Power to Play


Title IX, the groundbreaking legislation that mandated female participation in school sports, turned 40 this week.  As I read the various articles celebrating this milestone, I thought about how far we’ve come:

  • There are female teams for just about every sport imaginable, and girls and women have been setting and breaking their own records for years.
  • Little girls often play sports on mixed teams with little boys, or on their own teams, cheered on by moms, dads, and other family and friends.
  • Girls participating in sports is such a norm now that my daughter, when she heard about Title IX and why we needed it, was shocked at the unfairness of pre-Title IX life for girls and women.

Despite these strides, every article I read discussed how far we have to go—how often girls and women are barred from participating in sports, or expected to put up with sexism and sexual harassment on and off the playing field.  Some recent examples:

  • A high school baseball team in Arizona chose to forfeit the championship game rather than play against a team with a girl at second base.
  • A recent study found that Olympic broadcasting differs based on gender, race, and nationality.  Broadcasters focus on luck with female athletes and skill with male athletes; they also employ racial stereotypes in their commentary.
  • The Amateur International Boxing Association nearly required female boxers to wear skirts.
  • And let’s not forget the Lingerie League…”sexy” football in which women play the sport not in skirts, but in bra and underwear.  This, my friends, is disturbing on many, many levels.

As I’ve been contemplating female athleticism in a sexist culture, I’ve been reading Gloria Feldt’s No Excuses:  9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.  In this fantastic book, Ms. Feldt discusses traditional power as “power-over.”  In this model of power, based on traditionally masculine traits, power is a force–it is domination, rule of the weakest by the strongest.  Ms. Feldt asks us to consider a different power paradigm:  power-to.  This way of thinking about power does not require anyone to submit to anyone else–it is about empowerment, about freeing oneself and others to be themselves and do their very best.

Sports, an arena dominated by traditional masculinity, is a bastion of power-over.  Read any headline from a sports page, and you’ll find that one team “dominated” or “crushed” another.  As they are played and discussed, sports from football to tennis are a virtual stage for the alpha male.  And the alpha male, as culturally defined, is a big, bad bully who makes lesser males and women cry in locker rooms.

What lies beneath this cultural, hypermasculine need to dominate?

A fellow gender blogger, Georgia Platts, recently discussed a book that explores that question:  Self-Made Man, by Norah Vincent.  Ms. Vincent’s book discusses a year in which she passed as a man and discovered that being male meant constantly having to prove herself man enough—not because she was really a woman, but because that’s what it is to be a man.

In other words, the alpha male is often posturing for the benefit of other males.  And for himself.  Underneath, he is worried that he doesn’t measure up.  Perhaps this is no big revelation—every movie or TV show about a jock bully eventually shows us the wounded boy underneath.  The problem is that we never seem to deal directly with that wounded, insecure boy.  Instead, women find themselves running from or yelling at an alpha male in every arena we’ve entered, from business to football.

Maybe its time for some new tactics.  A paradigm shift, as Ms. Feldt suggests.  It’s time to call the bluff on power-over and start employing power-to.

How do we do that?

We work with men who get it—men who aren’t interested in playing the cultural game of Big Bad Wolf (and there are many of them)—to change the conversation.  Yes, every once in a while you have to get in the alpha male’s face and yell louder than he does.  But continually upping the ante on a bully isn’t a game-changer.  Calling the bully’s bluff is.

The conversation needs to go a little something like this…

The fact that women can do what men can do doesn’t make you less of a man.  It means our definition of masculinity is wrong.  So stop trying to prove who you are by denigrating who we are, and relax.  If that means you have to reexamine your approach to the world and the ways in which you make sense of it, so be it.  It will make you stronger.  And, by the way, we’re happy to help you redefine masculinity in a way that means you don’t have to prove yourself to each other all day long.  Those were your rules, not ours.

Now, get out of our way.  ‘Cause it’s game on.




3 thoughts on “Power to Play

  1. BroadBlogs says:

    “Underneath, he is worried that he doesn’t measure up. Perhaps this is no big revelation—every movie or TV show about a jock bully eventually shows us the wounded boy underneath.”

    Many men do recognize that and some thanked me for the piece. Perhaps it was cathartic. But at least one man was offended. I didn’t approve his comment because I don’t encourage trolls or abusiveness, generally, but I may blog on his comment sometime. My sense was that he very much felt he didn’t measure up, but certainly didn’t want anyone to know it, especially himself, as he created a blustering image to overcome the “small man” sense of himself the piece triggered. I think thou dost protest too much? Consider for yourself:

    “Its not easy, being an UGLY man”…LOL. What was the point of this blog? I don’t have any of those issues mentioned above. Although I am very handsome, athletic, and confident in myself, I never feel like I have to prove myself being a man. I can be a total goof ball and not give a flying F&*k! (followed up by – perhaps when he realized I approve comments and his probably wouldn’t be approved: LOL…you’re an idiot)



  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Interesting indeed. I think the “cult of masculinity,” as Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolfe discuss it, can be so deeply ingrained that showing vulnerability–admitting the game is up–is unthinkable for some men. Which means that the conversation simply cannot be had, as with the man who left the comment above on your blog. I once received a similar comment and didn’t approve it either; it had the same tone of defensive anger. I wonder how long, culturally, we’d have to let men with that attitude sit with their defensive anger before they took a different tack? Or, barring that (since we can’t expect to change all attitudes), that attitude became less prevalent, and less socially accepted?


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