Hannah Berner's high school doesn't have a girls' tennis team, but she still gets flak for playing with the boys. Her story got us thinking about girl athletes who happen to play against the opposite sex, and the strange combination of stereotypes they face.
Berner [pictured, second from right] went 16-2 this season, and helped New York's small Beacon High School sweep the city's three major tennis tournaments. But her opponent aren't happy about a girl demonstrating such prowess. After one of her wins, the opposing coach claimed that the game was unfair "because her gender unnerved her opponents." The coach said that for a boy, playing Berner is "a lose-lose situation. If he wins, he's supposed to win. If he loses, he lost to a girl."
This statement highlights the weirdness of people's reactions to girls like Berner. Traditionally, the rationale for keeping girls out of boys' sports has been that girls aren't good enough to compete with boys. But increasingly, parents and coaches are complaining that girls are too good. Twelve-year-old Jaime Nared was ousted from a boys' team, likely because of concerns that she was outshining the boys (she was later reinstated). And when the Cheetahs, a girls' soccer team, began playing boys' teams, parents got concerned about girls beating their sons.
The whole issue is a sad example of stereotypes begetting stereotypes. If no one had ever assumed that girls would be worse at sports than boys, there would be no shame in boys getting beaten by them. But because boys are brought up to think girls are obviously lesser athletes, they are "unnerved" when a girl is actually good. The solution isn't to continue protecting boys' fragile masculinity by keeping them away from female opponents. It's to expose them to girl players more often, so that they understand that girls can be athletes in their own right, and not just wimpier versions of boys.
It's not necessarily true that all sports should be coed — women's bodies are different from men, and segregation at the professional level can make sense for some sports. A single-gender environment may be good for some girls too. Anna was impressed by "the Cheetahs' embrace of their more aggressive, competitive sides," an embrace that may be easier to develop if you're not worried about impressing boys. But in many situations, coed competition can teach boys and girls that sports aren't just a guy thing, and that winning is about using your skills, not proving your masculinity.
She Plays With Boys, and Rivals Don't Like It [New York Times]