Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Girls Play Here

Much like last Wednesday, I am here at the blog to share my thoughts about a movie I saw at my Harvard Square AMC theatre today. But this time, it's personal.

Today I watched Gracie. Now, I wasn't really expecting this to be a great film, and I'd have to say it was not in fact a great film. That's a shame, though, because I actually applaud the Shues for producing it, for putting on the screen this emotional reckoning of their lives. Also, the flaws about it really were so fixable. Example: you should have only one scene in which Gracie, the sole girl soccer player, dramatically arrives late to join the group of boys on the team already practicing who all turn to look at her as she takes her place among them. Showing this once is sufficient. Do not repeat this dramatic device three times. It loses something the third time. Really, though. It was all stuff like that, plus the inevitable slow-mo, that made the film weak. It's like the key change in the third verse when they can't figure out what to do in a pop song to maintain high energy.

But none of that is the point. The point is the message. The message is not just that "girls can play sports, too." That = duh. There is a finer point to put on it, one which I recall passionately explaining to Brian over a few beers several months ago, in one of our early conversations about sports (and we have had many conversations about sports), and which point I was delighted to see as the thrust of this movie. Allow me to enlighten you:

In junior high I made the girls' soccer team. Prior to that my sports of choice were mainly gymnastics and softball; I'd competed in those quite a bit over the years. But I liked soccer, and although I hadn't played on a team in elementary, I'm rather glad my friend Angie (where is she now?) persuaded me to try out for the junior high team.

Here's where I was at in soccer: I was good, but not great, so after the hard work of weeks of practice, I was thrilled to become one of the starters when it came time for our first game! I was improving, I was excelling at practice, I was among the best in that group of girls. But as we got into fierce competition, I wasn't one of the brightly shining stars on the field and I was kind of disappointed with myself, in fact, during those early games. I enjoyed playing, but I remember I was not aggressive. Not tough. I still remember when my teammate Dianna said to me -- yup, here it comes -- "Don't be afraid of the ball."

Then one day Coach Heleker for whatever reason had to miss practice, and the girls' team worked out with the boys' team for a day. To THIS DAY I remember that practice. It was probably the best workout I ever had under any team sports coach, ever. Now, remember, I was no slouch. I was still a gymnast at that point, even winning a first-place all around in a gymnastics meet that year, not to mention daily bike riding, and I swam pretty often, too. But what I learned in the workout that day was that the boys were pushed. The girls were not. And that made them tougher. It was that simple.

We could DO all those drills the boys did. We lasted. It felt great. It was hard, but it felt great. It was harder than it should have been, because our own coach did not push us as hard. Our ability to compete suffered because of that. Girls everywhere are not getting pushed as hard. Even a lot of people who pay lip service to the notion that of course girls can play wind up treating them differently. They are not pushed to compete and be tough. The boys are. THIS point is ably made in the movie. I'm afraid it is lost on many of us, though.

However, I will state that I am altogether glad I even HAD a girls' soccer team on which to play. A mere ten or fifteen years earlier -- like if I were Elisabeth Shue's age, maybe -- I may not have had that chance. I soon developed an interest in basketball, and tennis, and joined a volleyball team, too. I didn't, unfortunately stick with soccer. Nor did I continue with gymnastics past sophomore year of high school, a fact which I still find heartbreaking.

Sure, I started jogging during high school, and hiking. I still pursue those leisurely. I still swim, and I like to play softball when I can. But I definitely stopped competing early in my teens. I know we shouldn't have any regrets in life, and most of the time I find myself happy with the way just about everything turns out, because it always leads me to new people, opportunities, discoveries. Still, I think I have to say I actually do regret not sticking with those sports. At school, I was forced to choose between theater and sports; you couldn't really do both (the after-school practices were at the same times). Outside of school, things were busy and I was kind of forced to quit gymnastics because everything else had us running around too much, including marching band. The irony, of course, is that I didn't end up staying in marching band OR the thespian troupe through all four years of high school. Sure, I had five million other activities that filled the space: student government, mock trial, honor societies and academic bowls and clubs and community service. I was never less busy.

But I wish I had stayed in gymnastics. And played on my high school softball team. Not to mention basketball. We moved into a new house in December of my freshman year of high school. Suddenly we had a basketball hoop, and I found myself playing many an evening -- just myself if no one else wanted to. One of the other p.e. teachers -- not even my own teacher -- saw me playing in class and specifically came to me and asked me to try out for the girls' basketball team. Why the hell didn't I? Well, it was time for auditions for the spring musical of course.

In the movie, Gracie and her decidedly non-athletic but very fashionably dressed and made up best friend start discovering boys and dates and dancing and going out and sneaking out and making out and all sorts of other distractions from her getting up at 5:45 to run and do push-ups before school. I loved how the movie subtly made the point that the boys were able to seamlessly weave nights out in fast cars with their athletic lives, while girls were told it was time to think about watching the boys, stop playing sports, sit on the sidelines, and if they wanted to be active, then cheerlead.

Everyone who's had a beer with me any time in the last five years knows I'm not entirely sure why I want to be in law school, or why I can't/don't/won't just make my living as a writer, or what it is, really, that I "want to do with my life," as they say. I like to ruminate about how back in the day people never seemed to have to choose. Why did Da Vinci get to be an artist and a scientist and a philosopher? Why did Jefferson get to be a lawyer and an architect and a president? And so on. I want to do everything. I don't want to have to choose. But it was one night last year as I sat doing a self-discovering exercise in The Artist's Way, sat, in fact, in the very chair I'm sitting in now typing this, that I realized how much I was told in high school I had to choose. Between drama and sports. Between drama and academics. Between creative writing and physics, when there was no more room for electives senior year. It took that many years before I realized this issue has been under my surface the whole time.

And I don't know, but I somehow think that if I were a boy, athletic competition wouldn't have fallen by my life's wayside.

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