Cleats or Ballet Shoes?
Most people, regardless of gender, are born with 206 bones. Experts say human beings have between 640 and 850 muscles (they're so difficult to count, a precise tally is impossible). Boy, girl, and in-between, we all share the same number of eyes, appendages, nerve endings. We have the same instincts—if we touch a hot stove, we pull away; if something is thrown unexpectedly at us, we duck.
From the moment the doctor slaps us on the ass and sends home in swaddling clothes, we're all reservoirs of potential, a big bundle of abilities and physical tools. Yet we are taught to do very different things with these tools. At first we are taught the same things, like how to crawl, walk, and run. We are taught to use our motor skills to effect the same basic functions, like eating.
But then things start to change: Somewhere along the way, a divergence occurs, and we begin to learn different things. Boys learn how to play ball; girls learn how to play house. The older we get, the differences in what we are taught become more refined, until they are paradoxically subtle, yet glaring. Girls are taught "girl stuff," like complicated dance steps, which they perform, as Ginger Rogers once pointed out, backwards and in high heels. Boys also learn some fancy backward footwork—it's called the three-step drop.
The three-step drop is a football fundamental used by quarterbacks, usually as part of a scheme involving quick timing patterns. Here's what it looks like:
Now here's a random dance video I grabbed off the Internet:
Basic Country-Western Swing Dancing Steps -- powered by ExpertVillage.com
Is it just me, or does anyone else notice that the movement of both the quarterback and the dancing lady are almost the same? It's called the "two-step," but notice how the dance mechanics are really similar to the three-step drop. Both the dancing move and the football move require coordination and proper timing, almost identical physical motions, strength, and skill—all backwards.
Two similar abilities, two similar skill sets, two vastly different results, differences based on the fact that some time during early stages of development, the tabula rasa of a young girl's ability is written down differently then a boy's, and their stories diverge dramatically: Her story is about dancing; his is about football.
And we—parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, ESPN announcers, college recruiters—are the authors of that young girl's story.
It's a story quietly told. It's not even that we overtly say girls shouldn't play football—it's just understood. Who would even think to teach them football mechanics?
Of course, boys aren't really given the option of learning anything but lead dance steps, which is also unfair, but the unfairness rendered by the girls' situation is compounded by its implications: Dancing is fine—dancing is great—but football, baseball, basketball are where the power resides. It's something scholar Michael A. Messner confronts in his book Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. "Boys' access to sports," Messner says, "combined with girls' lack of access literally shaped our bodies and thus our belief that men were naturally strong and athletic while women were naturally frail and in need of protection—a belief that not-so-incidentally corresponded with the post-World War II pushing of women out of the labor force and into the cult of motherhood and homemaking."
So it's a cycle: Girls are taught to play house while the boys play outside. The boys get stronger, so they are deemed the ones best suited to pursue action, labor, and activity. So the girls stay in the house when they become women. Unless they're dancing—backwards.
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