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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Local and global mermaids : the politics of "pretty swimming" Thomas, Laura Michelle


This thesis considers the perceived athleticism of synchronized swimming by looking at the implications of representations of Esther Williams and "pretty swimming" in popular culture, the allocation of space for women's sport in a local public swimming pool, and an inaugural championship event. Focusing on the first British Columbia (BC) synchronized swimming championships, which were held on February 5, 1949 at Crystal Pool in Vancouver, it shows that images of synchronized swimming as "entertainment" facilitated the development of a new arena of competition for BC women, but that this was accompanied, in effect, by a trivialization of the accomplishments of organizers and athletes. Chapter One examines the construction of a "global" mermaid by analysing Esther Williams' first film, Bathing Beauty (1944), as a typical example of the Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer (MGM) aquamusical, a genre that produced images of synchronized swimming as frivolous entertainment. Chapter Two considers how these sorts of images affected the allocation of physical space at Crystal Pool, Vancouver's only indoor public swimming pool at the time, for women's sport. Chapter Three introduces two women who were involved in the 1949 BC synchronized swimming championships: May Brown, who at the time was a University of British Columbia (UBC) Physical Education instructor and synchronized swimming judge, and Maureen Bray (Hibberson), a UBC student who won the individual championship event. Their recollections provide an important corrective to the "pretty swimming" stereotype by demonstrating that these women used the cultural and physical space allotted to them to create a new sport for local women. The final chapter also includes episodes from my personal experiences as a synchronized swimmer in BC during the 1980s to underscore the complicated and conflicted heritage for synchronized swimmers in BC represented by the legacy of the 1949 championships and the MGM aquamusical.

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