Friday, October 05, 2007

Feminism and Sports, Again


Here's Tom Boswell today, writing about the Rockies' amazing run:

Maybe they're headed to a World Series trip that will shame all the sport's other improbabilities. After all, they were in fourth place in the National League West, five games out of the wild card on Sept. 17. Some sport-addled math professor somewhere is going to crunch the numbers on that and she'll nearly run out of decimal points in computing the odds. [emphasis added]

First, two qualifiers. (1) I love, love, love Tom Boswell. He's my second-favorite sports columnist, ranking below only the Immortal Bill Lyon. (2) As a writer, I'm actually fairly deliberate about switching up gender pronouns and trying to keep them balanced out. I think it's a little silly, but it doesn't matter much to me and it does seem to matter quite a bit to some readers, so I'm happy to try to reach out.

Except, when the outreach creates such a jarring, ridiculous dissonance with reality. For instance, you could, technically, use the pronoun "she" when talking about an anonymous place kicker because in the history of sports there have been one or two female place kickers in football. You could use "he" when talking about a non-specific Avon salesperson because there are now a couple "Avon Men."

But, at the risk of straying into Summers territory, what percentage of math professors are women and how many "sport-addled" female math professors are there out there? Ten? Twenty? Six?

This sort of ludicrous gender outreach is bad for writing because it actually does sacrifice something important on the altar of political feminism and derails the piece.

Final caveats: Maybe this was an editor mucking around with Boswell's copy. Or maybe Boswell had a specific lady sports-addled math professor in mind, in which case I drop all of the following complaints and applaud him for throwing her a shout-out. And finally, in any case, this complaint should in no-way be taken as a diminishing of Boswell who, again, is pretty fabulous.

I just wish this sort of stuff would stay out of sports.


Dave S. said...

Frankly it should stay out of any sort of writing. It's not so much "gender outreach" as stereotype reinforcement. ("What else would you expect from a math professor, and a woman at that?" Not that I am offended by portrayals of math professors as nerds.)

Drop "she'll" out of that sentence and it reads just fine, without the distraction.

I suspect, though, that it was inadvertent. Boswell is fantastic, as you say, and he has pretty frequent chats in the Post. I'll bet we'll see some discussion of this in the next one.

Carole Sussman said...

Well, had I stuck to my undergraduate field in graduate school, I could have been a sports-addled math professor. (As it stands, I was just a sports-addled math student.)

That said, I find the random-pronoun-generator effect to be annoying at best in any normal context. I certainly don't feel empowered or acknowledged by the context-free application of "she" and "her." It's patronizing, really. I have male-dominated interests, I have degrees in male-dominated fields, and I have never felt the urge to subvert that by feminizing pronouns for their own sake.

Jack Rich said...

I'm old school. I still use "mankind" to mean humanity, and hardly ever use "person" when "man" will do.

Back in the dim reaches of time, when disco roamed the earth and we wore crappy hair, listened to crappy music, and dressed like clowns (yes, the 70s), feminists were in full roar.

Looks like they've won, and let's not even get started on what Title IX has done to legitimate sports.

How about we use "she" when there's an actual female, or when the reasonable man (there I go again...) would agree it's likely a female. Otherwise, we use "he."

Anonymous said...

Actually, given that more women earn undergraduate and advanced degrees than men, anytime a writer is assuming that the unknown referent of a pronoun has a college degree, he should use "she." If, you know, we're actually going to take the argument about using the pronoun that's more likely to be true seriously.

Ryan Mullen said...

I have another unrelated grievance with the quote. It doesn't matter how rare something is you only need one decimal point to calculate the odds.