Easy to play, not so easy to win

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Sex and Gender

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Easy to play, not so easy to win

Lindsay Updegrove

When I was nine years old, I had an au pair from Denmark who joined a tae kwon do studio while she was living with us. I really looked up to her at that age and thought that if she was doing it, it must be pretty cool, so I gave it a try and until I was twelve, I went to tae kwon do class three or four times a week. It sticks out in my mind as an activity I became really involved with, but there is also something about the gender dynamics of the do jo—an itch that was never really scratched—that makes me wonder now why I stuck with it for so long.

On a typical day at tae kwon do class I would be the only girl in a group of about ten boys. The classes were divided by what belt you had but also children under eleven or twelve were separated from teenagers and adults. I usually had the best flexibility and balance of any of the students, so the instructors, also male, would often use me as an example during exercises that tested those skills. Sometimes they would say something to the effect of, "You're letting a girl show you up," to my classmates in an attempt to make the boys try harder. This was probably effective many times, but in retrospect it makes me uncomfortable to think that the students may have interpreted the instructors words as "If you cannot do as well as a girl, you are inadequate." The sense of competition between boys and girls was thus fostered by recognizing not only my stronger abilities, but my sex.

The instructors made an effort to be encouraging with me since they assumed I was feeling out of place. On the other side of that encouragement, however, I often felt the implications that I really did not belong. As one becomes more advanced at tae kwon do, sparring becomes a necessary skill to move on to the next belt. When we sparred, we had to wear a lot of padded equipment and try to kick or punch our opponent's chest or head. I hated sparring because so often I would hear a boy say "I'm not going to fight a girl." I didn't understand why one would say this, but it certainly made me feel more singled out and uncomfortable. Was it part of some code their fathers taught them that they should never strike a girl? And in that case, was fighting between boys always OK? Sparring wasn't supposed to be personal; we were at a school that was training us to defend ourselves. I don't think it was insecurity on the boys' part over the possibility that a girl might actually beat them, because I wasn't a very good fighter. In fact, I never had a chance to become skilled at sparring—I was never seen as an equal opponent, and I certainly never felt like one.

I see attitudes about my role as the only girl in a martial arts classroom aligning with the only girl on the high school football team, or the only woman in NASCAR. Everyone says how wonderful it is that girls are finally doing all these things, but a large part of what makes it so impressive to people is the sense that they have to overcome some sort of obstacle. Girls have to cross into an alien domain and confront people who say things like "My daddy told me not to hit a girl," and then what they are doing turns into some kind of inspirational Disney movie when all I wanted to do was get some exercise and have some fun, like all the other kids in class. There was a girl kicker on my high-school's varsity football team, but she was an extraordinary player whereas many of the boys who went out for football feel comfortable doing so and just being mediocre players. It is OK for girls to play or to compete, but they had better bring their A-game and be serious about it.

By contrast, my fondest experiences of gender play have been upon leaving the classroom or the gym when all competition falls away. In high school, my best friend had a large family with three brothers, whose home became my second one over the years. Her parents had emigrated from Guatemala and dancing was a big part of their leisure time--and, by extension, mine. My friend and I would come home from school and practice to salsa and meringue music for the next time we would go to a party or a club with her family of friends from church. In salsa, you dance with a partner and move around in circles so it is quite a lot like sparring. You are conscious of how your body is moving, and there are many different moves and very specific kinds of contact between you and your partner (the only things that should really touch are your hands). I suppose the main difference is that you aren't competing, but working together.

When I danced salsa, the boy got to lead, but I got to do all the fun spinning stuff. There were distinct roles for the man and for the woman, into which I could easily and comfortably fall. No one was competing and although I would compare myself to others who danced near me, no one was going to make a comment if I missed a beat or did something particularly impressive. We were just having fun; it wasn't serious like tae kwon do was.

It strikes me that part of what made that dancing atmosphere so comfortable was our acknowledgement of our differences as men and women. It was a more conservative atmosphere than I had been raised in, with stricter roles for men and women. However, we were all playing a familiar game and there was no challenging or overstepping of boundaries. In tae kwon do, my presence alone was a challenge to a competitive game the boys were already used to playing. In a neutral environment I would have felt much more comfortable throwing a tornado kick than I did dancing, because I was much better at the former. But due to the social implications outside of me, it was much easier to fulfill the role that had already been set out for me and dance, than to make a statement by kicking some kid in the head.

Looking back and acknowledging that as I grew into a woman I chose dancing over fighting makes me feel like I took the easy route (well, I did). But the truth is that the other path would have been challenging not just because of the competitive nature of tae kwon do, but because we don't play in a vacuum. Even though I wore the same uniform as the boys, our ideas and feelings about gender followed us into the do jo. It was fine with everyone that I had just as much ability as any of the other students, but when confronted with a situation like sparring that would force the label "winner" or "loser" on one of us, the fact that we were not the same sex suddenly took on much more meaning. It created space for a possible shift in the traditional ideas about boys and girls that we experienced each day at school or at home.

I do not want to assume that we all had the same reasons for being in that classroom. Most of the boys bonded over mutual martial arts heroes, all of whom were male, which I had no interest in. For me it was more about my personal physical and mental growth. These factors might have played into the separation between me and them, but they might also be rooted in more general concepts of what it means to be a boy or girl. When I went dancing with my friend's family, we all basically had the mutual goal of socializing and enjoying ourselves. However, in order to accomplish our goal we had to work –however much it seemed like play--within the framework of a clearly defined set of rules about women and men.

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