Where Is the Girl Power? the Search for Authentic Portrayals of Female Athletes in YA Lit

By Hussack, Emilee; Schmidt, Pauline Skowron | English Journal, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Where Is the Girl Power? the Search for Authentic Portrayals of Female Athletes in YA Lit


Hussack, Emilee, Schmidt, Pauline Skowron, English Journal


In April 2013, during an inter- view preceding the WNBA draft, Baylor University's basketball phenom Brittney Griner casually said she was gay (Borden). She had not scheduled a press conference nor had she written a confessional piece for a major news publica- tion; she merely answered a ques- tion, and the reporters continued with the interview. Little fan- fare followed. A few weeks later, the world of sports media would be consumed with the coming- out of current NBA player Jason Collins in an editorial he wrote for the May 6, 2013, edition of Sports Illustrated. He became the first openly gay (male) athlete still active on a major American team roster. Griner's statement received nominal attention when compared to the serious cultural conversa- tions stirred by Collins's editorial. In perspective, with the stories of these two individuals' "coming outs" happening so differently yet only weeks apart, we must address how unrealistically female athletes are still perceived in our society, despite the slow, but steady, reach toward gender equality thanks to the legislation of 1972's Title IX.

There is a perception of the female athlete as being overly masculine and assumedly lesbian to the point of her having to con- stantly defend her heterosexual- ity. Patrick Burke, quoted in a New York Times column following Griner's subdued announcement, said, "In sports right now, there are two different stereotypes- that there are no gay male ath- letes, and every female athlete is a lesbian. . . . We've had tremen- dous success in getting straight male players to speak to the issue; we're having a tougher time find- ing straight female athletes speak- ing on this issue because they've spent their entire careers fight- ing the perception that they're a lesbian" (Borden). The female athlete is constantly battling the stereotypes that accompany the positive aspects of being a strong, competitive athlete, stereotypes that lead to a problematic gender- ing of our sports culture; instead of thriving within a culture that is intended to promote positive per- sonal growth and healthy relation- ships, our young female athletes find themselves pegged into inau- thentic identities or discouraged to participate at all.

I (Emilee) speak from experi- ence. A lifelong athlete, my athletic career culminated with an athletic scholarship to a large university. During my four years of collegiate volleyball, I grew in sisterhood with my teammates, as we prac- ticed, played, travelled, lived, ate, and participated together in many other wonderfully sweaty aspects of the athletic grind. As part of the athletic community, we also social- ized with other groups of female athletes, members of the numer- ous female athletic teams sanc- tioned by the university. We were all ruthless competitors, crossing paths in the hallways of the train- ing buildings and weight rooms as we acknowledged the dedica- tion and commitment we, as elite athletes, made to our respective sports. Tenacious on the court and field, we were also young students coming into our own identities as females, including sexual identities practiced in both gay and straight orientations. In our community of female athletes, there were les- bian and straight women, yet, to our community, it was rarely part of the conversation; instead, our conversations focused on scouting reports, conference standings, and training regimens. Gay or straight, we were female athletes.

Few athletes reach the upper levels of collegiate competition, but there undoubtedly are mil- lions of young female athletes joining local soccer clubs and traveling basketball teams every year. Yet, despite this visible aspect of our culture, our YA lit- erature seems to be lacking in its presentation of athletic female protagonists. As an adolescent, I was heavily involved in school and club sports because, as a six-f oot- tall twelve year old, I was good at them; I also read Vogue, drew fashion sketches, and shared short stories I had written with my friends. …

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