During NPR pledge week, contributors comment about pulling over to listen more closely to something on their car radio. Frank Deford was the NPR commentator who made me pull over. He died last Sunday. I will keep listening to his voice.
A pattern Deford noted is the difference between the coverage of and interest in women who compete in individual sports and the coverage of and interest in women’s team sports. In a 2010 piece for Sports Illustrated, Deford wrote: “Although . . . American schoolgirls grow up playing team games, those sports just don’t attract commensurate attention at any level. With women's team sports, there is still a glass grandstand.” He hypothesized why this is the case: “There is, significantly, a considerable emotional difference between team and individual sports in that teams represent an entity – a school, a college, a city that we identify with.” And so, “even now, we do not yet seem prepared to accept women teams as our representatives . . . not enough of us, either sex, seem to want to watch, to care, when women play in groups.” In a 2014 essay for NPR, Deford suggested, “It's possible that more Americans are familiar with the nostalgic baseball league from the 1940s depicted in the old movie ‘A League of Their Own’ than they are with any existing women's league.”
Friends on social media helped me name other movies featuring girls or women in sports. It appears popular movies with a female athlete feature an individual girl or woman who makes it onto a boys’ or men’s team, a woman who is surprisingly good at coaching a group of boys or men, or focus on an individual girl or woman struggling to succeed in an individual or, less frequently, team sport. Several friends recommend films that feature girls on a cheerleading, dance or gymnastics team. I borrowed “Stick It” from a friend who thought it would be helpful for my daughters. It is not fine cinema, but the storyline culminates with girls refusing to play by the bizarre rules that divide them. Having been encouraged by mothers and others around them to see one another as “the competition,” they openly mock division in favor of brazen solidarity. As Coach Dugan famously yells “There’s No Crying in Baseball!” this team declares loudly there should be no cattiness in gymnastics.
Let me be clear. I want girls and boys to play collaboratively, at work, in neighborhoods, in cities, in schools. But in order to understand barriers to collaboration, we should note ways that girls and women are divided from one another – how we are encouraged to vie for a sliver of pay, recognition, admiration, fame. I learned about this on a kick-team in San Angelo, Texas. Wearing white cowgirl hats and white boots, a long line of girls had to figure out how to trust one another enough literally to fall down on top of one another, in coordinated sequence. I was toward the tail-end of the line, and we had to anchor the strand. If we tried to outshine one another, rather than linking up and holding our position together, we could cause the whole line to buckle. There were a few mean girls intent to mess this all up, with hazing and bizarre pecking orders, but then there were also brave girls who called this out as counterproductive silliness.
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In 2003, The Steering Committee for the Women’s Initiative at Duke University issued a report that named a climate of “effortless perfection” for women at Duke. I wrote several years ago on ways that boys and men bully one another. In my experience, a common form of bullying among girls and women involves our seeing one another primarily as contestants. Girls and women are told by pop culture and by too many people over us and beside us to fight, fight, fight, to climb up the ladder and then pull it up after we’ve arrived at some plateau. Smurfette Syndrome is a thing in this world – whereby a woman is happy to be the only woman succeeding. One friend described the method of a particularly adept bully perfectly, noting that she undermines other women by using her words in a way that pinch painfully but do not leave an obvious scar.
If we are to be effortlessly perfect, it may seem reckless to link up with anyone sweating or flawed. I want to watch and cheer girls and women who play in groups, literally and metaphorically. It is my hope for my daughters, their friends, and my students that we will risk the teamwork of solidarity. I want us to dig our boot-heels into the turf, link arms, and, when necessary, kick.
Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University whose column appears monthly in The Herald-Sun.