May 5, 2016 At the White House convening on Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Media & Toys, the lack of diversity in STEM fields created headline news about economic woes for our nation’s future, so much so that women in tech are tracking it after hours as coding camps and maker movements turn up the media volume on girls and STEM to engage and inspire.
But what about the deserving glare of media spotlights on other gender and diversity inequities like the world champion US Women’s Soccer Team sounding off on equal pay, after being the most watched soccer event in U.S. history (23M viewers vs 17M men’s soccer) yet still dealing with structural sexism as well as systemic glitches fouling up the works? How does that impact sports girls’ economic earning power as future leaders?
The Women’s World Cup victory funneled even more interest into girls soccer, (now the number one girls sport in popularity followed by volleyball) and all eyes are now turned toward the fairness factor as a new generation of girls watches how society assigns its values.
What message will girls receive?
With the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics coming up it’s a perfect opportunity to use media to champion change, support women in sports, and do some girl guiding with health literacy on issues like body image to uplift and inspire rather than deplete and sexualize young girls in sports before they’ve even formed their core.
Today’s topic for Part 3 of our series on the White House convening?
Debunking myths and stereotypes with girls and sports, featuring a Q&A with panelist Kara Douglass Thom author of the Go! Go! Sports Girls read and play series at the White House convening. (GGSG founder Jodi Norgaard at left, added her White House recap here)
Also, here’s Part One with Jess Weiner and Part Two with Elizabeth Sweet about the hopes and harms in the public health sector that need ‘next steps’ for attention. This week the Cooney Center added their part one recap of the summit, reporting out with more outcomes soon.
For the balance of the series, I’ll be pinpointing coverage by topic, starting with today’s focus on girls and sports, followed by the boys lens (with Rosalind Wiseman) and finally, the surge in ‘superhero’ fantasies in media and marketing to kids, with indie toy company I Am Elemental placing kids in the center of their own stories as superheroes of character and conviction.
But first? Two buzz-worthy media moments about girls and sports that sent the internet atwitter this week, feeding into the need for media literacy education to please frame girls sports narratives as fixable vs futile.
Girls Sports & STEM Careers: Exodus or Entry Barrier?
The New York Times trumpeted, “Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports” reporting about the new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health in the UK with 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18 abandoning sports due to body image and breast self-consciousness deterring participation at the onset puberty, about age 11.
Sincer there has been a direct correlation between girls and women playing sports and being fit for job success in the highest board rooms of the business world, this sounded alarm bells of ‘Whoa! Huge setback’ to me at first…
Entire infographics have been devoted to data and studies pointing to the merits of women, sports and leadership as a powerful platform for confidence and success, so it struck me akin to the STEM fallout impacting future career paths if this exodus was true. But lo and behold…
Body Image, Breasts & Girls Sports Study: Solvable!
After reading the full study, much of the ‘aha’ moment came down to the fact that the girls didn’t have enough education about breast health and development to be able to move with abandon without discomfort (both physical and psychological).
Quite simply, findings included that breasts hurt, girls weren’t fit or sized properly for support, some had been subjected to derisive peer body-snarking, and surprise, only a meager 10% surveyed even wore sports bras, even though 90% wanted to know more about their breasts in general…Hey, we can work with that, it’s a much more positive ‘fixable’ health education problem with the right mind and body gear!
In fact, our friends at PeerSpring pointed me towards this “by teens for teens” startup brand, Yellowberry, seeking to market their non-sexualized, age appropriate bras for young girls smack dab in the “tweens” age group to prevent this type of self-consciousness offering a ‘performance’ solution instead. Sounds like a reassuring message of camaraderie that adolescents, particularly pubescent 10-12 year olds need to hear, veering away from the sequin style pushup bras selling out childhood toward a ‘be yourself’ empowerment of health, fitness and fun.
To me, diving deeper into quantifiable data on behavioral outcomes like this is a GOOD thing. It explains WHY some girls are exiting the playing field en masse, so we can all look at the cause/effect as a fixable foible…
Sports are a powerful platform to build girls’ confidence so it’s heartening to know a quick glance at the headline and the study didn’t quite tell the full story.
Mythbusting Media: Read Beyond the Headlines
It’s noteworthy to mention media’s equally headline grabbing moments involve girls and sports rising into traditionally male dominated sports like soccer, rugby, cricket. While some may indeed be exiting sports at puberty, others are equally passionate about playing, kicking open Title IX doors to hold onto sports rights. (in other words, how can girls sports play be rising and falling at the same time?)
A few stories centered on tamped down freedoms where girls were literally sneaking into sports, like this professional squash player disguised as a boy to play sports in Taliban controlled Pakistan too. Point? Media headlines break both ways it’s imperative to use critical thinking to frame a study’s narrative instead of tweeting sound bites without context as an absolute. My motto: Research the researchers, study the studies, before taking ANY headline as a given. Yes, girls and sports fall off at puberty, but this is a powerful study for applied science and positive solutions!
Women in Sports Media: Harassment Meets Humanity
As for the second media moment this week, the message was loud and clear to place empathy over misogyny on the ‘to do’ list to solve. After all, it’s one thing to inspire “Girls in the Game” it’s another thing to keep them there.
#MoreThanMean brilliantly used media as an empathy tool, which has now reached well over 3M views poignantly produced by “Just Not Sports.” Men were filmed reading actual tweets received by two female sportscasters aloud, to their faces…serving to highlight women’s online bullying while revealing the men’s own shock, discomfort and dismay.
The rampant sexism in sports lambasting these female sports reporters as “less than” was everyday sexism to the women, but an unbelievably profound shoulder shake to the men. A perfect flip of the coin to shatter assumptions about gender, women in sports, and what constitutes ‘tough’ given our society’s sidewinders.
NO ONE should ever have to endure that level of ‘tough’ as a human being, yet anyone identifying outside gender roles into ‘other’ in the diversity mix has no doubt slogged through squashing abusive stereotypes many times over. (just look at anti-discriminatory policies necessary for gay or trans athletes, or ‘gender testing’ at the Olympics as this BBC article describes as A History of Bad Science and Biological Racism)
Proactive Progress Via Play: GoGoSportsGirls!
So how can we ‘play well with others’ and use empowering media such as the #LikeAGirl campaign to score big wins with girls and sports carrying into career leadership?
While fabulous organizations like Girls On the Run has served its millionth girl expanding across the nation to 49 states and D.C., Girls in the Game have empowered over 40,000 girls to focus on a ‘whole girl’ message of active sports and play, and northern neighbors like Alberta’s Fast and Female introduce teens 8-18 to inspiring athlete role models to keep girls healthily engaged, there are surprisingly few “products” seeding athleticism early on, while upending gender and diversity stereotypes.
Enter GoGoSportsGirls. They kicked it out of the park.
By creating healthier play patterns that instill the “see it be it” role model dynamics of girls’ inclusion while also leveraging a ‘get ‘em while they’re young’ approach to social norming, children are able to see themselves in all aspects of the storytelling, from sports, books and apps to the dolls themselves.
They’ve addressed the problematic ‘either/or’ narrowcasting of girls and like the recurring theme at the White House Conference of the “Yes, And…” Girl (an apt, holistic nod to acknowledging that girls are multi-dimensional human beings over cliché marketing segments) and capitalized on the notion that that girls can wear a tutu, a hoodie and dribble a basketball at the same time, taking the pinkification problem of Packaging Girlhood out of the pigeon-holing process and plopping it into pop culture pushback.
“Yes, And…” Be Fierce and Sparkle.
Their popular banner stretched across their Facebook page “Be Fierce and Sparkle” represents the “yes and” conversation at the White House, and their #AthleteIsTheNewPrincess hashtags on Twitter further nudge the locker room door open advancing girls as players at every level of societal participation.
A proactive backlash against the sexualization of girls by creating age appropriate dolls and ads like “spikes” (cleats) vs “spikes” (stilettos) has endeared many a parent to the GoGoSportsGirls 3-12 year old let kids be kids team…and I am clearly one of them.
Parents like me have become vocal cheerleaders for taking it down a notch in a world where toys are manufactured into a hot mess of mixed behavioral messages to wee ones. Some of us have been blowing whistles loudly and crying “penalty foul on the play” for a decade…met with crickets. Now, with the White House convening and eye on STEM and public health, the traction is FINALLY gaining ground. (Cue wild applause!)
Jodi Norgaard’s been at this a long time with GoGoSportsGirls as well. We’ve had many conversations about the purposeful depiction of both solo and team sports, with diverse ethnicity in their “read and play kidlit” books as well as the app…
It’s subtle prosocial storytelling in itself, and with the Olympics upon us, “Dream Big and Go For It!” is not just a tagline, it’s a clarion call to athletes everywhere.
In a related Toy Story…with the U.S. Olympic Team’s first ever Olympic athlete in history to wear a hijab while competing (Ibtihaj Muhammad Olympic fencer from Maplewood New Jersey seen here on Ellen) we’re starting to see diversity play out in real life too. The toy version?
A hijab wearing Barbie which became a hit on Instagram as “Hijarbie” (created by Haneefah Adam, a 24 year old post graduate student from Nigeria who’s now closing in on 64,000 Instagram followers now)
Note to Haneefah, this is an “Olympic opportunity” to help break stereotypes across cultures. As a DIY maker movement person, I’d say a toothpick for a “Team USA” fencing sword and a tiny piece of draped fabric would do in a pinch, but hey, if toy companies can profit while inspiring inclusive change, why not?
Who knows, Mattel may want to commodify diversity to break stereotypes the way they landed the cover of Time with their new Barbie diverse body image dolls?
Along those lines of “sheroes,” with Misty Copeland as the first female African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater it’s no surprise she now has her own look-alike Sheroes Barbie newly launched this week.
“To be able to see a Black ballerina doll with like, muscles and curves, that’s very powerful,” she said. Brava.
Anyone seeing a pattern in progress here?
For an encore?
Watch for this upcoming new book in June called “The Ballerina’s Little Black Book” filled with quotes, training tips, and the sheer power and beauty of dance as told directly by the women ‘on pointe’ breaking stereotypes and barriers to celebrate diversity in dance.
Start-up co-founders Brittani Marie & Takiyah Wallace of Brown Girls Do Ballet® are launching annual scholarships, a mentor network, and community programs to empower young girls with big plans…
This is all a far cry from the hyper-gendered silliness of pink basketballs with eyelashes and Nerf Rebelle pink-n-purple bow and arrows for our own outdoor STEM lessons for Katniss crew. Here’s hoping this refreshing approach to diversity and gender will encourage an entirely new generation of athletes. Girls who will upend stereotypes in sports having seen that they can:
“See it. Be it.” And then “Just Do It.”
In Conversation with Author Kara Douglass Thom
Go! Go! Sports Girls!
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What evidence did you find at the White House event for REAL change? Do you feel media/marketing industry is starting to ‘get it’ that they are ‘complicit’ in creating cues that can contribute (neg/pos) to kids’ self-worth & societal contribution?
Kara Douglass Thom for Go! Go! Sports Girls: The fact that the White House hosted this first-time conference is evidence to me that the need for change can and should be taken seriously.
It feels a little like when the kids are fighting; you’ve got the small kids trying to stand up for themselves and the big kids muscling their way around, and then Mom and Dad walk in the door and say, “Enough! Let’s work this out, NOW!”
Since beginning to work with Jodi Norgaard and Go! Go! Sports Girls six years ago, I jumped in as a parent with three daughters who fell in love with the brand because I could give my girls a doll that represented the way they were living their lives—involved in different sports and growing up in an active home. I was not going to buy a doll that was named something I didn’t want my child to become. Jodi started her business to create change and I realized immediately that selling dolls and books was part of a bigger mission to allow girls to see themselves as they are and not let stereotypes confine them.
What the White House conference made me (and everyone else invited) aware of, is that yes, while we know stereotypes cause mental, emotional, physical damage, the stakes also extend to the health of our country by negatively affecting our economy. In my mind, what the White House did for us and by extension our entire nation, is to say this is not just an issue for parents and small companies working for real change. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed across the board.
Amy Jussel: Were you able to discuss the role of girls sports, diversity, team alliances and healthier portrayals in the form of dolls for wee ones and how was it received by the big brand giants?
GGSG: I did more listening and note taking at the conference than I did talking. Between sessions we had time to introduce ourselves and our work. The Go! Go! Sports Girls are always received well. The concept makes perfect sense in a world where girls are playing sports in record numbers. If girls play sports, why shouldn’t their dolls and characters in their books? And yet, for whatever reason, a sports doll over a fashion doll is still a hard sell for toy buyers.
Amy Jussel: Do you feel the focus on STEM and ‘sheroes’ and science and tech as savior is heading in the right direction or are we creating NEW forms of gendered messaging? (pinkification of STEM)
How can GGSG kidlit and sports message(s) bridge both audiences in ‘everybody plays’ mode?
GGSG: There is a camp that bemoans the “pinkification” of STEM, but to a certain extent I believe it’s necessary to counteract the pink-washing of stereotypical girl toys. Consumers and girls themselves have been trained to believe if it’s pink, it’s for them, albeit applied to tiny kitchen sets, toys that resemble domestic products and the like. Yes, I believe toys should be gender neutral, but when for so long you’ve made it clear to boys that blue is their aisle and pink is the girl aisle, you need to take steps to undo the message that now has been entrenched into our psyche and consumer spending power for a few generations now.
For some girls a pink science kit or a pink LEGO set is the social cue they need to feel allowed to play. That’s of our own doing and maybe in another generation, we can unwind the damage, stop labeling toys as “for boys” or “for girls,” and let kids gravitate toward toys that naturally appeal to them.
I would also suggest that as adults, working to empower girls, we should be careful not to underestimate how girls perceive their “pink toys.” Michael McNally, from LEGO, shared a story about a reporter who criticized the LEGO friends café for putting a female waitress in the set. He explained that was not how the focus group of girls saw this figure. When asked who she was, girls said she was the owner. I went home and asked my youngest daughter, who plays with that very LEGO set: Waitress or owner of the café? Her answer: Owner. We want better for our girls and some of them (at least for now) are taking more and seeing themselves, if only in creative play scenarios, as empowered.
Amy Jussel: Name a couple of talking points that you’d like to see explored further or follow up with accountability/action? Any ground-breaking new solutionary developments w/industry proposed?
GGSG: I’m a huge fan of Jess Weiner’s “Yes AND Girl.” That’s a concept we have embraced at Go! Go! Sports Girls from the beginning: You can “Be Fierce an Sparkle.” When I became an athlete I didn’t feel the need to stop being feminine. I wore pearl earrings at triathlons; I embraced the first-ever running skirt; I wear lip gloss before I leave the house, even if I’m going to workout. No surprise then why I fell in love with the Go! Go! Sports Girl dolls. A doll, yes, AND, an athlete! Not all little girls today think either/or. They can wear their princess costume to soccer practice and feel perfectly comfortable.
The other point that resonated with me, especially as the mother of a son, too, is: We now have the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons but we don’t yet have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.
Amy Jussel: Did panelists address/discuss how to COUNTERACT toxic gender media cues/stereotypes when they come up in everyday societal situations BEYOND the toy aisle?
GGSG: I came away from the conference with great information I can use as a writer and as a parent. A main take away for me, is that all of us carry around our own implicit biases. Even those of us who work really hard at being inclusive and aware of stereotypes grew up with stereotypes, were exposed to stereotypes, and/or have been harmed by stereotypes. As Dr. Elizabeth Sweet so eloquently stated: “You don’t have to believe in stereotypes for them to have an effect.”
As such I want to do a better job as a parent pointing out situations when there is a lack of diversity or explicit or implicit stereotypes, and to ask my children questions and get their opinions on what they think is going on. As a writer, including characters of different ethnicities is important to me, but now doing so becomes bigger than a personal priority. So is being sure not to stereotype boys when I write strong girls, and including healthy relationships between boy and girl characters.
Amy Jussel: Thanks, Kara. For more about how far we’ve come in just a short while, see “Bratzillas, Novi Stars & Monster High: Same Sexualized Snorefest where I first mentioned Go! Go! Sports Girls as an antidote to the toy aisle offerings several years ago… Positive progress for the win!
Have others we should hear about? Leave them in the comments below or ping me on Twitter @ShapingYouth or other social media channels. I’ll mail a copy of “Packaging Girlhood” by authors/advisers Lyn Mikel Brown & Sharon Lamb to the first fresh new lead in a brand, toy, product, or project advancing healthier worldviews for kids…
Visual Credits: More Than Mean screenshot via CBC article about Just Not Sports, Misty Copeland screenshot Diane Bondareff/Invision for Barbie on NY Daily News.