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on gender, coaching, and remember the titans

Posted by pocochina on August 18, 2007

This particular topic has intrigued me for a while, especially as it lets me talk about Very Important Personal Experiences, but the particular impetus is on that movie of Feel Good ‘Cuz Racism is Over, Right Guys? Football Fun, Remember the Titans.  Now, I am at least as much an evil cynic as the next girl, but yes, I did choose to watch it because it’s fun, and does an interesting job portraying a lot of complex relationships.  While it doesn’t pass the Mo Movie Measure,* it features some actors I truly enjoy, uses tons of fun music, and has OMG a gay quarterback.  Mostly, though, I watch it because it triggers new thoughts on memories that are pretty important to me.

La Pocochina is, as her drag-queen-esque LJ alter-ego’s name implies, a poorly rehabilitated guard girl.  For the uninitiated, the color guard is the group of people with flags, rifles, and sabres making the marching band pretty.  Most people were exposed in high school, and of course remember it at that level, but the truly deranged have the option of DCI, the international competitive organization.  It’s a physical and emotional experience like no other, and it’s only available between the ages of 14 and 21.  And because I was a hopless softball player, and turned in my field hockey stick before I turned 11, guard and corps are what I think of when I process coaching experiences.  I’ve now had the experience of working from the other side of the sidelines, as it were, assisting on and off at a friend’s winter guard.

Incidentally, Titans specifically reminds me of guard because of the I’ve spent in the Northern Virginia circuit – I’ve been to TC Williams, and most of the other schools mentioned in the movie.  (And yeah, they checked their NoVA school names out, all right.)  It’s half a trip down memory lane, and half the sick certainty that yes, football really is that serious – and that Sunshine, up until about five years ago, would’ve been tormented within an inch of his life – emotionally, if not literally.  Fun Fact:  the “Titans FAQ” website (http://www.71originaltitans.com/faqs.html) linked on wikipedia has, as its first two out of forty nine questions:
1.Did Sunshine really kiss Gerry Bertier in the locker room?

No

2.Is Sunshine gay?

No

This is clearly much, much more important that the extraordinary truths that surface in the movie:  the jock is NOT GAY!  That is JUST THE MOVIE!  Relax, everyone!  (NB:  I am naturally not questioning that the living, breathing Sunshine is Totally Heterosexual.  I do, however, think it’s worth noting that yes, this really shows up before the many facts inspiring and true about the team on which the story was based.)

What I end up thinking most about, though, is coaching and gender.  Coach Boone viscerally, painfully upsets me.  (I am naturally referring to the character presented in the movie, not the original Coach Boone.  I know nothing of this Coach Boone.)  He’s personally a brave and admirable man, and I absolutely love the scenes where Denzel Washington reminds us, in no uncertain terms, who exactly is at fault for the racial tensions in the town – none of this “both sides have some blame” crap that it’s so tempting to toss around, and certainly not “if you don’t look like me, you’re wrong,” just a calm refusal to blame the victim, even when the victim is him.  It’s surprisingly easy to internalized blame for institutional and social injustices.

But fuck.  There’s tough love, and then there’s straight up irresponsibility.  There’s no way I would score a point for a movie!Coach Boone.  (And not just because those 3AM runs are both pointless and miserable, especially when you have a. done nothing wrong and b. just taken several sleeping pills.  But I digress.)  I have yet to train with or under someone who was capable of being constantly such a hardass, without abusing the “tough love” front.  I’ve seen the tough love be a well-placed metaphorical kick in the ass – hell, I’ve dished out one or two in my time.  Usually, though, “I’m doing/saying this for your [team’s] own good” generally means “I am angry with the director/sick of yelling at the person next to you/fatally hung over/a total idiot who refuses to deal correctly and maturely with my chafing issues.”  I’ve had some amazing staff – I’ve also encountered some seriously power-crazed people from the wrong end of the silk.   (Really.  Everyone told him to wear boxer briefs.  I have no sympathy.)

Naturally, my experiences are heavily colored by my experiences and my personality.  If I don’t want to do something, well, I’m not going to do it, and if I do, I truly work as hard as I can.  I’m also a woman, living in a culture that I have recognized as misogynist, and one specifically driven to eating disorders by criticisms made in that context.  A lot of what I’m saying, I do think applies to most instructors/teachers.  Since I’m choosing to focus more on coaching, though, I’m using as a reference point experiences that I not only chose, but worked very hard to have.  So there’s years of yelling, directed at me or the people around me, that’s hurt me, annoyed me, and in the final analysis, not helped me learn whatever it was I was trying to learn at the time.

It’s tough not to wonder, though, how I’d hear those criticisms if I were a guy.  If I’d had the chance of growing up without the crippling self-doubt that we get in our cradles with our pink unicorns.  Would I still be so aggravated by that projection?  Would I have thought so deeply about it?  Or would I have been able to shake it off, and then not cared?  Would that extra energy in a holler, as one of my favorite instructors claimed all summer long, have spurred me on faster, instsead of being nails on the chalkboard?

A coach shouldn’t be looking for new BFFs, but (s)he should absolutely be looking for the most effective way to coach.  And once I’ve caught someone abusing a position of power to project their own issues over and over again, instead of teaching me like they’re supposed to, it quickly erodes my respect for that person.  During and since corps, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the processes of instruction and learning.  It’s not easy to keep your temper, it’s not easy to forget your shitty day at work, it’s not easy to explain stuff that comes naturally to you.  But if you are an instructor, that is your job.  It is not about you.  That’s why lots of people respond badly to yelling.  Not because they are wimps (though some people are), not because there’s just a “personality clash” (although those happen), not because someone’s “not cut out for this” (although no activity is a good fit for everyone, to be sure, especially activities that are heavily physical and emotional).

This is why insert school horror story here stuck with you so vividly through all these mature, well-adjusted years.  Insert hateful teacher name here had power over you, and a responsibility to you, and fucked up immensely.  I am absolutely not arguing that all educators everywhere must always be kind and suffer the children to run them into the ground.  I am simply arguing that this particular approach lends itself easily to irresponsibility, and can be extremely harmful.  While it’s tough enough to deal with in class, especially since kids are required by law to attend, it’s a special kind of hurtful when someone attacks your confidence in a space you enjoy.

But, Pocochina, how is this possibly about gender?  I can hear you asking.

Well, for the obvious, back to Titans, and football in general.  I can’t remember if this is in Titans or another sports movie, but it’s pretty standard fare to see the Tough Coach mortify his team by calling them “ladies” or “girls” to Break Them Down so he can Make Them Strong.  It’s not just a movie thing – that’s just the genrally accepted way to tell a group of boys or men that they are weak and talentless.  Call me a bitchy humorless feminist, but I resent the idea that female is the worst thing you could possibly be, and you know what, I think I should.  It not only accepts, but reinforces, the idea that male = tough, strong, and worthwhile, and female = what you screw after the big game.  I’ve heard “you throw like a girl” hollered out at a room full of girls, and not in a good way, either.

Not all Evil Coaches are men, but because of social constructs of masculinity, and the fact that society rewards men in positions of power far more than women, gender dynamics are often at play in unnecessarily harsh criticisms.  Simon Cowell isn’t an AI perennial because of his delicate musical ear, he’s there because he’s nasty.  And it’s intriguing, though of course possibly coincidental, that the Uber Masculine movie!Boone raises a high femme daughter, while the more relaxed movie!Yoast raises a tomboy.

That’s a specific instance, but the overall phenomenon often has gendered overtones.  Giving in, “letting” someone get to you, is seen as weak, and feminine.  Of course there are individuals, of all genders, who are oversensitive.  But being hurt and pissed off is also a rational reaction to bullying, especially by someone who has power over you, and should know better.  Bearing in mind my personal experiences, which took place mostly in the coed world of guard, it’s also a heavily gendered act to talk about vicious coaching.  That’s being a “wuss,” or, God forbid, a “pussy.”  Can’t handle it?  Go home, bitch.

And on top of all of that, this all happens in a punitively gendered world.  So women (as well as, I imagine, gender and sexual nonconformists of all stripes) experience this particular power play in the context of a world that punishes us just for being women.  A derisive “can’t you RUN ANY FASTER?!” will be heard as “you are SO FAT.”   Not can, will.  In a country where one in four women has an eating disorder.  A sarcastic “walk, much?” turns into “you are clumsly and everyone knows that’s not sexy!”  Imagine how that derisive “come on, LADIES!” sounds to a queer football player – in a country where hate crimes against women and gays aren’t even always legally recognized for what they are.

Anyway.  That’s what I thought about, watching Remember the Titans tonight.

*The Mo Movie Measure is a creation of comic Alison Blechdel.  (http://alisonbechdel.blogspot.com/2005/08/rule.html).  While I am generally unable to appreciate the artistry inherent in comics, I tend to apply the Three Rules as I’m evaluating a movie.  A movie should:

1.  have at least two women in it
2.  who talk to each other
3.  about something other than a man with whom one of them is in a relationship.

Alas, the two females who speak directly to each other in Titans are children who do not even like each other.

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