Cleats or Ballet Shoes?

Most people, regardless of gender, are born with 206 bones. Experts say human beings have between 640 and 850 muscles (they're so difficult to count, a precise tally is impossible). Boy, girl, and in-between, we all share the same number of eyes, appendages, nerve endings. We have the same instincts—if we touch a hot stove, we pull away; if something is thrown unexpectedly at us, we duck.

From the moment the doctor slaps us on the ass and sends home in swaddling clothes, we're all reservoirs of potential, a big bundle of abilities and physical tools. Yet we are taught to do very different things with these tools. At first we are taught the same things, like how to crawl, walk, and run. We are taught to use our motor skills to effect the same basic functions, like eating.

But then things start to change: Somewhere along the way, a divergence occurs, and we begin to learn different things. Boys learn how to play ball; girls learn how to play house. The older we get, the differences in what we are taught become more refined, until they are paradoxically subtle, yet glaring. Girls are taught "girl stuff," like complicated dance steps, which they perform, as Ginger Rogers once pointed out, backwards and in high heels. Boys also learn some fancy backward footwork—it's called the three-step drop.
The three-step drop is a football fundamental used by quarterbacks, usually as part of a scheme involving quick timing patterns. Here's what it looks like:

Now here's a random dance video I grabbed off the Internet:

Basic Country-Western Swing Dancing Steps -- powered by

Is it just me, or does anyone else notice that the movement of both the quarterback and the dancing lady are almost the same? It's called the "two-step," but notice how the dance mechanics are really similar to the three-step drop. Both the dancing move and the football move require coordination and proper timing, almost identical physical motions, strength, and skill—all backwards.

Two similar abilities, two similar skill sets, two vastly different results, differences based on the fact that some time during early stages of development, the tabula rasa of a young girl's ability is written down differently then a boy's, and their stories diverge dramatically: Her story is about dancing; his is about football.

And we—parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, ESPN announcers, college recruiters—are the authors of that young girl's story.

It's a story quietly told. It's not even that we overtly say girls shouldn't play football—it's just understood. Who would even think to teach them football mechanics?
Of course, boys aren't really given the option of learning anything but lead dance steps, which is also unfair, but the unfairness rendered by the girls' situation is compounded by its implications: Dancing is fine—dancing is great—but football, baseball, basketball are where the power resides. It's something scholar Michael A. Messner confronts in his book Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. "Boys' access to sports," Messner says, "combined with girls' lack of access literally shaped our bodies and thus our belief that men were naturally strong and athletic while women were naturally frail and in need of protection—a belief that not-so-incidentally corresponded with the post-World War II pushing of women out of the labor force and into the cult of motherhood and homemaking."

So it's a cycle: Girls are taught to play house while the boys play outside. The boys get stronger, so they are deemed the ones best suited to pursue action, labor, and activity. So the girls stay in the house when they become women. Unless they're dancing—backwards.

by Jonanna Widner
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11 Comments Have Been Posted

Im sorry but i dont agree

Im sorry but i dont agree with this at all.
Ive sudied psychology and there is evidense which i belive that gender roles are innate and not taught,
they may be exadurated by society but society is certainly not the cause of it.
At a very young age most boys will WANT to play with "boy-toys" toy cars, tools and footballs and most girls WANT to play with barbie dolls and toy houses.
When i was a child i asked for toy power tools for chtistmas and played power rangers with the boys on my street. I know i am the exeption to most "normal" girls, i know thats true and i accept it. But my point is i was allowed to do that by society.
To say that young girls have no access to sports or are being opressed by being forced to dance is sexism in itself. Any girl who WANTS to play football will be allowed to do so and any boy who WANTS to take ballet will be allowed to do so awell by society these days.
I understand that feminism has got us to that level of equality and that is an amazing thing. But women now do have a choise in what they do. We have womens football teams and we have profesional male dancers and to refuse to accept that is refusind to acknolage the triumpfs of feminism in the past.

You asking for power tools

You asking for power tools and playing with Power Rangers is a bit of proof that 'roles' are not innate. They are largely taught. Boys and girls are taught as soon as they're born what roles they are intended to fill, just by the toys they are bought and encouraged to play with, and the way adults talk to both genders.

Also, it is not entirely true that a girl who wants to play football will be allowed to. If you've read the post above this, the girl who pitched a perfect game will not be allowed to play baseball next year because there aren't co-ed teams for her age group. She has to play softball. And a boy who wants to dance will most certainly be called a faggot and a pussy (pardon my language) and most likely be deterred from fulfilling his dream. We may have choices, but that doesn't mean they will be accepted by the general population. The pressure of society as to what roles we're supposed to fill is incredibly powerful.

I agree completely. This

I agree completely. This article seems to be desperately grasping for sexist straws that are not there. I have NEVER encountered any female that has had ANY interest at all in football (apart from comments about cute butts).

Why are feminists constantly trying to apply equality everywhere? Especially when there is a lack of interest on both sides?

And, surprising as it is, I have actually heard criticism from feminists when a man expresses interest in "female endeavours", that he is actually attempting to take what little women have away from them.

Enough is enough already. Quite complaining about every little thing and let people live their lives.


You've never met girls into football? Really? I certainly have...I live with a young woman who would probably die if she missed a Bronco's game (and was the only girl on the football team when she was in junior high), and I know another who plays on a competitive rugby team. Yes, I know it's not football, but I think if our University had a team, she'd probably be on it.

Also, I'm not sure what inspired the "why are feminists constantly trying to apply equality everywhere" comment. I understand some small details of life seem insignificant, but when you add all of them up, they reveal the inner workings of a greater structure that inscribes gender roles in us, and how we become self-policing subjects. This article didn't seek to discourage girls from playing house or boys from playing football, it just commented on how opportunities for children to cross those boundaries are often lacking. And, speaking of lacking, I don't see a complete lack of desire to create more equality...perhaps that's not what you meant, but it's certainly how the statement came across.

Sorry you've run into some feminists who embrace male-directed sexism, but remember, single people or small groups are often poor representatives of the whole.


I can't count the number of times a girl/young woman/ adult woman has mentioned a love of "boy actiities" and modified his enjoyment with "I know this is a guy thing, but I am/was the exception to the rule." Many women may feel a need to diguise or dismiss their own "tomboy" tendencies, but the frequency with which I've observed this (admittedly anecdotal) behavior leads me to believe that this post hits the nail on the head.

On another note: I have enjoyed these first few sports posts-keep up the good work!

Can you say penis envy? I

Can you say penis envy?

I know that is sexist and insulting, but seriously, that is how this comes off as.

Women have no interest in sports? Really? You're joking, right?

Seriously? I know a fair few women who love to play and watch sports. In fact, many girls in my high school pushed for a girl's football team. Which, by the way, is ALWAYS called the 'powderpuff' football team (because it's the powderpuff league, or some shit like that), which I find degrading, but whatever. Growing up I played basketball and soccer, and so did every other girl in my family. I really enjoy playing football and soccer still, when I have the opportunity, because I genuinely enjoy rough contact sports. Does that make me less of a female? Hardly.

My point is, I don't understand these commenters who make blatantly false blanket statements about women, and what they want. Seriously, having a vagina doesn't entitle you to speak for all women. You may not enjoy sports, but many others do enjoy sports, and are very good at them.

I agree wholeheartedly with this article, and I think anyone who is shouting it down with accusations of 'penis envy,' needs to take a look at themselves, and think about why it is they are clinging so hard to their gender roles.

The boys can keep their ugly-ass helmets and two step.

I kinda disagree with the type of social argument expressed in this piece as to what shapes boy vs. girls’ dispositions to physical activity. Basically, this kind of argument, that "girls don't because adults tell them they can't," is almost too simplistic for my blood. Personally, as a child I was not encouraged to stay in the house. I was encouraged to get out of the house and play with the boys, but this changed for me through adolescence and that was partially social and biological. Penis envy is a stupid way of putting it, but yes, this argument does sort of make it out like girls want what boys have.
For me, what changed is that I wanted to be more like other girls. When I was 13, I wanted to athletic like the most athletic girls I saw. I wanted to be on the soccer team. I wanted the speed & flexibility of the older girls on the team. I think there are some biological differences between men and women that shape who are best at certain sports. Men and women have different centers of gravity; men seem to have more upper body strength, etc. Of course, these aren't the only factors that shape athleticism. There is also skill, agility, and all the split second decisions that great athletes make, which seem magical, but are the result of years and years of practice. Some people argue that being good at a sport comes from being enmeshed in the culture of that sport, and if girls don't have access to the culture of that sport they probably won't become good. But as I got older, I didn't want to be part of the culture of football, it's ugly helmets and coach-dictated plays. I didn't want to be Troy Aikman. I wanted to be Mia Hamm (and a little Beyonce).
Basically, I just think it's all a little more complicated than "society tell kids what they are good at." There may not be a neat line from toddlerhood to adulthood, a consistent narrative, a repeating least there wasn't for me.

Anyone ever herd of

Anyone ever herd of testosterone?

No penis envy here...

But I am loving Jock Bitch so far! As you may know, I am not a very sporty person, but by using examples like the videos you posted you are making sports and gender accessible for book nerds like me :)

Now I just want to see some dancin' ladies out on the football field, and some football players out on the dance floor! A new reality show, perhaps? You can be the host!

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