Morgan Rielly, professional hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was recently caught in the crossfire after making a negative comment about girls to his teammates. The following is an open letter to him from Michele Yulo, founder of Princess Free Zone, Inc.
Dear Morgan –
I’m writing to you today because of the thoughtless statement you made that denigrated girls in order to motivate your male teammates. You said:
“If you approach everyday like it’s a chore to come to the rink that’s the way it’s going to be, but you have to have put a positive outlook on it. You have to be able to put everything that’s happening aside and just worry about doing your job… you’re not here to be a girl about it.”
As a mom of a nine-year-old girl who has been playing sports with the boys since the age of four, and as a business owner and activist tirelessly working to end gender stereotypes, I’d like to give you a reality check about what it really means to “be a girl about it.”
First, I’d like to say that it’s very telling when any male speaks of girls in a derogatory way in order to somehow lift himself up. You’re certainly not the first, and won’t be the last to do it. Frankly, I don’t really blame you for saying what you did, because the sad fact is that this is how many boys are raised to think of girls: as weak, as less than, as fragile, as cry babies, as not having what it takes, as whiners, as silly, as sassy, as incapable, as helpless, as overtly emotional beings who cannot compete on the same level as their male counterparts. I’m sure you had heard this kind of anti-girl phrase many times in your young life and inevitably it would have stuck. That’s how stereotypes are formed, after all.
I’d like to give you a reality check about what it really means to “be a girl about it.”
So, let me say that while it was an unfortunate choice of words, it certainly was not a complete shock because it’s obvious you didn’t so much choose the words, but more that they just fell right out of your mouth like the air you breathe. You didn’t even know it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say until others pointed it out and that alone says a lot. You have since apologized, which I appreciate, but I believe more needs to be elaborated upon so that you truly understand the impact of your words enough to cause you to think twice next time.
You see, at the very core of your words is a much, much deeper problem that is being continually perpetuated even as I write this. Your casual dismissal of what it means to be a girl is a flagrant testament to how these cultural stereotypes about gender are embedded in our collective societal psyche. Have you heard of Eve Ensler? She is an amazing playwright (“The Vagina Monologues”), activist and performer. She said:
“I think the whole world has essentially been brought up not to be a girl. How do we bring up boys? What does it mean to be a boy? To be a boy really means not to be a girl. To be a man means not to be a girl. To be a woman means not to be a girl. To be strong means not to be a girl. To be a leader means not to be a girl. I actually think that being a girl is so powerful that we’ve had to train everyone not to be that.”
I want you to think hard about this, as well as just how potent the stereotype must be for someone to flippantly make a comment such as yours. Think about all the times in your life that you might have absorbed this message unknowingly. Think about the many ways you would have been exposed to these messages. It might have been in the locker room or on the ice, on the playground, in the classroom, or just hanging out with your friends. It might have been while watching a television show, commercials, flipping through a magazine, or overheard in someone else’s conversation. Who knows? But this kind of group thinking has been out there a long time for you and others to simply grab and reuse at will.
I also want you to think about all the girls and women you’ve known in your life and ask yourself: Would I have made this kind of statement in front of them? Do I really believe that females are not capable of having a “positive outlook” or putting “everything that’s happening aside and just worry about doing [their] job?” Most importantly, ask yourself why. Why was that the way in which you attempted to motivate your teammates?
Here’s a picture of my own daughter who plays triple AAA baseball (she plays basketball as well). She is not just a talented athlete, but she’s also a kid who works hard at her craft. She doesn’t give a mere 100%. She gives 200%. You know why? Because, as the only girl on her teams, she has to constantly prove herself. She can’t be as good as the average boy on her team. She has to be better, otherwise she is at risk of being placed at the bottom or having people say she doesn’t cut it. Of course, she’s not the only one. There are countless girls who constantly give it their all and then some, and who do maintain positive outlooks even as they are having to simultaneously see past the suspicious or disparaging look in the eyes of others.
But this goes beyond female athletes. This is about all girls—half of the population–who may or may not choose to play sports. It doesn’t matter whether they appear to be strong in your eyes because I can guarantee that each girl or woman you encounter is strong in her own way and has capabilities that you certainly don’t know about, and has probably fought battles that you couldn’t possibly imagine or endure, even being the powerful athlete you are.
This is not about making you feel badly as much as hoping that you, and others, will obtain some perspective and perhaps see that these stereotypes are just as harmful to boys and men as they are to girls and women. And you are in a unique position to be able to create positive change and be a voice for equality.
My sincerest hope is that you will think about all of this the next time you are giving your team a pep talk. Maybe you might even use a girl as an example of strength and perseverance instead of how not to be. Perhaps with an understanding that we are all human first and foremost. You are still young yet, and maybe with maturity you will learn that achieving success or winning shouldn’t mean belittling or demeaning others to get there.