Monday, March 21, 2011

On Men Opting Out Of Competition

In February, Rachel Hale became the first girl to win a Vermont state championship in wrestling. 6,000 girls wrestle across the country, most of them competing against boys.

Hale's win came after a boy in Iowa refused to wrestle his female competitor in the state tournament, saying:

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa."

What is most frustrating to me about this case are the gender narratives that put both girls and boys in a no-win situation when they compete against one another. First, there is the socially-conservative-perpetuated narrative that athletics, especially a "combat" one like wrestling, are the domain of boys, taking it as a given that boys are naturally more adept at and interested in such things. (See also, basically everything Phyllis Schlafly writes).

Girls, the "opposite" of boys, are thus framed as less competent and less fit for the demanding activities of sports. So, even though a girl wins a tournament in one state, it can be a self-evident truth to a boy in another state that it's not "appropriate" for a boy to engage a girl in "combat"-like sporty stuff.

At the same time, had the boy wrestled and lost he would have been subject to ridicule for being beaten by a girl. Had he wrestled and won, some would accuse him of bullying a girl. Instead of just competing like two human beings, we see how notions of gender propriety impede kids' ability to treat one another like individuals.

Hugo Schwyzer frames this case as being illustrative of "the longing of too many young men for all-male spaces, in which they don't have to compete with women as equals." Indeed, there was a certain, "he's not even going to give the girl wrestler a chance to beat him?" flavor to the boy wrestler's oh-so-chivalrous refusal to compete against a girl. It reaked of cowardice, although I blame the system more than the boy for that.

Schwyzer continues, by speaking more broadly of Kay Hymnowitz's atrocious article arguing that women's gains have robbed men of the chance to be men:

"Contrary to what Hymowitz argues, male responsibility does not require female vulnerability to thrive. The problem, rather, is a culturally constructed one: men have been raised to believe that many of the things truly worth doing are those that women cannot do (or more accurately, were not allowed to partake in). Despite his claims about his faith, Joel Northrup didn't forfeit his match because of anything in scripture forbidding boys and girls from wrestling (there isn't). He didn't forfeit because of chivalry. He didn't even forfeit because of fear of losing to a girl. He did so because the very presence of a female competitor robbed the sport of its power."

Not only that, but when women can do the things that men do, the self-evident truth that men are the best at all things worth doing is challenged. I reckon that's scary too.

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