Yo, The Atlantic, "Girly-Girls" Can Play Soccer Too

I don't know if you guys have ever hung out with a girls' soccer team, but they are often femme as hell.

Aug 9, 2013 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

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The face of corporate America, probably.

This past week, The Atlantic printed a piece called "Soccer Isn't For Girly Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play," an excerpt from a new book by Hilary Levey Friedman that describes the justifications many parents use for enrolling their daughters in extracurricular activities. Basically, her hypothesis says, parents think soccer girls are honing the aggression and teambuilding skills necessary to be future corner-office mavens, while silly, silly dancers are working on the "grace and emotion" to become somebody's arm candy. 

To which I only have to say: What.

Admittedly, many of the parents Friedman seems to have interviewed are apparently relying on some pretty dated stereotypes to justify their daughters' after-school activities. Please note, for example, this choice interview from one soccer dad:

"I encourage her to be more aggressive because she's a cute little girl, but I don't like her to be a girly girl. . . . You know, I don't want her to be a cheerleader--nothing against that--but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she's kind of a girly girl, maybe she'll be a secretary. [Pause] There's nothing wrong with that, but let her have the option of doing something else if she wants."

Wow! Giving her the option of having a corner office by teaching her how to take free throws? You guys, I think we just broke the glass ceiling. (With a soccer ball.) You're a real pal, Soccer Dad. Hope none of your other daughters are actually interested in cheer, lest they all wind up as -- insert thunderclap -- secretaries. 

Meanwhile, the dance moms (because, naturally, Friedman only includes interviews from women in her dancer section) say things like:

[Dance] builds coordination, it builds confidence and I don't think there's anything worse than a girl that's in her teens that can't dance. You know?
You're right, Dance Mom. Not knowing how to dance is the greatest issue teen girls face of our time. Forget about that whole self-esteem thing, or STDs, or getting into a good school. Got it in one.

So with interview material like this, I guess the temptation for Friedman to fall back on the aggressive vs. pretty dichotomy in her conclusion was too great. And it's true: Soccer and dance are very different sports by their natures. 

But when Friedman says things like "The focus on de-emphasizing appearance, evidenced by the fact that soccer girls wear androgynous uniforms and take off all of their jewelry, is especially important in this career race, as many parents know that being ladylike will not cut it in certain corner-office professions," it's hard for me to give her the full benefit of the doubt.

My problem with Friedman's analysis is twofold. In the first place, she has a frustrating tendency to continuously equate femme behavior with what she perceives to be a lower social status. She points out that "[soccer's popularity in] comparison to the traditionally female activity of Girl Scouts is indicative of the shift to using sports like soccer to train girls to succeed in the future," for example, despite the fact that "training girls to succeed" has kinda been the Scouts' thing. Just the inclusion of "girl" in their name, though, seems to disqualify them from teaching young women any real life skills.

And Friedman's section about dance relies heavily on the sport's emphasis on supporting your competition and acting with physical and social grace -- attributes, she seems to think, that are better suited for finding a husband than succeeding in the workplace. She also points out that the dance mothers she interviewed didn't seem that invested in giving their daughters a good education, despite expressing hope that they'd be doctors or lawyers. 

Never mind that negotiating tricky social dynamics is an invaluable skill for the adult work environment, or that being gracious to your competitors is a networking advantage that I still haven't been able to master. Nope, because the girls developing these skills wear leotards, they're clearly just breaking their feet for hours day after day to look good on the gym floor when One Direction starts playing.

Which leads me to my second point. I understand that Friedman was mostly interested in parents' motivations for signing their daughters up for activities, but has she ever met a soccer player or a dancer? Because having played soccer for 11 years, I can tell you: Soccer girls can be femme as anything.

Maybe not on the field, admittedly. But all that stuff about removing jewelry and having "androgynous" uniforms -- that's about safety and utility, not trying to appear more masculine. My off-field soccer team activities, meanwhile, held none of this aggression or tomboyishness that Friedman is suggesting. 

Instead, my team and I did what most pre-teen girls do in groups: practiced makeup, braided each other's hair, ate a lot of pizza and talked about boys. My teammates were so femme, in fact, that I often felt a little out of place, since as a baby nerd all I ever wanted to do on hotel nights was talk about Animorphs and play my message-board-based RPGs. My teammates were assertive with the ball at their feet, sure, but they also supported each other as a group and brought their boyfriends to games to cheer on the sidelines. 

None of that seems particularly reminiscent of the cutthroat, corporate-monster-to-be caricature that Friedman develops throughout her piece. 

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I still have anxiety dreams about being a goalie occasionally.

At the same time, this insistence that dancers are wide-eyed, delicate flowers who tell each other how pretty they are before competition is laughable to me. Yes, a lot of classical dance's aesthetic requires a certain level of poise while onstage. But dancers -- at least the ones I befriended in high school -- are competitive jerkwads just like any other athlete. Perhaps even more so, since a lot of their competitions require being individually driven versus supporting a team. 

You'd think, in fact, that dance's emphasis on hard work and discipline as keys to success would make dance an ideal breeding ground for future executive-types. Frankly, anyone who has seen a teenage ballerina's feet and still doubts her commitment to her sport should probably give some of those toe shoes a whirl once in a while (and then take a hell of a lot of Advil). But because dance does often incorporate a traditionally feminine "look," dancers are automatically given less credit for the grinding practices they do on a daily basis. 

In reality, both soccer and dance -- and karate, softball, horseback riding, Mathletes, and the debate team -- teach young girls the importance of negotiating group dynamics and overcoming the occasional discomfort to succeed in the long run. Reducing any of their participants to stereotypes based on the activities' actual physical requirements is, frankly, reminiscent of the same sexist bullshit that's preventing many girls from accessing the same opportunities for success in the first place. 

At the end of the day, teen girls are varied, dynamic, weirdo individuals with a wide variety of interests and vastly different plans for their future. They all deserve to be treated with the same legitimacy -- no matter whether they're wearing tap shoes or goalie gloves.

Kate played soccer for eleven years. Her inability to dance was the least of her problems in high school: @katchatters