Monday, February 27, 2012

The feminist fable and soft essentialism

The Title IX Blog is a huge fan of Dr. Michael Messner. Messner is the type of academic I certainly strive to emulate. His work is impressive and thought-provoking, practical and accessible.
And in the June 2011 issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal Messner had an article that made me say "damn, I wish I had written that"--of course I would have had to think of it first. (It also had a handy chart!)
In the piece "Gender Ideologies, Youth Sports, and the Production of Soft Essentialism," Messner uses his research on the gender ideologies he observed in youth sports, providing a theoretical context in which to understand these constructions. He calls it soft essentialism.
Soft essentialism is a gender ideology based on the perceived experiences of the professional class (though it functions hegemonically) in the United States in this era of "post-feminism." It is marked by a belief in choice--for girls and women, but leaves unexamined the possibility of choice for boys and men. It is, as Messner notes, a triumph for liberal feminism which has advocated for individual success through access to options/venues/professions from which women have been historically barred. Title IX, of course, is a product of liberal feminism.
While supportive of access to sport opportunities for women and girls, Messner writes of the problems with the "triumphant feminist tale" in women's sport history (p. 152). First--and this is something I try to explain to my students all the time--progress is not linear. The idea that "things" are better now than they were at some unnamed point in the past is too easy and not supported by history. This problematic teleology also erases differences in class, race, ability, age, geography and various other markers that greatly affect a girl's access to opportunities and "choices" generally.
Finally one of the most interesting paradigm-shifting points Messner makes is that soft essentialism leaves boys and men unmarked. Girls can choose to do sports or become mothers or work or wear heels and dresses or get married. Despite shifts in the construction of masculinity, boys are still largely deprived of the same level of flexibility (noting again that very few women have such flexibility when we take into account age, race, and class).
How does this relate to Title IX? The argument that anti-IXers proffer is often rooted in soft essentialism. Opportunities for girls--which they can choose or not--take away, the argument goes, opportunities for boys. Sports for boys are viewed as less of a choice and more innate--something they are "naturally" drawn to. Both girls and boys suffer when society interprets gender roles in this way. Boys are not allowed to be "flexible choosers." We have seen this before when people speak out against Title IX's alleged quota system. They note that girls like to do many different things (like band and drama and chorus and yearbook and newspaper and community service) while boys mostly just like sports. And, on the other side of the gender binary, when girls "choose" to do something else, this is seen as an unrestricted, freely made choice reflecting some kind of innate interest level.
Messner, in the conclusion, brings up the idea of integrating sport, noting its potential benefits and downsides and pointing to other research on the issue. I believe that in order for this to happen we need to value all versions of sport--in practice not just in theory--from recreational to professional. The competitive model of sport (in combination with hegemonic gender ideologies) that is most prevalent in our culture right now presents, I believe, the biggest obstacle to integration.