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November 1, 2013 / Betsy Gardner

the one night a year…

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The above line is from the movie Mean Girls, one of the more epically quotable movies of our generation, at least in my opinion. With Halloween on a Thursday this year, the typical festivities have been spread out of the past week and into this upcoming weekend. The party atmosphere in the city has been even further amped by the Red Sox World Championship win, with the celebratory parade scheduled for tomorrow. If the city of Boston was looking for an excuse to let loose and have a great time, the past week has given us more than ample opportunity to throw on a costume, a jersey, or both, and hit the streets.

As I’ve been partaking in the dual celebration of Halloween and the World Series win, I keep unconsciously recalling that line from Mean Girls. I’ve also spent the past week partaking in various trainings here at Sport in Society, where the language and meaning behind that quote continue to be a hot discussion topic. In the movie, the main character Cady Heron grows up homeschooled in Africa, and attends a cliché suburban American high school for the first time, unaware of the rituals, standards and intricacies of what she calls “Girl World”.

Towards the beginning of the film, still an outsider, she attends a Halloween party with the popular “mean girls”. Cady thinks Halloween is about dressing up in a scary costume: as she discovers, that’s considered a childish way to view the holiday by high schoolers. She wears an ex-Bride of Dracula costume with fake blood and fangs, while the other girls wear lingerie with animal ears. This contrast prompts Cady to make the above observation about Halloween and “slutty” dressing.

In a previous blog post, I talked about an activity we use during our trainings call The Box. For this exercise, participants come up with the stereotypical looks, careers, emotions, and possessions of the “ideal” man or woman. We write those stereotypes inside the box, then list the words people call anyone who dares step outside that on the outer edge of our box. This is typically separated by gender, with men listing terms for male stereotypes and women doing the same for females. After nearly a year at Sport in Society attending, facilitating and observing trainings with participants of all ages, genders, and races, I have never seen a person who is pleased with their gender stereotype. Or who perfectly fits within that box. Or who enjoys being called hurtful names like gay, slut, bitch, or pussy when they step outside their box.

Instead, every participant has expressed frustration with societal expectations based solely upon their gender, and when the men and women come back together to discuss their separate boxes, they’re both pleasantly surprised to find out that the other group felt upset and constrained by their stereotype. And yet, I think that Cady Heron, fictional character in a Tina Fey movie, absolutely hits the heart of the matter when she makes her statement about Halloween. It’s the only night a woman can experiment with her sexuality or express herself through socially “slutty” clothes, without being judged by other women. We all rightly detest our boxes; no one will ever be all of those fashion and career and mothering and attractive stereotypes, the “perfect” or “ideal” woman.

And yet we still participate in the construction of our own societal prisons; we gender police our fellow women. Every time we see a woman in something deemed “slutty” and then raise our eyebrows, or nudge our friend, or mouth something behind her back, we build our box just a little bit higher. So why? If no one wants the constraint of a little defined stereotype none of us fit into, why do we help build it? A complicated question deserves a complicated answer, and I’m afraid there isn’t room to do it justice in this post. But if we’re all doing it, then we can all stop.

I propose we extend the free pass, that magical, judgment free night of candy and costumes on October 31st. Let’s make it another night, and another, until Mean Girls becomes a beloved cultural reference of that time when we still policed ourselves into a tiny box no one fit. I have faith that as a society we can move beyond the “one night a year” and let people dress, act, think how they want to, without fear of being pushed back into the box.

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