While this radio comment is an undeniably offensive and sexist attack on two very skilled female tennis players, I am more concerned by the fact that we, as a society, even understand this joke and that our modern, everyday vocabulary allows us to make sense of it.
Many people today who advocate for women’s rights solely focus on how women can do everything that men can do.
They can be strong—like men; they can be successful—like men; they can defy the standards that have historically been placed on women and be, well, like men. They focus on the gender dichotomy.
The actions are all there, but it is the vocabulary that we use to describe the actions that is problematic. We as a society need to stop describing accomplishments by females in terms of how they are defying traditional gender stereotypes and doing things that “women don’t normally do.” Using this language only perpetuates ideas about how to define a “normal woman” and “normal man.” The language reinforces the stereotype. The problem in how feminism is talked about is not that people say women cannot do things; it is that people say women can do things that men can do.
If “strong” was not under the category of “manly,” and if “manly” was a word with no meaning in today’s society, then that joke would not even make sense to anyone.
It is important to recognize women and men for their accomplishments. It is important to tell young girls and boys that they can do anything that they aspire to do. However, if we want the next generation to understand that they can exist outside of historical definitions of “woman” and “man,” then we need to stop using these definitions in the way we talk today.
The fastest recorded tennis serve by a woman is 131 miles per hour by German tennis player Sabine Lisicki.
That is not amazing because it is something that women are not expected to do; it is amazing because 131 miles per hour is an incredible speed at which to serve a tennis ball.
So, when we tell women that it is wonderful when they do well in sports or go to top universities or hold public office, we should not tell them that it is wonderful because they are defying the female norm or gender stereotypes. It is wonderful because they are doing great things, no matter their gender.