Friday, September 5, 2008

What NOT to teach young girls

In her semifinal match against Elena Dementieva today, Jelena Jankovic showed up wearing more makeup than fans are accustomed to seeing on a tennis player on the court. But we would expect nothing less from tennis's greatest showwoman; at a night match, I would expect glitter, too. As a Jankovic fan, I enjoy her embellishments because they are part of who she is.

Audrey, however, a U.S. fan who posted on the U.S. Open Fanbook, has other ideas about Jankovic's appearance. She writes: "You looked beautiful on the court! Loved the makeup! A great example for our young girls--feminine and athletic."

I was with her until she wrote that final phrase. "Feminine" (or at least, our culture's perception of "feminine") and "athletic" are not required to be a matching set. Encouraging girls to be "feminine," even while they are hitting heavy groundstokes, struggling to reach the finish line or leaping to make a basket is, in a word, ridiculous. In another word, it is sexist. Athletes sweat. Their hair gets messed up. They grunt. They fall down and get dirty. Sweating, grunting and falling down with messed-up hair is not "masculine." It is just what athletes do.

But God forbid that anyone should think, even for one moment, that a sportswoman is not feminine enough. And God forbid that anyone may think that a--gasp!--lesbian may be on the court or field. Women should be able to play their sport of choice to the utmost of their abilitiy without also having to struggle to conform to all the gender stereotypes that have been thrust upon them. Whether one wears eye makeup and lipstick on the court should have nothing whatsoever to do with one's reputation as an athlete and a sportswoman.

Yes, Jelena Jankovic is a a terrific tennis player, a unique character and a fine and good-humored sportswoman. In those respects, she is a very good role model for young girls. But this obsession with teaching young girls that only "girly" athletes are acceptable is just more patriarchal garbage designed to prevent females from ever having authentic identities. It also prevents talented and charismatic female athletes from getting sponsorships that are served on silver platters to women who fit the culturally defined shallow stereotypes of "feminine" and "beautiful."

Gender stereotyping is a huge social problem. We should be teaching young girls to avoid it, not adhere to it.

No comments: