True or False: Girls are Cheerleaders, Boys are Athletes

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 9:31am EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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Photo from Paper Blog.I was hanging out with some 10 year old children today watching the Team Canada men's Davis Cup team practice for their upcoming tie against Spain.  These children were brought by their school to play some tennis and maybe be inspired by some pros.  While we were watching, three young women wearing baggy t-shirts and shorts walked through the arena. They were maybe in sight for all of five seconds.  Those five seconds were long enough for one boy to point and say "Look! Those are the cheerleaders for the players."  His words pierced my heart with sadness as to how young the socialization of genders takes place and because those eight words represent a painfully accurate snapshot of the world of sports and the place of women in it.

First, tennis doesn't have cheerleaders.  It's one of the many reasons that I enjoy the sport.  Second, those "cheerleaders" were in fact members of the women's varsity ice hockey team heading to the gym.   Perhaps, if these young women were dressed in skin-tight tank tops and short-shorts maybe I could see the child's confusion (not to say that women who dress in skin-tight tank tops and short-shorts can't be badass athletes); therefore, from what I can tell this boy made his statement based on the fact that they were females.  I guess upon reflection, females in athletic clothing inside, arguably, the most male of all domains - the athletic stadium - are usually cheerleaders. Women's sports has come a long way but as much as we like to pride ourselves on the victories of women athletes as a method of normalization I think that comments made by our youngest and newest generation should also quickly balance out our enthusiasm.  If a boy who has grown up in the era of Serena Williams, Danica Patrick, Lindsey Vonn, Michelle Wie, and Abby Wambach still has the reflex thought that women in the vicinity of a sporting arena are cheerleaders then we have to question whether women excelling at women's sports does anything to alter the relationship between men and women, boys and girls.  The problem at this point is not necessarily about the visibility, marketability, or quality of women's sport but about the perception and value of women as people.

It has been recognized that placing women in "privileged" places within sports, such as the broadcast booth or behind the bench, are generally negatively received by most male fans.  No where will we find this fact more evident than during the upcoming Superbowl where women will be relegated to the sidelines as cheerleaders, in the bleachers as fans, and as entertainment value during the half-time show.  We assume/hope that women excelling at women's sports would add social value to women but the value added seems only to exacerbate the fact that women's sports is not men's sport (read: real sport).  Thus, if placing women IN the arena of men creates anger and women excelling in their own arena lacks visibility and meaning then maybe we need to stop moving women here and there trying to fix things.  Maybe where we need to direct more of our attention is to how the next generation of men relate WITH women.  I saw a tweet yesterday from Jeb Brovsky (@JebBrovsky), a professional soccer player and the Founder/Director of Peace Pandemic (a sport-for-development organization), which read "Instead of teaching our girls how to 'handle' abuse, how about we teach our boys NOT to abuse?"  If only we had more Jeb Brovskys in the world.

The following sections are excerpts from the introduction of Michael Messner's book, Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity.  Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and in his introduction he reflects on his childhood as it relates to masculinity.  His reflection begins in the year 1962 when, just like the little boy I encountered today, he was 10 years old:

But throughout grammar school, the best athlete in my classes never got to play with us.  She was a girl.  Somehow we boys all knew that she was the fastest runner, could hit a baseball further than any of us, yet we never had to confront that reality directly.  Our teachers, by enforcing strict sex segregation on the playground, protected our fragile male egos from the humiliation that presumably would result from losing to a girl.  In the prefeminist era, insulated within the all-male world of athletics, our attitudes and values about the "natural" differences between males and females developed and solidified virtually unchallenged....As a result, for my male peers and for me, athletic competition was an unambiguously male world.  (p.1)
What led me to reconceptualize the athletic experience of myself and of other males in terms of masculinity?  I might explain my shift in conceptual orientation by way of analogy: After graduating from high school, I took a summer car trip with a friend.  This was 1970, a year that followed several years of intense racial politics and strife in the United States, so when we found ourselves talking with an elderly white man in a small town in Oregon, we asked him if there had been any racial problems there recently.  He replied instantly: "Oh, we had a couple Indians here a few years back, but we ran them off.  Nope. No racial problems in this town."  Until very recently, a question asked about the existence of "gender problems" in sport would likely have been answered similarly.  Men have been thoroughly dominant, so much in the foreground of organized sport, that their experiences in sport as men have been obscured. (p.3)

Fast-forward fifty-one years and I think that Messner's description of his youth is not all that different from how 10 year-old boys experience sport today.  Women and girls have changed. Men and boys have held their ground and resisted change from all sides.  Although there are small chinks in the wall of masculinity there is only so much we can do from the outside.  This goes far beyond teaching girls that they can do anything that boys can do.  This is about breaking down the categories of what "boys do" and what "girls do" into possibilities for people.  As frighteningly limiting as the idea is that girls are cheerleaders, so too is the idea that boys are athletes. It's time that the walls be expanded from the inside.

"It could be said that while women athletes were obscured by being too far in the background, men athletes could not be seen clearly for being too much in the foreground." (Messner, 1992, p.5)

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