Last semester, the athletics department brought in an inspirational speaker to drill us about the worthwhile aspects of physical competition and the negative aspects of athletic stereotyping. The speaker, a charismatic former basketball player, put us through an activity in stereotyping. When she spoke a statement, we were to stand up if we agreed. Most of the stereotypes were simple: ‘Athletes are cliquish,’ ‘Non-athletes don’t understand the stress of being an athlete,’ and ‘Sorority girls are dumb.’ Then she got to riskier ones, especially knowing the conservative nature of Rhodes students: ‘I’m uncertain around Arabs at the airport’ and ‘gay men scare me’. The atmosphere was tense, but a scattering of students stood for each statement. Then she got to the kicker, the only one that united all of the athletes in agreement, “Most softball players are lesbians.”
Everyone in the room stood up and turned around to grin at us in the back. We rolled our eyes and shot our friends the bird, not really surprised at all by the question or their reaction. We probably should have been. Because even while none of those other athletes meant harm to us as a softball team or harm to lesbians for their life choice, the flippancy of their reaction and the embarrassment of our team as a whole was a sign that we acknowledge the stereotype and allow it to continue. Through our passivity, we signal to our fellow athletes that it is okay to group us as a 'butch' team. Through passivity, we participate in our own oppression.
In her essay on oppression, Marilyn Frye discusses the double standards and stereotypes that signify the oppression of women in this country. Women who wear certain clothes are either easy or frigid, women who act a certain way want to be raped, and women who are sexually active and others who aren’t both remain at fault for not being the other. In a society that expects so much of us from a myriad of subtle angles, it really is no wonder that everyone assumes softball players are lesbians and without wondering why. There is no other way to quantify the existence of so many double standards than to reify certain stereotypes into everyday life. As a team, we reify the stereotype by being embarrassed by it. By being insensitive to the ramifications such a stereotype means to others, we continue the process in its most hurtful phase, one where we acknowledge that it would be a bad thing to be mislabeled as lesbians, and not just because it stops us from getting dates.
What I wonder, when reading articles by Lorde, Frye, and McIntosh, is how gender oppression got to be such an ingrained, normative aspect of life. Is our embarrassment as a team at being confused for lesbians some vestige of the endless embarrassment other women passed down for generations? Do we as women sabotage our own chances at breaking the metaphorical cage? That we allow such stereotypes to exist, without fighting them for what they are rather than what they say about us, seems like an obvious point to criticize. But as McIntosh points out in her “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” sexism is not always obvious, especially to those who perpetrate it.