Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My (Longer) Comment at on the Allison Stokke Flap



I do have a lovely young daughter, and if when she turns 18 she is a successful, beautiful scholar-athlete or artist, I will be very happy. Or if she’s just intact and happy I’ll be happy. And if she has millions of admirers on the web, I’m sure I’ll find some of them to be crude, at worst it will pass, and at best we’ll make it into an opportunity.

But I think you need to look deeper into the rhetoric here. This is an internet story, but it is also an example of a very popular kind of scare story focusing on the problems of ambitious, successful young women, like, say, this one. Actually, here’s a relevant quote from that article:

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

These are postmodern damsel-in-distress tales the anxious rich write about their peers. They’re fun to read and talk about, certainly more fun than, say, and article about an 18 year old girl with no health insurance, in but what’s the underlying message?

We wrap these girls up in such contradictory, perfectionist constructs. Be sexy but recoil from sexuality. We teach them to be powerful and assertive, but we treat them like wilting violets in a crisis. As a feminist, I think Allison is quite capable of handling this situation, even if her father isn’t, and from what I’ve read, she’s doing fine.

Let’s be clear though. If we really think incidents like this are a problem, there is one clear solution. Modesty. To my knowledge, in the history of Western civilization, no female athletes were allowed to dress like Allison and her contemporary peers and do the things they do, and this is literally something that has changed in the past decade or so, right? Women’s ple vault didn’t even become an Olympic sport until 2000.

Why didn’t people do these things before? In large part because people would talk. Now, admittedly, a lot more people can talk now than did before, but they also live a lot further away from you than they used to and have much less direct impact on your life (and remember, there have been no substantive threats or stalking in this case).

If it is a serious problem that crude horn-dog guys spread their locker-room talk about our athletes in public, if it is something 18 year old women need to be protected from, we need to cover up the girls.

That isn’t really the direction I want to go.

This is, incidentally, yet another time I'm left feeling like my undergraduate education at CMU was just freakishly different than everyone else's college curriculum. Apparently all that sex-positive feminist literary theory soaked in more than I thought, and other folks never got it or just drop it when they start reproducing.

One more point... think about how much money Ms. Stokke will make in endorsements and speaking engagments if she makes the Olympic team eventually, which would seem to be a real possibility if she can stay healthy, given her record-setting performances thus far. I'm sure a lot more than any other US woman pole-valuter has. You'd have to start from a very privileged place to not appreciate the opportunities this sudden notoriety creates, even if it is a bit shocking at first.

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