athletes · competition

The Competitive Feminist: the Bad, the Ugly, and the Good

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Earlier this week, when Jennifer Lawrence accepted her (much-deserved) Golden Globe Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the first thing she said was, “This means I beat Meryl.” I cringed (not knowing at the time that this is, apparently, a reference to a line from the 1996 film The First Wives Club). I cringed because that’s not what you’re supposed to say.

You’re supposed to say something gracious and generous about the strong field of women with whom you were nominated. You’re supposed to say, “You like me, you really like me.” You’re not supposed to talk about winners and losers. Remember when, at the Academy Awards, they switched from “And the winner is…” to “And the Oscar goes to…”?

Some say competition runs counter to feminist ideals, making the very idea of competition “un-feminist.” In 1972, volume one of Ms. Magazine included an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin entitled, “Competing with Women.” And in 1987, Valerie Miner and Helen Longino co-edited a collection of essays, Competition: A Feminist Taboo?  It opened with a re-print of the Pogrebin essay.

They suggest that feminists have had difficulty talking about competition—hence, the taboo—because it they consider it a key feature of the patriarchal social structure that feminists criticize.  The default assumption that competition is not just un-feminine (though it is that too), but actually un-feminist. Why? Well, it’s sometimes bad, and sometimes downright ugly.

Competition isn’t just suspect for being masculinist and patriarchal (and capitalist). It’s divisive and hierarchical. You can’t have winners without losers.  And aren’t winners superior to losers? The gold medalist stands at the top of the podium.  What about feminist solidarity? What about equality? How does a good feminist reconcile competition with that?

This unease with the idea of competition means that many women who consider themselves feminists are loathe to admit to their competitive tendencies. We compete with ourselves. We support our sisters. We hold hands as we cross the finish line.

And yet, feminist or not, don’t we all like to win?

A few months ago I played Scrabble with a friend who didn’t care about winning. She just played any old word, not striving to lay down all the tiles, land on triple word scores, or get the most out of blanks and Qs and Zs.  That’s not how I play Scrabble.  Where I come from, you play to win. You challenge words. You play by the rules. You do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances leave an open triple.  I won that game. But I didn’t feel like a winner because we weren’t both competing.

If competition is bad because it is unfeminist and creates winners and losers, it can also be downright ugly.  Valerie Miner has an essay about competition among feminist writers called “Rumors from the Cauldron.”  The cauldron, that bubbling brew that cackling witches stir, cursing their enemies and wishing them ill.

She talks about the ugly side of competition:  envy, jealousy, resentment.  She talks about wanting to feel happy for our friends who succeed, but instead feeling envious of their success, wishing it were ours. And then we feel guilty for feeling that way.

I’ve been on both sides of the envy, and neither feels good.  If we care about our friends and know that our successes in some way hurt them, then it’s easy to feel hurt in turn (why aren’t they happy for us?), and also to then have to downplay our victories and successes.

When I was a PhD student in a stressful doctoral program in philosophy, my housemate and I used to take time out from our studies by playing backgammon. When we were learning the game together, we had a splendid time. It was loads of fun.  At certain point we turned a corner with it.

Instead of being a happy outlet from a difficult day, it became a complicated context of emotional management (what some might call co-dependence). The winner couldn’t just play her best, most strategic game and win. Instead, we started to try to gauge how the other was feeling.  Was the trouncing making her upset?  Would using the doubling cube just be an added cruelty? (We actually banned use of the doubling cube.)

Sometimes, the winner felt the need to apologize for winning. Sometimes the pending loser had to bow out, apologetically, because she’d had a rough enough day already, thank you very much. No one got to feel good.

Around that time I developed an aversion to competition. It wasn’t just about the backgammon. Competing was emotionally draining. If I won, I felt a mixture of joy and guilt. If I lost, I felt inferior and unworthy. I recognize that none of this is healthy and that it reveals at best that I was a bad sport, at worst that I needed lots of therapy.  But my competitive nature led me to take myself out of competition as much as I could. It just felt ugly.

All this, and I haven’t yet talked about sports. It’s become part of my public “narrative” about myself that I do not enjoy playing competitive sports. I’m more about yoga and running (for my own satisfaction) and resistance training for strength. And even when I run a race, I’m only going for a personal best, not actually trying to place.

Mostly, I have to confess, I don’t like competing in sports because of the combination of two factors: I’m not all that good at sports and I can be a poor loser. When I say I’m a poor loser, I mean I feel badly about myself when I lose, and I am apt to need at least a little bit of time before I can feel happy for she who beats me (unless I, like my Scrabble friend, wasn’t actually competing to begin with–then it’s okay because I wasn’t trying to beat her anyway).

And yet I recognize sports as perhaps the one domain where women can compete against one another in a healthy, socially acceptable way.  It’s the area where we don’t have to be nurturing and cooperative and concerned about how our opponents feel about our success.

I see it as a domain where we should be able to go for the win because we can (if we can). We can feel empowered at our own accomplishments while at the same time applauding the success of those who train harder or have done better in the genetic lottery than we have or both. We can set ourselves personal goals and, as Samantha says in her post about who she’s trying to beat, look at ourselves as our fiercest competition. We can admire champions.

Sports and athletics are where we can find the good in competition. Mariah Burton Nelson has a wonderful book, Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, New Choices for Women, where she explores and develops, with much depth and eloquence, a feminist theory of victory in sports. It’s really about winning with grace and compassion, about developing your own criteria for success (and not necessarily shying away from winning as a goal), about attending to the process, about being willing to lose.

We need to give ourselves permission to compete. Lift the taboo.  And lighten up.

She cites a lovely quote from the tennis champion, Chris Evert:  “If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.

We don’t have to hold hands across the finish line. But we can go for the group hug when we all get there!


28 thoughts on “The Competitive Feminist: the Bad, the Ugly, and the Good

  1. Watching my son make his way through various team sports, I’ve come to think that that’s where you learn to be a good competitor and a good sport. My own experience with bike racing, and with soccer, backs that up. In those contexts competition feels (almost always, there are exceptions) healthy and fun. Enjoy it!

  2. That makes sense. As you know, I’ve never played team sports, even as a kid. Maybe that’s why I never learned to lose well and just have fun.

  3. Being a good and gracious loser, is simply learning manners or proper etiquette, in my humble opinion. They are important manners to learn. But they are just manners. It sounds to me like women are asked to internalize those manners as part of their actual personality, alot more than are men. When Jennifer Lawrence said: “This means I beat Meryl”, I laughed, and it did not even occur to me that she might have said anything inappropriate, especially since it was obvious that she was humble about it, and was amazed by it. What I found funnier though was the look on Spielberg’s face when Ben Affleck said something along the same lines of how he never dreamed that his name would be ever be spoken alongside that of Spielberg and others; Spielberg seemed quite displeased by the fact as well. The reason that Affleck at least appeared as not quite so gracious as Lawrence, however, is because he seemed on some level to now consider himself in Spielberg’s league, or at least his overall response suggested it. Nothing Lawrence said came across as her now believing that she was as accomplished or talented an actress as Streep.

  4. Sometimes it’s just good manners. You smile, say “good game” and high five all the players of the opposing team but you’d rather not have to smile at them. You’d rather just leave. But you go through the motions anyway, But sometimes I really feel like “good game” means something. My favourite games are when they played well, and we played well, and we won! But I still like it when they played well and we played well and we lost against a better team. Something to work for, a reason to get better. I’m grumpy when I don’t think we’ve played well but that’s much more about us, and about skills development and team work, than it is about winning or losing.

  5. I must admit I’m laughing a little bit here. What you say could be interpreted to mean: I really mean it when I say: “Good game!”, when we’ve won! I mean it in a “I hereby bow to a superior force” sort of way, when someone clearly better than us beat us, i.e. I can in my heart accept defeat graciously when I had no chance of winning anyway. I don’t mean it at all though, I just say it to be polite, when we’ve lost and we shouldn’t have lost to losers like them – since that makes us losers! I don’t know for sure – but I think maybe you just confirmed it’s all about manners, Sam. 🙂

  6. Maybe it can be distilled down to: It’s all in the delivery. That’s for the outward part. But I’m more concerned about what happens internally. If losing makes a person feel like a “loser,” then they haven’t learned to lose well. And so it’s not fun. I take the Chris Evert quote to be referring to that internal attitude–where your reaction to winning and losing is the same, you’ve accomplished something — you’re truly a good sport. The Mariah Burton Nelson book, which I didn’t do justice, really includes a lot about how to compete well.

  7. Well, perhaps there are different ways of looking at it. I’ve always been under the impression that top athletes might not feel like “losers” when they lose – that was said mostly in jest – but that they still HATE losing. Maybe Chris Everett’s onto something I for one admit that I don’t understand. Question though: did she come up with this one as an announcer on network television after she retired, or while she was competing and at the top of her game? I’m just skeptical admittedly, although I really do believe you should learn the “manners” of losing well; helps keep you part of a community – which is important for a lot of good reasons.

  8. It just occurred to me, Tracy, that I’m comfortable with the split or divide between what you call the internal and the external. I can inwardly HATE losing while valuing the EXTERNAL manners of being a good loser as something truly worthwhile. For right or wrong, I don’t need the two to align, and for me, they might align a little bit, but not all that much – and certainly not completely. I guess I just wonder whether the thought of them aligning perfectly is something actually achievable, or whether it’s just a romantic ideal, or something people like CHris Everett say on public television to try to make players in the public eye act in a mannered fashion.

  9. Oh – one more thought, if I might. This internal/external talk it seems to me might just underlie the counter-balances that are put in motion to make things a little less high (I won!)/low (I lost.) neurotic. Sayings like: Don’t get too high on your wins; don’t get too down about your losses. On to the next case – or game, or whatever. They are only said to people who need to win and hate to lose. Other people wouldn’t need the sayings. So maybe it’s alot about counter-balances as well.

  10. I’m not sure when Evert said that (as a player or as a commentator). I think the thing about being a good competitor runs quite deep. To take a topical example, it’s kind of astonishing to hear Lance Armstrong tell Oprah that cheating seemed normal and nothing was more important than winning. Here’s a guy who we used to think of as an amazing competitor, a real “sporting” athlete. But winning was so important that the rules didn’t even apply to him (in his mind). I wondered if there was an internal-external divide there — where externally he was a champion and internally a cheat. But apparently not.

  11. I have asymmetrical feelings about winning and losing. Winning is to be celebrated. I love winning. But losing rarely makes me feel bad about myself. Usually I set my sights on the future, on playing better, getting faster, think about what I need to change. Kind of like writing! Savour the successes and think about the failures in terms of future action, things to do differently next time.

  12. Sorry, but I think the whole Armstrong debate and public version of matters is an absolute crock. It’s like Tiger Woods getting death threats for cheating on his wife. I think 90% or more of athletes dope and the ones who get caught are called cheaters and frauds, when if this is the case 90% or more of them are cheaters and frauds. Among his true top or elite competition, I would hazard to guess that 98% of them are even now doping. Armstrong knows this to be the case, so thinks the way he thinks, but he can’t say that, and for public perception reasons, the fraud-talk must continue. And then we get the ridiculous” “well, just because alot of people cheat doesn’t make it right” talk. They almost all dope – that’s the truth. And so is Armstrong unrepentant? – of course, because he knows all his competitors were doping too. Then we get Queen Oprah (don’t ever say anything against Oprah, or women will tell you she has more feelings in her little finger than you have in your whole body) involved and all of a sudden we get her usual version of false thoughtfulness – play to the masses-type take on the whole thing. There’s the real “divide” on this one; what it’s between is reality, on the one hand, and public celebrity-style appearance, on the other. Please don’t take this to mean something as simple as I condone doping or that it shouldn’t be checked with severe peanlties applying. It’s more complicated than that for a host of reasons. But this witch hunt for Armstrong as an unrepentant fraud – that is perhaps the most insane and repugnant thing of all, in my opinion. It’s nothing more than spitting on the soldiers who returned from Viet Nam, again, in my opinion – with Queen Oprah leading the charge because it’s news.

  13. I agree with a lot of what you say, especially that doping is a way of life in lots of sports, and apparently cycling is one of them. I don’t think this pursuit of Armstrong is misplaced, however. The best outcome would be for the whole sport to come clean and admit that, though yes, Armstrong was doping and lying about it (and suing anyone who tried to say otherwise), that’s the sport standard. You can’t compete without it (like Bjorn Borg trying to make that come back with the old-style tennis racket when everyone else had the new ones — embarassing). He’s the highest profile person so he’s being singled out.
    I think the philosophical question of why doping is wrong if everyone is doing it is pretty interesting and complicated. There is not at all a straightforward answer to that question.

    1. I’ve agreed to write something for the Western News about the Armstrong case so in thinking lots about this question right now.

  14. Great. I was going to say something here but since you are writing for the WN, maybe we can just write a brief intro here and then link to your WN article. When are you going to print? It’s topical this week. p.s. if you want a proofreader or need to cut words to get it to the right length, I’m available.

  15. I too think it’s complicated. And it’s because some matters are complicated, that I find Oprah’s wistful thoughtful gazes, not to mention her crocodile tears, to exhibit bad faith. I’m sure she’s a very nice person though. *sigh*

  16. Oh and Tracy, we both know that the sport will not come clean and admit to doping as a sport standard. It would cause the death of cycling as a sport. To say that is to say that people should be good to each other. Of course they should be, no argment there – but I think that the underlying reasons as to why it is so difficult to implement a solution to the doping problem in sports have to be addressed. I also think the celebrity-style witch hunt as a means of both entertaining people at a very base level (almost like a reality tv show)and maintaining interest in the sport for economic reasons, has to be exposed for what it actually is. Anyway, I look forward to reading Sam’s article on the subject. I have no answers. I just don’t like Oprah.

  17. Laughing here. Dr. Phil – take a pill, and some public ridicule, and all will be solved. Don’t know Dr. Oz – but I take it he’s no wizard.

  18. Tracy, thanks for bringing Longino and Miner to this forum. I think that the problem with competition is that we only think about it terms of winning and losing which is in my view shortsighted. Competition operates on so many positive levels. I could go on and actually did in recent book gender and competition.

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