Recently, I was playing a tabletop role-playing game, and my character wanted to throw something. I rolled for it, and the dice didn't go my way. "You throw like a girl!" said the gamemaster, not once but four or five times, seeming to need to repeat the phrase as he reached the conclusion that my character had failed.
I smiled, but my chest burned. For years, I would have let that one slide, or nodded to it with a sense of shame, but these days I've learned a lot more about feminism and how to be a nice person, and I was angry at myself for letting him get away with that one.
I grew up about as far from feminist as possible. In my family, it was totally cool for men to tell women to go get them a glass of water, not as a joke, but as a command. Pretty early on, I decided that the way to deal with this was to avoid being seen as a girl as much as possible. I was not naturally talented at the activities traditionally associated with guys, but I tried really hard. I was jealous of the girls I'd read about who were just so good that they became pitcher of the boys team, or some such. I wanted to be a tomboy, but there were so many ways that I never felt I could really cut it.
I never got anywhere close to good, but I persistently beat my head against that wall. I played baseball, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and touch football. I was the first girl to ever attempt to participate in a game at my school called "beaming," which was an anarchic form of dodgeball that involved getting control of a rubber ball and throwing it at a random person as hard as possible. I was picked last for teams, was made fun of by boys and girls, and sweated out my recesses working damned hard to acquire skills every (boy) around me seemed to have been born with.
This behavior lasted all through elementary school, middle school, and early high school, pretty much until I discovered sex, at which point I became occupied by doing something else with the boys. I tried to have sex like a boy, too, but that's a post for another time.
Looking back, I don't know why I didn't go off and do something a little easier for me. I think I did like things about what I was doing. It was nice to be outside, nice to run around rather than attempting awkward conversation with the girls, nice to use my body even if it didn't always seem to take to what I was trying to do. For a very bookish girl, I think it felt great to feel strong, whenever I could manage it. I'll also never forget how it was whenever I wrested some accomplishment out of sports, such as the first time I threw a football with a perfect spiral.
It used to bother me that I wasn't great at sports because I wanted to prove people wrong when they said girls couldn't play well. The truth, however, is that I often could not prove that. I wasn't in the top 10 or even the top 50, and I probably never could have been. I was, however, not the very worst player, and I was of course far better than people who never played at all. Once, in college, the music class I TA'd for had a pickup baseball game, and I discovered I was the best damn player on the field, mostly because I knew which hand to put the glove on and how to swing a bat (my college was pretty bookish, what can I say).
So this was a big issue for me for a lot of years. For so long, I fought and fought against "playing like a girl" or "throwing like a girl" or even being a girl, really. But when the gamemaster told me my character threw "like a girl," this time I wanted to take him outside and see how he handles a football. My character may not have known how to throw well, but this girl throws like a person who worked really hard at something that didn't come naturally. Other people throw with talent, or like a person who never went outside, or who knows what. These days, I like being a woman and being seen as one, so I don't need to be good at sports to deny my femininity. On the other hand, I take deep offense to being told I'm not good enough just because I'm a girl, as well as to having all that hard work treated as if there's no possibility that it could even have existed.
I wish I'd spoken up then, but it makes me feel a little better to speak up now.