Friday, December 28, 2007

Can polka dots build confidence?

I had to wait over a week to blog about this story I came across about hockey gear for girls because I was so irate about the ways in which people like to break gender barriers by reifying gender stereotypes.
A mother in Maine found it impossible to find hockey gear for girls for her daughter, Bela, a kindergartner.
"There was nothing but black - you know, boy's stuff," according to Anna Carol Alvarez Cloutier. She joined forces with another hockey mom, Justine Carlisle, who has two daughters who play the sport and they created a line of gear for girls called BelaHockey.
Before I begin my rant, I want to say that gear that fits properly is of the utmost importance. Frequently, throughout history, as women have entered sports that have been traditionally masculine they have had to improvise the gear. While there are plenty of options for women these days who want to gear up for the gym, for yoga, tennis, swimming, etc., those who play sports where men still dominate (in terms of numbers) like ice hockey, sometimes have to make do with ill-fitting gear or undertake some creative improvisations. I know some women who buy boys' gear, which can actually be beneficial in terms of cost but certainly does not work for all women.
If this was the issue Cloutier and Carlisle were addressing I would be on board. But it's not, as evidenced by the gear they have available: personalized polka-dot sticks in colors such as blue/purple and pink/purple, and "colorful" socks (there's a picture of black and hot pink striped ones at the above link), t-shirts, hats, and gear bags.
Their mission has been to overcome the(ir) reality that "girls might be playing hockey but they had to dress like boys."
And here is the problem: what is this "like boys"? Girls doing or being "like boys" in the context of sport (and elsewhere of course) has been quite problematic. When you're talking about 5-year olds, there is no issue of size difference. All the gear should fit regardless of gender. I wish it wasn't labelled by gender. I wish you didn't have to go and buy boys' hockey pants. But I also wish that sizing in general was gender-neutral.
Cloutier has said the line isn't about making hockey-playing girls look pretty but rather "it's about letting them know that hockey is a sport for girls as well as boys. It's about building confidence in girls, letting them know it's a girl's sport, too."
Well if they're playing it--they should know. Okay that's a bit simplistic and naive and assumes a pretty high level of feminist consciousness in 5-year olds. But many parents these days, and certainly the ones who enroll their daughters in ice hockey, are telling their girls that they can do anything. And why wouldn't girls believe that? Because when they go shopping for sticks and socks they find colors that are not pink and purple?
Remember, it's likely those same parents, following the same hegemonic gender order, who help construct the "girls like 'girly' colors." A fact that Cloutier herself basically acknowledges when she talks about expanding the line: "some girls aren't into pink and purple so we're going to add sportier colors."
She just reified the impossible dilemma women who have entered traditionally masculine or more physically aggressive sports constantly face: you can be girly or you can be sporty.
Making pink socks and sticks is not going to eradicate that binary. Is this really the way we want to attract girls to ice hockey anyway? Telling them, don't worry, you can play hockey and still wear pink? That may work for a while with 5- and 6-year olds but those girls will still face the be girly or be sporty dilemma as they get older; except that "sporty" frequently slips into dyke-y as girls become teenagers.
Polka dots will not make that situation better.


Gender Blank said...

What this woman doesn't realize is that she's reinforcing the idea that the default athlete is male. Making pink or polka-dotted sports equipment otherizes female athletes. Not much different from calling her daughter's team the Lady Whatevers. As though the real thing isn't for girls unless it expressly says so in some culturally-mandated-gender-role kind of way. Which only serves to mark female athletes as different from real ones.

If she really cares about sending the message that hockey is a sport for girls, too, why doesn't she just start a campaign that invites girls to play? It's amazing how easily kids get interested in things if they are simply asked to join in. If you build it, they will come, and all that.

The pinkification of sport is sending a mixed message at best.

Anonymous said...

I think this also sends a message to girls that if they want to play sports they need to look pretty while playing, otherwise they will - horror of horrors! - look like boys.