Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Being a Girl Athlete

Over the past few weeks I've been helping my aunt coach her elementary school's badminton team, rather I've more been consulting on the rules and serves because, and I don't want to brag or anything, I've watched my brother win many a tournament including the Nationals in January. And, I played for about ten years and coached a bit, too -- but, shit yo, that don't matter when my little bro is traveling all around the world playing the sport he loves!

The other day when I was at the school, my aunt put a couple teams together to play mixed doubles and one of the girls was not a very strong player but really, none of the kids are. The boy she was paired with, right off the bat started getting frustrated with her every time she made a mistake. He wasn't vocal about it but his body language made it clear he thought she sucked, that she was losing for them. It didn't matter how many shots she made or how many points he cost them, she was the let down. And, man oh man, did that ever take me back to playing sports when I was a kid.

I was a good athlete and as a little kid, even as a teenager I could hold my own with any boy. I started playing badminton when I was seven and entered in my first tournament shortly after, playing competitively for the next ten years. I also swam, did triathlons, skated (only one season of lessons when I was four which is incidentally when my extreme competitiveness first shone through; I would fly into a rage when I stated that I was the best skater in the world and my parents would point to Katarina Witt's recent olympic gold), played volleyball, soccer, squash and baseball, golfed (oh man, there was nothing I hated more than golf lessons -- the highlight was when there was a new hot assistant pro but then I accidently threw my club not once but twice, sweaty palms), ran cross country and water-skied. Fuck, I loved sports and I was good at them; there are many a medal, trophy and ribbon stuck in storage back in Winnipeg.

The thing was, even though, I was an exceptional athlete (for a kid), I still got the same treatment from boys that I saw that little girl get from her partner at badminton practice. There were eyes rolled, deep sighs, giggles, exasperated shrugs every time I screwed up. The worst of it was when I was playing badminton because at that level, kids usually played singles, doubles and mixed. And, fuck, did the boys hate playing mixed doubles. It was no secret as the boys would disparage the game, bully their partners into just standing at the front, encouraged not to go for any shots, sometimes even purposefully setting the bird up so that the opposition would smash it in her face. It didn't matter how good the girl was, she may have been better than the boy but the very thought of having to play with a girl was just too much for those stupid fucking boys. There were boys who were really happy to be playing mixed, who respected their partners but unfortunately it was the boys who were the top players who had such a problem with mixed so if the top girl player had to play with the top boy player, there was a lot of anxiety about not fucking up. I remember going from winning singles and doubles to playing the mixed finals and being so scared of making my partner angry.

Those attitudes were in no way unique to badminton, they were the attitudes I saw in school any given day in gym class. Girls getting picked last, girls getting ignored by the male gym teachers, mocked by the boys. It didn't even have to be directed at a specific girl, it could be comments like "throws like a girl" or jokes about boys being as bad as a girl or girls being as good as a boy. I hated the sexism I saw, I experienced. Whether it was personal attacks or systemic issues like how women's singles only went to eleven points while men's was to fifteen or the attention disparity between girls events and boys. The boy athletes were heroes; the girls were ignored.

(I use my example of myself as a good athlete to draw attention to the level of sexism that exists in school  and extracurricular sports; that it is expectable to treat girls badly purely on the basis of their being girls. No child deserves to be scorned for any reason and the attitudes that I experienced were legitimized by adults.)

The thing was that, despite railing against the sexism to my mum and furiously scribbling in my diary the injustice of the day, I was more angry at the other girls. The girls who weren't athletic, who hated gym class; those girls let me down. I felt that I was trying to make a change, to prove that girls could like sports and be as good as any boy and these girls were actively sabotaging me.

But that's the problem with the patriarchy. It's designed to pit girl against girl, woman against woman. Every woman is supposed to be representative of all other women, especially when she embodies certain feminist ideals. That's why some women are disappointed when Liz Lemon wants a baby; that's why women like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin are so infuriating -- they've got this platform, they have reached higher than many women can and they fucking squander their opportunity to raise other women up by waging war on them instead.

Women are held up as examples to and of all women when they mess up or somehow don't live up to ideals but when they succeed they are anomalies. A man, particularly a privileged man, is never held up as a shining beacon for all mankind. When Rush Limbaugh says something racist/sexist/ableist/ageist/homophobic no lefty dudes are sitting there cringing and thinking that Rush has really made them look bad. Likewise, when a man accomplishes something, no one is thinking "that's pretty good for a man". Fuck, it must be nice.
My brother, David, is in the red. The whole video is pretty amazing but at about 
6:10 he wins and does a standing back flip. Yep. He can do that. He's awesome.

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