I can’t remember the first time I saw a supposedly scientific psychological breakdown of personality traits by gender, but I have seen them many, many times since then, and never have they not annoyed the living shit out of me.
The way all of the qualities were divided up bothered me, with men getting dominion over “logic” and “protectiveness” while women were deemed “emotional” and “nurturing,” but nothing raised my ire more so than this idea that men were somehow inherently competitive while women were all about cooperation. It frustrated me because I knew it just didn’t apply to me or who I was.
The first inkling I’d had that I was fiercely competitive came during church youth basketball leagues. For the vast majority of my life, I was so shy it literally hurt to talk, but once I stepped on a court, it was like some snarling animal emerged from deep inside my soul and chased that meek little girl up a tree and left her there to cower. Inside my bony little preteen chest beat the heart of a warrior. I may not have been any good at my chosen sport, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I wanted to win.
My competitive side kept coming out, at ball games and board games and track meets. Sometimes it led me to make some, uh, questionable decisions, like the time I got my entire high-school volleyball team yellow-carded because I yelled at the ref for making a bad call. What can I say? It really was a shitty call, and someone needed to point it out. Might as well have been me!
Even when I suck at something, I still play to win. I hate to lose. Ask Brian. He will slowly dismantle me when we play Scrabble, scoring like 194 points because he placed the word “quixotic” on a triple-word score AND a triple-letter score, and I will curse him out when he does so.
(In case you can’t tell, I was never one to let a boy win in hopes of making him like me more. I figured that any boy who liked me would be impressed by my mad skills, not intimidated by them.)
Racing gives me a place to indulge that inner competitive beast, to let her roam free like the fierce lioness she is. Sure, I like to set goals and destroy them, but I also love to see my name appear higher and higher in age-group rankings. And you know what else? I love to come up close toward the end of the race and dig deep inside my guts and lay it all out on the course, and then pick people off, one at a time.
And here’s my deep, dark secret – I especially love to chase down guys. I get a huge thrill out of knowing I can run faster than a fit, strong man. He might be able to bench-press twice my body weight, but I can beat him in a foot race.
It’s that passion for competition that gets me out the door and on the road no matter what the weather is like, that gets me to bed early on Saturday nights so I can be well-rested for a race, that pushes me through weight training sessions, that helps me pass up soda and Doritos. My desire to be the best runner I can be burns so hard and bright, I’ll do whatever I can to make it happen.
I don’t think this is a trait that is unique to me, either. I mean, I don’t think girls and women are flocking to play sports because they love the excitement of a fierce bout of cooperation. Watch any elite female athlete who is at the top of her game – Abby Wambach, Candace Parker, Mirinda Carfrae, Kara Goucher, Marlen Esparaza, among about a billion others – and see what they do to prepare for their respective sports. You don’t go to such lengths if you don’t have that competitive fire in your heart.
A post at the Velo Orange’s blog by Robert George entitled “Why I Race and Why You Should Too” sums up my feelings nicely, even though he’s writing about cycling and I am exclusively a runner:
For me, it’s the excitement and adrenaline of competition. Toeing the start line with butterflies in your stomach before riding all-out as hard as you can for an hour (or two, or four, or many more) is about as fun as it can get. Racing pushes me to levels I didn’t know I could go; legs and lungs burning I forget all the stress in my life and think only about how this is the hardest race yet and how I can push just a little bit harder to overtake the next rider.
This has been true on my own life. I can run as hard and as fast as I can while circling my neighborhood, but I never run as fast as I am capable of running without other people to spur me on. And that desire to be the best athlete I possibly can be is what, more than anything else, motivates me through speed workouts, through squats and deadlifts, through long runs, through boring-ass core workouts.
The excellent thing about sports and games is that you have a controlled way in which to explore this desire to win and to be the best athlete you can possibly be. You have rules and guidelines and boundaries, and everyone comes to the table with the same general ideas about what to expect. In the end, no matter the outcome, you know you did your best, and that’s a pretty good feeling, even if you don’t win.
But take away that socially acceptable outlet, and people will find a way to compete with each other anyway. Think about teenage girls who socially torture each other, women who compete for the attentions of men and mothers who make a sport out of parenting. Anyone who thinks women and girls are naturally not competitive has never spent much time around women and girls.
(I thought “Mean Girls” made this connection quite well, when post-Plastics Regina George takes up field hockey and trades in burn books for body slams.)
Even so, the myth of the non-competitive female persists. I came across a blog post the other day by a woman who decried feminists who dismiss femininity and expect everyone to embrace masculine traits like “competition.” I was with the author up until I read that, and then she lost me.
It’s not that I want everyone to be super-competitive the way I am. Rather, I want people to acknowledge their personalities as they are, and not feel like they have to suppress parts of it or play up other parts of it in order to match these made-up gender stereotypes. Yes, it’s totally okay to be a non-competitive woman, but it’s also okay to be a non-competitive man. It’s also okay to be a competitive woman, just as it’s okay to be a competitive man. It’s okay to be somewhere in between, too!
And frankly, I think that kind of dualistic thinking is rather simplistic, and not least of all because it leaves trans* people and gender-queer people out of the equation. Pardon me while I get all Eastern philosophy on you here, but it’s more likely to me that we have elements of each of these supposedly opposing values in our hearts, just in varying degrees.
After all, men who play on sports teams certainly can be competitive, but if they are any good at playing on a team, they’ll have to be cooperative, too. And what about military units? That is about as traditionally masculine of a milieu as I can possibly imagine, and it’s one that depends entirely on the cohesiveness of the group to function.
The truth is, as with all gender stereotypes, the idea of competitive men vs. cooperative women simply doesn’t hold up against any serious analysis. We are simply too complex to be summarized in such facile ways. It may help us feel like we understand humanity better, but in doing so, we actually limit our capacity for true knowledge.
I don’t mean to advocate for unbridled competition. If you are the kind of person who values winning above all things, you are probably going to be more likely to cheat, more likely to pout if you lose, more likely to punch out another parent at your child’s Little League game. Maybe you’ll be more likely to juice up (ahem, MLB), or starve yourself so you can be lighter and faster. Too much competitiveness can be a bad thing, particularly if it isn’t balanced out by an ethic of sportsmanship or a sense of perspective.
But I do think we would be better served by no longer defining ourselves and each other as walking stereotypes. Instead we should recognize that we are the sum of so many things and experiences of which gender is only but one aspect, and that as such we come in infinitely more varied packages than could ever fit inside a boring old black-and-white way of looking at the world.