Sports As An Unbelievable Option For Women

August 6th, 2011 | Categories: Gender

Today’s Stereotype-of-the-Day is “sponsored” by MacGregor’s Unbelieva-BALL.

The Incident

I’m playing softball in Central Park and a large group of folks cross through our field. Our batter requests that they move off the field since “it is a large park.” After his request is ignored, the batter hits one right to the group of mostly guys. One says, “I’ll catch it” but misses the ball. One of his fellow trespassers says “You catch like a girl” and the whole bunch have a good laugh.

The Problem

The stereotype that was communicated is that women are bad athletes. Political correctness would suggest that we shouldn’t communicate stereotypes. Why? Well, clearly this stereotype insults women. Also, the stereotype insults any man who is a bad athlete. It also insults men who are effeminate because it suggests more generally that a man acting like a girl could be worthy of contempt. So there are a few reasons why the stereotype “catching like a girl” (or any of its alternate versions “playing like a girl” or “throwing like a girl” and so forth) is not inclusive and instead offensive.

But there are benefits to communicating stereotypes. In this case the benefits were pretty obvious.

Pleasure- The stereotype was funny. The whole group laughed in chorus when it was said.

Inclusion- The group seemed to bond over the stereotype. They appeared to be more of a cohesive group after they laughed than before.

Impression Management- The group, mostly men, gave themselves the appearance of being great athletes albeit at the expense of their friend who threw “like a girl.”

Considering the benefits of communicating stereotypes, why would a person give up communicating these? Political correctness doesn’t offer enough of an explanation for a person to understand why it may be better not to communicate a stereotype.

Let me give two examples.

The Gym
I’ve been going to a gym for about two years and only recently did I decide to lift weights. Why? Because I thought I liked classes much better- yoga, Zumba, aerobics. I never settled on a specific schedule because I didn’t love any of the classes and kept trying new ones. I went to class after class, surrounded mostly by other women, thinking that this is what I enjoyed doing but just hadn’t found the right class yet. Well a few months ago I switched gyms. I went to one class and hated it. I decided to try weights with my husband. Turns out I like weights much more. Turns out, when I think back to the other classes I took, I don’t think I ever really enjoyed them all that much.

As a kid, participating in a competitive team sport never crossed my mind. Why? Because in gym class the girls sat on the bleachers talking about hair, makeup, and boys. Sports was never a topic of conversation and I never thought of it as something worthwhile to do. I placed no value on it. Fast-forward and this is my second year playing softball. Turns out I’m pretty good for someone who never played previously. Okay, I don’t know any of the rules, but I seem to have a natural knack for the physical skill required for the sport. I can hit. I can field. I can run. I can throw.

So why didn’t I consider weights or competitive sports earlier? Because I never saw either as a viable option or as a valuable use of my time. The weights in the gym and the sports teams at school were there of course. I’d gotten the tours of the weight area at my gyms and I knew people who played sports in school. Indeed I even saw women lifting weights and playing competitive sports (mostly in exceptional physical condition unlike myself). Nonetheless, I never gave weights or softball a chance until recently. How many more women are in my situation?

Arguing the accuracy of the stereotype is a chicken and the egg type argument. Do people stereotype that women are bad athletes because they can’t play sports well or do women not play sports well because they are stereotyped as bad athletes? We’d never know because for the most part women are still either not given the chance to play the more visible competitive team sports or do not themselves take the opportunity.

The ‘women are bad athletes’ stereotype is communicated over and over. We generally don’t contradict it. We laugh at it. We treat it likes it’s true. In doing so we create the reality for women that it is true. We communicate to women that sports simply isn’t their domain and that because they are inherently not capable of playing sports well that it would be more valuable for them to place their efforts elsewhere (I read a lot). As a result, that’s just what women do. Someone like me, if she is lucky, may only later in life take the opportunity to explore athletics as a viable option and valuable use of time.

The political correctness prescription that people should avoid communicating stereotypes because they aren’t inclusive and are instead offensive just doesn’t get the point across. Communicating even a single stereotype, cumulatively, actually impacts the trajectory of people’s lives.

You can still make fun of your friends who can’t catch. Just find a better way to do it. This way you won’t add to the messages women get every day that athletics aren’t for them. You might help someone like me find out she has a knack for sports a bit earlier in life.

In the meantime, at every chance I get I’m going to encourage my daughter to play competitive sports because I want her to know they are an option even though people will continue to communicate the throwing “like a girl” stereotype.

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