Tackling gender stereotypes in sport

Published

Credit: Flickr / Nottingham Trent University

Theodore Wilcocks
Writer

Theodore Wilcocks discusses the importance of putting aside our harmful preconceptions of certain sports

“A boy’s sport” is what the teachers called it. “A lesbian” is what the other children labelled her. “Don’t let a girl tackle you,” said the parents at the side of the pitch.

This is what Darcie, 13, from Cwmbran in Torfaen, is expected to take for the privilege of playing central midfield for her local football team as one of the few girls. The solution? Her PE teachers recommend hockey or netball: sports for girls.

There is plenty to pick apart about what the young Darcie from Wales has to go through simply for enjoying her weekly football match, but how does her story fit into the wider picture of stereotypes in sport, and what should be done about it?

I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I was round at my friend’s Woodland’s flat having a few beers one evening. At one point, someone pulled out the Glasgow University Naked Sports Calendar. Aside from a few “off the record” comments, one type of phrase stuck around: “She does LOOK like a volleyball player” “He looks like a proper rugby lad”, and so on and so forth…

Of course, the comments weren’t necessarily made with malicious intentions, but it made me think about what it means to play a sport, and how intimidating it might be if you don’t meet the associated criteria for it. Obviously, the level of sport played at Glasgow University especially is respectably high, so you would expect ripped swimmers and the broadest of the class playing rugby. The only thing is, when some people absorb that image of what is typically required to be good at a certain sport, it creeps into the wrong places. Our schools and some university societies are hotbeds for stereotyping and bullying.

Going back to Darcie’s situation, I don’t just feel bad on the behalf of her and the other girls, I genuinely feel sorry for the boys in the class. The attitude of the teachers and parents in question especially has stripped away part of what makes playing sport as a young person so important: not necessarily to be good at it, but to enjoy yourself. Darcie and her counterparts take the hurtful words and weird, backwards suppositions of some sort of link between sexuality and competing in a “man’s game”. Then, the boys in the class grow up feeling genuinely disheartened that a girl is better than them at kicking a ball around, and what kind of morals will that instil in them? The cycle will just keep on going until we change something. But how to do it?

Personally, I believe punishment is purely reactionary and will do little to curb the dogmatic stereotypes of who should and can play sports in our society. The insults are just the symptoms of deeper issues. Firstly, the role of gender disparity in the biggest sorts needs to be confronted. Women’s football is getting more popular, but the backing of the entertainment industry is needed to get people interested in it in the same way they are with men’s football. More progressively, how about pushes for a high-profile mixed football league? Let’s say a league where each team needs at least 5 players from the other gender(s). Surely that would go some way to crushing stereotypes as the most unlikely looking groups of players go head to head.

On a grassroots level, looking in particular at the younger population, there needs to be a fundamental move away from the focus on the physically dominant post-pubescent male as the ideal for sporting dominance. It not only leads to the view of some sports as “more worthy”, and therefore the people who do not meet the benchmark for that being by de facto less worthy, regardless of their gender, but it only drives the sporting world further away from what it should be about: fun. It is true that certain physical characteristics are better for certain sports, but when our attitudes begin to fuel the misery of our children and shape their prejudices over sexuality and appearance, we can’t make excuses for ourselves. More female coaches, inter-gender leagues, and appearances of men in typically feminine sports like netball and volleyball, will all go a long way to letting sport play the best role it can in our community.