Women and athleticism

So on Tuesday I posted about my experiences with yoga and cycling and feelings of competitiveness, and I got some interesting comments about “mean girls” and women’s lack of confidence. Well, yesterday on my way to work I heard an NPR segment by sports commentator Frank Deford, called “Some women athletes follow a sordid path.” If you are interested, you can listen to it here. The story was about how some women college athletes are beginning to do some of the things some male college athletes are notorious for: nasty hazing and sexually explicit taunting, in particular, and then putting disturbing pictures of these things online. I don’t know if enough of this is going on to constitute a “trend,” although that’s the way Deford’s segment portrayed it.

This sort of thing is definitely a problem, and it shows how much we need models for how to be athletes and how to be competitive without being jerks — how much the sports culture needs changing. I think men and women both need this. Specifically for women, part of the trouble, it seems to me, comes from having the long, long tradition of women trained not to be competitive or athletic, so that when the opportunity arises to be those things, it’s hard to figure out how.

But what really bothered me about the Deford segment was the way he ended it. He closed with the grand statement, “Sports has won; womanhood has lost.” This statement puts me in a funny situation, because on the one hand, I don’t like it that women athletes are acting like jerks. But, on the other, I don’t like the implication that women exist on a higher moral plane than men and that “womanhood” as a whole is suffering when women act badly. Women are capable of acting just as badly as men, and to assume otherwise is to do a disservice to women.

In a strange way, to assert women’s equal ability to act badly becomes a kind of feminist statement. To assume that women when they enter the sports world (or any world, for that matter — this is true of politics as well) will raise the level of ideas and behavior is to hold women to a higher standard that can be just as limiting and unfair as holding them to a lower one. Now, I DO think it’s a good idea to have more women in the sports world and the political world and every other world out there, and I think women entering these places can change things, but not by improving everyone’s behavior. Their presence brings in new voices and new perspectives, and maybe simply the chance to change things further because change has begun to happen already with their presence. But please don’t start talking about “womanhood.” To me, this erases the individuality of women athletes by making who they are mostly about what gender category they belong to.

I suppose there’s something similar going on with the “mean girls” idea — we are particularly shocked when girls are nasty to each other because we have higher expectations of their behavior than we do for boys.

Instead of implying that these women-athletes-behaving-badly are betraying “womanhood,” Deford should have talked about how we need to change the sports culture itself, and how that culture can hurt both men and women. Of course when women enter a sports culture that’s messed up, they are going to respond in messed-up ways, particularly when we are talking about young college-age women. What else would you expect? Actually, I generally like Deford’s commentaries, and I know he DOES talk intelligently about how to change the sports culture. I think this particular commentary was an unfortunate slip-up, however.

Update: immediately after posting this, I came across this great post by Aunt B. on how feminism is not a moral position. Go check it out.

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