It’s the 40th anniversary of Title IX — that groundbreaking bit of legislation that facilitated women’s educational equality on many levels, including sports. No one would doubt the fundamentally radical effects on women’s senses of self as a result. Even if we acknowledge that the law never sought to establish, nor did it achieve, anything measuring true equity, as I’ve written about before.

And yet critics complain that giving any funds to women’s sports effectively takes money away from men’s sports — and as a result women’s teams still fight for the small funding they receive. The Bush Administration was particularly effective in dismantling some of rules that schools show increasing efforts to comply with the law. And so the Women’s Sports Foundation has produced this nice video remind us of the stakes. (Thanks, Eteokretan, for sending the link!)

Considering that the US women’s soccer team is surely one of the country’s most popular women’s athletic teams, perhaps it’s no surprise that Major League Soccer would be the institution funding this campaign. And yet aside from its national team, women’s pro soccer has floundered in the past 15 months — most of its pro teams have folded, leaving members of the US women’s team to languish without pro teams or to try their luck as pro players for women’s teams elsewhere in the world.

So happy birthday, Title IX: let’s hope the current anti-feminist backlash against women subsides sometime soon.

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I’m a fair-weather sports fan — by which I mean summer, when tennis and soccer have their big tournaments. And this year we have the Olympics to look forward to … drool fest!

Yup, that means Abby Wambach (I’m yours, Abby!), Megan Rapinoe, Amy LePeilbet, Hope Solo, and all the others from last summer’s Women’s World Cup finalist team will be back. Watch this video and get all excited already. (JE explains that she watches this to get herself motivated for running every day. She also warns that the accompanying song, “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” is ridiculous to the point of offensiveness aside from its driving beat, especially if you consider the many feminist messages of this sport.)

Squeeeee!

I don’t remember exactly when I started watching Chrissie Evert closely, but I’m guessing it was about 1977 or 1978, just about the time that I started to take tennis a little more seriously. It was also about the time that mean girls in my class started to emerge to taunt the rest of us about our clothes, musical tastes, whatever. They lurked, menacingly, in hallways. Chris Evert was my solution.

Evert seemed unmatched at the top during those years, even though women’s tennis was only a shadow of what it would become later. Entire games went by during which the two players simply lobbed the ball, back and forth, endlessly. It was boring, honestly.

Not that it mattered to me: watching Evert play was like watching someone figure out a problem. I was too young to understand her strategy, or what made her win. What I paid attention to was her laser focus, the set of her jaw, the unsentimentality of her play. She never cried or whined or threw her racquet — like a lot of the male players of the day. Neither was she very girly, despite the blonde hair and short skirts. She drove every single one of her emotions into winning games and sets and matches. She never seemed to get distracted by unimportant details. She’d squint her eyes and get down to business.

Watching Evert was therapeutic.

I started playing tennis in 12-and-under tournaments and realized quickly that tennis is full of mean girls, and that tennis is an emotional game. If you were picking up your balls, your opponent might throw one at you so it’d whiz by your face. “Sorry,” she’d say disingenuously. Or she’d interrupt play and waste some time rifling through her bag looking for some chapstick while she caught her breath. Or she might not shake hands after the match, or she’d cry. Plus, it’s really annoying to have someone lob balls at you for an entire game — enough that you get frustrated and make mistakes.

Clearly, Evert’s steeliness was hard-won.

Then, of course, Martina Navratilova came along. She was strong — ridiculously strong — and tall and left-handed, and she played a man’s game, serve-and-volley rather than that feminine baseline game. She was emotional. She was also Czech, which seemed dangerous and scary to my 12-year-old self. She started winning tournaments, and she didn’t stop. (Martina won Wimbledon titles nine times. Nine! as well as nine other Grand Slam titles — tying Chris’s own record.)

I hated her on Chrissie’s behalf. When she started losing matches to Martina, she seemed flummoxed. How do you solve a problem like Martina? It was as if the rules had changed.

Which is exactly what had happened. Evert has spoken many times in recent years about how Martina brought the entire women’s game to a new level because they all realized they had to start getting stronger and smarter. I didn’t know that then, though. I also didn’t know that she and Martina were great friends off the court. I felt myself caught up in Chrissie’s confusion.

Evert got stronger and smarter. She stopped being “Chrissie,” even for me, and was just Chris. The whole women’s game changed, and younger players of all kinds swarmed onto the court. Even my school’s tennis coach had us do weight training.

But what I really learned from Evert was to squint your eyes at the problem — stop getting all weepy-eyed and emotional, and figure it out. It was a subconscious realization for a while. My first Evert-inspired shift came during those tennis tournaments: I decided I would never be bitchy or bratty toward my opponents; in fact, I’d treat them exactly the way I wanted to be treated. I reasoned that whether I won or lost, I didn’t want to dirty myself with the bullshit.

I’m not sure at what point during the horrors of junior high and high school that I consciously realized what I’d learned from watching Evert. At some point I learned that being smart could make up for weaknesses in your game. It was a huge revelation. It sounds facile now, but I became a much better player when I stopped focusing on my opponent’s attempts to annoy me, and more on what I could do to move her around the court till she got tired.

I squinted my eyes and saw around the problem.

Not that the mean girls went away. The worst of them became a terrific tennis player late in high school, accentuating her skills with great use of her capacity for bitchiness. But by then I’d learned a kind of mental toughness that allowed me to set aside her worst behavior. It really didn’t matter that much anymore.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I learned as a kid by over-identifying with female athletic heroes. I’ve wondered whether tennis taught particular lessons because it’s so personal and emotional and intellectual — as opposed to team sports, which dilute the focus on individuals — or whether young girls in Waco, Texas watch the Baylor women’s basketball team, which includes phenomenon Brittney Griner (whose complex gender performance seems to flummox so many commentators), and learn lessons of their own.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of gender options for girls back in 1977: Farrah Fawcett was probably at the top of a very short list. So you’ll have to take my word for it that Chrissie Evert nevertheless taught me how to be smart, how not to be just a girl, and how to get my mind right for dealing with mean girls. Watching her address the problem of Martina Navratilova helped me figure out problems of my own. Considering the Charlie’s Angels of contemporary television, Evert was mind-blowingly interesting and complex.

What does it mean for girls now to have female athletes as wide-ranging as the fiercely muscled tennis genius Serena Williams, the highly masculine-looking/ gender-bending Griner, the openly gay soccer player Abby Wambach? I wish I were 11 years old and could figure it out on my own — and go on to change the world.

1. In the very popularity of the tournament, Women’s World Cup athletes challenged the received wisdom that viewers don’t want to watch women’s sports on TV unless those athletes were in bikinis. This is very good news, particularly considering that the Badminton World Federation has demanded absurd uniform changes from female badminton players for next year’s Olympics to boost TV viewership. In fact, I kept thinking that the US team’s uniforms had been designed so its players could not tear off their tops in Brandi Chastain style. (Tell me again, why was that a problem back in ’99?)

2. Women’s World Cup athletes demonstrate that a wide range of women’s body shapes and sizes can achieve international renown for their athletic prowess. And in showing many different women’s body shapes, these athletes help to challenge prevailing and punitive notions that to be feminine women must appear anorexic and with very slight frames. Just take a look at Hope Solo, the 5’9” keeper for the US team, who appeared Monday night on Late Show With David Letterman (uch: how does that man sleep at night?). Solo has remarkably broad shoulders, which were only highlighted by the strappy sundress she wore; those shoulders combine with her classic beauty and surprisingly high-pitched voice to make for a not-easily definable femininity.

So just imagine how much more indefinable she became when she talked about her weight. Letterman asked Solo how she incurred such a serious shoulder injury that she required surgery a few years ago. She responded frankly: “You have a 150-pound body landing, day in and day out, probably 50 times a day, you’re eventually going to ruin something on your body.”

Letterman didn’t know how to respond: “Yeah. Wow, umm…” — as if she’s talked about her excrement or body hair. Solo just laughed. “Yes! I just — I, as a woman — just gave all you guys my weight! On television! I did, and I’m proud of it!” I can’t believe I think this is a big deal, but it is.

3. The Women’s World Cup showed us that these women aren’t just great at passing, ball handling, dramatic corner kicks and headers into the goal, but also at fierce aggression. They threw elbows and knees at one another, hurled themselves at the ball, and got injured. If the typical TV stereotype is for women to hurt one another with words or passive aggression, soccer shows that open aggression is kind of refreshing.

4. In contrast to much men’s football worldwide, women’s teams are oriented to being teams, fostering teamwork, and eschewing the monomaniacal celebrity culture that accompanies both international and club play for men. It’s meaningful to all of us to see women team players hugging one another, generously giving one another credit for great plays or assists, and expressing love for their friends on the team. It’s very meaningful to me to see that affection — and meaningful for girls everywhere. They’re oriented to each other, not to men or some male coach/father figure.

In a piece called “Football’s Fairer Sex?” ESPN writer Will Tidey goes further to delineate differences between men’s and women’s football. He explains that women fake far fewer injuries (“diving”), recover more quickly from real injuries, and in general seem to play with less cynicism. He concludes with admiration for Homare Sawa, who was named the tournament’s best player yet denied that she deserved special attention.“The team played so much of a part in me winning these awards that I can’t really take any personal pride in receiving them,” she said. Tidey is right: there’s just less bullshit on the women’s pitch. (I know, there are exceptions, like when Erika of Brazil faked an injury to give her team a breather. Just remember how rare that was.)

5. Whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many female players have embraced butch haircuts or personal styles that signify at least tomboyness if not queerness — and this is good both for gay rights and for helping to blur a gay/straight binary. Even better that all of them feel complete comfort in touching one another, hugging, and goofing around both on & off the pitch. It’s good for women everywhere to have prominent women in the media who challenge the super-feminine, pornified model of appearing in ways that seem designed to please Charlie Sheen. Let’s face it: there are a lot of ways to be gorgeous. More important, there are a lot of paths to personal appearance that make us feel comfortable in our own skin, and I like it that Amy LePeilbet (below, left) and others are showing us how. (Gorgeous!)

Surely there are more feminisms they’re modeling for us — have I missed anything?

I don’t mind saying that I spent the last 50 minutes of tonight’s Women’s World Cup final pacing in front of the telly in my hotel room. That was a ripping game — and even though I was rooting for the US (after all, I plan to marry Abby Wambach as soon as she’ll have me), I gotta hand it to Japan, who played clean and tight and fierce, and they kicked ass during the PKs. A great finale to an amazing tournament. Now, off to plan my wedding.

 

Now, maybe this just speaks to my ideas about female beauty, but isn’t the Women’s World Cup a drool fest? These have got to be the most beautiful and impressive women athletes ever. (The US’s Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, above.) You’ve got to be if you’re going to thrive at this level. There’s no makeup, no bikinis or girly skirts to wear, no mercy. There’s too much sweating to take much time on your hair. And it goes without saying that the football is fantastic.

“If I liked playing with dolls, if that’s what made me happy, I would have been there doing that,” Aline of Brazil (a starting defender) explains about her childhood in a documentary called Guerreiras (Female Warriors) about gender and football. (She’s above on the left with Marta and Maurine.) Instead she went out into the street and played football with boys. It’s well-known that women were forbidden from playing football in Germany (till 1970) and Brazil (till the early 80s), and there remain strong prejudices against women players who appear more masculine. But the ones I’m drooling the most over are the masculine ones — Aline and the US’s Abby Wambach and Japan’s Yukari Kinga, among many others.

I’ve said it before: Wouldn’t it be amazing if these unadorned and openly aggressive women became the ideal for femininity? Rather than what we’ve got now, anyway — women torturing themselves to adhere to mainstream ideas of “sexy” and learning the passive-aggressive means of sniping at other women. I’m completely fixated with them (Elodie Thomis of France above) — and I’m dreaming of a utopian future. On the other hand, my sister and I have a running series of jokes about how to sex them up for American TV consumption. (If bikinis aren’t enough, she suggests, then maybe g-strings and “wardrobe malfunctions” will do it.)

On the other hand, three members of the French team posed naked for a German magazine, Bild, under the headline, “Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?” Too bad that by showing up naked, they are kowtowing to male fanatasies and undermining any real challenge in that question. Give me the sweaty, real women in the above pictures over these airbrushed ones anytime — not only are they more beautiful, but their skills and pitch-side affection for one another offer much better models to us all.