In the recent women’s college basketball tournament a fascinating conundrum arose. On the one hand the quality of play further opened many eyes, including my own, regarding the continued accelerated evolution of women’s basketball. But amidst that, there was also a socio-political, media fueled, sub-drama. The star women athletes employed what is called trash talk and one might even say trashy behavior toward opponents. Some commentators criticized this as unduly nasty, but did so rather one-sidedly. They aggressively condemned Angel Reece, a black star, but only gently criticized Caitlin Clark, a white star. Other more aware commentators rejected the racist underpinnings of this double standard and noted as well, a sexist subtext in that men’s trash talking and trashy behavior is celebrated as part and parcel of serious, excellent, winning play, whereas women doing the same things are chastised or ridiculed for it.
Many commentators took from this a simple but valid insight. There should not be different norms for white and black athletes, or for male and female athletes. So far, so good, I think. But as the obvious desire for no double standards took hold, on top of that there was an almost universally asserted view that the women athletes were just doing what the guys do. They were learning from the guys, said the commentators. They were playing to win. To be anti-social toward opponents was part of victory. So yay for the rise of women into the highest levels of competitive struggle where guys have long since exhibited the proper, nasty, but winning attitudes. This last take, I think, was not so good. In fact. It was pretty horrible. But it was where a progressive slant most often landed. One step forward but a bigger step back.
Why back? In short, why was women arriving at the behavior of macho men deemed progress? Instead of women arriving at behavior men exhibit, behavior that celebrates hyper aggressive hostility and ridicule of others, how about if women instead taught men a thing or two—or fifty?
For women to excel in a patriarchal world one path is to do like men who excel, and who routinely denigrate, use, and abuse women, and for that matter pretty much anyone they can. Taking up that path, or doing the same things while not mimicking men but rather succumbing to the same social dynamics as men have succumbed to, gets a few women status and big bucks (albeit nowhere near as big as men’s) bucks. But what does it do for women writ large? What does it do for society writ large?
A second path, instead, would be for women to show how athletes, like all human beings, can be both caring and socially collective. How athletes can be caring and also high caliber. Why not show how women can navigate world pressures and excel in new ways that elevate women writ large (and men writ large too) rather than that elevate just a few women?
And here is an also interesting, I think, sidebar. Over on the macho men’s side of things, oddly enough, outside of the media madness that manipulatively paints everything we see, it turns out that at least in part things aren’t actually as anti-social as often portrayed. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were two of basketball’s greatest players and key opponents of their day. Portrayed as hateful enemies—off the court they were actually great friends. They didn’t cultivate hatred for each other either to win or to abide cultural pressures. Quite the opposite. And the same was true for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the two archetypal adversaries of their day, who were also dear friends off the court. (I don’t want to give the impression these fellows were paragons of decent much less progressive behavior, but their behavior was a product of society writ large, not of a need to be an ass to win ballgames.)
Is showering an opponent with derisive ridicule so as to be able to play hard and beat them built into male genes, into female genes, into human genes? Or is the derisive ridicule unnecessary for quality play, and often even a hindrance? Indeed, is the derisiveness toward and denigration of others a creation of the huge disparities in reward correlated to winning and losing, and even more so, to the pressures and defense of broader, larger scale racial, gender, and class hierarchies of wealth, power, status, and circumstance?
Maybe many women and some men ought to be redefining athletic and other excellence to include solidarity and mutual aid, or at the very least generalized civility? Instead of promoting sneakers, maybe they should promote humility and solidarity. Maybe progress shouldn’t be measured by quality of play plus viciousness of interpersonal dynamics but by quality of play plus sociality of interpersonal dynamics. Maybe instead of some incredibly talented women succumbing to the same pressures that talented but macho men succumb to but who oftentimes aren’t even what they seem to be as seen through media lenses, the women ought to teach the men, by example and by explicit womansplaining, if you will, a different way to be great athletes and worthy people.
Writ larger, feminism isn’t about women being just like we men as we are now. It is about women being better, much better, as people, and men learning how to do likewise.
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