the one night a year…


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.

An urban basketball court in Leon, Nicaragua.

The Common Denominator.

“Tom Brady? Teddy Bruschi? The Patriots, right?” These were not the questions I expected to be asked at the small, humid border crossing between Guatemala and El Salvador. And yet here stood the imposing guard, looking much like the former NFL linebacker himself, glancing at my American passport and rattling off football names like a New England native.

Immediately all of my preconceived notions of the country shifted. In 2011 El Salvador had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world; two of the most notorious international gangs run out of the country, and the US Department of State warns travelers of violent extortion and kidnapping rings operating out of several prisons. When planning a trip to Central America this summer, you might understand why El Salvador did not top my list of countries to visit; I definitely didn’t expect a welcome into the country that included inquiries about my local American sports teams.

After a semester interning at Sport in Society, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. As a program that recognizes the power of sports and the “extent to which its worldwide audience cuts across gender, race, and socioeconomic lines” I knew the connections diverse groups make over kicking a soccer ball or cheering for familiar athletes. But tired, sunburned, and backpacking so far from home, I hadn’t expected to experience that connection in such a powerful way. In my mediocre Spanish, and his slightly better English, I learned that the border guard had a friend who had lived in Lexington, MA and recognized Boston in my passport. This opened a conversation about general sports, and then popular local surfing, and ended with the guard recommending a visit to an international surfing competition along the coast of El Salvador.

Travelling internationally as an American can inspire a host of different reactions, but when names from the New England Patriots are the first thing mentioned by a government security official, you realize just how universal sports are. It’s especially amazing when you consider the worldwide appeal of football vs. futbol, a topic that particularly incited debate when America’s gold medal potential in the World Cup was proposed.

Toward the end of my five-week trip, my first serious journey abroad, I had talked not only the Patriots, but discussed the culture of machismo in bullfighting, kicked around “soccer” balls made of wrapped up plastic bags, and read proud articles about successful Panamanians playing Major League Baseball. In part due to these real life experiences that contextualize the work we do here, I had also made the decision to dedicate more time to utilizing the “power and appeal of sport”; at the end of my summer vacation I chose to return full-time as an intern and facilitator with Sport in Society.

No matter where these experiences occur, either on a dusty field in Guatemala City or crowded basketball courts in Roxbury, I think everyone who witnesses the universality of sports can understand the potential for using that to create social change and I can’t wait to see what this next semester brings!

The First but Not the Last.

In 2010 Sports Illustrated published an interview with Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas titled The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete.  As of this past Monday, almost exactly three years later, Thomas is no longer alone; pro basketball player Jason Collins wrote an article for the same magazine that begins with the statement “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”.

Collins made history this week as the first current player in a major American sport to come out. Speculation has been developing in recent years, not about Collins specifically, but over who would be the first and when they would decide to come forward. In 2011 a Gallup poll proved that a majority of Americans (53%) were in favor of legalizing gay marriage; attitudes on the issue of sexual orientation have been changing rapidly in recent years, and support for the gay community has grown along with rising disapproval of homophobic attitudes.

Earlier this year San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made several anti-gay comments during a media session for the Super Bowl. His statement and discriminatory attitude were disappointing and hurtful; both the public and other professional athletes reacted by overwhelmingly condemning his remarks, and a day later Culliver issued an apology.

While preparing for the Sport in Society discussion course Out of Bounds, another intern and I contacted Aaron McQuade, the Director of News & Field Media at GLAAD, and had the opportunity to interview him about gay athletes and their portrayal in various sports media. We talked about the Culliver incident, and McQuade felt that it was actually a chance for a dialogue, especially when so many other athletes countered his homophobia. The support shown by various current and former athletes in pro American sports proves how attitudes about the LBGTQ community are shifting.

Ideally, Collins’ statement will only further this shift, and hence further the conversation about masculinity and homosexuality in sports. Except this time, the discussion won’t be ABOUT the gay professional athlete, and will instead be WITH one.  Three years ago, Gareth Thomas asked Sports Illustrated “All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?” Jason Collins can now answer that question as America’s first out pro athlete, but certainly not the last.

What’s Your Good?

The question is deceptively simple. What’s your good?

To be honest, I love the question but find it almost uncomfortably self-reflective. I like to believe that we all have that individual ‘good’ to spread, but we also have two jobs, or newborn babies, or graduate schools to apply to, or taxes to file. ‘I would love to nurture my individual good’ you think ‘just after I cure cancer, achieve world people, and make the fantasy hockey playoffs’.  Personally, I’m already behind on achieving that last goal, so I don’t have the time to preach about committing your limited free time to rescuing the endangered sea monkeys or adopting neglected office plants.

But your good is different. I don’t know what it is. Maybe you’re the person who willing digs into the company trash to pull out all the plastic cups for recycling. Or you’re the one who’s an active bystander when your roommate starts making racist jokes out at a bar. You might spend an hour every Saturday shooting hoops with a kid from the homeless shelter.

I think there should be a personal pride in your good; it’s not a competition or an accusation or a bargaining chip. Who cares how grandiose your gesture is, or how much time or money you spent on your commitment? Just living your life everyday by thinking that you have some good and you can put it out there should be enough to empower action.

So ask the question. And find your own good…because right after I propose these fantasy trades, I’m going to find mine.

Breaking the Box.

          Bikinis. Astronauts. Shark attacks. Running in slow motion. What do these things have in common? According to Axe’s newest commercial “Lifeguard”, this combination naturally makes one think of men’s cologne.  The vignette features a blonde young woman being dramatically rescued by an attractive male lifeguard, only to have the girl chase a man in a spacesuit walking on the beach. The phrase “Nothing beats an astronaut…Ever” appears across her bikini-clad body as the camera pans her running after him. Hardly Axe’s most offensive advertisement (my vote is for this “Chocolate Man” ad) I still noted the obvious stereotypes when this commercial aired during the Super Bowl last Sunday.

          This obvious “sex sells” approach is so ubiquitous in advertising today that its almost expected, but after the Mentors in Violence Prevention training we had last week I watched the Super Bowl commercials with a renewed interest in commercially-enforced gender stereotypes. One of the activities we did at the three-day training was The Box exercise, where we split into men’s and women’s groups to discuss gender pressures, and list what attributes were stereotypically male and female. Those qualities were listed inside a large box; in the space outside we listed the names given to individuals who fall outside that socially accepted norm. For the women’s sheet, we wrote things like “thin, domestic, sexy (but not too sexy), feminine, emotional” and outside the box we had words like “slutty” and “butch”. After this activity the male and female groups came back together and watched almost fifteen minutes of commercials that really proved how enforced and pervasive these stereotypes are.

          When selling a product, it’s easy to reach for the stereotypes, either featuring the obviously sexy woman in ads, or exclusively aiming yogurt commercials at women. But are the sellers of appetizing dairy products really concerned with female calcium intake? Or are they pushing the stereotype of women who are constantly concerned with dieting and who eat yogurt instead of dessert, lest they fall outside the “thin, sexy” box? If we aren’t careful, we’ll simply accept these stereotypes and eventually be complicit in constructing these boxes ourselves. And as we discussed in our MVP training, these stereotypes encourage sexist attitudes and language, and propagate the objectification of women. Both of these are methods for demeaning females in society, which only escalates through the Pyramid of Sexism, which is a tool that maps how these lower-level, non-violent ways of degrading women support more violent and abusive acts.

          That’s not to argue that stereotypes can’t be a useful method for advertising at a select demographic; focus groups confirm similar interests for certain age or gender groups. And I think everyone enjoys the Old Spice “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” cheeky, over-the-top commercials that mock Axe advertising. But we need to be careful what interests we support when we talk about the Super Bowl commercials this week. Jarrod, one of our MVP facilitators, actually mentioned an old Super Bowl commercial during our unit on media stereotypes.

          In 2007 Snickers aired a spot called “Kiss” which featured two mechanics accidentally kissing while eating a Snickers bar. The men panicked and immediately needed to do something “manly” to offset their lip lock; they began pulling out their chest hair to prove their stereotypical manhood. After an immediate and overwhelmingly negative response, Snickers pulled the advertisement and its related web content. This is a great example of the impact we can have when facing sexism in media stereotypes. And it’s even easier today, with outlets like Twitter and FaceBook, to condemn sexist or homophobic media. Everyone has the opportunity to be an active bystander, and to rebuild our own boxes to include us all.