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Video: Ohio State's Jantel Lavender on 'being feminine and being good on the court'

From The Lavender Sisters on The Big Ten Network.

While perusing Ohio State's website for statistics the other day, I saw the video above in which center Jantel Lavender discusses how she thinks about being a feminine athlete at about the 4:00 mark in a voice over while getting her nails done.

"I know when it's time to get down and dirty and I know when it's time to be girly and prissy - I enjoy the finer things of being a girl," Lavender said. "You never have to be too much of one thing - I don't think you have to be too 'manly' or anything just to be a great basketball player. I really take pride in that and I really want to be a feminine basketball player."

The question is what exactly does it mean to be a feminine basketball player?

That's definitely a semantic question, but not "merely semantics" either.

It's not simply an ideological argument that "feminine" is a loaded, "socially constructed" term, but also that "feminine" often communicates exclusion criteria for people - obviously, if there's a "feminine", we can't escape that it stands in contrast to some way of being that are not feminine" or "masculine". Even if how we define those terms is fluid, they indisputably come with a set of attributes that some people don't fit.

That leads to a larger, or perhaps intersecting, question articulated in the past by Women's Professional Soccer player Jill Oakes.

Being a girl AND one of the guys : Pretty Tough|Girls Sports Life & Style|
So what DOES it mean to be girl? At one time, we were only cheerleaders, while boys were told not to play "like a girl." Nowadays, girls are tackling, competing, and enduring physical and emotional pain for success in their sport. ‘Female’ is an evolving phenomenon. And I believe we, as girls, control our own definition. To me, there’s no right or wrong way to be. There’s no "supposed to." You are born female, and from that moment on, everything you do for the rest of your life will contribute to what being a girl means. You represent all girls.

First, by no means is the purpose of this to pass judgment on either individual, especially given that one wrote about the subject with intention and the other was speaking briefly during a short segment about her life - that context matters and ultimately, if both were asked the questions about femininity/being a girl they could arrive at the exact same conclusion.

That said, there is a consequential distinction between these two comments - and the potential contrast is illuminated more clearly when comparing Oakes' comments to Lisa Leslie's past comments - even if you believe it to be too literal an interpretation. Lavender's comment subtly communicates a preconceived notion of what it means to be a "feminine basketball player" in juxtaposition to being "manly". In contrast, Oakes begins with the premise that individuals control their own definition and, as such, define themselves in interaction with the world, which could very well include attributes that some may well consider "manly"; it's therefore a necessary distinction because those attributes are not even universal between the subcultures of one city, much less a nation, and therefore can't be established by a universal standard.

This line of thought obviously sounds academic, if not unnecessarily abstract, falling just short of using footnotes and a bibliography. However, when you look at how women are presented in the media - not to mention who is presented and how (e.g. basketball in pumps?*) - it's obvious that it's a question our culture still struggles with. Acknowledging that it's something we as a society struggle with is not to imply that there is some universal right answer that will resolve all tension - it's to say that these are questions worth exploring and talking about, as Lavender was compelled to do, because it is a consequential question in the process of development for girls and boys - the gender norms that boys accept and reject, deeply inform their beliefs about what it means to be a boy and how they interact with girls.

Ultimately, the reason this is worth mention on a women's sports site is our cultural struggle with this question of what it means to be a girl can also serve as a significant barrier to girls' (growing) participation in sports - if, for whatever reason, a girl decides being "feminine" excludes certain attributes of a given domain, she is less likely to participate, independent of ability. So what you have to appreciate about Lavender's comment is that she has not only obviously thought through the question - out of necessity, not a rhetorical exercise - but also found a way to be feminine and be good on the court.

Yet the enduring dilemma is that not everyone can exist with the idea of being feminine and good on the court; as Oakes suggests, is it not more empowering to remove the potential barrier of implied false dichotomy and send a message to girls (and boys) that being female is the possibility of being good on the court (as a player, coach, trainer or PA announcer)?

In a world full of false dichotomies, if we don't actively encourage girls to exist in "control of their own definition", we're indirectly limiting their potential. That leaves us not with a question of what can I do? but instead what will I do next time I have the opportunity? as a parent, relative, neighbor, teacher or mentor. That's the foundation for building an empowering environment for girls, in sports or otherwise.

* Note: Yesterday I posted a 1993 Easy Spirit "Basketball" commercial partially because of how odd it seems now in today's world in which women's professional basketball has existed for more than a decade. Nevertheless, the commercial did illustrate, if unintentionally, the fundamental cultural struggle that seems to pose a constant challenge to women's sports and women's basketball in particular.

Random "side" note: I thought the story of Jantel and her twin sister, Jazmine, was a pretty good one - the whole segment is worth watching if you have the time. The comment about being feminine, which was from Jazmine, just seemed to grab my attention. For more on them, check out another BTN video, "Meet the Lavender Sisters".