to me, anything but a game: a passion, an artform, a life.

    Yeah, I looked good, if by good you mean an aesthetic that society rewards, and I suppose I felt good, if by good, you mean the reward centers of my brain lit up every time someone complimented me.

    T-minus six hours until game time. We examined our faces for flaws one more time then headed out the door in our sweatsuits and Nike slides. It wasn’t even a TV game—no one but the other team would see me up close (not that I didn’t want to attract them either; there were more than a few opponents I slept with or tried to sleep with). But still, I felt compelled to shower before every game, after our team shootaround earlier in the day.

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    And I needed to do my face, needed it to look perfect, whatever that means. I was convinced the only way to look good was through makeup, through a sort of fraught femininity, as if to say, especially to male fans and supporters, “Yeah, I’m gay but I’m not like the other basketball dykes. I’m feminine.” As if to buck the stereotype I’d heard thousands of times since I started playing ball.

    I’m not proud of this, but rarely are we proud of the things we do and think when we are anyone but who we are, when desire and performance are running the show.

    Maybe a part of me suspected that no matter how talented, no matter how successful our team was, it would never be enough to attract fans beyond our families, friends, and alumni who made basketball their entire personality. A simple Google search brings up countless pages ranking the hottest WNBA players. There’s even an Instagram account called @beautifulballers, which has nearly 600,000 followers. The beauties they highlight? Femmes, femmes, and more femmes. White and Black alike, but femmes for as far as the eye can see.

    Thanks to “The Caitlin Clark Effect,” women’s basketball has become far more mainstream, an unequivocally good thing. But what does it mean to talk about a player’s appearance in the same breath as their talent? What does it mean to feel pressure to be attractive or desirable while doing incredible feats of athleticism and intelligence?

    Plus, I know what people said, still say, about women’s basketball:

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    • We can’t dunk
    • It’s not exciting
    • The game is too slow
    • The players are ugly dykes

    In college, I was out to everyone but my parents, and most of my team was some degree of queer. We were all accepting, all endlessly supportive of one another. But I didn’t want to become another stereotype, and really, I think that’s just a fancy way of saying my gay ass was homophobic. I was afraid of homophobia, my own and everyone else’s. Of being the butt of a joke about women’s basketball players. I didn’t want to look like the general public’s idea of a dyke.

    Aside from when I was playing or dragging myself to class, I wouldn’t be caught dead with my hair up. And no matter what, no matter how late it was, no matter how rushed our team was to get to the bar, I had to do my hair, scrunching it with gel or mousse, and do my makeup routine. I refused to wear something casual like jeans and a T-shirt. I needed to look fuckable at all times. But fuckable to who?

    The truth is, I wanted to attract everyone. I wanted to be the definition of desirable, even if I didn’t desire these people back. I wanted to enter the club and turn heads in my dress and heels. I wanted to smile to myself when I did.

    Similarly, I wanted to attract the biggest audience around, or rather, be capable of doing such a thing. I wanted to be the definition of unmissable, even if I, on some level, resented the people in the stands who were reinforcing my performance. Under a white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy, is it possible to have an audience, a fanbase, that isn’t complicit in some way? That isn’t feeding into the cycle and perpetuation of desirability politics on the court?

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    Growing up, my mom taught me that I was most photogenic and attractive when my hair was down and my make-up was done. Boys taught me that, too. Once, when I was in high school, a friend I had a crush on invited me to sleep over. Assuming we’d just be hanging at her place, I wore baggy basketball shorts and a T-shirt. But when I arrived, she informed me we’d be sneaking out to meet some boys at a bonfire, and the second we rolled up, she immediately ditched me. Some guy started chatting me up, ultimately asking me on a date to mini golf. When I met him for the date, he literally cheered when he saw me in my Wet Seal tank top and flare jeans, hair down and wavy. “See, I told the guys you’d be hot once you dressed up,” he said.

    Life is, I think, a relentless onslaught of feedback, and I was taking it all in like a good student, studying how to be in the world.

    Under a white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy, is possible to have an audience, a fanbase, that isn’t complicit in some way? That isn’t feeding into the cycle and perpetuation of desirability politics on the court?

    I still remember when I was in middle and high school, receiving my first recruiting letters from college coaches. Some of my friends were being recruited by Penn State, and I started to hear rumors about the head coach, Rene Portland, who enforced a strict no-lesbian policy for the team. And then, my teammate I was in love with, who ended our friendship due to it being “inappropriate,” committed to Penn State—committed, in a way, to heterosexuality. How do you possibly reckon with loving a game that asks—no, demands—self-negation?

    During my freshman year of college, our almost entirely male student section started a basketball blog. The first post listed their starting five, according to looks. The starting five consisted of four white players and one Black player, all feminine. I was in the starting five. I was ashamed to be pleased about being in the starting five.

    In 2022, Sports Illustrated featured five WNBA players—Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Te’a Cooper, Didi Richards, and Nneka Ogumbike—on the cover of the swimsuit issue, which was touted as being super diverse, but everyone was a femme or rather, dressed feminine in cute bikinis or one-pieces, their hair and makeup done.

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    Courtney Williams, a Black stud in the league, spoke out about the lack of stud representation on the cover: “I love Sports Illustrated’s attempt to be more inclusive and amplify women in the W. At the same time though it would have been raw to see a sleek lil sports bra & some shorts swaggin’. There’s more than one way to look sexy, and I hope in the future we can tap into that.” Of course, people came for her, calling her jealous, shaming her for not showing unabashed support for those on the cover, even though she did, she really did—she was happy for them but she wanted more, she wanted representation, she wanted to feel seen and celebrated, too.


    During the 2023-2024 college basketball season, while Caitlin Clark was at Iowa, she ranked number 1 in name recognition: 44% of the general public knew her her name, as did 58% of sports fans, and 68% of avid fans. When she was drafted by the Indiana Fever, her jersey sold out within hours. She is an incredible player and hard worker, with an attitude that is both gutsy and sometimes, immature or disrespectful—as I write this, she’s already been awarded three technical fouls in the first nine games of her professional career. Of course, how commentators and fans describe those actions—often calling Clark “passionate” or “a competitor”—differ notably from how the same actions are framed if the player, like Angel Reese, is Black.

    Her success has managed to put women’s basketball on the mainstream map. People who never watched a game in their lives suddenly were locked in, watching her. She’s all anyone could talk about. “Have you seen her logo threes? She’s fucking amazing.” Maybe I don’t have to tell you this, but she’s also white, and feminine, with a long, dark ponytail. And she has a boyfriend. And according to Jim Trotter, a columnist for The Atlantic, she is, admittedly, crucially, the “great white hope” so many white fans crave in what they perceive to be a Black-dominated sport. She is, in many ways, the antithesis of the stereotypical WNBA player. On X the other day, one “news” account, Center View, said:

    Caitlin Clark is the complete opposite of the butch angry man hating child hating 6ft heavily tattooed lesbian who plays in the WNBA.

    Not only is Caitlin Clark the best player in the league she’s also the most likeable and not afraid to embrace her feminine energy!

    There have been, and continue to be, plenty of stars besides Caitlin Clark who deserved the attention she’s garnered, the attention and pressure she never asked for but has received nonetheless. Just to name a few: Brittney Griner, Candace Parker, Sheryl Swoops, Lisa Leslie, Tamika Catchings, Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Swin Cash, Cappie Pondexter, A’ja Wilson, Alyssa Thomas, Chelsea Gray, Jewell Loyd, Arike Ogunbowale, and so many more.

    Some of these players are famous amongst sports fans but none of them are mainstream, number-one-in-name-recognition famous. These players are record-breaking, show-stopping, human highlight reels capable of ripping people out of their seats. But that isn’t what people were looking for, was it? If it was, every WNBA team would have sold out season tickets two decades ago. Of course, fans want generational talent, and of course, they want we-can’t-believe-our-eyes type plays, but more than anything, they want a myth, they want a savior, they want someone they view as defying the odds.

    Or, as Jim Trotter said, “Because sport and society are constructed from the same fabric, it’s impossible to separate them, which is why it’s foolish to act as if basketball is the only thing fueling The Caitlin Clark Effect. The primary thing? Yes. But not the only thing.”


    The uncomfortable truth is, if I had been a far better player, I wouldn’t have said no to the privilege that talent would have handed me as yes, a dyke, but as a white feminine dyke, but as a “I’m not like the other dykes” dyke. I would have taken that Caitlin Clark star treatment any day. That star treatment that is impossible to separate from anti-Blackness, homophobia, and transphobia. I would have participated in and benefitted from the system that hates people like me: trans masc nonbinary dykes who want to play and be welcomed in the women’s game. I’m so glad I thought I was a woman in college. I don’t think I would have survived otherwise.

    There were things I wasn’t ready to look at, like why the word woman made me exit my body and why my given name felt itchy and wrong, as if I’d put my whole life on backward.

    Nowadays, I only wear men’s clothes. I feel most sexy and confident in button-downs and henleys, in swim trunks and muscle shirts. I wear suits to weddings, and I wore one for my book launch, complete with a hoodie and high tops. In college, I started to have these desires, these curiosities. My teammate wore men’s jeans when we went out, and I was jealous of her ability to do so, to access what she wanted in the first place. To access it and then give it to herself. Me, I wanted a lot of things I didn’t dare give myself.

    One day, she took me to American Eagle, where I tried on a few pairs of jeans, eventually settling on one. I also picked out a baby blue waffle shirt that had been calling my name, a name I hadn’t yet shed, a name I didn’t yet understand was mine to dispose of­—but I’m getting ahead of myself. When I returned to my dorm room, I felt as if I’d gotten away with something. The bag burned hot in my hand. When it came time to wear my new outfit, I decided to throw my hair up too. And I wish I could say this were one of those magical moments, those stories you tell when everything changed. But I didn’t even last an hour at the straight college bar in those jeans. I felt that everybody was looking at me—or rather, not looking at me, and I felt the acute pain of that absence, the way you feel hunger pangs when your stomach is empty.

    Have you ever felt like you were disappearing so badly, you’d do anything to convince yourself you exist? I wanted my old clothes back. I wasn’t ready to give up the male gaze, male approval. There were things I wasn’t ready to look at, like why the word woman made me exit my body and why my given name felt itchy and wrong, as if I’d put my whole life on backward.

    I wasn’t ready to think about who I was when no one was looking. That would come much later.

    Eyes on me, I was Marisa, I was a Lady Dragon, I was let’s go ladies, I was girl power, I was sway my hips and shake my little ass, I was women do it better, I was a girl that turned straight girls, I was hands in ladies, huddle up ladies, we got a game to win ladies, the camera loves us ladies. Now smile and strike a pose—make sure not to blink.

    Look good, feel good, play good. Yeah, I felt good, if by good, you mean compromised, if by good, you mean a stranger. Just last week, I was showing my 3-year-old a photo album. He pointed to a picture of me with my hair down, wearing a dress, and legs crossed at the knee, and said, “Who’s that, Mozzy?” “That’s me,” I said, laughing. “Nooooo,” he said, shaking his head. Not in disbelief but in certainty.

    Mac Crane
    Mac Crane
    Mac Crane is a writer, sweatpants enthusiast, and basketball player. Their debut novel, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself, came out in January 2023 and was a NYT Editors' Choice and Indie Next Pick. Their second novel, A Sharp Endless Need, is a queer coming-of-age basketball novel and is forthcoming from Dial Press in March 2025.

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