Detrimental Definitions: “Powderpuff” Football & “Macho” Volleyball Illustrate Harmful Stereotypes in Sports And Society

Comic by Nora Hilgart-Griff.

Comic by: Nora Hilgart-Griff.

You’ve all heard the morning announcements: junior and senior girls: who’s ready to play powderpuff football!?, or it’s that time of year again, boys! Sign up for macho volleyball in the athletic office today! These games are school traditions going back a long time. There are photographs of “powderpuff” football being played in schools as early as 1931. Our parents attended these quirky, gender-flipped games when they were in school, but it may be time to consider what we’re really saying with the addition of adjectives like “macho” and “powderpuff.”

“When I went to school [at Norrix] in the seventies, we did it back then. We called it powderpuff then too, and I’ve been out there on the sidelines for fourteen years. So many of these girls [that play powderpuff] are really good. Good wide receivers, good quarterbacks. They’re willing to put their lives on the line out there!” said Sveri May, a teacher at Loy Norrix.

What’s in a name? Well, actually, a lot. The terminology used in day-to-day expression may seem mundane and for the most part, unimportant. The phrasing of what we hear influences us subconsciously in regards to the meaning and implications of a term, and therefore, how we internalize it.

In an excerpt from the book “I’d Rather Be Dead Than Be a Girl,” a collection of scholarly articles by John Marcus Sweeney, he quotes Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and Language: “Given the connectedness of each sequence of events…then what occurs in language influences thought, perception, and behavior in some way” said Whitehead.

Sherryl Kleinman, a sociology teacher at the University of North Carolina, of Alternet.com agrees.

“Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways — which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality,” said Kleinman.

We don’t consider the bulk of what we say. Consequently, the attitude arises that “it’s been that way forever.” We see it as no big deal. Knowing this, it’s up to everyone to examine the things we say, and  carefully consider how they may be inaccurate, careless, and even damaging to equality and standard of life in our society.

When the girls play football, we call it “powderpuff,” a nod to the tool used to apply cosmetic powder to the face. There are a multitude of associations we have with this word.

“Cute, superficial, snotty, old fashioned, weak,” said junior Lily Dehollander-Bird when asked what “powderpuff” meant to her.

Junior Emma Greschak agreed, saying that the word signified “…possibly weakness, or general fluffiness.” Greschak continued, “I think the word does a disservice to the ability, strength, and endurance to the female athletes who fall under its label.”

In a world where women still struggle to assert their strength, independence, and capability, it hardly seems appropriate that the very idea of girls playing football must be pared down to a something laughable, as though it’s outlandish to think that girls could be serious about (and play well) a traditionally male sport. Such popular female football leagues as the Women’s Football Alliance and the Independant Women’s Football League prove this notion wrong every game they play.

On the other side of a similar coin, we have the yearly boy’s volleyball game, or as it’s better known, “Macho Volleyball.”

“[When] I hear the word macho, it makes me think muscle[d], strong, tough,” said sophomore Amarra Lyons.

This association isn’t accidental. The word “macho” is a purposeful modification, lest volleyball-interested boys be embarrassed by playing a traditionally female sport. It implies that volleyball in itself is inherently not any of the things “macho” means to us; big, powerful, tough, or strong.

This dichotomy illustrates clear divisions that exist in society today and how problematic these conceptions are. Not only does the assumption of weakness or lack of capability hurt women, but the pressure of “macho” harms men as well.

Sophomore Lily Mead commented on the word, saying it makes her think of expectations of hyper-masculinity and the fear of displaying emotion. When, as a society, we communicate to our boys that they must shy away from traditionally feminine traits or pursuits, it leads to insecurity, body obsession, and an inability to display or discuss emotions, all of which are harmful.

Junior Hannah Lee summed up the issue of these two modifiers nicely. “It’s just another way to separate girls and guys and make guys more superior,” said Lee.

It begs the question: is it really appropriate that in this day and age, we are still telling girls that when they play football, it’s no more than a joke? And similarly, why are we so afraid to associate men with a woman’s sport that we feel the need to remind them that hey, even if you play this volleyball game, don’t worry: you’re still “macho”.

It’s obvious, then, that it’s high time we reconsider the language of tradition, and ensure that what we say really communicates what we mean, instead of accidentally promoting trite and damaging stereotypes.

One response to “Detrimental Definitions: “Powderpuff” Football & “Macho” Volleyball Illustrate Harmful Stereotypes in Sports And Society

  1. Pingback: It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m playing tag | The life of a 40 something·

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