Soccer Isn't for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play

Should a girl do soccer, dance, or chess? It depends on what kind of a woman her mom and dad want her to become.
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Girls today grow up in a world with an unprecedented set of educational and professional opportunities. More of them will graduate from college and earn advanced degrees than ever before, and all professions are open to them. Although the activities of girls and boys have converged over time, there are still distinctive paths for each sex, and many children's activities are still associated with particular aspects of feminine or masculine identity.

How do parents of girls navigate this often-difficult terrain? To answer this question, I'll focus on 38 families I met and interviewed who have at least one elementary school-age daughter currently involved in competitive chess, dance, or soccer. These families are a subset of the 95 families I met while researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Over the course of 16 months I interviewed nearly 200 parents, children, and teachers/coaches involved with these competitive after-school activities in six different organizations, three in the suburbs and three in an urban setting. While boys were also part of the larger study, what I found about girls and competition was especially intriguing for what it says about who these young women might grow up to become.

Unlike masculinity, multiple forms of femininity are seen as acceptable by parents and by children, so it's not surprising that different gender scripts emerged for each of the three activities. The names of these different gender scripts--"graceful," "aggressive," and "pink"--all came from language used by parents of girls in interviews. They help us understand how parents choose among different activities for their daughters.

Graceful Girls

When talking about why dance is good for their daughters, moms highlighted dance's ability to help their girls be graceful. One dance mom told me that dance produces good posture, which contributes to a more graceful appearance: "There are kids that you see in the studio and they walk in gracefully, there's just something about the way they hold themselves. If it gets her better posture then I've achieved something. But you know, if I see her slouched over, then I think, 'Well she's not pulling the whole dance experience with her through life.' "

Producing a graceful body also means producing a feminine body. Another mom explained, "When I started Brittany in dance I thought about grace, flexibility, and posture. A girl should be feminine and, you know, like refined. . . . And for girls I think it is good for them to have a little bit of that grace that you get from dance."

Even with their daughters still in elementary school, some of the mothers made an explicit connection between the importance of having a graceful body and attracting male attention. This mom explained how dance can help her daughter in the future: "It builds coordination, it builds confidence and I don't think there's anything worse than a girl that's in her teens that can't dance. You know? If nothing else, just knowing how to dance is important [at a school dance]." Dance has long been associated with preparing girls for various aspects of society life, such as etiquette and social grace, usually implicit attempts to increase one's chances on the marriage market.

However, the mothers I studied who promote this graceful girls gender script not only select dance for their daughters; they also promote a competitive dance experience. In this setting, how you look can help you be a more successful competitor. Additionally, the overlay of competition adds the other crucial element to the graceful girls script--which applies to both physical and emotional comportment--and that is being graceful in interactions at competitions.

One mother, also a dance teacher, described her favorite dance competition:

I think StarProducers is a wonderful competition. . . . Everyone is welcomed backstage. People say, "Hi, how are you? Good luck. I love your outfit. Your hair looks great! Oh, don't you look pretty?!" Even with the youngest dancers they did this, which really gives them a boost backstage, and 99 percent of the studios that went there were also the same way. Everyone would say, "Good job. Good luck on stage." It is just a very supportive atmosphere and they made sure to include everybody in the awards, even though it is an adjudicated system where more than one person can win gold or silver or whatever. Everybody got some- thing and they gave out special awards to groups that maybe didn't win the platinum or the high score. . . . Maybe their costumes weren't custom or the greatest, or whatever, but they did focus on, for example, "Wow, that group had really great smiles," and they got a special award for that.

This quote captures the two ways in which graceful girls learn how to compete in a feminine way. First, in this competitive environment where competitors are being judged based on their talent, how the girls look plays a part. Costumes, hairstyles, and even smiles are complimented and may be a way to win special recognition. Girls learn that their feminine appearance is part of the evaluation and can earn its own reward, beyond the talent they have practiced. Second, girls also are expected to support their competitors. Wishing a competitor good luck, cheering for her, or telling her that she looks nice are seen as desirable in this competitive environment. Being supportive, traditionally seen as a feminine attribute, is also a way to demonstrate social graces. So the graceful girls are graceful both physically and socially.

That said, dance parents and teachers strive to emphasize that competitive dance is a serious physical activity that should be thought of as having the same legitimacy as team sports. Comparisons to sport actually helped establish dance competitions, at least in terms of the way parents viewed the value of participating. Following the model of a competitive athletic activity helped establish the competitive dance model by appealing to parents who wanted their girls to be athletes and learn to be more competitive, while still being feminine in terms of appearance and attitude.

Overall the "graceful girls" strategy teaches girls that they need to be feminine, which means being graceful, looking good, and being supportive of competitors. While competitive dance does infuse dance, a traditionally feminine activity, with competition, it still keeps that competition indirect for girls. Yes, that competition can be fierce both between rival dance studios and within dance studios, as you might see on Lifetime's Dance Moms, but that show is purposely extreme, and you still see the girls supporting and cheering for one another. The dance girls I met do not get in the face of their competitors, as do the aggressive soccer girls, instead honing relational skills and their appearance, which are traditionally associated with femininity.

Aggressive Girls

While the graceful girls are taught to be kind competitors and value appearance, the aggressive girls are taught to be both physically and competitively forceful, actively subsuming aspects of their femininity. Many soccer parents define their daughters in opposition to those "girly girls" who dance. They employ the "aggressive girls" gender script when selecting competitive soccer for their daughters.

One father, whose older son plays travel soccer and whose seven-year-old daughter is already a member of a training academy team, captures the core elements of the aggressive girls gender script: de-emphasizing physical femininity, focusing on future career opportunities, and cultivating a winning attitude. He is concerned that his daughter has a tendency to be too feminine and not aggressive enough:

I encourage her to be more aggressive because she's a cute little girl, but I don't like her to be a girly girl. . . . You know, I don't want her to be a cheerleader--nothing against that--but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she's kind of a girly girl, maybe she'll be a secretary. [Pause] There's nothing wrong with that, but let her have the option of doing something else if she wants.

This dad clearly thinks that being a "girly girl" subjects a girl to less desirable occupations, which are seen as traditionally feminine, like being a secretary. The images this father evokes related to being an executive, such as "play on that turf," suggests the importance that he places on athletics to help his daughter follow a selective, historically male career path. In addition, he identifies cheerleading--which has much in common with competitive dance--as being too much of a girly girl activity.

As the no-girly-girls soccer father suggested, many parents think being cutthroat and aggressive sets girls on a particular path, perhaps to the corner office as a company executive. In fact, every parent with a soccer-playing daughter I spoke with used the words aggressive or assertive in his or her interview. The focus on de-emphasizing appearance, evidenced by the fact that soccer girls wear androgynous uniforms and take off all of their jewelry, is especially important in this career race, as many parents know that being ladylike will not cut it in certain corner-office professions.

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Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

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