Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gender, On- and Off-Court

I recently heard a coworker comment that women's sports leagues are so very badly under-exposed and under-watched, because:
1) sports are a male-dominated field,
2) men don't watch women's sports, and
3) women who watch sports spend most of their time watching men's leagues anyway.

This got me thinking. Are we being fair to female players by making them compete only with other women? Are we ghettoizing them for having different bodies, for being female?

Now, I know just as well as the next person that women and men have different bodies and different skills. Women, by and large, are simply not as strong as their male counterparts. But not all women are less strong than all men! Women bring a different set of skills to the table, such as a lower center of gravity and better endurance. Aren't these valuable qualities? Couldn't any good coach find a place on his team for a male player who displayed such attributes?

Some people who I've discussed this with (including my girlfriend) say that women should be divided from men in sports, because without a male presence on the field, women will play much more aggressively. In the presence of men, they become weak and ladylike.

But perhaps this is merely a function of the fact that girls are never pushed to compete against men, or alongside them? What if all sports were gender-integrated from elementary on up? Would boys stop being unconsciously domineering towards their female teammates? Would they see them not as girl players, but as fellow players who possess different strengths and weaknesses? Maybe they'd just see 'em as "one of the guys".

One problem with this approach is the spectators who fund these leagues. They want faster, harder, more brutal plays. Plays which female players simply cannot deliver. But as my Political Science professor said to me on my first day of college, "Rules influence outcomes." Sure, maybe games like basketball and football discourage females from playing alongside males, but maybe that's just a function of the rules. Could the rules of these games be changed in such a way that would allow women to compete alongside men? Not just make it possible for them to hold their own, but to actually excel? For female players, playing in an integrated league, to attain fame equal to that of big names like Kobe Bryant or Brett Favre? Not because they're such brave little troopers, carrying on against all odds in a male-controlled sport, but because they're actually the best players in the league.

I don't know if changing the rules will "solve" sexism. Could it usher in a new era, in which men do not view women as weak or deficient, but as equal partners and teammates in life? I don't know, but I doubt that the solution could be as simple as changing a few rules here and there. I just feel that we're sending mixed messages to our daughters, if we tell them that they can do anything a man can do, as long as they don't try to physically stand up to one.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review: "Hyperion," by Dan Simmons

This might be the only book that I've actually risked being late to work for, even though I was only on the second chapter. That's right: I wasn't making risky delays because I wanted to see how it ended; I just wanted to know what happened next!

Hyperion is a masterpiece of science fiction, let me say that right off the bat. I haven't encountered a book that made me think this hard about so many complicated issues in a long, long time. As I listened to the book over the course of no less than 18 CDs, I felt as if my brain was being punched. The sheer weirdness of Simmons' alien flora and fauna is literally awe-inspiring(the Tesla trees and the Motile Isles being among my favorites). His characters are deeply flawed and deeply human, and no brief description of them here could possibly convey their myriad personalities, to say nothing of the incredible ways in which they grow and change in the week or so during which the story unfolds.

I have heard Hyperion described as 'a sci-fi homage to the Canterbury Tales,' and the comparison is fitting. Simmons describes the journey of seven pilgrims to, and across the surface of, the planet Hyperion. It's a backwater hole, not even important enough to have its own farcaster. But it is important as the site of the (literally) anachronistic Time Tombs, and the home-world of the mysterious creature known only as "the Shrike."

The Shrike, a cryptic being that lives backwards in time, appears to be made of living metal, and can teleport itself through space and time with little or no effort, is the object of veneration for a powerful religion known as The Church of the Final Atonement. It's not clear what the Shrike is supposed to represent in this book (War? Death? Violence? Humanity? God? Technology? The Unknown? The Unknowable?); indeed, our opinion of the creature changes radically with each pilgrim's tale.

I could literally go on all day about this book, but I'll spare you. I couldn't possibly do justice to any of these magnificent stories. Instead, I can tell you a bit about the premise of the first tale (the one that I almost missed work for), in order to whet your appetite:

In the first tale, a Catholic priest named Father Lenar Hoyt tells the story of his mentor, Father Paul Duray. Several years ago, Duray was convicted of falsifying archeological findings, making them seem to suggest that intelligent creatures had worshiped Jesus Christ before humanity had left Earth - a desperate attempt on Duray's part to save his dying church and his dying religion.

After being exposed, Duray was exiled to the planet Hyperion, to do missionary work in the southern jungles. According to his recovered journals (which have mysteriously come into Hoyt's possession), it was there that Duray discovered solid, undeniable physical proof that intelligent beings had indeed worshiped before the sign of the cross (and in a manner shockingly similar to our own), millions of years before human life even evolved!

But soon Duray is crushed by the realization that, even if he survives a second trip through the Tesla trees, no one. is ever . going. to believe him.

The story is called "The Priest's Tale, or, The Man Who Cried God."

Happy reading.