Beaten by a girl: cricket, academics, and the perception of gender

It was a beautiful summer’s afternoon, the sort that makes the Trinity term seem, in one’s memory, like a blissful few weeks of sunny outings, drinks receptions on the terrace, picnics on the lawn, rather than the reality of exam panic, report-writing, and chaotic upheaval to the normal school routine. Out on what must be one of the most beautiful cricket pitches in the country, the school’s first XI (all young men aged between 12 and 18) took on a county women’s team, in an exciting and enjoyable afternoon of play.

The afternoon has stayed in my memory less because of the cricket (I’m trying to learn to appreciate the game, but I confess I have a long way to go), and more because of an anecdote with which I was regaled by the coach after the match: in the spirit of ‘banter’ with one of his players, who had just come in from batting, he had wittily admonished the young man with a cry of, ‘At your age, you’re supposed to be taking girls out, they aren’t supposed to be catching you out!’.

I was not present at the initial delivery of this ‘quip’, so I do not know in what spirit it was received, nor indeed in what state of mind the batsman was at the time, whether dejected, resigned, or pleased with his performance. I do know that, however poorly thought through, the remark was well-intentioned, rightly or wrongly intended to help rather than hinder morale among the team and rapport between boy and coach. By and large, I think this is also how it was received by the audience alongside me for its retelling in the Ref after the match.

None of this removes the fact that this kind of comment epitomizes for me a very typical way that persists in speaking to young men about their relationship with women, not only in a sporting environment, but across the spectrum of ordinary life-situations, at school and beyond. I am not, of course, alone in noticing this nor getting riled by it, but I am also concerned that my perception that everybody is starting to bristle at everyday comments such as these is, in fact, skewed by the echo-chamber of my own Twitter account and social circle outside of work. Among my colleagues, and plenty of other people I encounter in the wider world, I suspect many would have thought of the comments as nothing more than a passable witticism, and certainly would not agree with my own analysis. I therefore have a particular personal concern with it as a teacher of boys, who will shortly become a teacher of girls again, too, when the school becomes coeducational in a year’s time.

I see two particular issues raised in microcosm by the cricket comment. The first, which I shall perhaps return to more fully in another post later, is the reduction of male-female relationships to the (implicitly) sexual before anything else. The role, here, of the man is to ‘take girls out’, that is to initiate ‘dates’ or other encounters that, if not actually erotic, have overtones of leading to an erotic relationship of some sort. As well as being explicitly heteronormative, if not heterosexist, in its worldview, the assumptions behind this are also that men are sexual initiators who control the woman in the encounter, ‘taking’ girls out running deeper than just the play on words.

The second issue is of course the message that it is ‘bad’ for a boy to be beaten by a girl. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is ‘bad’ for a school cricketer to go out against a county team, we have a huge problem if schoolboys are being told that there is something inherently wrong with a woman being better than them at sport, or indeed at anything else. To take this to its logical extent, we must conclude that boys are receiving the message that their maleness alone should give them a right to do well. And, on the flip side to this, that to be beaten by a girl is ‘emasculating’ or a failure to themselves and their gender. Furthermore, since it is still early days in the appreciation that cricket (and other traditionally ‘male’ sports) may be played and excelled in by women, we have a potential added pastoral concern here, that young men are being told that they are failing specifically in their gendered role if they can be beaten by a woman in a ‘man’s world’. Take that perspective on cricket and apply it, for example, to the City workplace, and we have a far more concerning issue on our hands than gender in sports-‘man’-ship.

As part of a school community preparing itself to welcome girls into a long-standing masculine all-boys institution, I am hyperaware of the damage this sort of messaging is doing not only now, but also looking forward. One of the questions I am frequently asked is whether I think that the introduction of girls into the school is going to boost our overall academic achievement, or, more specifically, improve the academic achievement and attitude among boys at the school. On the one hand, I understand where this question is coming from, especially as parents, staff, and pupils alike come to terms with the changes that will occur in a school whose single-sex identity may have played a part in their decision to join its community, and wish to understand the possible benefits. I have read the research and think that academic improvements among the boys may well be a by-product, if we get the transition right, and I am fully aware that I have said so in response to such questioning.

However, the comment of my cricketing colleague, along with other daily encounters with similar messaging, has also left me with another concern. The more we answer ‘yes’ to the claim that introducing girls can have a positive impact on boys’ academic achievement, or use it as part of a justification for going co-ed, the more we are at risk of promoting, however inadvertently, another message to our young men: academic achievement is what girls do. We are, implicitly, claiming the academic sphere for the girls. We may, therefore, end up with the same sort of negative by-products as I see promoted in our cricket match. On the one hand, we have already sent a message to boys that they should not allow themselves to be beaten by girls, which will therefore challenge the place of girls’ success and their right to do well once they join the school. However, we may also have started to promote the idea that while boys should be triumphing at the cricket ground, the academic sphere is the girls’ – after all that’s why they are joining the school, we told everyone – and to succeed there (arguably a greater challenge in our current school culture than it would be for boys to succeed at cricket) is in fact also to emasculate oneself, a gendered ‘failure’ that still looms very large in our aggressively masculine environment.

It is hard to know exactly how to address issues such as these. However much I see a promising increase across society in the understanding of gender, its fluidity, and its diversity, I see alongside this a strong persistence in ill-informed gender stereotyping and construction of masculinity, in particular, which runs so deep that a well-meaning bit of jovial ‘banter’ will perpetuate toxic gender-identity-messaging without thought and without reprisal. Unless challenged, we create a culture which may inform the perception on issues that really matter: academic achievement, workplace roles, relationships. Worst of all, we perpetuate the toxic and damaging idea that for a young man to ‘underachieve’ in a ‘male role’, or perhaps succeed in a ‘female’ one, is to have failed in his masculinity and let down his own gender.