Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old pitcher for the Taney Dragons from Pennsylvania, has been the sensation of the Little League World Series. A 70-mile-per-hour fastball, impeccable control, back-to-back shutouts, she’s been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and has been interviewed by nearly every major television network. Though the Taney team’s run was ended by an exciting game against Chicago — the most-watched Little League game in ESPN history — Mo’ne’s achievement is impressive by any standard. But why is it that her gender is the “anomaly” that makes her talent mediaworthy?
In schoolyards and streets, for as long as most of us can remember, “You throw like a little girl!” has been a common insult, almost always directed at a male. In philosophy, the phrase often leads to the consideration of an influential essay in feminist literature, “Throwing Like a Girl,” by the political philosopher Iris Marion Young, who died in 2006. Her essay, first published in 1980 in Human Studies, and reprinted often since, deconstructs this trope to analyze the patriarchal and essentialist assumptions that give the insult its sting. It is an essential work not only in feminism, but in thinking about the way embodiment shapes subjectivity, and the essay came to my mind often during the exciting emergence of Mo’ne.
The act of throwing is an aggressive one, a projecting outward — like shooting an arrow from a bow or a bullet from a gun — or martial, like throwing a punch. The thrown object aims to hit something, or someone, or at least a strategic mark. It’s not outlandish to think the act first sprung from hunting, with a rock thrown at prey. None of these characteristics, at least within the parameters Young describes, are even remotely associated in our culture with the “feminine.”
Young acknowledged that “throwing like a girl” is an observable phenomenon. The “girlie throw” results from a restricted use of lateral space that tends to come only from the localized part of the body that is doing the action — the hand and forearm — and rarely uses the whole arm, the whole body, or the extended space around the body that is necessary to execute the throw. Women “tend to concentrate our effort on those parts of the body most immediately connected to the task,” she writes, and do not “bring to the task the power of the shoulder, which is necessary for its efficient performance.” Think of the woman as she passes the pickle jar to the man to open. The inability to not open the jar has nothing to do with inherent strength, Young argues, but has to do the utilization of the entire body for the task, something that is not rooted in anatomical or biological “limitations,” but the whole social, political and aesthetic history of how females come to learn to “be” their bodies in space and time.
“[A] space surrounds us in imagination that we are not free to move beyond,” Young writes of women. Such restriction, constriction and fragmentation can be observed in many everyday movements, including the way a woman walks, sits and carries books (“girls and woman most often carry books embraced to their chests, while boys and men swing them along their sides.”). Women’s movements tend to be reserved, protective, and reactive betraying that “the woman experiences herself as rooted and enclosed.” The experience of female embodiment in sexist society closes space, time and the imagined future possibilities of becoming and achievement. It is a closure not just of the body, but of the mind and will. “Feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing — a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon,” Young writes.
To be sure, there certainly are boys who “throw like girls” (my own Little League memories involve having my throwing style being laughed at by the other boys). Likewise, there are women who do not have comportments that are so restricted. If you observe bodies on the subway or in any city street, you will see women who move more freely and men who are constricted. More variations would emerge in observing both men and women from African, Asian or Arabic cultures. Young herself writes, “The account developed here claims only to describe the modalities of the feminine bodily existence for women situated in contemporary advanced, industrial, urban, and commercial society.” Young did not mean her theory to be comprehensive or without exception, only to emphasize that, “it is in the process of growing up as a girl that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality make their appearance.”
In Young’s conception, to “throw like a girl” has nothing to do with some mysterious female essence that prevents girls from throwing balls or being athletic, but has its “source in the particular situation of women as conditioned by their sexist oppression in contemporary society.” “Throwing like a girl” is a result of the way that females learn to be in their bodies and learn to move in patriarchal space. “Women in sexist society are physically handicapped.”
For Young, the issue is larger than the physical specifics. It is the body, not the mind or spirit, that is the ground of freedom. She draws from the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who, Young writes, locates “subjectivity not in mind or consciousness, but in the body.”
The most obvious image of the loss of freedom is the body shackled in a prison cell. But just because the chains are not immediately visible, does not mean that the body is not surrounded by various social constrictions and limits. If the body is the ground of meaning-making and subjectivity, the female body in sexist society quickly learns to cut off the very medium through which it might make meaning and cultivate subjectivity.
All athletes are broken down into ever-smaller measurable stats: height, weight, 40-yard dash, vertical leap, etc. The language we use to describe the athlete is often language used to describe the inhuman or the animal—“freak,” “beast,”—more so when it comes to black athletes. Further, athletes become an object of capital, a “brand” to be marketed and sold, to have their face and name mechanically reproduced, disseminated, “traded,” and quantifiable as “profit.” Where then remains the subject? Where then the freedom or, in the language of the existentialists and phenomenologists, the “transcendence” of the athlete?
The female athlete has the additional “burden” (de Beauvoir’s way of describing how the female experiences her body) of the contradiction (she must be both subject and object, masculine and feminine, active and passive) that make the obstacles preventing the realization of their subjectivity and freedom seem insurmountable. Mo’ne has already had to face such dismissal and sexism. In an interview on “Fox and Friends,” the show’s host Eric Bolling asked Mo’ne a blatantly sexist question: “What about a you know, typically, uh, I don’t know, more female-friendly sport, like soccer? No?” Mo’ne, without hesitation, replied, “Well, I play soccer actually.” (The way that soccer is often dismissed as “feminized” in American culture is a subject for a whole other essay).
Part of the “contradiction” of female embodiment is the fact that in performing the very activity that would reclaim the patriarchal domination and colonization of the space and time, the woman possibly opens herself to even more scrutiny and objectification. The female body on display, as is the case with athletes, becomes another commodity in the economy of male gazes. Her effort to enter the realm of male freedom through her athletic activity only serves to further discredit her as a female because now she is “manly,” or “butch,” or she becomes a “hot” athlete, a pretty little automaton who is not taken seriously. (Think especially of the different ways in which the popular discourse depicts athletes like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova). “To open her body in free, active, open extension and bold outward-directions is for a woman to invite objectification,” Young writes. It also leads to the “threat of invasion of her body space. The most extreme form of such spatial and bodily invasion is the threat of rape.”
Young female athletes like Mo’ne Davis should be encouraged and supported, not treated as anomalies but as models of what it means to “throw like a girl.” Young girls must learn that their embodiment is a source of freedom, not incarceration, a source of pride, not shame. Athletic activity encourages not only self-mastery but mastery of the space and time through which they become — not to become “strong like the boys,” but to to realize the wholeness of their personality, to be free.
Mo’ne, and all of the other great female athletes past and present, do not only challenge the ways we think about athletic excellence, but, more important, they begin to undo the oppressive and objectified ways in which women come to be in their bodies. Mo’ne is not simply throwing amazing pitches, Serena is not simply acing serves, Maya Moore is not simply swishing nets. They are resisting the colonized space around the female body. They are liberating the female body from its shackles. They are models of activity and autonomy that are as important to gender equality as any law might be.
Freedom is not simply a phenomenon of the will, as the Stoics might insist. Our bodies are both the ground and medium that make freedom possible. To “throw like a boy” or “act like a man” or any of the thousand phrases that use “man” as the model of subjectivity betrays the patriarchal situation inside which our society shapes bodies, shapes what constitute “freedoms” and what types of bodies are allowed to realize those freedoms.
For the woman the very act of reaching back, twisting the body, and hurling an object forward to its target is an act of revolt. It is the assertion of space and place, of freedom and subjectivity. To throw is to not simply be in space, but to be the very ground of space and time. Young’s essay is an important reminder. In this context, to throw is not simply a movement of the body, but a way for the subject to assert herself, her subjectivity, and her freedom by rising above and beyond mere embodiment.
I throw, therefore I am.
Eric Anthamatten teaches philosophy at Fordham University-Lincoln Center and at Parson’s The New School for Design. He has taught at prisons in Texas and New York City, most recently at York Women’s Correctional Facility in Connecticut through a program at Trinity College. Twitter: @eAnthamatten.
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
The act of throwing is an aggressive one, not even remotely associated in our culture with the “feminine.”
The female body on display, as is the case with athletes, becomes another commodity in the economy of male gazes.
|Author||Iris Marion Young|
|Media type||Journal article|
"Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality" is a 1980 essay by political philosopher and feminist Iris Marion Young which looks at differences in feminine and masculine movement norms in the context of a gendered and embodied phenomenological perspective. It uses ideas from Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to examine how perceptions of the body relate to task performance and confidence.
This essay begins with a discussion of Simone de Beauvoir’s account of women’s existence as constrained. Young believes that de Beauvoir neglected some important aspects and made it seem like it is women’s bodies, their anatomy, that determine their being unfree. The female body then becomes something to transcend, or break free from, rather than something that people recognize is in fact conditioned to be the way it is.
Young relies for her analysis on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about perception: “that it is the ordinary purposive orientation of the body as a whole toward things and its environment which initially defines the relation of a subject to its world”. She also chooses to focus on the kind of movement where the body aims at accomplishing a definite purpose or task. She believes this is more important than looking at movement such as dancing because “accomplishing tasks is basic to the structure of human existence”.
Her point is not that there are no physical or muscular differences between the sexes, but rather that women have a different mindset when it comes to performing tasks. They do not see themselves as capable, do not “summon the full possibilities of our muscular coordination, position, poise, and bearing”, do not put their whole bodies into it with the ease that men do. So, when someone says that they throw like a girl, climb like a girl, hit like a girl, etc. it is not a compliment. It means that the person is not putting their whole body into it, that it is falling short. Young says that women tend to wait for and react to things, rather than meeting them. They lack confidence; they hesitate; they think of their bodies as fragile. This keeps them distracted from paying attention to what they want to accomplish. This extends beyond sports to other realms of life as well.
She says the cause is often from lack of practice. Women become used to thinking “I can’t” rather than “I can” and approach tasks this way. Thus, “Feminine bodily existence is an inhibited intentionality. By contrast, an uninhibited intentionality “projects the aim to be accomplished and connects the body’s motion toward that end in an unbroken directedness which organizes and unifies the body’s activity”. Young’s point is that having an uninhibited intentionality makes a difference in how people think of themselves. For example, if someone sees a goal and put their whole body into reaching it, rather than shying away from full exertion, it will make a difference in whether or not the outcome is successful. She draws on Merleau-Ponty’s idea that the body is what allows us to think of ourselves as beings.
This means, though, that the body cannot exist as an object. But women often think of themselves as the objects of motion instead of subjects making the motion happen. They are uncertain of their body’s capabilities and feel like their bodies are not completely under their control (perhaps due to factors such as puberty or pregnancy). Her closing point is that “Women in sexist society are physically handicapped” which means that they are “physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified. Girls are not encouraged to use their bodies as freely as boys are, and this socialization follows them throughout life. They learn how to actively hamper their movements and act like little ladies (not get dirty, not tear clothes, etc.) and then see themselves as fragile. Even those who want to be bold and move their bodies openly face multiple threats—including being objectified, touched, or raped—and these threats serve to police women’s bodies and keep them confined, physically and mentally. She ends with the speculation that “the general lack of confidence that we frequently have about our cognitive or leadership abilities, is traceable in part to an original doubt in our body’s capacity”.
This essay has become a classic in feminist theory for its attention to female experiences and embodiment. It has been praised for breaking radical new ground in philosophy and providing a strong foundation for performance and corporeality studies. Its popularity is reflected in the fact that it has been reprinted in several book-length collections of essays and features in the title (see Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (1990) and On Female Body Experience: 'Throwing Like a Girl' and Other Essays (2005)).
- ^Young 1980, p. 140.
- ^Young 1980, p. 140.
- ^Young 1980, p. 142.
- ^Young 1980, p. 146.
- ^Young 1980, p. 146.
- ^Young 1980, p. 152.
- ^Young 1980, p. 155.
- ^Foster 2009.
- ^Al-Saji 2005.
- Al-Saji, Alia (2005). Review of On Female Body Experience: 'Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays'. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24880-on-female-body-experience-throwing-like-a-girl-and-other-essays/
- Foster, Susan Leigh (2009). "Throwing Like a Girl, Dancing Like a Feminist Philosophy". In Dancing with Iris: The Philosophy of Iris Marion Young. Eds. Ann Ferguson and Mechthild Nagel. Available on Google Books.
- Young, Iris Marion (1980). "Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality". 3 (2): 137-156. Available on JSTOR.