My daughter's 2 1/2 years old and in the middle of a huge princess phase. (One of the by-products of having a girl is an encyclopedic knowledge and critical eye of Disney movies. Don't get me started on The Little Mermaid) She has several princess dresses that we've gotten from second-hand stores, friends, family members. She loves them, to the point of never wanting to take them off. On one hand, I don't mind this. I love that my daughter loves princess things so much. It makes her happy, and you don't mess with happy. And it's fun when we go out to the mall or the library, and she wears her big princess dress and her plastic tiara and people stop dead and marvel at how cute she looks, all dressed up as a princess. It's one of my favorite things to do with her. On the face of it, it's harmless and cute.
But there's a subtext that's starting to bother me. It's that she's getting this attention because of her princess costumes. Because she doesn't get the same kind of her attention for the way she knows all of her colors, or her insane vocabulary, or her politeness.
It speaks to something about our culture that the most compliments my daughter gets come when she dresses up like a pretty princess.
I bring up this personal stuff because it's been on my mind since Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon on Saturday. Sadly, her first Grand Slam victory has been overshadowed by some of the dunder-headed and sexist comments a handful of male media members have made about Bartoli and her appearance.
On a British live radio broadcast, John Inverdale said: "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'You're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'?" On the American side, Greg Couch wrote that Bartoli's wining was bad for women's tennis:
Bartoli — more hard truth — is not going to sell in the U.S. She doesn’t have magazine looks and plays in an ugly way.
Moment lost? Really? Yes, if you want something to package and market. Something to drive ratings, get Web clicks and jack up rights fees.
Now, we'll take as fact that such comments are terrible, sexist and wrong, and naturally point out that male athletes are never judged by their looks on the scale of women's athletes. (And let's be honest, Andy Murray isn't exactly a dreamboat.)
Couch writes from the "Hey, I'm just being honest" position, which is both understandable and annoying. To his credit, he does lament this fact, writing that "In our celebrity culture, we're admiring the wrong things. And a personal story like Bartoli's — of self-expression and individuality — is simply, unfortunately, going to be lost." Full credit for that point.
But here's the thing: Media don't just reflect our culture. Media create our culture. Media created the culture in which women athletes are judged as much by their looks as by their skill. Couch could have just as easily written this column from the point of view that Bartoli should be celebrated for her victory, even though the mainstream sporting culture is more focused on the celebrity aspects of women's sports. Doing so might have contributed, even slightly, to a shift in our sporting culture.
Bringing up things like this tends to make a lot of guys defensive. No, there is nothing wrong with admiring a beautiful woman. Nobody's saying that. On the face of it, it's harmless. It's like the people at the mall who melt when they see my daughter in her princess dress.
But when that becomes the dominant narrative and dominant aspect of our culture, that's not right. When that becomes the only way a woman gets attention from the culture, that's not right.
Media often reflect this culture. But media can, and should, do more to change this culture.