Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stop Counting "Ponytails"?

In a column at, reporter/author/scholar Welch Suggs says he is fed up with the cyclical debate about proportionality and wishes we could stop "counting ponytails" and start assessing outcomes. He suggests that we study whether athletes receive the benefits of participation in athletic programs, and use that assessment to root out inequality:
We need to figure out what makes teams successful at providing positive and meaningful experiences for young women—as well as for young men....Where we find differing outcomes for male and female athletes, we will find Title IX issues, and these issues are likely to go beyond head counts of athletes. We would find inferior coaches for women’s teams. We would find disparities in equipment budgets, practice schedules, and facilities. In short, we would find the many everyday instances of discrimination that are overlooked in favor of debating ponytails.
Suggs is right that many other compliance factors get overlooked in the handwringing about numbers. But I must object to Suggs's deployment of "ponytail" as a metonym for women and girls. Not only is it underinclusive of women and girls who do not wear ponytails, it is overinclusive of the men and boys who do.

But we all know what Suggs meant, so what's the harm? The cultural discourse on sport is constantly affirming gender stereotypes and pressuring athletes to conform. Society feels better about female athletes who are hyper-feminine, so ponytails, glitter, short, sexy uniforms, public discourse about husbands, boyfriends, and children, all become requisites for their participation. These requisites can exclude women who don't want to trade in stereotyped notions of femininity and be burdensome and distracting for those who are willing to. In contrast, male athletes are expected to be hypermasculine. Like gay male athletes, male athletes with ponytails produce uncomfortable amounts of collective cognitive dissonance, enough to ensure that there is only room in sport for one version of masculinity. Trading on the assumption that all female athletes have ponytails and no male athletes do just affirms the harmful gender stereotypes that both exclude nonconformists from participation and pressure participants to conform.

In a Suggsian universe, where we comprehensively assessed the quality of athlete experience, one thing I'd measure is whether the athletes felt free to be themselves. Free to be short haired butch dyke or any other kind of woman one wants to be; free to be a long-haired hippie guy or any other kind of man. It's not in the regs, but to me it's just as important an indicator of equality as budgets, equipment, facilities, and even the headcount.

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