I just saw an advertising on ESPN.com with WNBA player Swin Cash is showing off her strength and power and it reminded me of an old newspaper column I wrote back in 1999 or so. When I wrote it I got a 10 page single-spaced piece of hate mail from a man who evidently hated women. I hope role models like Swin Cash make this sort of topic obsolete. Here’s the old column from the Missoulian newspaper.
Chess for Girls
“America today is a girl destroying place. . . girls are encouraged to sacrifice their true selves”
— Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia
I recently learned about a special version of the classic game of chess. This new chess game is designed especially for girls. While I was busy irritating my wife by doing that male channel-surfing thing (we get 4 channels) I came across an advertising for a product called: “Chess for Girls.”
The ad began with a boy and girl playing chess. The girl made a move and the boy quickly countered, “Checkmate! What a stupid move!” The girl whined back, “I hate this game.”
The ad rolls on. “Aren’t you girls tired of that boring old-fashioned chess game? You should try. . . Chess for Girls!”
Chess for girls is just a bit different than chess for the rest of us. It uses some of the same playing pieces as regular chess, but also includes Barbie and Ken and is based to a large degree on how fashionably the contestants can dress up their chess pieces and the Barbies.
As the ad ends, the girl wins and the boy slumps away muttering something like, “That’s not real chess.”
Turns out I was watching a Saturday Night Live advertising spoof. Nevertheless, I got the point and those of you who watch television should get the point too. Our culture goes the extra mile when it comes to messing with girls’ self-esteem.
Some friends of mine recently told me that their daughter’s gym teacher scolded her for “running like a girl.” And the teacher didn’t mean it as a compliment. My friends went straight down to the school to express their concern. The gym teacher said “Aw, heck. I didn’t mean anything by it. You know, it’s just an old saying.” Of course, the problem is that the old saying is an insult to girls and women. No one says “You run like a girl” or “You throw like a girl” or even “You play chess like a girl” and means it as a compliment.
Another group of students (boys and girls) at one of our local high schools were told that the reason girls aren’t as good as boys when it comes to math and the hard sciences is because of hormonally-based male-female brain differences. It’s doubtful that statements like that help girls achieve in those fields.
I know some girls who are joyfully in touch with their power. Some of them flex their muscles for me when I see them. They want me to know all about their toughness, swiftness, and agility. Sometimes they’ll challenge me to an arm wrestling match or to race them across the park–or even to a game of chess. And they really want to win. They want to show me their power. Unfortunately, none of these powerful girls are over 12. Rarely do any teenage girls I know ever flex their muscles. Usually, they don’t want me (or anyone else) to know about their power.
We need to teach teenage girls that it’s okay to be strong and powerful and smart. Too often girls are taught that the only arena in which they should compete is with each other for the attention and approval of males. Girls need to believe that it’s okay for them to compete fully in sports, math, and life. They won’t always be victorious, but they should never have second thoughts about giving it their best.
In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes common experiences of strong and smart girls:
“Many strong girls have similar stories: They were socially isolated and lonely in adolescence. Smart girls are often the girls most rejected by peers. Their strength is a threat and they are punished for being different. Girls who are unattractive or who don’t worry about their appearance are scorned.”
Our girls need to discover and take pride in who they are–no easy task in the face of the loud and persistent messages they get about who they should be. Pipher and others have offered tips on how to help our girls embrace their identities and survive to adulthood:
- Encourage girls to find a safe place to explore who they are and what they value. Usually this place has to be at home or some other place where they can turn off the television and not be oppressed by prominent cultural messages.
- Actively point out the injustices and absurdities of the ways women are portrayed in the media. Help them love themselves and their bodies just as they are.
- Encourage exercise, sports activities, and solid academic effort as sources of development and pride. Downplay girl-identities based on boyfriends.
- Moms: Model self-confidence and pride in being a woman.
- Dads: Affirm your daughter’s worth as your beloved child and as a wonderful female with much to offer. Communicate to her that you think girls are great, not because they can be like boys and not because they can dress up real pretty.
- Help girls learn to say no and set boundaries. Unfortunately, many girls are so busy worrying about how other people are feeling that they have trouble focusing on their own wants and needs.
I have a dream that I’m playing chess with my daughter. We’re playing the traditional version of chess (not the Saturday Night Live version). My king is on the run. . . my daughter’s queen is chasing him down. She makes her final move and claims her victory. “CHECKMATE,” she roars with laughter. I smile. I’m thinking we both just scored a major victory.