Football, masculinity, and the curse of Dr. Barbie: Writer examines place, privileges amid male-dominated spheres

By Morgan Kincade || Contributing Writer

When I walked into the Brickyard this past Sunday to watch the New York Giants face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, most of the tables were full. There was only one television screen playing the Giants game. In front of it, a middle-aged fan sat at a table, and he invited my brother and me to sit down.

    We exchanged pleasantries. He cracked jokes. He checked if the man I had come with and I were dating. When his friend arrived several minutes later, he introduced us and explained that we were just brother and sister. His friend responded to the first, “When I came over, I doubted she was your date, but ya never know!” I smiled stiffly, for some reason trying to let him think he was being pleasant.

    Big Ford trucks scaling rocky terrain, Corona Lite that they swear you can’t tell is lite, oversized Domino’s pizza laden with meat, and antidotes to erectile dysfunction. A game of NFL football is a grand performance in masculinity on the field, in its commercials, and—as I experienced last Sunday—in the spaces we inhabit as we watch it.  Usually I try to tune out the female objectification in commercials, the hypermasculinity, but on that day it was harder to forget that this was a space designed neither by nor for women.

    And so I settled in for three and a half hours with our new friends. I found that they had a comment to deliver about the women who made an appearance on or off the screen: the relative merits of the Buccaneer cheerleaders, how much more attractive Fox News hosts are in comparison the “butch” ones on MSNBC, how one of them should “trade up” their girlfriend with one of the twenty-something girls that had just left the bar. So I tensed up and locked my eyes on the screen in anticipation anytime a woman appeared.

    I felt bizarrely aware of my body, knowing it was up for scrutiny by the much older strangers I was sitting with. Moreover, I felt embarrassed by how I was falling into a gendered passive role, either gluing my eyes to the screen so I wouldn’t have to respond, or smiling so that they wouldn’t have to know about my discomfort, only serving to affirm their senses of humor.

As they launched into a conversation about their desired 24-hour cheerleading channel, they proceeded to mock male cheerleaders for taking on a female role as they simultaneously expressed envy for the pretense to look up women’s skirts. They teased a male player for “crying like a little bitch.” I was aware of my body in the presence of men in a male space designed for straight men. I sat uncomfortably aware of my body in a space set up by and for men.

  But they were nice people. They called out jovially to other Giants fans when they entered the bar. They told us about how they chipped in for one of the waitress’ daughter’s 16th birthday to get her a jersey of her favorite player because she’s a “great, hardworking kid.” I started chastising myself for my discomfort. I thought, “Calm down. They’re being nice. They’re just a little tipsy. They mean no harm.” And then it occurred to me: “Why on earth am I trying bend over backwards to be grateful to these men for letting me sit down at their table?” No, they didn’t mean harm, but this isn’t really about intending harm. It’s evidence of a tacit social acceptance of men’s entitlement to comment on female bodies and to judge which are pleasing enough to exist in male spaces, and it’s about the effect that acceptance has on women when they grow up in conditions saturated by it.

    Only a few hours earlier, I had read an article from The Atlantic entitled “Yes, Even Doctor Barbie Sends Girls the Wrong Message.” Aware of the critique that Barbie teaches girls to see themselves as sexual objects, Mattel has tried rebranding Barbie with the advertisement campaign “Imagine the Possibilities” in which young girls take on professional roles— roles of power. And yet, recent studies show that girls ages 4 to 7 were less likely to identify themselves as capable of attaining the same careers as their peers who played with a Mrs. Potato Head, even if they were playing with a Dr. Barbie. Why would playing with a Dr. Barbie have this effect on young girls? Because Dr. Barbie was beautiful first and a doctor second. What Barbie taught us as children is reaffirmed by society today: whatever you choose to do, make sure you’re pleasing to men as you do it.

    There was a moment in Michael Kimmel’s Common Hour lecture two weeks ago that is inextricably linked to what Barbie taught us. Kimmel recounted a hazing example in which sorority sisters lay facedown on the floor in their underwear as fraternity brothers walked around the room circling the fat on their bodies and “areas of improvement.” I was shaken by the story because, although I’ve never undergone that, the story isn’t alien to me. It would be a mistake to write it off as an isolated case carried out by superficial people. No, it’s a culmination of the gender dynamics we—thoughtful, shallow, fun, boring, and normal people alike have internalized and live out on a daily basis whether we’re aware of it or not.

  Kimmel argued that during the day, college campuses—the college classroom—is the most gender-equal space in America, but at night it is one of the most unequal as white, straight men have the power to shape the party and hookup culture. I do and don’t agree with him. Though I certainly agree that men have an advantage in producing power discrepancies in college nightlife, I disagree with the implication that this power dynamic doesn’t affect the classroom or our daylight interactions. The objectification of women moves beyond the physical into the psychological and social. It starts in the physical and spreads into much more. As I experienced in that sports bar, women’s bodies were up for scrutiny by male viewers. But the problem doesn’t stop there. It also manifests itself in the fact that their opinions about a woman’s looks determined which female opinions they would listen to in the news. It also manifests itself in my impulse to smile complacently at their comments, to be pleasing even as I was disturbed.

    It’s in the air we breathe. White, male privilege is not having to notice gender dynamics when stepping into a sports bar, nonetheless the classroom or any other space. And as a white, straight female, the experience is a good reminder of what I don’t have to notice in the air. I don’t have to think about how the vast majority of the cheerleaders being framed as ideals of beauty on that screen were light-skinned, or of the disproportionate number of white coaches and team owners in relation to the number of black players. When I enter male-dominated spaces, I can’t help but be aware of my gender, how it affects the way I’m treated, and how it then affects the way I respond. But when I walk into white-dominated spaces like many classrooms at F&M, I have the luxury of forgetting about my race and its effect on my interactions with peers and professors.

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