“She Throws a Baseball Like a Girl”: The Politics of Gendered Identity

When I was about ten years of age, I recall trying to get three of ‘the girls’ on our street, to throw a baseball the ways boys did, you know, like Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, or Harvey Keane. Those three girls were our regulars, who we could count on to come out and play soccer, football, or even catch frogs with us down at Soules’ Creek. They were, for all intents and purposes, ones of us. Except when they wore dresses. That was usually after church on Sundays, or when they had to be in school or visiting their relatives in various ethnic enclaves between Hamilton and Toronto.

After school and weekends set the scene for many mixed-sex events as described, and these scenes were usually full of laughter and kidding around. Not always however, and sometimes when we boys were too rough, as in daring the three to ride their bikes through old man Ginger’s hedge, they would yell or cry from the scratches on their arms and faces and complain to their mothers that we forced them to do it. But they drifted back always, bravery in tow, for more fun and adventures on Wilson Avenue, just north of the orchard. When their parents preferred the girls not play with us, or one upset parent talked to ours about not wanting their girls to turn out as ‘Tomboys’, things got dicey. The street and woods were silent during those mindful moments. And the other boys didn’t play with the ‘normal’, boring girls on the street. But then the sun would come out, and we would all re-assemble in the early morning, at the horse-drawn wagon when the milkman made his regular stops to drop off cream-topped milk bottles. Our female ‘buddies’ had forgiven and/or missed us, and would actually say so as they patted the Clydesdale mare.

So the four of us were playing catch on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon, and seeing as it was in my back-yard, I was responsible for sketching out the limits to how far we could stray onto the neighbour’s property to fetch a wayward ball. It often happened, since we were all show-offs at throwing, either with speed, distance, or accuracy. But neighbours were neighbours, and that imaginary border took on emotional significance on more than one occasion.

Carol-Anne, Valerie and Betty walked around the corner of the house, and to our surprise, asked if they could play. Since they didn’t have baseball gloves, and we’d never seen them throw a ball, the four of us guys did what was proper and offered to play catch bare-handed and gave them our gloves. We made ourselves into a seven-sided square, being careful no to step on the neighbour’s lawn. So we watched as the three girls threw the ball. They all threw it the same way. No accuracy. No speed. Bad arm movements. And we didn’t say a word other than praising them when we could catch their throws.

We are of course, born male or female, and rarely, a hermaphrodite (either way). What turns boys and girls into men and women, is culture and socialization (the process of acquiring it). Apart from on average having less muscle mass, there is no physical reason why girls cannot learn to throw a ball like a boy (assuming they want to, and apparently there is some merit sociologically among girls in NOT being called a Tomboy by one’s peers). Yet this one act among many, demonstrates how community, school and family life shape our identities. Boys learn to throw a baseball a certain way that is consistent with gendered expectations. Some don’t of course, but they don’t usually engage in playing baseball, and substitute displays of gender in sports by doing something else, like rowing, soccer, football, diving, hockey, and so forth. Or by not playing sports of any kind.

The transition into ‘men’ and ‘women’ for all of us, especially during the teenage years, can be smooth or traumatic. Social institutions like the family, schools, the workplace, non-government organizations (NGOs) can act as a political force in bringing about ‘normal’ gender roles and performances. To this day, in spite of the ’60s counter-culture efforts, girls tend to be identified as weak, delicate, cute and beautiful, and boys as strong, alert, aggressive and well coordinated. With Barbie and GI Joe as more than just dolls in the ’60s and ’70s, but as icons of a lifestyle, to be admired and even sought after, there is little wonder that gender stereotypes in the media, as advertising ‘billboards’, promote conformity around social class, sexual performance and body image. Misunderstandings between men and women, because of these socialization patterns, are common.

Social constructionists would argue that “gender inequality derives not from any inherent biological features of men and women but from three main socio-historical circumstances: the arrival of long-distance warfare and conquest, the development of plow agriculture, and the assignment of women to the domestic sphere and men to the public sphere during the early industrial era.” (Brym et al: p. 272). And there is in general, more gender equality in rich than in poor countries, which suggests that gender equality is a function of – among other things – economic development. Anthropologist Desmond Morris (in his book Bodywatching) has observed that when economic conditions improve, women’s hemlines go up. And there is a resulting boost in interest in pay equity, and subsidized child care, while incidences of sexual assault and sexual harassment decline. Research has also shown that some men still find it difficult to accept the tenets of the feminist movement, in which feminism may threaten men’s traditional way of life and perhaps even their sexual identity. Feminist thought of the past four decades particularly, whether liberal, socialist, radical, anti-racist or postmodernist, has issued a major challenge to mainstream male-dominated politics to vastly adjust social policies to especially extend the relevance of feminism to previously marginalized groups. And to remove the ‘glass ceiling’ women experience in employment and government.

So perhaps ask not if a girl can throw a baseball like a boy, but can both men and women play on the same team – free of prejudice and discrimination?

 

Robert J. Brym, et al. 2003. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. Thompson-Nelson; Scarborough, ON

Desmond Morris. 1985. Bodywatching: A Field Guide to the Human Species. Jonathan Cape; London

Advertisements

Have you ever…?

This is my “Have you ever…?” series of blogs.

As a sociologist I have wide societal interests by training, but have also led a very full personal life.. What I would like to discover is what are YOUR similar or divergent experiences and interests. This collage of 25 questions that follow shouldn’t take too long to respond to. Send your answers back to me and I’ll tally them up and report the answers (anonymously) back on the next blog. Should be fascinating. Just respond like this example:  1. “Yes”, or “No”.  If you wish to comment further that is fine, but I retain editorial rights to what I include in my final analysis of your comments. Cheers! So here goes.

Have you ever…

1. Ridden a horse without a saddle for more than 10 km/6 miles?

2. Vomited in a movie theatre?

3. Watched a baby being born?

4. Played a card or board game for more than 12 hours non-stop?

5. Eaten a roasted insect?

6. Voted for your favourite candidate only to later discover he/she had a false identity?

7. Flown so high you can make out the curvature of the earth?

8. Had sex underwater?

9. Ghost written a really bad essay in college/university?

10. Driven a car for over 6 months without having car insurance?

11. Kissed a famous movie star?

12. Been embarrassed and centered out at a party because of what you wore?

13. Had to run from a bear while hiking?

14. Been pushed into a swimming pool fully dressed?

15. Built a tree-house as a kid?

16. Asked the waiter/waitress to re-cook your meal?

17. Gotten lost in the bush?

18. Played on a sports team that lost every game?

19. Smashed up your parents’ car?

20. Accidentally put something else on your toothbrush other than toothpaste?

21. Driven a car in the nude?

22. Sneezed on a cake by accident?

23. Attended a class totally blitzed?

24. Slept with strangers?

25. Fallen in love while dating someone else?

THANK YOU!!

The ‘Pinky”

You’ve been there. At one of those events or parties where everyone stands around drinking tea with their little finger stuck up in the air, possibly because there’s no where else to put it.

Or perhaps the symbolization of your quite visible pinky denotes social status. Like in Downton Abbey scenes.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be held up in full sight at all. So why do we/some do it? I think the link to Downton Abbey gives us a strong clue. The obvious pinky tells us you are of the ‘cultured’ variety of humans, intent on preserving a particular image in all social settings, especially where there are strangers present of equal or particularly higher social status. Both men and women do it, unless you are a man with a farm or football background or a bricklayer perhaps. No need for pretension among these kinds of chaps. Women are, on the whole, more aware of social conventions than men are, for a whole pile of reasons, not the least of which is that women have wider social circles than men. When I was in high school in the ’50s in Mississauga, Ontario, girls took “Home Ec” classes, and boys took “Shop”. These stereotypical finishing programs equipped us for life as a man or as a woman. One of my girlfriends then, in grade 11, was taught how to set a table and serve tea to a group of other people. This included how to hold a tea-cup properly, namely by pinching the handle between your thumb and index finger. Only two, or possibly three digits were necessary apparently. So this left space for the other two or three.

Since there is a natural tendency to let those fingers ‘float’, raising the pinky works well, almost on its own. It is physically quite comfortable.

And the pinky is the only finger really narrow enough to explore ear and nose orifices, and it also makes a good toothpick after a roast-beef dinner.

So raising it publicly may be a way of advertising its importance. The next time you have a cup of tea, especially if you can’t fit your first finger through the handle, stick your pinky proudly in the air in defiance of coffee lovers who use mugs. Cheers!