Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Are softball players lesbians? I shouldn't care, but I do.

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.


  1. I am not sure how to combat this stereotype, but it seems that you have experienced psychological oppression much like Bartky noted in her essay, which is similar to the existential "gaze." The speaker's question and athletes response forced an abnormal hyper- analytic self-awareness and a longing to correct this mis-labeling of the softball team. I am guessing that like most of the authors that we have looked at, raising awareness of these stereotypes would be the first step in correcting them.

  2. In our systemic world of oppression, the embarassement and shyness that came when the softball team was called out as being mostly lesbians was something that is normative or considered what we ought to do. In Frye's essay on Oppression, she points out it is difficult to give an individual account, because everytime we act we are acting as a friend, a student, a lesbian softball player etc. It is difficult to make that distinction between the sterotype and the individual. I agree with Cal that awareness is an important step in fighting these stereotypes, but I don't know if it is enough. I have been struggling (as many women before me I'm sure) to find the right way to fight agains these social norms. Awareness is important, but it does seem to me as enough to make a difference. The "oughts" that we assume as normative need to be extinguished. To use your example, the softball players that sat back and hid with embarrassment need to laugh instead at the stupidity of someone to assume something like that.

  3. I think this example of a stereotype is very important to think about. In our society, if women are seen as less than men, why then would the same society look down on women who "imitate" men? I certainly don't believe that all softball players are lesbians or that all lesbians reflect the awful stereotypes like "butch" and "dike," but I do think it's interesting that no matter how a woman acts, she gets attacked for it. Unless a woman fits into the nice appropriate box that society has put her in, she is wrong. If we can't play softball without getting called dikes, and we can't be homemakers without getting called Judy Cleaver, what are we supposed to do? We just can't when can we? I definitely agree with Cal that the first step in really combatting these stereotypes is through awareness. Owning who we are- even if we are a lesbian softball player- is the most important thing

  4. I found this video on a close male friend of mines facebook wall. He is an excellent athlete and member of the UVA track and cross country team, yet his brother recently posted this harmless, but obvious summary of these perpetuated stereotypes. I add it hoping you take Courtney's approach as a "need to laugh instead at the stupidity." (Notice the softball reference).


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