Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Meet the face of the second wave of feminism

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graces-camera-132

This is my 9-year-old daughter, Grace, who unbeknownst to her is among the leaders of a second wave of feminism because she’s good at sports and school and isn’t going to hold herself back to look good for some boy.

From this morning’s Chicago Sun-Times, which put Kara Spak’s story on its cover:

… [M]iddle school-age girls across the country are increasingly chasing their goals with gusto, both on the field and in the classroom, said Barbara Risman, head of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s sociology department and executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families. Risman co-authored a study on contemporary middle school children being presented this weekend in Chicago at the council’s yearly convention.

With fellow researcher Elizabeth Seale, Risman spent months interviewing and observing middle school students at a racially integrated, largely middle-income school district in the southeastern United States.

“What I found was that girls seem remarkably free to do many kinds of behaviors that a generation ago would have been closed to them,” Risman said. “They were very comfortable with being competitive at sports. Being athletes is part of an ideal-girl kind of package these days.”

Today’s middle school girls are also “perfectly willing” to compete with boys in the classroom, she said.

“I did not get any indication that girls felt they had to be less smart than the boys to be attractive to boys,” she said.

Risman calls this phenomenon the “second wave of feminism.” The notion that girls need to be less than boys in order to appear feminine is “a relic of the past,” she said.

As the father of two daughters I find it heartening that they will grow up in a world where girls don’t feel the need to hold themselves back. I find it disheartening, however, that girls acting in this way is front-page news.

But the researchers say, as always, there is a flip side to the progress they see:

There is a downside, though, Risman found in her research. Some of the 10- to 12-year-old girls she studied are dieting and “almost obsessive” about their appearance as a way to channel femininity, she said.

And while girls are free to pursue activities that once might have been considered the purview of boys, the same options aren’t available to boys, she said. Cheerleading, for example.

“Everyone thought a boy who would do something like that would be mercilessly teased,” Risman said. “The gender revolution has had an impact in making the girls’ movement broader and wider. It hasn’t for boys.”

That last point is interesting, because as it turns out, the focus of Risman’s paper had nothing to do with young girls. It was called “Have Boys Been Left Out of the Gender Revolution?” From the press release of the event where it was released:

Boys have gained fewer freedoms to explore their individual interests and talents from the gender revolution. Boys are still reluctant to admit to enjoying any activity, from gymnastics to dancing to knitting — or even reading books — that smacks of something girls do.  And they now seem to be subjected to the same kind of teasing about supposedly “gender inappropriate” activities or interests than girls used to face 45 years ago. Today it is young boys who are afraid of showing off how smart they are and who feel they have to pretend to be interested in certain activities and not  others for fear of being taunted as “gay.”

While I’m proud of my two daughters for being strong-willed and confident, I’m also the father of two sons — one of whom tells me stories about how the boys at his old school would pounce on anyone who exhibited the slightest interest or activity in something that was perceived not to be within the norm of boys, namely being a tough guy whose obsessions extended from sports to sports. (This son, by the way, plays sports, but doesn’t care to watch them.)

It’s heartening that my son sees the problem with rigid enforcement of gender roles. It’s disheartening that it takes place — and maybe that should be front-page news as well. None of my kids should need to grow up worrying about what boys will think about his or her interests.

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One Response

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  1. Girls can actually be a big help in freeing boys up from the constraints of gender roles, and they can do so in two ways: 1. not teasing het boys for exhibiting unmasculine behavior or attitudes and 2. if they are het themselves, going out with or remarking as attractive boys who are not traditionally masculine.

    A lot of guys get validation from other guys, but they tend to see the true marker of masculinity the ability to “get” girls. If girls go for non-traditional guys, then that is extremely subversive.

    I’m not saying the onus is all on girls (guys are definitely the worst at gay-shaming or feminine-shaming other guys). I’m just saying girls hold a lot of power in this regard as well.

    A.Y. Siu

    April 19, 2009 at 10:43 am


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